The Marriage Plot: A Novel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011
416 pp., $28.00
Naomi Schaefer Riley
The Marriage Plot
When I interview college students, they often complain to me that they are living in a "bubble." There's a Harvard bubble and a Middlebury bubble. There's a Brigham Young Bubble and a Wheaton bubble. No matter how big or how small the school is, whether it's religious or secular, the young men and women seem very conscious, even self-conscious, that they are not living in "the real world." And they are right. In fact, that was once thought to be the point. College offered the luxury of not having to worry about jobs and money and kids and mortgages and plumbing. It was time that was supposed to be (at least in part) spent in pure intellectual pursuits, time to read the books that you probably wouldn't get to when you had a family to support. Time to think about big ideas and talk about them with friends in the middle of the night. And even, clichéd though it may sound, time to search for meaning in life.
However college students are spending their time these days, they are not, generally speaking, engaged in this search. Reading The Marriage Plot, the acclaimed new novel by Pulitzer Prize-winner, Jeffrey Eugenides, we can observe the ways in which universities have utterly failed to help students on this quest and in the life that faces them afterward.
As for the former, Eugenides catches three Brown University seniors on the verge of graduation in 1982. Madeleine Hanna is an English major who loves novels—the Brontës, Henry James, Jane Austen—but she has come to university at exactly the wrong time for that. Her English professors are taken not with such traditional forms but instead with French deconstructionists. They want to teach Derrida and Barthes, and Madeleine is hilariously horrified:
Since Derrida claimed that language, by its very nature, undermined any meaning it attempted to promote, Madeleine wondered how Derrida expected her to get his meaning. Maybe he didn't. That was why he deployed so much arcane terminology, so many loop-de-looping clauses. That was why he said what he said in sentences it took a minute to identify the subjects of. (Could "the access to pluridimensionality and to a delinearized temporality" really be a subject?)
She describes literally running from such theory for a good old-fashioned 19th-century novel: "Madeleine fled to the Rockefeller Library, down to B-level, where the stacks exuded a vivifying smell of mold, and grabbed something—anything, The House of Mirth, Daniel Deronda—to restore herself to sanity." Madeleine is not some naïve thing looking for books with happy endings, just books with any ending … or beginning. Any plot.
And little wonder she is fleeing. Eugenides' description of Semiotics 211 and its leader, Professor Zipperstein, is one of the best send-ups of academic trendiness since British novelist David Lodge introduced Morris Zapp in his 1975 classic Changing Places. And the way the other students in the class parrot their professors' theories makes Madeleine want to tear her hair out: "The boy without the eyebrows spoke up first. 'Um, let's see. I'm finding it hard to introduce myself, actually, because the whole idea of social introductions is so problematized.'"
But The Marriage Plot is more than a campus novel. Madeleine finds herself caught in a love triangle. Leonard Bankhead, the object of her affection, is much more well-suited to modern college life than she is, despite the fact that he is a manic-depressive: "Two things mania did were to keep you up all night and to enable nonstop sex: pretty much the definition of college." As Eugenides writes, "Leonard studied at the Rockefeller Library every night until midnight like a Yeshiva student davening over the Torah. At the stroke of twelve, he headed back to West Quad, where there was always a party going on, usually in his room."
Leonard is granted a prestigious fellowship after graduation. But in reality, he's exactly the opposite of a Yeshiva student. None of what he is reading or writing seems to mean anything to him. He has no family, few friends, no sense of purpose. When his manic episodes lead to long hospital stays and high doses of medication to keep him stable, Leonard has only Madeleine, his girlfriend of a few months, to care for him.
Then there is Mitchell, the timid (in love, anyway) young man who befriends Madeleine during their freshman year and, like so many boys who become women's confidants, will never quite be mysterious enough to achieve the status of great love.
But Mitchell's mind is occupied with more than love. He spends college in a variety of religious studies classes. The progression itself is amusing: first "a trendy survey course on Eastern religion. Next he enrolled in a seminar on Islam. From there, Mitchell graduated to stronger stuff—a course on Thomistic ethics, a seminar on German pietism—before moving on in his last semester to a course called Religion and Alienation in 20th Century Culture." It is after this final class that the teacher, Hermann Richter, finally notices Mitchell's intellect, telling him just days before graduation that the last time he saw a final exam so good, it had been written by a student who later became the head of Princeton Theological Seminary. Only after some prodding by Mitchell does Richter finally acknowledge that he himself is a believer. Mitchell reacts as if he has uncovered a rare artifact—a Christian on an élite university campus!
If Mitchell is surprised by this discovery, the reader is even more startled to find a fashionable American writer taking faith so seriously in a novel. This strand of The Marriage Plot is the most interesting aspect of the book, yet the import of it isn't entirely clear.
Mitchell admits to Richter that his quest for religious understanding has been a personal one, not just an intellectual one, and that the previous summer he had given himself a reading list, which included Thomas Merton and Meister Eckhart. And what a personal quest it is. Mitchell's description of writing that final exam is what many professors dream a student will do at the end of an inspiring course or, for that matter, an inspiring college education.
He wasn't answering the questions to get a grade on a test. He was trying to diagnose the predicament he felt himself to be in. And not just his predicament either, but that of everyone he knew. It was an odd feeling. He kept writing the names of Heidegger and Tillich but he was thinking about himself and his friends. Everyone he knew was convinced that religion was a sham and God a fiction. But his friends' replacements for religion didn't look too impressive. No one had an answer for the riddle of existence …. As he responded to the essay questions, Mitchell kept bending his answers toward their practical application. He wanted to know why he was here and how to live.
Mitchell seems to have achieved these depths despite his professors and his fellow students, not because of them. After college, he travels the world in search of more spiritual enlightenment, even working in a hospital run by Mother Teresa at one point. At times, it seems Mitchell is exploring faith to forget about Madeleine, as when he considers, however briefly, a life of celibacy.
Like Madeleine's, Mitchell's thoughts seem ill-suited to the modern university. But perhaps somewhere there is a place where believers can seek Truth from education. Maybe somewhere there is a bubble.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a former Wall Street Journal editor and writer whose work focuses on higher education, religion, philanthropy, and culture. She is the author most recently of The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won't Get the College Education You Paid for (Ivan R. Dee).
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