Thursday, April 12, 2012

Just for Liberal Arts Majors--The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

So what do you do with an English major?

I must have heard this question fifty times circa 1989, my senior year of college.  I didn't know the answer then, and I wasn't alone. Plenty of liberal arts majors were asking themselves that kind of question in the 1980s.  I still don't know the answer--I've had three careers (roughly) of middling success, which have led me no closer to the English major's pot of gold.

One of the reasons I love Jeffrey Eugenides' novel The Marriage Plot is its similarly foggy main characters.  Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell are Brown seniors in the early 80s who make up a traditional love triangle.  Madeleine, the English major of the trio, tries to stretch her love of literature to accommodate the hip critical theories taught in class.  Leonard, a brilliant manic depressive, and Mitchell, a Religion major smitten by Madeleine, are both bolder in intellectual and career plans than she is.  As Madeleine finishes her senior year, she's a little lost: she starts to think her thesis on "the marriage plot" in 18th century novels is stodgy, irrelevant and reflective of how uncool she is compared to her peers. Her upper crust childhood of chintz and sanity slightly shames her, and she finds herself drawn to mysterious, charismatic Leonard.  Hot college passion ensues, and, for once, Madeleine doesn't feel old-fashioned.  But the flames dampen when Leonard is non-compliant with his medication, preferring mania over depression. To thicken the plot, the characters make some very bad choices.  Should Madeleine marry the pharmaceutically reformed Leonard? No!  Should Mitchell keep believing Madeleine will one day love him? Hell no!  But these characters choose the bumpy road, and the wiser reader enjoys the ride.

Perhaps, the most compelling lesson of The Marriage Plot is that many bad choices can be fixed. One can dissolve a rotten marriage, resolve infatuation, and even craft a career from English courses.  Madeleine decides to pursue a PhD in Victorian Studies and become a professor after all, a job which seems highly suited to her passion and background.  The story ends by showing the lost finding their way, if only jaunt by jaunt.  There's truth to this pattern: college graduation forces us out into the world, and we stumble and make mistakes.  But we can correct these choices, sometimes several times, and in this way we move through the years. By middle age, you find that you've made a life.

What does one do with an English major? You know, I really don't think it matters.