In his essay on her in The Novelist’s Responsibility, L. P. Hartley writes that what struck him most upon rereading Jane Austen in old age was “the sadness to be found in all the novels”:

She did not write about Belsen and Buchenwald; she did not, like Dostoevsky, depict a human soul in the last stages of despair and dissolution, but she was acutely aware of suffering and sorrow; and sometimes, I think, in portraying them, she overruns the two inches of ivory which was the limit she set herself.

All of her novels are about getting married, in other words, but the marriage plot cannot contain the human suffering that Austen glimpsed all around her.

Something like this explains the ending of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, which has puzzled and even disappointed a lot of readers. When I taught the novel this quarter at Ohio State University, my students and I devoted an entire class session to sorting out the ending. And when I mentioned the book last week in connection with Edith Pearlman’s National Book Critics’ Circle Award win, several more people emailed to ask about the ending.

Spoiler alert! If you haven’t read The Marriage Plot, you should click away from this page right now (and run to pick up the book). The novel ends, you will remember, when Mitchell Grammaticus realizes his four-years-deferred dream of sleeping with Madeleine Hanna. Their “long, aspirational, sporadically promising yet frustrating relationship” began during their freshman year at Brown, when Mitchell caught a peek of her “pale, quiet, Episcopalian breast” at a toga party. The next year, when she learns that he is going to stay alone in Providence for Thanksgiving, she invites him home to New Jersey to spend the holiday with her family instead. Her parents immediately adore him (“Mitchell was good with parents. Parents were his specialty”), and while playing Scrabble one night — Madeleine is dressed in a bathrobe, “looking both homey and sexy” — Mitchell is visited by a sudden thought: “I’m going to marry this girl!”

Four years later she is married to another man, but he has abandoned her. Mitchell returns to New Jersey, sleeping like a monk in the Hannas’ attic by night, helping Madeleine by day to recover from the grief of her loss. One night she steals into his room and ends his years of frustration. Something is wrong, though. Although she is “finally there before him in the flesh,” she seems “odorless and vaguely alien.” Mitchell feels more alone than he did before, not disappointed so much as bewildered. The next morning he hurries to Quaker meeting. He tries to empty his mind:

Instead of his previous happiness, he felt a creeping unease, as if the floor were about to give way beneath him. He couldn’t testify that what he then experienced was an Indwelling of the Light. Though the Quakers believed that Christ revealed himself to every person, without intermediaries, and that each person was able to take part in a continuing revelation, the things Mitchell saw weren’t revelations of a universal significance. A still, small voice was speaking to him, but it was saying things he didn’t want to hear.

The allusion to 1 Kings 19.12 and the “still, small voice” by which God makes himself known to the prophet Elijah — not by wind, not by earthquake, and not by fire — is perhaps the key to Eugenides’s entire novel. Although it has not been generally recognized as such, The Marriage Plot is a religious novel. Its revelations, though, are not mountain-rending. Rather, they have something to do with what William James described as “the reality of the unseen,” which has the power to change a person’s behavior and even cause him to give up his ego.

So Mitchell returns from meeting and asks Madeleine, whom he has wanted to marry for so long, whether from her studies of the English marriage plot she knows of any novel

where the heroine gets married to the wrong guy and then realizes it, and then the other suitor shows up, some guy who’s always been in love with her, and then they get together, but finally the second suitor realizes that the last thing the woman needs is to get married again, that she’s got more important things to do with her life? And so finally the guy doesn’t propose at all, even though he still loves her? Is there any book that ends like that?

When Madeleine says there is no novel like that, he asks whether such an ending would be any good. She says “Yes” — it is the book’s last word — and in doing so she affirms not merely the book called The Marriage Plot that Mitchell Grammaticus’s alter ego ends up writing two-and-a-half decades later, but also his message that marriage may remain the fulfillment of moral experience, just as in Austen, but that for an age in which voices must be loud and turbulent to be heard at all, marriage may be the lesser problem.

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