Post- Magazine

a farewell to brown [A&C]

reflections upon commencement and the legacy of jeffrey eugenides’ “the marriage plot”

During my senior year of high school, I took an Honors English Seminar. Its thirteen spots were awarded to a cohort of rising seniors who satisfactorily completed a pre-requisite essay response to Roland Barthes’ From Work To Text. Each week we dove headfirst into different subgenres of literary theory, our backpacks weighed down by the menacing brick that is Rivkin and Ryan’s 1650-paged book, Literary Theory: an Anthology.

When we finally made it to senior spring, many of our peers in other classes checked out and stopped putting effort into most of their coursework. But the Seminar students had to hunker down and write thirty-page papers that integrated significant theoretical source material, tackling any topic of our choosing. Mine was called “The Friend Zone.” In it I explored the elusive spectrum of platonic and romantic relationships via work from Aristotle, Henry James, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and other thinkers. It centered around Nora Ephron’s screenplay, When Harry Met Sally, and included an interview with my grandparents about their marriage, as well as an epilogue addressed to my male best friend. Ultimately, I sought out to dismantle the concept of the friend zone by examining a diverse array of sources–from a 1989 romantic comedy to a Greek philosopher’s “three types of friendship” to a gender theorist’s analysis of binaries and homosociality.

On days when we had extra time at the end of usually densely packed Seminar classes, Dr. Long would read us excerpts from a novel about a love triangle involving a crew of obnoxious Ivy League students who read most of the theorists and philosophers we were studying in Seminar in their Semiotics class at Brown. We laughed aloud at our beloved teacher’s quirky character voices, but above all else, we cackled at the obscenity that is the entire narrative of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot.

It is no coincidence that five of the thirteen of us, the “campus lit crit elite,” in Eugenides’ words, applied Early Decision to Brown, the dreamy landscape of Eugenides’ third novel. Five years later, I am about to graduate from Brown, and I am rereading The Marriage Plot to supplement my panoptic nostalgia in the weeks leading up to commencement.


I arrived in Providence in 2019 with a shelf full of books that has since quadrupled in volume. The literary theory book I read during Honors English Seminar occupies its own special corner.

“There was, in short, this mid-size but still portable library representing pretty much everything Madeline had read in college,” Eugenides writes on the very first page of The Marriage Plot. The protagonist’s bookshelf in the bedroom of her Benefit Street apartment (the street where I, too, spent my upperclassman years) even houses a copy of Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens, my namesake.

I first read The Marriage Plot in its entirety in 2020, on my impromptu gap year from Brown during COVID-19, and I was hooked from the very first page. Whether I was reading from a mango farm in Colombia or a beach in Santa Cruz, I could so vividly picture the campus I’d left behind. Eugenides writes: “Here the narrow streets, many of them cobblestone, climbed past mansions or snaked around Puritan graveyards full of headstones as narrow as heaven’s door, streets with names like Prospect, Benevolent, Hope, and Meeting, all of them feeding into the arboreous campus at the top. The sheer physical elevation suggested an intellectual one.” He does not shy away from dropping College Hill landmarks and lingo, such as “The Ratty” and “Wayland Quad,” into his prose. My daily walk from Benefit Street up the hill to class is described in rich detail, as is the entire graduation procession that will follow the same route through campus in May as it did in the 80s and for many decades prior.

Though the novel was published in 2001 and takes place in the 80s, it is a true testament to the way Brown’s social and academic culture transcends generations. Each character represents a hyperbole of someone I’ve met here, but Eugenides does a masterful job of assigning each person hyper-specific identities without forcing them into clichéd archetypes.

I see a lot of myself in Madeline, who has a strong sense of self but tends to get lost in her own thoughts. She is a reader and a writer who loves nothing more than holding up a mirror between her academic pursuits and her personal life, with Eugenides writing, “Madeline’s love troubles had begun at a time when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love.” Eugenides even includes excerpts from A Lover’s Discourse as Madeline reads it, elucidating this link between academia and personal relationships. In search of this very same phenomenon, I found myself gravitating towards English and Philosophy courses such as “Love and Friendship,” “Existentialism,” and “Reading Sex.” 

Madeline is introspective about her relationships and maintains a very particular set of criteria for the guys she dates, until one troubled boy in her Semiotics class wins her over and they fall in love during his struggles with depression.

“That was when Leonard realized something crucial about depression. The smarter you were, the worse it was. The sharper your brain, the more it cuts you up.”

This character, Leonard, reminded me so much of the boy I spent most of college crushing on and some of college dating. After I first finished the book, I loaned him my copy, which was heavily annotated and falling apart at the spine. Many of the passages I underlined and notes I scribbled in the margins were made with the intention that he’d read them. He never got around to reading it, but Madeline and Leonard’s relationship eerily foreshadowed many aspects of the relationship I later shared with him.  

I found myself wanting to loan my copy of the book to more friends who reminded me of characters I’d encountered in it. During my gap year, two of my friends talked a big game about traveling to Tanzania for a few months. Watching them hatch plans to “roll Tanz,” (as they famously called their hypothetical trip that never came to fruition), felt akin to the aimless journey Mitchell and his roommate Larry embark on after graduating from Brown in the book. The two young men develop a plan to “fight the recession,” which entails them tabling their entrance to the job market with their liberal arts degrees when unemployment is at 9.5%. Instead, they elect to travel the world until their money runs out. They end up spending a significant amount of time in India, where they live with monks and write that they’ve finally discovered their true selves in letters to Madeline.

Mitchell and Madeline share a confusing friendship. The book opens on the morning of graduation day and toggles back and forth in time as Madeline reminisces on college memories. In the beginning of the story, Mitchell tells her, “We’re friends when you want to be friends, and we’re never more than friends because you don’t want to be. And I have to go along with that.” Their dynamic perfectly encapsulates the tumultuous ambiguity present in many of the male and female friendships I’ve built throughout college, many of which remind me fondly of my friendship with the boy to whom I dedicated my Honors English Seminar thesis.


While different in style and form, Madeline and I tackle similar topics in our honors theses. Hers, in the English department, examines the traditional mating dance performed in novels by Jane Austen, Henry James, and George Eliot. Mine, in Literary Arts, is a coming-of-age memoir about the relationships, situationships, and crushes that defined my adolescence and young adulthood. Five years after Honors English Seminar, my thesis for that class has morphed into this more personal, and more ambitious, project. 

At the core of my book is a quote I wrote down the first time I read The Marriage Plot: “Every letter is a love letter.” Even if its contents are heartbreaking or confusing or just boring, the act of writing a letter, especially in the digital age, constitutes an act of love. I unequivocally believe that. So, each anecdote I share in my thesis is paired with a letter I wrote to or received from the boy involved (some are fabricated, some are real).

Madeline shares that her intense Semiotics professor came to Brown 32 years prior as a New Critic. He regales his students with tales of meeting Barthes at a dinner party in Paris. It feels like just yesterday that I stepped into the office of my first-year advisor and spent an hour gabbing with him about the same theorists and swooning over his story about being taught by Derrida at Princeton.

Ultimately, The Marriage Plot and my experience in Honors English Seminar are what propelled me towards the Modern Culture and Media department at Brown—to study film theory, not practice, of course. The introductory MCM course is universally known to be quite dull, but I lit up with glee when I glanced at the syllabus to find that I’d already read most of its authors in high school with Dr. Long (Foucault, Deleuze, Baudrillard)—and Madeline had read them, too. I texted Dr. Long triumphantly when I received a 100% on my first MCM paper.

As I run my fingers through the brittle pages of The Marriage Plot once more, I find myself laughing out loud at the lines that remain absurdly representative of the Brown student body, like, “He thought about the people he knew, with their excellent young bodies, their summer houses, their cool clothes, their potent drugs, their liberalism, their orgasms, their haircuts. Everything they did was either pleasurable in itself or engineered to bring pleasure down the line” and a description of Brown students as “upper-middle-class kids who wore Doc Martens and anarchist symbols.” The list goes on.

It's no wonder that Eugenides’ third novel didn’t collect quite as many accolades as his other novels, Middlesex (a Pulitzer winner) or The Virgin Suicides; I can imagine that reading The Marriage Plot without having gone to Brown might make you want to poke your eyes out with a fork. But its hyperbolic elitism and cultural critique of this one-of-a-kind community is what drives me back to it again and again.

So thank you, Jeffrey Eugenides, for perfectly encapsulating it all. And thank you, Brown, for five years of bliss within a utopian bubble of S/NC grades, boys who play club sports and sing a cappella, student films starring nepo babies, and house parties lit by scented taper candles. The throughline is people who take themselves too seriously, but who very well may one day accidentally end up saving the world.

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