- The Post-Theory Theory Novel
Describing the apartment of the allusively named Madeleine Hannah, an undergraduate English major at Brown University in 1982, the narrator of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot invites us to “look at all the books” (3). In what is primarily an exercise in character development, we are meant to understand that the nineteenth-century novels artfully adorning Madeleine’s bedroom—Austen, Dickens, Eliot, and the Brontë sisters—effectively bespeak both her sense and her sensibility. Counterposed to these novels heavy on plot and character, we find the canon of High Theory—Derrida, Barthes, Baudrillard, Lyotard, and Foucault—linked to Leonard Bankhead and the semiotics class where he and Madeleine meet and fall in love.1 Mitchell Grammaticus, the religious studies major who stands as the third vertex in The Marriage Plot’s rather scalene love triangle (he never stands a chance against the darkly brooding Leonard), carries an entirely different library in his backpack: William James, Thomas Merton, Saint Teresa, and Paul Tillich. Having pegged each character to a distinct reading list, Eugenides tweaks the generic conventions of the nineteenth-century marriage plot to stage a three-way conversation among Enlightenment humanism (Madeleine), poststructural epistemology (Leonard), and religious [End Page 280] belief (Mitchell). While Derrida, Barthes, and Baudrillard unmoor Madeleine’s literary assumptions in the classroom, Leonard’s eccentricity and passion challenge her normative thinking in the bedroom. Or, Leonard’s seduction of Madeleine allegorizes Theory’s late-twentieth-century seduction of conventional humanistic inquiry, and Mitchell isn’t even enrolled in the class.
Before The Marriage Plot ends, however, Leonard’s corrosive depression unravels his marriage to Madeleine and he disappears into the Oregon outback. Madeleine and Mitchell do get together, but their single sexual encounter signals Madeleine’s decision to let Leonard go more than it does any feelings she has for Mitchell. Perhaps most revelatory of all, we learn that Leonard once took a religious studies course with Mitchell and actually takes Mitchell’s faith quite seriously. Or, to crudely allegorize once more, Theory and Religion acknowledge that they have more in common than they initially imagined, but the Novel realizes that it doesn’t need either of them to thrive.
Consequently, despite being a book filled with books, The Marriage Plot never becomes a book about books. The Novel never succumbs to Theory’s blandishments. Eugenides populates his novel with the foundational theoretical texts of poststructuralist theory, but The Marriage Plot refuses to consider the ramifications those works have for its own production of meaning and value. The novel’s many books thicken our understanding of character and setting, metonymically indexing particular types of students at a specific moment in intellectual history, but they never implicate the novel itself. Eugenides investigates textuality symptomatically, not reflexively.
On the rare occasion when textual reflexivity threatens to implicate The Marriage Plot, the effects remain internal to the text. All potential recursivity is suppressed. Struggling to live with Leonard’s depression, for example, Madeleine observes: “The experience of watching Leonard get better was like reading certain difficult books. It was like plowing through late James, or the pages about agrarian reform in Anna Karenina, until you suddenly got to a good part again, which kept on getting better and better until you were so enthralled that you were almost grateful for the previous dull stretch because it increased your eventual pleasure” (345–46). [End Page 281] Because The Marriage Plot lacks any such arduous passages of its own, however, it’s difficult to parse the relationship between this reflection on novels and the novel we’re reading. The Marriage Plot never achieves the self-consciousness required for its fictions to become metafictions. Just as Leonard, institutionalized for depression, realizes that “[t]he smarter you were, the worse it was” (254), The Marriage Plot indicates that the contemporary novel might be better off not spending too much time thinking about itself.
Eugenides’s novel represents an initial example of what I call “the post-theory theory novel”: those contemporary works of fiction, written in the wake of theory’s decline, that use well-known theoretical concepts—for example, the death of the author...