What Jeffrey Eugenides Doesn't Understand About Women

Indeed, the one glimpse we get of what true friendship would look like for Madeleine is at a literary conference, where she meets two young women who share her love of Victorian novels. "As little as she had in common with Meg and Anne," Eugenides writes of her new friends, "Madeleine couldn't remember having a better time. The entire weekend, they didn't once ask if she had a boyfriend. They just wanted to talk about literature." Where were women like Meg and Anne when Madeleine was at college? It seems impossible that Madeleine would have made it through four years at Brown without meeting other women who'd rather discuss literature than men.

Eugenides is not alone in his failure to give his protagonist believable female friends. Authentic portrayals of female friendship are so rare that there's a test to evaluate stories based on how they depict women interacting with each other: the now-infamous Bechdel Test. It suggests that for a story to be even a somewhat realistic portrayal of women, it must have "at least two female characters who talk to each other about something besides a man." The Marriage Plot (except for those few, brief pages set at the lit conference) fails the Bechdel Test, but so does a whole range of contemporary books and movies with supposedly intelligent female leads, from Lost In Translation to Blue Valentine to One Day. Even Bridesmaids, the otherwise groundbreaking female-centric comedy from earlier this year, fell short in its rendering of female friends (though it did pass the Bechdel Test). As Miriam Krule wrote here at The Atlantic soon after the film came out, "this movie is about enemies who started out friends, and for reasons that are unclear to the viewer, become friends again by the end."

The great irony, of course, is that the old-fashioned, marriage-plot-bound books that Eugenides attempts to modernize in his new novel actually do a better job of portraying female friendship than The Marriage Plot. Long before Jane utters the famous line "Reader, I married him," in Jane Eyre, she has a close female friend in boarding school, Helen. What do she and Helen talk about? Not their boyfriends. Instead, they spend long hours discussing what it means to be a good person. Sense and Sensibility, another marriage plot-driven book, portrays a sisterly relationship that's far more generous and loving than any you'd find in popular fiction today: Marianne and Elinor Dashwood point out each other's faults, but with the goal of mutual growth and self-improvement, not belittlement. And the book's final line assures the reader that the sisters remain close, even after their weddings—"happily ever after" includes sustained intimacy between the sisters as well as between each sister and her husband.

It's hard not to imagine what The Marriage Plot would be like if Eugenides had written a few good friends for Madeleine, as her dearth of friendship has dire consequences: She makes a series of bad decisions in the book that she almost certainly would not have made if she'd had a friend like Helen or a sister like Elinor Dashwood. The book's infuriating, preposterous ending (which I won't reveal here) is only possible because Madeleine lives almost entirely in her own head, with no one to give her trusted counsel. There are many ways rewriting the traditional marriage plot might be good for women, but editing out rich, supportive friendships isn't one of them.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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