A semiotics-enthralled English major falls for a manic depressive scientific researcher, while being loved unrequitedly by a religious studies major for whom Mother Teresa is his last hope in a fruitless quest to find faith.
The best thing about The Marriage Plot is that it’s a fantastic story with characters that I connected with on a very deep level. Jeffrey Eugenides’s other two novels were good but didn’t fire up my emotions the way that this one did.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I can talk about how intellectually satisfying this book was. It begins in a semiotics seminar just as the discipline broke into literary criticism, in the early 1980s, and raises the key question of whether anything matters outside of the words themselves. To the hardcore semiotician, the answer is “no,” but to any rational person the answer is “obviously!” Eugenides gives us three main characters for whom books infuse every corner of their lives. A text by Barthes causes Madeleine to overthink her feelings for Leonard. Mitchell travels around the world with a backpack full of books he hopes will help him on his spiritual quest: Augustine, Merton, and Teresa of Avila. And Leonard, the philosopher, devours the written word and generates his own.
Intertextually, Eugenides is crafting a story that is both an entrant in and a response to the genre of the “marriage plot,” as exemplified by the works of Jane Austen and the Victorians. One the one hand, he’s conscious of the ways in which marriage is different for us than it was for them–no longer an economic arrangement, founded more upon passion than duty, easier to walk away from–and then gives us a central relationship, between Madeleine and Leonard, in which money matters a great deal, duty calls loudly, and nobody seems to know how to leave even when it becomes clear that they’re making a huge mistake. It’s a lot to think about. At the same time, he makes the connections between his characters so vital and bloody that you get swept up in the narrative and accept their reality as the only one that matters. The stakes matter.
Lastly, the semioticians rejected the idea that outside influences and the author’s intention mattered at all. The joke here is that Leonard Bankhead is based on David Foster Wallace, a contemporary of Eugenides’s and true genius who famously struggled with mental illness. Mitchell Grammaticus is the stand in for Eugenides himself (and read a great article on all this here). You don’t need to know these details to appreciate the story, but if you do you can’t help but be conscious of the way Eugenides is working out his personal demons. And while the semioticians may not care, every writer on the planet knows that you write because of what’s happened to you and how you feel about.
“Make it as real as you possibly can–believe me, you can’t imagine a feeling everybody hasn’t had,” says Pale in Lanford Wilson’s Burn This, in an epigram I give to all my creative writing students. I always puzzle over this line, which seems to make sense on the surface but proves to be a tricky little truism I still don’t completely understand. But reading this book reminds me once again how true it is.