Happily Ever After

MarriagePlotCoverHow many stories end with a wedding, declaring that the couple lived “happily ever after?”  The main character in Jeffrey Eugenides “The Marriage Plot,” — Madeleine Hanna– is a student at Brown, studying English literature and writing her thesis on the “marriage plot,” which runs throughout 19th century literature in the tradition of Austen and James.  Eugenides book opens up on Madeleine’s graduation day, finding her hungover, ill-prepared to meet her parents knock at the door, and having spent the night in suspicious company.  Madeleine Hanna, a “good girl,” successful, from an excellent family, becomes linked romantically with the charismatic but flawed Leonard Bankhead, a brilliant student from a poor and dysfunctional family, who carries that chip on his shoulder into his relationship with Maddie.  Enter the third main character–Mitchell Grammaticus–a religious studies scholar, focused on Christian mysticism, who comes to believe that despite all evidence to the contrary, he is destined to marry Maddie.  The story takes us through the students’ last days at Brown, tells us a lot of detailed background on their families and undergraduate previous four years, then brings us forward into the year after graduation, when Maddie and Leonard struggle through their relationship together, while Mitchell travels through Europe on his way to India, to find himself spiritually.   The prose is clever, the characters sharp, the descriptions are nearly cinematic in their clarity, yet I did not like the book.  I enjoyed the descriptions of the students and professors at Brown, their snarky showing off in conversations of one-upsmanship (and wish I had a pen and paper to write down all the books referenced–alas, I was listening to the work on CD), but I became tired of the characters mewling and whining, obsessed with their self-absorbed concerns.  I so wanted to give them all a collective dunce slap on the back of their heads and shout, “Get over yourselves!”  Leonard, who suffers from manic depression, is an especially difficult character to like.  He is at turns manic and cruel, impatient with lesser humans, and then depressed and contrite, hating himself and incapable of loving anyone else.  Maddie is frustratingly passive in dealing with Leonard, but then lashes out at her parents who are, in my observation, the only ones in the book on firm ground and pulling  their own weight. Mitchell is a dreamy idealist, who when faced with actually faced with actually having to live what he believes, runs away.  The three graduates, over a year after graduation, are still either living off their parents or floating through life without jobs or responsibilities.  Alas, the reader slogs through this torturous trajectory of fate with Maddie eventually marrying Leonard, and their lives crashing in disaster.  We are brought along for the ride throughout its downs and further downs until the final scene, all the time wondering if the “marriage plot” of the heroine (Maddie) finally marrying the man who is the one destined for her (Mitchell) will come to pass.  The book ends with a note that the marriage plot in this century can be re-defined, with the heroine not necessarily in need of being married to anyone in order to fulfill her destiny.   I felt the book dragged me through an awful lot of unnecessary scenes to get to this point.  Interestingly, just this week, I heard that Gilbert and Gubar won the lifetime achievement award for literature.  These authors, most known for their 1979 “Mad Woman in the Attic,” helped shine a spotlight on womens’ literature, and examined the restrictive role of women in fiction as either angel or monster.  The female characters in the works examined were often entrapped, either physically (in the attic) or metaphorically (in marriages and strictly defined roles).  In light of “The Marriage Plot” with its more modern ending, I wonder what Gilbert and Gubar would say about the character of Maddie Hanna, whether she was indeed truly freed from the confinement of traditional expectations of daughters, wives, and women.  madwoman

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