The Marriage Plot

Back in the late 70s and 80s, the literary canon was being challenged in English Departments across the nation. Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Henry James and the Bronte Sisters were considered passe, replaced by theorists such as Derrida and Foucault. "The marriage plot"--a story driven by the courtship of a man and a woman--was considered antiquated; Deconstructionism reigned supreme.

Jeffrey Eugenides uses this literary revolution to serve as the backdrop of his new novel. His heroine is Madeleine Hanna, an English major at Brown. Madeleine, who is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, is trying to adapt to changing times. She takes a course from a well-known semiotics professor and meets Leonard Bankhead, a brilliant and erratic student who will change her life. Leonard suffers from bipolar illness, and Madeleine falls passionately in love with him. Theirs is a highly charged relationship with Madeleine craving him physically and Leonard needing her emotionally. At the other end of the spectrum is Mitchell Grammaticus, who loves Madeleine but to whom that love is not returned. He goes off to India to explore religions and come to terms with his unrequited passion. Through him, as well as through Leonard, Madeleine comes to a better realization of the meaning of love in real life.

The Marriage Plot is a literary novel that draws it strength on the author's ability to understand the young adult mind. We first saw this in Eugenides' portrait of Calliope in Middlesex. Eugenides once again creates a sympathetic female protagonist. The reader cheers for her and is afraid for her as she innocently plunges into romantic entanglements. Madeleine is the living embodiment of the characters about whom she reads.

The Marriage Plot offers insights into bipolar illness. Eugenides is very detailed in his descriptions of the side effects of medication, the euphoria/depression experienced by the sufferer, the possible psychotic episodes, and the impact all this has on loved ones. Madeleine is seen as the long-suffering heroine who wants to be a martyr for love. Leonard is portrayed as rendered egotistical by his illness, but ultimately, becomes selfless through his love for Madeleine.

Does this plot sound familiar? It is the stuff of great literature from Shakespeare to present. Jeffrey Eugenides has succeeded in showing us that the canon is great after all.

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