The Marriage Plot: Not a plot, but a scheme


So I’m 28. It’s true. No more hedging around with 20 something, or mid-twenties. I’m a happy, comfortable 28. And unmarried. By any measure I’m just fine with my unmarried status. Jeffrey Eugendies’ novel, *The Marriage Plot,* makes me even happier to be unmarried (would I feel differently were I single? maybe): the novel depicts the disintegration of a ‘phase one’ marriage (phase one referring to those who marry immediately after college) and implicitly suggests that this is not the time, and we are not the generation, who ought to pretend to something like a lifetime commitment.

The title of the book comes from the thesis title of the quirky protagonist, Madeline. Madeline writes this undergraduate thesis on 19th century novels, and argues for particular kinds of marriages that emerge in literature. The coy nod to the reader is, of course, that this is a novel about marriage, too. The circumstances of marriage here are not those of the 19th century courting rituals, and yet the “plot” here contains the same elements of poor timing, misplaced communications/letters, a love triangle (or two), unexpected illness (not scarlet fever here, but manic-depression) and interfering parents.

In revealing the traps of marriage – the required compromise of ‘self’ for the protection of the ‘we’; the abandonment of the lusty body in favour of the sick, wasting body; the despair/resentment that emerges from disparity in income – the novel implicitly argues that marriage is not a “plot” in the sense of a sequence of events, but rather a “plot” in the scheming machinations of society too attached to antiquated notions of how relationships ought to operate. Instead, it suggests that young people need to take time to ‘find themselves,’ – as the lovelorn Mitchell does in his spiritual and literal trip to India – before they can hope to legitimately connect with another person.

While I found the actual plot – the sequence of events, that is – compelling – shifts character perspective and overlapping and extending temporal sequencing – I wasn’t as taken with the characters as I think I needed to be in order to care one way or another whether a) Leonard recovers from his depression or whether he kills himself (I was much more concerned with whether he would shave) b) Madeline and Mitchell end up together c) Madeline works out what might make her happy. Instead I sort of hoped that things would climax in some way that would be a triumph of activity – perhaps the long hinted at suicide attempt? – because the characters are not compelling enough on their own to captivate or provoke this readers empathy.

This is not to say this is a “bad” book, or not one worth reading. Quite the contrary, I think it’s a terrific book for its perspective on marriage, on the compromises required of self and partners to make relationships “work,” on the lengths we might be willing to go to disguise what we want from what we feel is expected of us. I just think it could have been a *better* book had the characters been more fully realized, or their complexities more believable. Yeah, that’s it. So sure, read it! but don’t mind if you don’t care whether Leonard offs himself or not. Kind of like the thematic questions are so interesting they get in the way of the characters themselves…



Filed under American literature, Fiction, Prize Winner

4 responses to “The Marriage Plot: Not a plot, but a scheme

  1. Matthew Zantingh

    Hi E. I find myself agreeing with your critique here having finally gotten around to reading this novel. I loved Eugenides’ earlier novels, so I had high expectations and found them strangely let down. I’m always a little nervous about “university novels,” and, although this one is better written than most, it suffers from a certain ailment: why should I care about these characters? Because, like you, I didn’t really care what happened to any of them by novel’s end (or, really, at any point in between). They were interesting enough, but not fully realized. I found the ending perhaps more than a little trite as if Eugenides was trying to model his plot on Victorian marriage plots (which are often too convenient to be believable). Anyways, thanks for your thoughts on this somewhat disappointing novel.

    • Hey M,
      What are some of the other ‘university novels’ you’ve read? I’m curious to read more myself, so any suggestions are welcome. And yeah, a disappointing novel when the expectations were so high. I think I read this one before Middlesex, so was delighted when that one was so great.

      • Hi E.,
        The two university novels I’m thinking of are Zadie Smith’s On Beauty and Robertson Davies’s The Rebel Angels. I found the former a bit too smug and the latter somewhat dull. Wikipedia has a pretty extensive list of campus novels (, some of which I’ve read but had forgotten (like Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night, a mystery novel which I half remember reading in a illness-induced fog during my final semester of coursework) and Don DeLillo’s White Noise (which I loved but not because it was set on a campus). I think part of the problem is that authors tend to get carried away with a campus novel, airing their grudges or opinions, and overlook elements like character building or paying attention to plot. Oh well … writers are only human, right?

  2. Pingback: The Hopefuls: On the Pain of Reading a Novel About Obama in 2017 | Literary Vice

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