Marriage Plot (Eugenides)

The Marriage Plot
Jeffrey Eugenides, 2011
Picador : Macmillan
416 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781250014764

Summary
It’s the early 1980s—the country is in a deep recession, and life after college is harder than ever. In the cafés on College Hill, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels.

As Madeleine tries to understand why “it became laughable to read writers like Cheever and Updike, who wrote about the suburbia Madeleine and most of her friends had grown up in, in favor of reading the Marquis de Sade, who wrote about deflowering virgins in eighteenth-century France,” real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead—charismatic loner, college Darwinist, and lost Portland boy—suddenly turns up in a semiotics seminar, and soon Madeleine finds herself in a highly charged erotic and intellectual relationship with him. At the same time, her old “friend” Mitchell Grammaticus—who’s been reading Christian mysticism and generally acting strange—resurfaces, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his mate.

Over the next year, as the members of the triangle in this amazing, spellbinding novel graduate from college and enter the real world, events force them to reevaluate everything they learned in school. Leonard and Madeleine move to a biology Laboratory on Cape Cod, but can’t escape the secret responsible for Leonard’s seemingly inexhaustible energy and plunging moods. And Mitchell, traveling around the world to get Madeleine out of his mind, finds himself face-to-face with ultimate questions about the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the true nature of love.

Are the great love stories of the nineteenth century dead? Or can there be a new story, written for today and alive to the realities of feminism, sexual freedom, prenups, and divorce? With devastating wit and an abiding understanding of and affection for his characters, Jeffrey Eugenides revives the motivating energies of the Novel, while creating a story so contemporary and fresh that it reads like the intimate journal of our own lives. (From the publisher.)

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Author Bio
Birth—March 8, 1960
Where—Detroit, Michigan, USA
Education—B.A., Brown University; M.A., Stanford
   University
Awards—Whiting Writer's Award; Guggenheim
   Fellowship; Pulitzer Prize
Currently—lives in Princeton, New Jersey


Jeffrey Kent Eugenides is an American Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and short story writer. Eugenides is most known for his three acclaimed novels, The Virgin Suicides (1993), Middlesex (2002), and The Marriage Plot (2011).

Eugenides was born in Detroit, Michigan, of Greek and Irish descent. He attended Grosse Pointe's private University Liggett School. He took his undergraduate degree at Brown University, graduating in 1983. He later earned an M.A. in Creative Writing from Stanford University.

In 1986 he received the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Nicholl Fellowship for his story "Here Comes Winston, Full of the Holy Spirit." His 1993 novel, The Virgin Suicides, gained mainstream interest with the 1999 film adaptation directed by Sofia Coppola. The novel was reissued in 2009.

Eugenides is reluctant to disclose details about his private life, except through Michigan-area book signings in which he details the influence of Detroit and his high-school experiences on his writings. He has said that he has "a perverse love" of his birthplace. "I think most of the major elements of American history are exemplified in Detroit, from the triumph of the automobile and the assembly line to the blight of racism, not to mention the music, Motown, the MC5, house, techno." He also says he has been haunted by the decline of Detroit.

He lives in Princeton, New Jersey, with his wife, Karen Yamauchi, and their daughter, Georgia. In the fall of 2007, Eugenides joined the faculty of Princeton University's Program in Creative Writing.

His 2002 novel, Middlesex, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the Ambassador Book Award. Part of it was set in Berlin, Germany, where Eugenides lived from 1999 to 2004, but it was chiefly concerned with the Greek-American immigrant experience in the United States, against the rise and fall of Detroit. It explores the experience of the intersexed in the USA. Eugenides has also published short stories, primarily in The New Yorker. His 1996 "Baster" became the basis for the 2010 romantic comedy The Switch (with Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman).

His third novel, The Marriage Plot (2011), has been called by Carlin Romano in the Chronicle of Higher Education" the most entertaining campus novel since Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons. The plot is based on graduation day at Brown University in 1982.

Eugenides is the editor of the collection of short stories titled My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead. The proceeds of the collection go to the writing center 826 Chicago, established to encourage young people's writing. (From Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews
It's in mapping Mitchell's search for some sort of belief that might fill the spiritual hole in his heart and Madeleine's search for a way to turn her passion for literature into a vocation that this novel is at its most affecting, reminding us with uncommon understanding what it is to be young and idealistic, in pursuit of true love and in love with books and ideas.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times


Eugenides's first novel since 2002's Pulitzer Prize winning Middlesex so impressively, ambitiously breaks the mold of its predecessor that it calls for the founding of a new prize to recognize its success both as a novel—and as a Jeffrey Eugenides novel. Importantly but unobtrusively set in the early 1980s, this is the tale of Madeleine Hanna, recent Brown University English grad, and her admirer Mitchell Grammaticus, who opts out of Divinity School to walk the earth as an ersatz pilgrim. Madeleine is equally caught up, both with the postmodern vogue (Derrida, Barthes)—conflicting with her love of James, Austen, and Salinger—and with the brilliant Leonard Bankhead, whom she met in semiotics class and whose fits of manic depression jeopardize his suitability as a marriage prospect. Meanwhile, Mitchell winds up in Calcutta working with Mother Theresa's volunteers, still dreaming of Madeleine. In capturing the heady spirit of youthful intellect on the verge, Eugenides revives the coming-of-age novel for a new generation The book's fidelity to its young heroes and to a superb supporting cast of enigmatic professors, feminist theorists, neo-Victorians, and concerned mothers, and all of their evolving investment in ideas and ideals is such that the central argument of the book is also its solution: the old stories may be best after all, but there are always new ways to complicate them.
Publishers Weekly


(Starred review.) The way of true love never works out, except at the end of an English novel." So says Trollope in Barchester Towers, one of those English novels where "the marriage plot" thrived until it was swept aside by 20th-century reality. Now Roland Barthes's contention that "the lover's discourse is today of an extreme solitude" better sums up the situation. Or so English literature-besotted Madeleine, 1980s Brown graduating senior, comes to discover. Giving in to the zeitgeist, Madeleine takes a course on semiotics and meets Leonard, who's brilliant, charismatic, and unstable. They've broken up, which makes moody spiritual seeker Mitchell Grammaticus happy, since he pines for Madeleine. But on graduation day, Madeleine discovers that Leonard is in the hospital—in fact, he is a manic depressive with an on-again, off-again relationship with his medications—and leaps to his side. So begins the story of their love (but does it work out?), as Mitchell heads to Europe and beyond for his own epiphanies. Verdict: Your standard love triangle? Absolutely not. This extraordinary, liquidly written evocation of love's mad rush and inevitable failures will feed your mind as you rapidly turn the pages. Highly recommended. —Barbara Hoffert
Library Journal


(Starred review.) A stunning novel—erudite, compassionate and penetrating in its analysis of love relationships. Dazzling work—Eugenides continues to show that he is one of the finest of contemporary novelists.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
Introduction
Does modern love have any need for romance, much less marriage? For Madeleine Hanna, an English major writing a senior thesis with the marriage plot as the centerpiece, the question looms large. In Madeleine's favorite novels, marriage is the plot. But in the story line of her own life, sexual liberation and career goals have made hopeless romantics obsolete—even while two thoroughly postmodern guys are vying for her affection. After all, it's the 1980s: she's supposed to be reaping the rewards of feminism.

As Madeleine's love triangle unfolds in the wake of college graduation, Jeffrey Eugenides brings us an exuberant portrait of contemporary relationships and the realities that sometimes drive them wildly off course. Released from the Ivy League, Madeleine and her suitors Leonard Bankhead (whom she met in a semiotics seminar) and Mitchell Grammaticus (the toga-less interloper at a freshman party in her dorm) dive into the world of adulthood. While Madeleine follows Leonard to Cape Cod, where he's accepted a biology fellowship, Mitchell travels the globe to get Madeleine out of his mind, probing the meaning of life and the existence of God throughout his sojourns.

Offering a wholly new approach to the classic love story, this is an intimate meditation on the quests—romantic and otherwise—that confound and propel us. The questions and discussion topics that follow are designed to enhance your reading of The Marriage Plot. We hope they will enrich your experience as you explore this enthralling novel of life and literature.


1. The opening scene features a litany of the books Madeleine loves. What were your first impressions of her, based on her library? How are her beliefs about love transformed throughout the novel?

2. When Phyllida fell in love with Alton, she gave up her dream of becoming an actress in Hollywood. What sustains the Hannas' marriage despite this sacrifice? How are Alwyn and Madeleine influenced by their parents' marriage? Is Alwyn's marriage to Blake a bad one?

3. In Jeffrey Eugenides's depiction of Brown University culture in the 1980s, what does it take for the students to impress one another and their professors? What might Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida have to say about the signs in Dr. Zipperstein's Semiotics 211 class?

4. Why is Madeleine more attracted to Leonard than to Mitchell? As she copes with Leonard's instability and her feelings of guilt, how does mental illness shape the relationship?

5. What does Mitchell hope to discover as a student of religion? What role does religion play in his quest to be loved? Is his ideal—a religion devoid of myth and artificial social structures—attainable?

6. What does sex mean to Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell? Over the course of the novel, what do they discover about fantasy versus reality and the tandem between physical and emotional satisfaction?

7. What recurring themes did you detect in Mitchell's trip overseas as he tries to manage his money, his love life, and Larry? Does he return to America a stronger, changed person or an amplified version of his college self?

8. What does Alwyn try to teach her little sister about being a woman by sending the Bachelorette's Survival Kit? What does the kit help a woman survive?

9. Madeleine's parents are affluent and have enough free time to stay very involved in her life. Does this liberate her, or does it give her less freedom than Leonard, who is often left to fend for himself?

10. In their chosen career paths after college, what are Leonard and Madeleine each trying to uncover about life? Does his work on the yeast-cell experiment have anything in common with her work on Victorian novels?

11. Would you have said yes to Leonard's marriage proposal?

12. How does the novel's 1980s setting shape the plot? Do twenty-first-century college students face more or fewer challenges than Madeleine did?

13. Discuss the novel's meta-ending (an ending about endings). Does it reflect reality? What were your expectations for the characters?

14. Eugenides's previous fiction has given us unique, tragicomic perspectives on oppressive families, gender stereotypes, and the process of trying to discover our true selves. How does The Marriage Plot enhance your reading of Eugenides's other works?

15. Who did you become during your first year after college?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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