• The Marriage Plot, Vol 3

    Posted Posted by Guest Writer in WBN News & Events     Comments 10 comments

    Editor’s Note: This is the third and final installment of our discussion of February’s Book Club selection, Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot. Find the first one here and the second here.

    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, Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul. Leah Kaminsky will lead this discussion, and the schedule goes as follows:

    Chapters 1 – 6, discussion posted on 3/13
    Chapters 7 – 12, discussion posted on 3/20
    Chapters 13 – 18, discussion posted on 3/27

    And now, Jenna Cooper’s thoughts on the closing 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


    So, this is the end of our reading of The Marriage Plot, and I have to say the book ended how I expected it to. Eugenides turns the traditional marriage plot tropes on their heads many times throughout the novel, so it’s fitting that Madeleine doesn’t end up with either boy. In fact, it’s a pretty happy ending, all things considered. Mitchell and Madeleine would’ve felt unsatisfied with each other, and had Madeleine stayed with Leonard…well, that would’ve been been painful for both of them.

    Okay, so now for the actual meat of the chapters. Eugenides uses chapter headings very purposefully in The Marriage Plot, and I got especially analytical about “And Sometimes They Were Very Sad.” Ultimately, I think the chapter title signifies the state of Madeleine’s mental health by the end of the novel. Madeleine, like her French schoolgirl namesake, sometimes feels very sad for the misfortunes of others (in this case Leonard). Her own life was orderly and stable, and she rarely experienced feelings of “otherness” growing up. Yet, loving Leonard and being so enmeshed with his ups and downs causes her to suffer bipolar disorder symptoms. Sometimes, along with Leonard, she feels “very sad.” Did anyone else find themselves noting the chapter headings and reading (maybe a little too much) into them? What are your thoughts on them?

    Madeleine’s relationship with Leonard is so toxic, and I think it would’ve gone on for years had Leonard not left. The scene of his departure was nerve-wracking. I really thought that, in the spirit of realism, Eugenides would have Leonard commit suicide by throwing himself on the tracks. I really wanted Leonard to survive and flourish, even though events in “And Sometimes They Were Very Sad” made me feel ambivalent about him.

    The scene in which Madeleine tells Leonard to stop spanking her is essentially a rape scene. The way it happens challenges the stereotypes and misconceptions American culture has about rape. Here, Madeleine fears that “Leonard would take over like that, and not listen to her, and do what he wanted” (350), even though she just wanted him to stop spanking her. But she tells him to “stop it” and struggles to get away from him. He violates her trust and misuses her body. Sounds a lot like rape to me, even though she seemingly wasn’t protesting against the sex itself.

    It’s hard to read about a character you have sympathy for doing things that qualify him as a sex-offender. I got the “creepy vibe” from Leonard initially when he kissed Heidi the high school girl. Yet, Eugenides is able to draw sympathy for Leonard from the reader because Leonard is so three-dimensional. He’s not a cardboard cutout creeper by any means. We can see him slide into psychosis and how it distorts his thinking in true Jekyll and Hyde fashion. Did anyone’s opinions of Leonard change by the end of the novel, and did you feel less sympathy for him for his actions towards Madeleine?

    Mitchell has a pretty triumphant ending, though. It would’ve been easy for him to take advantage of Madeleine’s vulnerability, but he says “no” to the Madeleine-obsessed voice in his head. He was so fixated on her for years–it amazed me that his perception of her changed so quickly. He alternates between rationalizing his feelings for Madeleine and trying to erase her from his life, so for him to see her with a Buddhist detachment is huge. Did anyone find his revelation unbelievable? To me, Mitchell’s decision about Madeleine is totally in line with his character. The answers Mitchell looks for are often right in front of him, and he occasionally sees them with incredible clarity.


    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

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    Leah Kaminsky

    Will chime in more later, but I found the spanking scene particularly compelling too. I think it goes a long way towards recharacterizing rape in the American psyche – getting us away from this ridiculous notion that rape only happens in back alleys. There are so many different forms of rape, committed by even the most sympathetic people, and having a sympathetic character behave this way helps us see that anyone can rape or has raped, including people we like or love. I love how complex, conflicting, and real this scene is.

    Ian Singleton

    I agree with you about how complex it makes the scene, which is a general metaphor for how I feel about Leonard’s character in general. To include such a character within this take on marriage plots is, for me, what gives the novel its edge. Yes, I like Mitchell better, but I really enjoy the saga of Leonard and Madeline. Without this fractured fairy tale of a modern romance (a modern marriage plot), the book would seem too happy for me.

    Ian Singleton

    Sorry, *Madeleine*.

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    What do you guys think about the fact that Madeleine eventually gives in and ultimately enjoys the experience? Does this negate the rape?

    Leah Kaminsky

    In my view, no, and it’s part of what makes it so complex and realistic. Rape, to me, is an emotional as well as a physical experience, one that can happen at any moment within a larger sexual context. There’s a difference between rape that can be easily prosecuted and the experience of it, momentary or otherwise.

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    Leonard is so tortured, it’s hard for me not to feel sympathy for him. When he’s acting like an ass, I don’t want to punch him like I would if he were sane and acting like an ass. I’m aware though that my reaction is maybe unfair. Does Leonard have carte blanche to mistreat Madeleine–or anyone, for that matter–because he’s manic-depressive? Does he have more of a right to bad behavior than a guy who isn’t manic-depressive but suffered abuse as a child (as Leonard did)? Does the fact that Leonard’s mother rejects his diagnosis undercut his experience as a… Read more »

    Leah Kaminsky

    “Leonard is so tortured, it’s hard for me not to feel sympathy for him.” That’s what I love about it, what feel so real to me – that emotional complexity. *That* to me means putting a real face on rape and really, on any behavior that hurts someone else. It’s not all or none. Leonard doesn’t have a carte-blanche, just like no one else does. But that doesn’t mean we can’t sympathize with him and Madeleine at the same time, even when they’re opposed. That seems so… human. That’s the emotional depth I just love to dig into. There’s nothing… Read more »

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    I don’t because I’m prone to bare prose but I can see why you would. He creates a rhythm with those long, complex sentences. It’s hypnotizing.

    Jose Skinner

    Excellent ending. Circles back to lit crit and the metafictional element. I’d like to read more Jeffery Eugenides–perhaps Middlesex.

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    “The Virgin Suicides” is incredible. I’m a sucker for first person plural.

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