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The Marriage Plot and the Rise of Memoir

May 7th, 2012 | 4 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Mark Bauerlein has some penetrating thoughts about how individualism has corroded the novel:

A good plot needs conflict, an unsettled situation whose outcome we care about. For more than two centuries, the theme of “individual vs. society” provided a ready tension for it, as in Huck Finn’s personal feelings for Jim clashing with the norms of slave society, or Edna in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening rebelling against patriarchal demands in turn-of-the-century Louisiana. The conflict worked precisely because the social side isn’t powerless and on occasion voices a legitimate criticism of the specific individual with whom we sympathize. Once all legitimacy lies on the individual side, once social institutions have no claim upon the one, tension dissipates and the novel reads like a chronicle of events in the life of _____, not a meaningful examination of human affairs in this or that setting.

Bauerlein unpacks the point with reference to Jeffrey Eugenides popular novel, The Marriage Plot.  I haven't read it, so I can't comment on the accuracy, but it's still worth considering.

This is the position of The Marriage Plot. The one area in which the novel does evoke larger concerns that did affect American culture during those years—or at least an important enclave of it, the college campus—only proves the decline of those concerns into a strictly individualist import. As Madeleine proceeds in her English major, she takes a seminar in semiotics, where she gains from Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse not insights about humanity at large but rather resonance with her own experiences. Of the book, she first observes that “the writing seemed beautiful,” and then Barthes’ sentences crystallize into an insight: “Here was an articulation of what she had been so far mutely feeling . . . Madeleine was in a state of extreme solitude.”

The insight ends the paragraph on that expanding clarity, but the very next sentence shrinks it back to the peer scene: “It had to do with Leonard. With how she felt about him and how she couldn’t tell anyone.” The moment fails. A Lover’s Discourse doesn’t draw her out of her paltry individual existence, but instead reinforces it. She continues with Barthes obsessively for weeks, but “She was reading A Lover’s Discourse and marveling at its relevance to her life.”

Precisely. Once social institutions deteriorate and people live contained by their own sole selves, relevance becomes the first measure of value. Barthes appeals to her not because he imparts truths about life or expresses well a plight many of us share, but because he voices her state of mind and feeling, locally and immediately. He prompts a broader understanding of love—“It explained what love was like and, just maybe, what was wrong with it”—but only for a second before she returns the text to her personal circumstances. It’s the dilemma of the narcissist, and of the postmodern novelist. The dominant venues of our culture empower the personal perspective, a do-whatever-you-want-as-long-as-you-don’t-infringe-on-others outlook, and the contemporary novelist interested in current conditions represents sensibilities that result from it. But the more those characters care about themselves and circle events, ideas, places, books, and everything else back into the sphere of their direct experiences, the less we care about them.

I'm not qualified to assess whether Bauerlein's description of the modern novel is any good, though given that he's a professor in the field he clearly is.  But I do think there's something to it.

After all, consider the rise of memoirs as a genre.  Last year Neil Genzlinger attributed it to the rise of oversharing, and perhaps there's something to that.  But there's something even more self-referential in the memoir than there even is in sharing on, say, Facebook.  The status is a transference of information, an "update."  It's hard, if not impossible, for any relatively mature person to try to get at the meaning of things there.  The medium simply doesn't suit it, and those who try are playing with the wrong set of rules.  There are probably lots of folks who do, but then it's an easy problem to commit that takes relatively little effort.

Blogs do this better, of course.  And there are plenty of those out there still, with talented writers admirably working to pull the significance out of their daughter's visit to the dentists or their latest adventures in food.  There is doubtlessly a connection with readers here, one that is more meaningful than the social networks.

The memoir, however, is a different ball of wax.  The genre points to an attempt to discern the meaning, to layer the story in such a way that a point (hopefully) emerges and allows for a connection with others.  Only it does so not instantaneously, but by seeing the events from years past within a plot where the conclusion is, if not known, at least more clearly discerned than it is while the events were transpiring.

We may hope for a response to a status update  But the goal of the memoir is to resonate, to find a sympathy and commonality from the reader within the experience and prose that the status update simply cannot do.  And the medium of the memoir actually simplifies a life to a more discernible shape and outline in the way an ongoing blog can not.  Almost like a movie versus a TV show, except the difference isn't quite as stark.  The parallel may make the memoir seem more superficial, less complex, and hence less able to connect.  But then, there's something about the telling of a shape of a life when the ending is understood by the author and the events interpreted through it.

That is what the memoir makes possible, which is why it shouldn't be rejected.  But as Genzlinger points out, even the best memoirs are the least self-referential.  Like Beurlein's more traditional novel, those memoirs that work best are more interested in the world and its inhabitants than reflecting on the shape of one's own lives.   Which is, perhaps, why the loss of the plot in fiction has been coextensive with the rise of the memoir in nonfiction.


Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.