When I started reading The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, all I knew about the novel was that it was about an English major and the men who loved her. I didn’t know that one of the major characters in the novel had bipolar disorder. While Eugenides’ portrayal of the character with bipolar disorder didn’t spoil the novel for me, I didn’t like how the character with bipolar disorder was portrayed.
In The Marriage Plot, Madeleine, who is the protagonist of the novel, learns that her ex-boyfriend Leonard is in the hospital suffering from a manic episode on graduation day. The couple re-unites and the novel shifts back and forth from her tumultuous relationship with Leonard to her friend Mitchell’s travels in Europe and Asia.
Madeleine is the only stable character in the novel; Leonard goes on and off his lithium--The Marriage Plot is set in the early 80s--and has the ensuing ups and downs when he is off his medication. Leonard is fairly moody even when he is on his medication. Eugenides tries to play this off like his everyday moodiness is a result of his bipolar disorder, but this doesn’t make sense as his diagnosis seems to be Bipolar I.
Madeleine’s other fan, Mitchell, doesn’t have bipolar disorder, but is also strange; after graduating from college, he turns to religion, mysticism, travel, and drugs as possible answers to the world. Eugenides portrays Mitchell as incredibly smart, but as kind of flighty in both his intellectual pursuits and his rapid conclusions about the world based on his travels.
When the Mitchell and Leonard meet up after Leonard is already married to Madeleine, she has already witnessed one of Leonard’s manic episodes. The trio are all at the same party; Madeleine discovers the two talking together and Leonard walks out of her life forever, leaving Mitchell back in his role as the best friend suffering from unrequited love.
I found fault with the end of the novel. Eugenides, or the narrator whichever the case may be, makes it sound as if the final end of the marriage was because of Leonard’s bipolar disorder, but I don’t think this was necessarily the truth. It seemed as if Mitchell angered Leonard to the point of no return.
Leonard’s bipolar disorder was a factor in the couple’s relationship, but was not the only consideration; the couple was from different backgrounds and Leonard was tired of being dependent on Madeleine’s trust fund as a source of financial support.
Because the novel is set in the 80s, readers who aren’t familiar with bipolar disorder might not realize the amount of advances in medicine that have been made since that time. Many of us with bipolar disorder are able to live much better than people in the past.