Jeffrey Eugenides

{EN} The Marriage Plot – Jeffrey Eugenides

1.  “According to this article,” Alton said, reading the Voice, “homosexuality didn’t exist until the nineteenth century. It was invented. In Germany.”

2. “Madeleine thought to herself, as she’d thought many times before, that Mitchell was the kind of smart, sane, parent-pleasing boy she should fall in love with and marry. That she would never fall in love with Mitchell and marry him, precisely because of this eligibility, was yet another indication, in a morning teeming with them, of just how screwed up she was in matters of the heart.”

3. “Right,” Mitchell said, his voice suddenly sarcastic. “Our wonderful friendship! Our ‘friendship’ isn’t a real friendship because it only works on your terms. You set the rules, Madeleine. If you decide you don’t want to talk to me for three months, we don’t talk. Then you decide you do want to talk to me because you need me to entertain your parents—and now we’re talking again. We’re friends when you want to be friends, and we’re never more than friends because you don’t want to be. And I have to go along with that.”

4. In Saunders’s opinion, the novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance. In the days when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later? How would Isabel Archer’s marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup? As far as Saunders was concerned, marriage didn’t mean much anymore, and neither did the novel. Where could you find the marriage plot nowadays? You couldn’t. You had to read historical fiction. You had to read non-Western novels involving traditional societies. Afghani novels, Indian novels. You had to go, literarily speaking, back in time. […] She used a line from Trollope’s Barchester Towers as an epigraph: “There is no happiness in love, except at the end of an English novel.” Her plan was to begin with Jane Austen. After a brief examination of Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Sense and Sensibility, all comedies, essentially, that ended with weddings, Madeleine was going to move on to the Victorian novel, where things got more complicated and considerably darker. Middlemarch and The Portrait of a Lady didn’t end with weddings. They began with the traditional moves of the marriage plot—the suitors, the proposals, the misunderstandings—but after the wedding ceremony they kept on going. These novels followed their spirited, intelligent heroines, Dorothea Brooke and Isabel Archer, into their disappointing married lives, and it was here that the marriage plot reached its greatest artistic expression. By 1900 the marriage plot was no more. Madeleine planned to end with a brief discussion of its demise. In Sister Carrie, Dreiser had Carrie live adulterously with Drouet, marry Hurstwood in an invalid ceremony, and then run off to become an actress—and this was only in 1900! For a conclusion, Madeleine thought she might cite the wife-swapping in Updike. That was the last vestige of the marriage plot: the persistence in calling it “wife-swapping” instead of “husband-swapping.” As if the woman were still a piece of property to be passed around.”

5. “She wanted a book to take her places she couldn’t get to herself. She thought a writer should work harder writing a book than she did reading it. When it came to letters and literature, Madeleine championed a virtue that had fallen out of esteem: namely, clarity.”

6. “After getting out of Semiotics 211, 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. How wonderful it was when one sentence followed logically from the sentence before! What exquisite guilt she felt, wickedly enjoying narrative! Madeleine felt safe with a nineteenth-century novel. There were going to be people in it. Something was going to happen to them in a place resembling the world.”

7. “The solitude was extreme because it wasn’t physical. It was extreme because you felt it while in the company of the person you loved. It was extreme because it was in your head, that most solitary of places.”

8. “Only one thing remained from her relationship with Leonard: the book she’d thrown at his head. Before storming out of Leonard’s apartment that day—and while he lay in lordly nakedness on the bed, calmly repeating her name with the suggestion that she was overreacting—Madeleine had noticed the book lying open on the floor like a bird that had knocked itself out against a windowpane. To pick it up would prove Leonard’s point: that she had an unhealthy obsession with A Lover’s Discourse; that, contrary to dispelling her fantasies about love, the book had served to reinforce those fantasies; and that, in evidence of all this, she wasn’t only a sentimentalist but a lousy literary critic besides.”

9. “A Lover’s Discourse was the perfect cure for lovesickness. It was a repair manual for the heart, its one tool the brain. If you used your head, if you became aware of how love was culturally constructed and began to see your symptoms as purely mental, if you recognized that being “in love” was only an idea, then you could liberate yourself from its tyranny.

10. “Heartbreak is funny to everyone but the heartbroken.”

11. “What Madeleine was seeking here, with Thurston, wasn’t Thurston at all. It was self-abasement. She wanted to demean herself, and she’d done so, though she wasn’t clear on why, except that it had to do with Leonard and how much she was suffering.”

12. “It was impossible to be friends with guys. Every guy she’d ever been friends with had ended up wanting something else, or had wanted something else from the beginning, and had been friends only under false pretenses.”

13. “Just someone who knows, from personal experience, how attractive it can be to think you can save somebody else by loving them.”

14. “The breakup was why I was depressed, […] I sabotaged you and me,” Leonard said. “I see that now. I’m able to think a little more clearly now. Part of growing up in the kind of family I come from, a family of alcoholics, is that you begin to normalize disease and dysfunctionality. Disease and dysfunctionality are normal for me. What’s not normal is feeling …” He broke off. He inclined his head, his dark eyes focusing on the linoleum, as he continued: “Remember that day you said you loved me? Remember that? See, you could do that because you’re basically a sane person, who grew up in a loving, sane family. You could take a risk like that. But in my family we didn’t go around saying we loved each other. We went around screaming at each other. So what do I do, when you say you love me? I go and undermine it. I go and reject it by throwing Roland Barthes in your face. […] After you left that day, I lay down on my bed and didn’t get up for a week. I just lay there thinking how I’d sabotaged the best chance I ever had to be happy in life. The best chance I ever had to be with someone smart, beautiful, and sane. The kind of person I could be a team with.” He leaned forward and gazed with intensity into Madeleine’s eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry for being the kind of person who would do a thing like that.”

15. “Had she known from the outset about his manic depression, his messed-up family, his shrink habit, Madeleine would never have allowed herself to get so passionately involved.”

16. “I’ll tell you what I learned in religious studies,” Mitchell said with a slight smile. “If you read any of the mystics, or any decent theology—Catholic, Protestant, kabbalistic—the one thing they all agree on is that God is beyond any human concept or category. That’s why Moses can’t look at Yahweh. That’s why, in Judaism, you can’t even spell out God’s name. The human mind can’t conceive what God is. God doesn’t have a sex or anything else.”

17. “Listen, a girl’s not a watermelon you plug a hole in to see if it’s sweet.”

18. “During his weeks in the hospital, Leonard had gained almost fifteen pounds, and he continued putting on weight all through July and August. His face and body looked puffy and there was a roll of fat, like a buffalo’s hump, on the back of his neck. […] As a result of all this, a side effect of the side effects, Leonard’s libido decreased. […] He didn’t want to go out even to a movie anymore. Now he was interested only in his doggy bed, his doggy bowl, and his mistress. He laid his head on her lap, wanted to be petted. He wagged his tail whenever she came in.”

19. “As dedicated as Madeleine was to nursing Leonard, as satisfying as it was to see him getting better, she sometimes needed to get out of the stifling studio.”

20. “On the way back to Cape Cod, and for days afterward, Madeleine felt a rush of happiness every time she remembered Meg Jones calling them all “Victorianists.” The word made her fuzzy aspirations suddenly real. She’d never had a word for the thing she wanted to be.”

21. “Yale’s rejection, like that of a boyfriend she wasn’t sure she liked that much, had predictably increased its allure.”

22. “She’d forgotten how much fun Mitchell could be. In comparison with Leonard, Mitchell was so low-maintenance. […] He was looking at her with his big eyes. He reached out to take her hands. “I love you!” he said. And Madeleine had surprised herself by replying, “I love you, too.” She meant that she loved him but didn’t love love him.”

23. “Apparently, she wanted to keep Mitchell for herself, even while denying him.”

24. “Madeleine wanted her mother to meet the real Leonard, the boy she’d fallen in love with, who would be showing up any day now.”

25. “If you want to have a career,” Alwyn said, “my advice is don’t get married. You think things have changed and there’s some kind of gender equality now, that men are different, but I’ve got news for you. They’re not. They’re just as shitty and selfish as Daddy was. Is.”

26.  “For the first time ever, Madeleine regretted meeting Leonard. He was defective, and she wasn’t, and there was nothing she could do about it. The cruelty of this thought felt rich and sweet and Madeleine indulged in it for another minute. […] Being with Leonard made Madeleine feel exceptional. It was as if, before she’d met him, her blood had circulated grayly around her body, and now it was all oxygenated and red.”

27. “There were some books that reached through the noise of life to grab you by the collar and speak only of the truest things.”

28. “For once in my life I wanted to have a friend who wasn’t a girlfriend and wasn’t a boyfriend. […] I expect to be heartbroken, not having you in my life. But I’m already confused enough about my life and my relationship without you confusing me more.”

29. “Mostly, what Mitchell took from the letter was the painful fact that he had missed his chance. His chance with Madeleine had come early, sophomore year, and he’d failed to seize it.”

30. “He waited until Larry was gone before allowing himself to cry. It was a combination of things, Madeleine’s letter, first and foremost, but also the aspects of his personality that had made her feel such a letter necessary, his awkwardness, his charm, his aggressiveness, his shyness, everything that made him almost but not quite the guy for her.”

31. “Mania was a mental state every bit as dangerous as depression. “

32. “His neck was so fat he couldn’t button his shirt collars. The proof that lithium stabilized one’s mood was confirmed every time Leonard saw himself naked in the mirror and didn’t kill himself. He wanted to. He thought he had every right. But he couldn’t work up the requisite self-loathing.”

33. “But Leonard’s happiness was compromised by the constant fear of losing her again. […] He’d lost the ability to be an asshole. Now he was smitten, and it felt both tremendous and scary. […] Leonard didn’t like Madeleine to leave the apartment. He suspected the reason she went out wasn’t because she loved Jane Austen or Professor Saunders, but to get away from him.”

34. “There was something about tennis—its aristocratic rituals, the prim silence it enforced on its spectators, the pretentious insistence on saying “love” for zero and “deuce” for tied, the exclusivity of the court itself, where only two people were allowed to move freely, the palace-guard rigidity of the linesmen, and the slavish scurrying of the ball boys—that made it clearly a reproachable pastime.”

35. “If Madeleine left, he would be alone again, as he’d been growing up in a house with his family, as he was in his head and often in his dreams, and as he’d been in his room at the psych ward.”

36. “Manic-depressives, it turned out, were at a higher risk for suicide than depressives. Dr. Shieu’s number one priority was to keep her patients alive.”

37. “True to form, neither of his parents flew out to see him.”

38. “Well, let’s see. First of all, my parents are alcoholics. One of them is probably manic-depressive herself, only undiagnosed. I inherited my condition from her. We both suffer from the same form of the illness. We’re not rapid cyclers. We don’t go from high to low in a few hours. We ride these long waves of mania or depression. My brain’s chemically starved for the neurotransmitters it needs to regulate my moods and then sometimes it’s oversupplied with them. I’m messed up biologically because of my genetics and psychologically because of my parents, is what’s the matter with me, Mom.”

39. “And then Madeleine appeared in the dayroom, missing graduation, and all Leonard had to do was look at her to know that he wanted to be alive again.”

40. “In the hospital, however, with plenty of time on his hands, Leonard began to wonder if there was more to the story. He pictured Grammaticus’s satyr-like form clambering on top of Madeleine from behind. The image of Grammaticus screwing Madeleine, or of Madeleine going down on him, contained the right mix of pain and arousal to stir Leonard from his deadened sexual state. For reasons Leonard couldn’t fathom—but that probably had to do with a need for self-abasement—the idea of Madeleine wantonly betraying him with Grammaticus turned Leonard on. To break the tedium of the hospital, he tortured himself with this twisted fantasy, jerking off in the bathroom stall while holding the lockless door closed with his free hand. […] For a little while, it worked, but not long. If, instead of being touched by Madeleine, Leonard had been imagining Madeleine touching Grammaticus, he might have gotten off. But reality wasn’t enough for him anymore. And this was a problem larger and deeper than even his illness, a problem he couldn’t begin to deal with. And so he closed his eyes and hugged Madeleine tightly.”

41. “It’s not just that. She just doesn’t think we’re right for each other.” “We’re great for each other!” he said, trying to smile, and looking into her eyes for confirmation. But Madeleine didn’t give it. Instead, she stared at their clasped hands, furrowing her brow. “I don’t know anymore,” she said. She pulled her hands away, tucking them under her arms. “What is it, then?” Leonard said, desperate to know. “Is it because of my family? Is it because I’m poor? Is it because I was on financial aid?” “It has nothing to do with that.” “Is your mother worried I’ll pass on my disease to our kids?” “Leonard, stop.” “Why should I stop? I want to know. You say your mother doesn’t like me but you won’t say why.” “She just doesn’t, that’s all.”

42. “If you grew up with emotionally stunted parents, who were unhappy in their marriage and prone to visit that unhappiness on their children, you didn’t know they were doing this. It was just your life. If you had an accident, at the age of four, when you were supposed to be a big boy, and were later served a plate of feces at the dinner table—if you were told to eat it because you liked it, didn’t you, you must like it or you wouldn’t have so many accidents—you didn’t know that this wasn’t happening in the other houses in your neighborhood. If your father left your family, and disappeared, never to return, and your mother seemed to resent you, as you grew older, for being the same sex as your father, you had no one to turn to. In all these cases, the damage was done before you knew you were damaged. The worst part was that, as the years passed, these memories became, in the way you kept them in a secret box in your head, taking them out every so often to turn them over and over, something like dear possessions. They were the key to your unhappiness. They were the evidence that life wasn’t fair. If you weren’t a lucky child, you didn’t know you weren’t lucky until you got older. And then it was all you ever thought about.”

43. “Using these wisely, Leonard began to jog and to work out at the gym. He lost weight. The bison hump disappeared. […]  He took things slowly, dropping his daily dose to 1,600 milligrams for a week and then to 1,400.”

44. “When we used to talk about marriage (I mean in the abstract) you had a theory that people got married in one of three stages. Stage One are the traditional people who marry their college sweethearts, usually the summer after graduation. People in Stage Two get married around 28. And then there are the people in Stage Three who get married in a final wave, with a sense of desperation, around 36, 37, or even 39. You said you would never get married straight out of college. You planned to wait until your “career” was settled and get married in your thirties. Secretly, I always thought you were a Stage Two, but when I saw you, at graduation, I realized you were decidedly, and incorrigibly, Stage One.”

45. “There comes a moment, when you get lost in the woods, when the woods begin to feel like home.”

46. “She fantasized about breaking up with Leonard, moving to New York, about getting an athletic boyfriend who was simple and happy.”

47. “The man, who had an American accent, had been found on the beach, shirtless and shoeless, and carrying no identification. Walker offered to come from Marseille and accompany Madeleine and Phyllida to the hospital to see if this person, as seemed likely, was Leonard.”

48. “She felt as if she’d aged twenty years in two weeks. She was no longer a bride or even a young person.”

49. “Leonard didn’t seem to care about the future anymore. He didn’t know what he was going to do. He didn’t want an office.”

50. “She worried that Leonard would never be happy again, that he had lost the ability.”

51. “Madeleine started to enjoy herself. The bourbon was so sweet it tasted like an alcoholic form of Coke. It was nice to be around people she knew. It made her feel that the decision to move to New York was the right one.”

52. “Let me tell you what happens when a person’s clinically depressed,” Leonard began in his infuriating doctorly mode. “What happens is that the brain sends out a signal that it’s dying. The depressed brain sends out this signal, and the body receives it, and after a while, the body thinks it’s dying too. And then it begins to shut down. That’s why depression hurts, Madeleine. That’s why it’s physically painful. The brain thinks it’s dying, and so the body thinks it’s dying, and then the brain registers this, and they go back and forth like that in a feedback loop.”

53. ““I don’t want to ruin your life,” Leonard said in a gentler tone. […] Madeleine, listen to me. Listen. I’m not going to get better. […] And then the train slowed and stopped. Leonard was still there, waiting for it. Madeleine reached him. She called his name. Leonard turned and looked at her, his eyes vacant. He reached out and placed his hands tenderly on her shoulders. In a soft voice edged with pity, with sadness, Leonard said, “I divorce thee, I divorce thee, I divorce thee.”

54. “Your girl Madeleine got married! Sorry, man.” Mitchell made no reaction. The news was so devastating that the only way he could survive it was to pretend that he wasn’t surprised. “I knew that was going to happen,” he said.”

55. “One reason he’d kept talking to Bankhead was that he was too scared to leave the bedroom and run into her. But then Madeleine had appeared on her own. At first, Mitchell pretended not to notice, but finally he’d turned—and it was like it always was. Madeleine’s sheer physical presence hit Mitchell with full concussive force.”

56. “But Mitchell’s feeling about Bankhead had undergone a significant change since talking to him and he was beset now, troublingly, with something resembling empathy and even affection for his onetime rival.”

57. “Madeleine’s arrival at Columbia, it turned out, would coincide with the first class of women being admitted to the university as undergraduates, and she took this as a good omen.”

58. “As much as Madeleine wanted Mitchell around, as close as they’d become that summer, she gave no clear sign that her feelings about him had altered in any significant way.”

59. “It was a copy of The Janeite Review, edited by M. Myerson, and containing an essay by one Madeleine Hanna titled “I Thought You’d Never Ask: Some Thoughts on the Marriage Plot.” It was a marvelous thing to see, even though a printing error had transposed two pages of the essay. Madeleine looked happier than she’d looked in months.”

60. “Mitchell understood why making love with Madeleine had felt as strangely empty as it had. It was because Madeleine hadn’t been coming to him; she’d only been leaving Bankhead. After opposing her parents all summer, Madeleine was giving in to the necessity of an annulment. In order to make that clear to herself, she’d come up to Mitchell’s bedroom in the attic. He was her survival kit.”

61. “From the books you read for your thesis, and for your article—the Austen and the James and everything—was there any novel where the heroine gets married to the wrong guy and then realizes it, and then the other suitor shows up, some guy who’s always been in love with her, and then they get together, but finally the second suitor realizes that the last thing the woman needs is to get married again, that she’s got more important things to do with her life? And so finally the guy doesn’t propose at all, even though he still loves her? Is there any book that ends like that?”

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