I was in the BMV on Bloor late last August, scanning the tables near the front entrance for a copy of William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, when The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides, caught my eye. Having read and enjoyed Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides by the same author, I figured I would like this third novel as well. But the title of this particular work threw me off. It took me back to all the nineteenth-century lit. classes I took in undergrad, the ones that droned on and on as my professors perused giant tomes, exploring the nineteenth-century novel’s favourite themes—love and marriage. (barf!)
The marriage plot, for those who need a refresher, is one of nineteenth-century literature’s most established and prominent tropes. Nineteenth-century novels (particularly those by female authors like Austen, the Brontes, and Gaskell) often feature female characters who find happiness upon getting married at the novel’s conclusion. Of course, nineteenth-century novels, like those by Jane Austen, also underscore the ridiculousness of marriage through fluffy, underdeveloped female characters who marry solely to gain financial stability. However, even Austen’s most well-known, well-loved character, Elizabeth Bennett, marries at the end of Pride and Prejudice. Austen grants Bennett a lot of agency by allowing her to choose her own suitor, the brooding and mysterious Mr. Darcy, but eclipses that agency by denying her the option to not marry at all. It would seem that remaining single is not a viable or acceptable option in Austen’s literary world (even though the author herself never married).
Like Austen’s novels, Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot stars a female protagonist, Madeleine, an English major in her senior year of college, who is working on a thesis, titled: I’d Thought You’d Never Ask: Some Thoughts on the Marriage Plot. During college, Madeleine falls in love with her own Darcy, a physically attractive, intelligent, mysterious, angsty, independent, manic-depressive philosophy and science double-major named Leonard. And upon graduating college, the two marry. While Leonard is initially an enticing character, after seeking medical treatment for his bi-polar, he gains weight, loses his intelligent edge and becomes. . . well, an aphetic slug, basically, so vastly different than the person Madeleine fell in love with. Throughout the early course of their relationship, Madeleine lives in Leonard’s manic shadow, and when his mental illness gets the better of him, she remains in that shadow, but as his full-time caretaker. Near the novel’s conclusion, Madeleine and Leonard split when Leonard sporadically jumps a train to Portland and Madeleine opts not to chase after him. In the story’s anti-climactic final scene, Madeleine packs her boxes to head off to grad school where she will continue her feminist examination of the Victorian novel, now as a single woman.
The nineteenth-century novel often portrays marriage as the final and only option, the vehicle through which women achieve their happy ending. Eugenides’s Madeleine, by contrast, loses herself in marriage. Her aspirations, thoughts, and feelings become irrelevant, as Leonard’s manic and depressive episodes take centre stage in their relationship. As such, The Marriage Plot deconstructs marriage and love. Rather than marriage, the novel’s ending suggests that Madeleine’s new-found singleness will enable her to succeed academically, find happiness and establish her own identity.
Kate Bolick’s Spinster hit bookstands in April and has been met with much critical acclaim. The text examines the experiences of single women, stressing the benefits of the uncoupled or unmarried single life. Using her own life as an example, Bolick subverts the negative connotations associated with the word “spinster”, demonstrating how remaining single enables women to oversee and take charge of their emotional ups and downs and thus further their independence and self-knowledge. While many traditional cultures encourage marriage, Bolick questions whether those who marry, particularly those who marry at an early age, aren’t stunting their psychological development.
The Marriage Plot and Spinster both undercut the illusion that a woman’s happiness is contingent on her finding love in a romantic relationship or marriage. Marriage is upheld as one of life’s major milestones. But what about those of us who do not want to settle down with one person for life? What about those of us who enjoy and benefit from our own company? Both Eugenides and Bolick present their female readership with the option not to marry. While single women have traditionally been marginalized, these two authors demonstrate how singlehood can enable women to make lives of their own.