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On Marriage Plots

October 13, 2011

I’ve been thinking about marriage a lot lately. I’m a newlywed; the vows my husband and I said to each other are still ringing fresh in my ears. I’m also lucky enough to have a pair of healthy, active grandparents who will celebrate their 60th anniversary next month. (I know! Can you even imagine?) And of course in the book world, this week has been dominated by ruminations on Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot. And coverage of those ruminations, and probably also coverage of the coverage of the ruminations… I won’t comment much on that here; it’s been done very well by others already.

It is interesting to consider whether elements of biography/autobiography in novels change our experience of reading them. If Leonard in The Marriage Plot really is based on David Foster Wallace (though Eugenides denies it), does that make us enjoy the book any more or less? As readers, do we really care? The whole discussion ties in quite nicely, and conveniently, with the semiotics curriculum that Madeleine, the main character in The Marriage Plot, studies as an English major. Barthes, Derrida, Saussure, all name-checked in the novel as critics whose work Madeleine reads, surely would have lot to say about it.

The Marriage Plot also explores the use of  “the marriage plot” in literature. In light of all this, I got to thinking about a few other books that deal with marriage in interesting and relevant ways.

Pride and Prejudice. It would be remiss not to include this obvious choice, the Jane Austen novel that begins, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. Last year’s bestseller, whose hype matched this year’s hype around The Marriage Plot (though I don’t recall Franzen getting a billboard), follows the disintegration of the marriage of Patty and Walter Berglund.

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan. This short, strange novel is the account of two prim and proper newlyweds on their wedding night in 1962 as they are daunted by the looming obligation of their very first “marital duty.”

A Happy Marriage by Rafael Yglesias. A heartbreaking novel spanning 30 years, exploring what it means for two people to spend a lifetime together–from the mundane moments to the magical.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Among many other things, this book is about the relationship of Mrs. Ramsey and her husband. Woolf beautifully captures all that is left unspoken between husband and wife.

What are your favorite books about marriage? And what do you think of the Eugenides/DFW conversation?

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