“It is painful to be told that anything is very fine and not be able to feel that it is fine—something like being blind, while people talk of the sky.” This is Dorothea Brooke admitting in Middlemarch that she doesn’t understand all the fuss about the frescoes and oil paintings everyone around her is mooning over in Rome. Dorothea acknowledges her ignorance with the pitiful grace of the outsider who wants to step past the velvet rope. “I should be quite willing to enjoy the art here, but there is so much that I don’t know the reason of—so much that seems to me a consecration of ugliness rather than beauty,” she tells a friend, whose sketches she disparaged on their first meeting as being detached from nature, part of a “language I do not understand”: “The painting and sculpture may be wonderful, but the feeling is often low and brutal, and sometimes even ridiculous.”
Low, brutal and ridiculous is a good description of what Madeleine Hanna, the heroine of Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel The Marriage Plot, thinks of the literary theory that has infected the English department at Brown University, where she is a senior in 1982. Madeleine is something of a goddaughter to Dorothea Brooke among fiction’s dwindling ranks of principled ingénues, so I stand by “heroine” rather than “protagonist” or even “main character.” Those terms are usually elided—or are under erasure, as Madeleine’s theoretically inclined peers might contend. But in this case the distinction matters because Madeleine is a lover of nineteenth-century fiction, of fat, lushly detailed novels, the British-er the better, where the reader is liable to encounter heaths and wills and waistcoats, and heroines descending from hansom cabs to grapple with fate at the ball.
While Madeleine is writing her senior thesis on the evolution of “the marriage plot” in the novels of Jane Austen, George Eliot and Henry James, the courtship-to-nuptial cycle that, she argues, has been rendered all but obsolete by modernity, the rest of the English majors are swooning over Derrida and deconstruction. The bookworms who chose, as Madeleine has, to study English “for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read” are replaced by creatures of the analytical order like Thurston Meems, whose belief in the solidity of words has been depilated, along with his eyebrows, by the time Madeleine meets him in Introduction to Semiotic Theory:
“Um, let’s see. I’m finding it hard to introduce myself, actually, because the whole idea of social introductions is so problematized. Like, if I tell you that my name is Thurston Meems and that I grew up in Stamford, Connecticut, will you know who I am? O.K. My name’s Thurston and I’m from Stamford, Connecticut. I’m taking this course because I read Of Grammatology last summer and it blew my mind.”
Madeleine is pretty and athletic, and anxious about her future. She is the bearer of a WASP pedigree as well as the proud owner of the Modern Library collection of Henry James. The essence of what sets her apart from her jargon-addled peers is the subject of a conversation she has with Billy Bainbridge, an ex-boyfriend whose extracurriculars—filmmaking and anti-circumcision activism—may have something to do with the desire to liberate himself from a family of newspaper tycoons.