“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?” This is from the jacket copy for The Marriage Plot, the third novel from Jeffrey Eugenides. I quote this because the book itself announces this project scarcely any less directly, though certainly less breathlessly. The opening paragraph is a description of books on a bookshelf: Austen, Eliot, Wharton, and James most prominently. We quickly find that the shelves and books are owned by an English major who, it happens, argues in her senior thesis that in the wake of the sexual revolution, plots about marriage can no longer ground the novelistic form.
The Marriage Plot is about a love triangle whose vertices are Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard, all of whom are 1982 graduates of Brown University muddling their way through the problems that college graduates face in a weak economy. Madeleine, the student with whose books we became acquainted, has been knocked off balance in two ways: intellectually by her exposure to postmodern literary theory in a final-semester seminar, and emotionally by her relationship with exceedingly clever but somewhat unstable aspiring scientist Leonard. Mitchell, a religious studies major with an interest in Christian mysticism and an acerbic streak, spends most of the novel traveling in Europe and India, oceans away from Leonard and Madeleine, but he can be joined in the triangle by virtue of his longstanding belief that he’s destined to end up with Madeleine, even though their friendship stopped short of romance during college.
Reducing the characters to their aspirations gives three trajectories: Art, Science, and Religion. And while precocious young literary people are (for some reason) common characters in books written by literary people, Eugenides treats religion in a way that I find remarkable for a contemporary novel. First, Eugenides doesn’t condescend to the interests of his youthful protagonists, even as their maturity lags behind their intellectual ambitions: Mitchell’s religious interests are serious and plausible to the same degree as Leonard’s science work and Madeleine’s literary scholarship. Second, Mitchell’s journey gives us a broad view of Christianity, from an existentialist Lutheran professor to a clumsy fundamentalist contact evangelist, and from a no-nonsense parish priest to the various volunteers at the Home for Dying Destitutes in Calcutta. There’s also a running discussion of Mitchell’s reading, which centers on the mystics with St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross getting extended examinations.
Christian orthodoxy doesn’t get much of a hearing, which is not necessarily a flaw in the book. Mitchell’s interest is in the varieties of religious experience rather than in Christian theology and moral philosophy, and that’s a plausible attitude for a young religious studies major. His errors of interpretation make sense in the context of the plot; that Mitchell wants to sublimate his passion in piety explains why he interprets the goal of Christian mysticism as the escape from desire, rather than a redemption and channeling of it. Mitchell tends to follow the lines laid down by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, in which James sought out an experiential core of religion in which doctrines only more or less illustrate ideas without being factual in any important sense.
At a few key points, Mitchell’s interest in religion carries over to the lives of the other characters. For the most part, however, Madeleine and Leonard’s love story floats free from spiritual considerations: Madeleine is a nominal Episcopalian who gives no thought at all to religious practice, and Leonard grew up with no faith whatsoever. In general, the book leans on frankness about sex to keep things modern: a three-day-sex-and-pizza binge would be out of place, to say the least, in the work of the writers such as Austen and James, whom The Marriage Plot invokes as predecessors. It’s sad that in a novel about marriage, the models offered are good and bad versions of bourgeois marriage; for all the religion in the book, theology doesn’t get to have a say about the purpose of marriage. The idea that Christianity’s teachings about sacrificial love apply to romance is present in the book, and Mitchell’s gradual understanding of the meaning of sinfulness lets him later be an agent of grace to others. But the possibility that marriage has its own distinct sacramental status is not raised—we’re merely given a spectrum running from passion to prudence, but lacking the theological underpinnings that give the concept of marriage its transcendence. In offering us a vision of marriage shorn of all transcendent or sacramental meaning, The Marriage Plot may be a reflection of our culture, and an unintentionally useful diagnosis of our contemporary crisis of marriage. Perhaps for the institution of marriage to be revitalized, it must be joined to a vision larger than bourgeois prosperity can offer.