If you want to relive your days as an English literature major in university, this book is for you. If you wish you had majored in English literature in university, then this book is for you too. To a slightly lesser extent, the same is true for students and would-be students of religion, psychology and philosophy. Reading this book is like being given a short tour of the humanities. Short, but intense, and endlessly thought-provoking.
Surprised? Given the book’s title, The Marriage Plot, it would be natural to assume that its central plot would be concerned with or, at the very least, lead up to a marriage. But while there is a marriage, it is not the most important aspect of the narrative. The most important are the three main characters, namely Madeline Hanna, Leonard Bankhead, and Mitchell Grammaticus.
Yes, that’s right. Grammaticus. It simply doesn’t get any better than that when it comes to naming a character in a novel brimming with references to English literature. The name is at once a nod to grammar, a salute to the ancient Greeks who founded Western civilisation, and a wave to the noble Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird.
The name Bankhead immediately brings to mind London’s once dodgy Bankside district, home of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. As for Madeline, she herself recalls her infatuation with the character Madeline in the children’s book series written by the Austrian Ludwig Bemelmans. Her bedroom in the family home is adorned with wallpaper which depicts various scenes and characters from the series.
So if it’s not about marriage per se, what is the novel about? It’s about, the author would argue, the few ways that still remain to deal with the subject of marriage in 21st-century English literature: the angst of unrequited love and the ordeals of long-term relationships. In this case the angst and ordeals are presented in tandem through that age-old literary device: the love triangle.
Mitchell, Leonard and Madeline meet as freshmen at BrownUniversity in Providence, Rhode Island. Madeline is a WASP who grew up in posh Prettybrook, New Jersey, where her father was president of fictional BaxterCollege (a thinly disguised PrincetonUniversity). She is an English major whose senior paper on the demise of the marriage plot begins with this line from Anthony Trollope’s BarchesterTowers: “the way of true love never works out, except at the end of an English novel”.
Mitchell hails from Grosse Pointe, Michigan. He is a religious studies major who is engaged in a personal struggle over religious belief. His exam responses for a course called Religion and Alienation in 20th-century Culture impress the professor so much that he is offered a full scholarship to the divinity school of his choice: Princeton, Harvard or Yale.
And finally there is Leonard, a brilliant student pursuing a dual major in philosophy and biology. His intellect, wit and good looks make him one of the most popular and sought-after men on campus. But no one is aware of his exceptionally unhappy childhood in Portland, Oregon. And the toll it will soon take on his health.
Mitchell loves Madeline with the firm conviction that they are destined to be together. Even when he fails to move their relationship from platonic to romantic, he is willing to patiently wait for the day that she will come to the same realisation. Madeline, however, adores Leonard. And Leonard is devoted to her. Or rather, he needs her. Because he has some serious issues that must be dealt with, issues which involve doses of lithium and appointments with psychiatrists.
After graduation, Leonard lands a fellowship at the prestigious Pilgrim Lake Laboratory in Cape Cod while Mitchell goes on an actual pilgrimage. Part spiritual quest and part escape from reality, Mitchell flies to Paris with his friend Larry, and from there he travels to Ireland, Greece, Andalusia, Morocco and many other locations until he arrives — despite his parents’ strong objections — in Calcutta, India.
Why India? “Mitchell and Larry had decided to go to India one night after watching a Satyajit Ray film. They hadn’t been entirely serious at the time. From then on, however, whenever anybody asked them what they were doing after graduation, Mitchell and Larry replied, ‘We’re going to India!’ … The result was that, without so much as buying plane tickets or a guidebook — without really knowing anything about India— Mitchell and Larry began to be seen as enviable, brave, free-thinking individuals. And so finally they decided that they had better go.”
Humour aside, Mitchell’s stint in Calcutta provides him an opportunity to forget Madeline. Even though “being alone, in the poorest city on earth, where he didn’t know anyone, pay phones were non-existent, and mail service slow, didn’t end [the] romantic farce, but it got Mitchell offstage.” Graveyards filled with dead British colonialists, sellers of bhang lassi, pulled rickshaws, Asian toilets, communist playhouses, and a variety of fellow American and European volunteers at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Destitute and Dying distract him for a time. But there is no stereotypical ‘finding himself’ in India.
He does, however, find himself face-to-face with Leonard again. And Madeline. And closes the narrative with an incredibly gracious speech that somehow brings Dickens’ Sydney Carton to mind. The speech is in fact a final literary question, one which can leave no doubt in the reader’s mind about who the real hero of this novel is.
Jeffrey Eugenides, whose previous works include The Virgin Suicides (1993) and Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex (2002), has created a masterful portrayal of the complexities of human desire. To simply call it a coming-of-age novel, as some have done, does not do it justice. The protagonist not only experiences psychological and moral growth as he moves from youth to adulthood, he acquires something much more significant, something that eludes even adults. That is the courage to open his eyes to a truth which is staring him in the face.
The Marriage Plot
By Jeffrey Eugenides