I’m hesitant to even write this post because I can already tell that I’m over-thinking the simple book review that was asked of me. Certain people are expecting my reactions on this fascinating work of fiction, written by Jeffrey Eugenides. I was told specifically that I needed to shed some light on all the “bookish” aspects of the novel. Apparently, that cloying feeling of self recognition with which I was met each time Madeleine (the largely un-actualized heroine) graced the pages of the novel was not lost on my friends and family members who also read the book. The similarities weren’t limited to the bookishness of Madeleine either, for me at least, which is the scary part. It begs the question whether people who obsess over literature (to the point of making it their careers) are really just seeking control that they are incapable of feeling over their own lives. Is it a way of delaying reality somehow? In theory, extending academia from the carefree undergrad days of limited responsibility -while still feeling a part of the real world- into one’s career is a great way of clinging to those last threads of a simpler, regimented life. I’m sure the same could be said of anyone’s obsessions, but academia is a particularly glaring example of this. It’s a great way to feel like you’re doing something worthwhile without taking too many risks or forging too far off the beaten path. I digress.
Since I am indeed overeducated, at least in the literary field, I’ll concede and provide a simple analysis of the book and its themes and references to other literary currents…you know, explain those “bookish aspects.” I’ll try to keep my own opinions on marriage to myself as I don’t wish to overcomplicate this post. Just the literary facts, ma’am.
“It took courage to let things fall apart so beautifully.” This is a thought Mitchell, a confused and stagnant young man who is madly in love with the idea of our heroine, ponders while scanning the rooftops and balconies of Paris. In my opinion, it is the most poignant sentence of the novel. It comes about 1/3 of the way through the book and describes the beauty and very crux of the problems in this novel. That is to say that it describes the fear we all have when confronted with the need to make difficult decisions in life, but also the complacency with which many of us instead react when faced with life falling apart. I suppose you could liken it to “fight or flight, ” but in fact, it reminds me more of an ostrich burying its head in the sand… though these characters tend to favor books to sand. I suppose there is something to the philosophy that the author ascribes to the French, it’s more than a laissez-faire attitude, it’s almost pride or morbid fascination of seeing time take its course. If I really want to get all “Madeleine-like” on you, I would mention that this obsession with the relentless nature of time and its effect on the human psyche is not foreign to the French. I won’t get all PhD on this topic, but all you’d have to do is pick up Baudelaire or Proust (or Balzac for that matter) to see what I’m talking about. TIME IS BAD, IT IS UNSTOPPABLE AND WILL CAUSE US ALL TO GO MAD BEFORE OUR INEVITABLE DEMISE.
You see, although the novel is called The Marriage Plot, marriage functions more as a piece of string that loosely intertwines the novel’s plots (I’m pretty sure the pun was intended on the part of Mr Eugenides). The thing is, the aforementioned “marriage” string is slowly disintegrating as you read the novel; the reader and characters alike realize that there are more important (see more glaring) problems to face in life, despite what we think society is telling us. The funny thing about this is that the marriage plot is a sort of self-inflicted, festering wound to our psyches. Perhaps because we see it as a norm we assume it’s what is expected, but never in the novel do Madeleine’s parents actually pressure her to get married. It’s a construct and ideal that Madeleine (and Mitchell, I suppose) projected onto themselves. It’s something to which our minds can cling and, as humans, about which we can and will obsess. These characters wallow in their obsession with confirming love [marriage is just the most obvious means of confirming] just as Leonard wallows in his “condition” (because that, to him, is more pressing). Later in the novel, Madeleine wallows in her own penchant for literature. And what’s more, Madeleine should be the expert in the field of wallowing as her literary obsession is the Victorian Era. If my equation of wallowing to Victorian writers doesn’t compute it’s simply because you haven’t toiled alongside the heroines of Jane Austen’s novels or gone down the rabbit hole, so to speak, or obsessively checked in on a withering portrait of yourself in far too long. While one might argue that there was, in fact, a marriage plot in the 19th century before it was acceptable for women to provide for themselves, Madeleine should recognize her creation of a similar plot when she rather ironically devises a system revolving around marriage.
Madeleine develops -I would argue rather flippantly- a theory, that people get married in one of three stages. Stage one was for the traditional people that marry their college sweethearts. Stage two concerned those who got married at around 28. Finally, stage three were those who married in their late thirties out of desperation. It’s interesting that Madeleine appears to have portrayed her “ideal” self to Mitchell as existing outside of her own theory. She wants to get her career settled before she marries. Perhaps Madeleine realizes her own paralysis once she leaves college she becomes Leonard’s caretaker (Leonard is said college sweetheart and struggles with manic depression: a mental illness that still carries quite a bit of stigma in the late 80’s). She ultimately falls into the first category, the one she most criticizes. I would argue that this is actually a safe way of avoiding the marriage plot (and real life!) or at least delaying it, because I don’t believe Madeleine is actually that dumb. She sees the impending failure of this plan to marry Leonard, and, I think, takes comfort in the fact that no one could blame HER if her marriage to a manic depressive fell apart. See, for Madeleine, it took very little courage to let things fall apart beautifully. But it was in fact the very same philosophy Mitchell recognized in the French landscape. She was banking on letting things fall apart.
Who knows why, maybe she was buying time…. the reason this is plausible is simply because another main theme with which we are grappling is the scariness of self actualization. No one in this book is truly making any of his or her own decisions to start forming a life. I mean, hell, Mitchell recognizes the first true action on his part while he’s in India. He confronts death directly by bathing a dying man, and he runs away from it like a bat out of hell. I would argue that Leonard is the first to take a step towards actualizing when he ends things with Madeleine, then Mitchell -and the jury’s still out on this one- but you might argue that his first steps towards making his own decisions are when he finally tells Madeleine how he feels and gives up. It’s a little unclear though because he does it in such a fuzzy (I would say romanesque) way, which just made me angry. I would argue that the novel ends without Madeleine’s first steps towards self actualization. She is still just letting things happen to her. My mom used the word “wallowing” and I think that’s correct. These characters are all a bunch of wallowers, coincidentally so were the characters with which Madeleine became obsessed for her Master’s Degree. Talk about semiotics. HA.
As for Barthes, there’s a phrase from A Lover’s Discourse that reappears throughout the novel like a refrain: after the first avowal of love, it no longer has any meaning. It’s sort of Madeleine’s road map to justifying and understand her relationship with Leonard, as misguided as that sounds. She uses it to explain away any behavior of Leonard and make herself feel better about decisions she isn’t comfortable making- like the decision to stay with a man who really isn’t capable of loving her the way she wants. What’s most interesting to me, is the fact that Mitchell never actually makes his avowal to Madeleine. He does in a letter, but that letter never reaches her. So we can choose to see this two ways. Mitchell has made peace with his avowal of love of which only he is aware. I could see Mitchell really enjoying the idea that his profession of love is floating around out there in the universe, and he has chosen to let it sit out there in the cosmos “with God as his only witness of his true love.” Or we could go back to semiotics and see this conclusion (or lack thereof) as proof that their story is far from over, calling into question any growth whatsoever of any of the characters.