• The Marriage Plot, Vol 1

    Posted Posted by Guest Writer in WBN News & Events     Comments 40 comments
    Feb
    14
    Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of our discussion of February’s Book Club selection, Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot. The next post, on February 21, will cover the sections titled “Brilliant Move” and “Asleep in the Lord.” On February 28th we’ll discuss “And Sometimes They Were Very Sad” and “The Bachelorette’s Survival Kit.”
     
    If you’re not yet a book club member and would like to be, it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon. Simply use the comments section below to express interest and join us on our next adventure.
     
    And now, Jenna Cooper’s thoughts on the first two sections of The Marriage Plot. In your comments, feel free to respond to the questions Jenna poses, or raise new talking points and questions to toss around. And don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of followup comments via e-mail” box below to stay engaged with the conversation. DD

     

    From the very beginning of the novel when Eugenides introduces us to Madeleine and her book collection, The Marriage Plot describes the relationship between literature and its readers. It’s no surprise that Madeleine, engrossed in her literary studies, interprets facets of her life by drawing parallels to literature. As we read further into the novel, we find that Madeleine processes her feelings for Leonard using insights gleaned from Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse. And “the more of A Lover’s Discourse she read, the more in love she felt. She recognized herself on every page” (79). Not only does Madeleine use A Lover’s Discourse to articulate and validate her feelings, her attachment grows under the influence of Barthes’ words.

    Similarly, Mitchell recites the Jesus Prayer, wondering if repetition will lead to some kind of enlightenment. Like Madeleine, Mitchell uses the words of others—authors and philosophers—to make sense of himself, spirituality, and his unrequited love for Madeleine. When considering the role of language in constructing reality, what do you think of Madeleine’s and Mitchell’s reliance on others’ words? Is this a phenomenon that we all experience, or have they simply not found their own words yet?

    Eugenides highlights how word usage denotes where different people “fit in.” For instance, there’s a lot of name-dropping, whether it’s brand names of expensive champagne like Veuve Clicquot or names of literary critics and philosophers. As I read, I noticed that I sometimes felt “in the loop” and other times I felt completely clueless (like not knowing who Ric Ocasek is). Did anyone else feel this way or think that Eugenides realized that not everyone would get every reference?

    I found that Eugenides’s obscure references (obscure to me, that is) emphasized that words and names are arbitrary signs, and their meanings are culturally ascribed. For example, had I not studied literary theory in college, the names Derrida and Barthes might not signify anything to me. Literary theory is huge, in my opinion, to understanding The Marriage Plot. Having familiarity with how the 17th– and 18th-century English “marriage plot” typically plays out makes the book a richer read. The metafictional qualities of the novel remind me of when Thurston argues with Leonard that “books aren’t about ‘real life.’ Books are about other books” (28). Would you say that The Marriage Plot is something a reader can relate to on a pure emotional basis, or is it a book about books? I find that it’s somewhere in between, but perhaps that’s because I relate to different aspects of the three main characters.

    Speaking of metafiction, I felt like Madeleine’s family could have stepped out of a Jane Austen novel. Also, Mitchell’s relationship with Madeleine is similar to Colonel Brandon’s relationship with Marianne Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility. And Leonard Bankhead? Talk about a Byronic hero—he even looks like a young Rochester (Google Jane Eyre and you’ll see what I mean). Yet Eugenides shows us the unromantic side of manic-depression. What purpose does Leonard’s mental illness serve in the novel? At this point, I think it serves to create a psychological distance between Madeleine and Leonard, another degree of separation in their backgrounds that could lead to a schism.

    Well, I could go on and on … and on with my analysis, but I really want to know what the rest of you think. There’s A LOT to talk about so far. So what’s your take?

     

    In addition to writing for WriteByNight’s blog, Jenna Cooper writes for BE Mag and a blog called FemThreads. Aside from writing, Jenna served as an AmeriCorps Member from 2008-2010 and will start her M.S. in Information Studies in Fall 2012. She graduated in 2009 with a B.A. in English from the University of Texas.

    0 0 votes
    Article Rating
    Subscribe
    Notify of
    guest

    40 Comments
    Oldest
    Newest Most Voted
    Inline Feedbacks
    View all comments
    Justine Tal Goldberg

    Re: the role of language, the invocation of literature and prayer by Madeleine and Mitchell respectively reminds me of Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” (Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name …). I read both instances as a commentary on the limitations of language to fully express the range of human emotion. Madeleine and Mitchell are highly intelligent people who feel so deeply, perhaps they need to latch on to others’ words to break free from the prison of their own hearts and minds? Maybe they rely on others to make sense of the world for them.… Read more »

    Jenna

    Oooh, I hadn’t thought too deeply about Leonard’s role being a gender reversal of the “madwoman in the attic.” Except he has a dank, dark efficiency apartment.

    Jose Skinner

    Great posts. With regard to the metafictional aspect, it seems that many realist writers of Eugenides’s generation feel compelled to address the whole end-of-the-author, books-are-only-about-other-books thing (which surely must have its roots in Saussurian linguistics, which posits that language has no positive referents) even as they subsume it beneath their realism. (Maybe Eugenides would reply, “not at all–that just happens to be part of the real world liberal arts students of the period I’m writing about inhabit,” which of course is true.) In any case, I’m struck by what Madeleine thinks after Thurston, on p. 28, says: “Books aren’t about… Read more »

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    To my mind, if it shouldn’t be, then it’s not. We’re not talking objective reality here. We’re talking literary theory which is just about as subjective as you can get!

    Jose Skinner

    Oh, sorry. That post was supposed to end with äd infinitum.” I was going to say something about Jonathan Franzen and his defense of realism, echoed in Madeleine’s preferring to read realist over postmod fiction. DFW refers to David Foster Wallace and people saying Leonard must be modeled after DFW b/c they both wore bandannas. Eugenides denies it, of course.

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    Oh, that’s interesting. I didn’t know that that connection had been made. Whether or not Leonard’s character is modeled on DFW, there’s a type here: the too-intelligent-for-your-own-good type.

    Jose Skinner

    I can relate to the characters (and what do the deconstructionists think of “characters”–do they consider them just pastiches of other characters in other books? How would they interpret this “relating” to characters?). These characters are, after all, of “my” generation (graduation here is 1982, and I graduated in 1979). But I can relate to them only to a point. The people I hung around with were much more political, or at least more politically aware. We were all worried about nukes (weapons and power plants), imperialism (U.S. intervention in Nicaragua and El Salvador, Reagan’s sabre-rattling), cloning and genetic engineering… Read more »

    Jenna

    Eugenides seems to write somewhat from life experience. He’s from Detroit and went to Brown in the early eighties…yet, one of the issues in The Marriage Plot is whether or not we should divorce the author from the text. Very interesting in light of the book’s parallels with the author’s own life. I did find a lot of the characters self-involved and narcissistic, and I wondered if Eugenides was saying something about the eighties as a whole. Characters that fancy themselves radical and concerned with oppressed populations generally aren’t concerned with making a difference. I wonder if this is a… Read more »

    Leah Kaminsky

    Hmmm… I can see where the self-involved/narcissism interpretation has come about, and there were moments where I felt this. However, I also felt like this is just where a lot of people are at that particular point in life, even those who are deeply involved with political and social issues. Both approaches seem like a manner of finding one’s voice. It’s just that one points inward and the other points outward (and, certainly, in a more nuanced portrayal look, there would be people doing*both*). In fact, young people impassioned with a political or social cause (and I say this as… Read more »

    Leah Kaminsky

    Or perhaps this is what you’re both saying, and I’ve just thought too much aloud?

    Jenna

    I think you’re right about narcissism being imprecise, at least for the main characters whose thoughts we’re privy to. But I’m sure if we knew what Claire or Thurston was thinking, we’d see that they were just as insecure as the three protagonists. Maybe the narcissism is a front, a shield in an environment that encourages intense competition.

    Leah Kaminsky

    Yes, that’s certainly a possibility. Hadn’t thought of it like that. I’d bet there’s a lot going on to get the characters as self-involved as they are. That’s part of what makes them complex and compelling.

    Leah Kaminsky

    And lastly, yes, what was UP with the portrayal of Claire? It saddens me to no end that in 2012 we’re still dealing with such one-dimensional portrayals of feminists.

    Jenna

    Yes, good point about Claire! I wonder why Eugenides drew her in a stereotypical manner?

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    Perhaps to differentiate between those who are able to interpret theory and political position for themselves and those who merely mimic. Claire isn’t especially likable, largely because she’s so unoriginal. With characters like Claire and Thurston vs. characters like Madeleine, Mitchell and Leonard, Eugenides seems to be comparing authentic and inauthentic selves. But, yes, maybe if we could get inside Claire’s and Thurston’s heads, the impression would be different.

    Leah Kaminsky

    Interesting idea, Justine. Your comment reminds me of a character in the Jessica Darling series by Megan McCafferty (totally different kind of books, by the way) – a “feminist” who thinks that term means she can be as selfish as she likes as a liberated woman. Thinking back to it now, I wonder if Claire adopts the feminist label so that she can have a better sounding excuse to be just like all of the other characters… self-involved!

    Jennifer

    would like to join in next time…do you meet in person or is this strictly a “virtual” club?

    Jenna

    It’s a virtual club, so feel free to jump in!

    Leah Kaminsky

    Great choice in books, Jenna, and what interesting thoughts. “When considering the role of language in constructing reality, what do you think of Madeleine’s and Mitchell’s reliance on others’ words? Is this a phenomenon that we all experience, or have they simply not found their own words yet?” It’s funny you ask that. When I went back to look at my notes from when I read this book a month or two ago (yes, I take notes, don’t even try to out book-nerd me), the first thing I noticed was how my sentences began to emulate Eugenides’, which tends to… Read more »

    Leah Kaminsky

    Oh, and note to self, next time reload the page before commenting. Didn’t see all the wonderful comments above, which address a lot of what I brought up anyway!

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    Oh my goodness, I laughed and laughed at Thurston’s introduction! When I’m reading him, I can’t help but picture this dude I went to college with: dressed in all black and army boots, unable to carry on a normal conversation without waxing on about the philosophical nature of it all. I often wondered how he was able to get out of bed in the morning.

    Leah Kaminsky

    Yes! I think we should ALL strive to be a little more like Thurston Meems, if only to amuse ourselves. WBN should throw a Thurston Meems party1

    Jenna

    I feel like there’s at least one in every class! My friend and I used to call him “Pompous Guy.”

    Jose Skinner

    Yeah, I loved that classroom scene. But I think maybe the book is a little too heavy at the beginning with these kinds of scenes, leading people to conclude, before they really get into it, that it’s “just another campus novel” and parody of Eng Depts. (Some reviewer somewhere called it “the best campus novel since Tom Wolfe’s “I Am Charlotte Simmons”*sigh*). Just saying. As for my disappointment that these characters are more apolitical than I would have liked, one has to be careful not to criticize a writer for not writing his or her book the way *one* would… Read more »

    Leah Kaminsky

    Agreed. And don’t get me started on Charlotte Simmons! Sigh indeed.

    David Duhr

    I’m not reading along with you guys on this one, but Jose, (somewhat) to your point about the apolitical nature of the book: I recently chatted with a local Latino writer, and he spent quite a long time lamenting the fact that this “elitist” book was so wildly popular, when so many Latino writers are ignored by the American reading culture. “I have no idea why people love this [book],” he said. “And yet, this is mainstream popularity. People are more interested in reading about Brown University than they are in reading about brown people. What’s happened to us?” Thoughts… Read more »

    Jose Skinner

    Well, as a character in Franzen’s “Freedom” (Richard Katz) observed, “people like reading about people like themselves.” I can’t find the exact quote, and I’m not sure he meant they ONLY like to read about themselves (clearly not true–100 Years of Solitude, for example, is hugely popular), but I think readers of realist literature do prefer to read about people like themselves (that enhances the realism, obviously). So if your latino friend wants more people to read realist literature about “brown” people, I think he’s going to have to cultivate more “brown” readers. Bring THEM into the American reading culture–which,… Read more »

    Jose Skinner

    Also, I fail to see what’s “elitist” about The Marriage Plot. The writing’s very straightforward. More “elitist” than the high modernism of Rolando Hinojosa (from Rio Grande Valley, now teaches at UT, admits his books are mostly read by other profs)? Or is it the content that seems to him elitist–writing about college students from an elite university? But surely it’s elitist, or reverse-elitist, as it were, to believe these people aren’t worth writing about…

    David Duhr

    Sure, his gripe is more with the reading public than it is with Eugenides. Can’t blame a guy for writing a book. But a lot of it has to do with the tastemakers. I mean, come on: http://nymag.com/news/articles/reasonstoloveny/2011/jeffrey-eugenides/. You think, say, Sandra Cisneros would ever see her face on a billboard in Times Square? Dagoberto Gilb? Junot Diaz, *maybe*. Re: the elitism, I would guess he’s talking much more about content than style. “But surely it’s elitist, or reverse-elitist, as it were, to believe these people aren’t worth writing about…” Agreed. Again, though, I’m not sure that’s the argument; he’s… Read more »

    Jose Skinner

    That’s true, David Duhr–hard to imagine a Dago Gilb billboard on Time Square. (Not that he’s not “swoon-worthy,” of course.) I guess the advertising was supposed to coincide with Valentine’s. Well, presumably Farrar Straus knows what it’s doing. Which may or may not be good for literary authors–what if SFG’s marketing strategy is to throw all the money at a handful of writers, leaving the rest of us in the cold?

    Leah Kaminsky

    Just to add on to this, the same criticism is rightfully leveled at Franzen’s work, particularly Freedom. Not the work itself (or at least, it shouldn’t be) but the coverage Franzen gets for writing about inner emotional lives, when there are plenty of women who are covering the same territory just as well if not better and not getting any attention. I think overall there are a still big problems with our tastemakers. Perhaps this is what self-publishing and e-readers can change? And it should be noted here that Eugenides found the billboard mortifying. They took that picture of him… Read more »

    Jenna

    I thought about that issue while reading, but I think there’s subtext that suggests Brown is an isolated ivory tower on top of a hill while the rest of Providence is feeling the pains of recession. All the characters seemed financially privileged, in my opinion–even Leonard and Mitchell who considered themselves “poor.” But I guess “poor” is relative term. For me, I related to the university experience. I was an English major who wrote her honors thesis on two Victorian novels (not the marriage plot, but women’s issues nonetheless). My background is pretty far from elitist (my mom is a… Read more »

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    The issue of elitism speaks to your question, Jenna: Would you say that The Marriage Plot is something a reader can relate to on a pure emotional basis, or is it a book about books? The key to the novel’s success and mainstream appeal, in my opinion, is that it’s both, accessible on two levels (human experience and literary history/theory) and one doesn’t necessarily exclude the other.

    Jose Skinner

    Interesting. I imagine love-triangle stories–two guys going for same woman or vice-versa–have near-universal appeal (cf. virtually any soap opera from Latin America, which in turn are extremely popular in Russia, Vietnam, etc.), but would the specifics of this story (which to me make it good literature, as opposed to those often-cliched soap operas) alienate a worldwide audience? It’s hard for me to see it becoming an international best-seller for the very reason that it’s so culturally specific (which is why I like it, but then, I”ve been around colleges a lot). Speaking of which, did anybody else find the religious… Read more »

    Jenna

    I think so, to some extent. Many people have felt the insecurities that the main characters face regarding physical appearance, social status, and intelligence. Unrequited love and loneliness are also pretty universal experiences. Maybe some readers don’t relate to the specifics of the novel, but the underlying issues the characters face seem common to all kinds of people.

    Laura Roberts

    I want to read about brown people far more than I want to read about people who went to Brown. (Especially given Lisa Simpson’s fears she will flunk a test and never have the grades to get into anyplace BETTER than Brown!) Who was the writer you were talking to, David, and where can we read his books?

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    Either that or the professor sees himself in Mitchell. I suppose that could account for his enthusiasm, but probably not on those grounds alone. Mitchell would have to be showing at least some promise for the professor to put his name on the line by recommending him.

    Jenna

    Mitchell’s interest in religion transcends the classroom. I think the professor is impressed that Mitchell has made the pursuit of religious truths a big part of his life. Mitchell makes meaning out of the knowledge I gained while attending university.

    Lu Leede

    I’d like to join your book club. I’ve no idea how to blog but I bet I can figure it out. Lu

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    We’d love to have you, Lu! This month, we’re reading “The Bastard of Istanbul” by Elif Shafak. The first discussion will post on March 13.

    As for blogging, there’s nothing to it. Simply comment when the spirit moves you and let me know if you’re interested in leading the discussion sometime. No technological know-how necessary.




    Find WBN on Twitter


    40
    0
    Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
    ()
    x