And yet sometimes she worried about what those musty old books were doing to her. Some people majored in English to prepare for law school. Others became journalists. The smartest guy in the honors program, Adam Vogel, a child of academics, was planning on getting a Ph.D. and becoming an academic himself. That left a large contingent of people majoring in English by default. Because they weren't left-brained enough for science, because history was too dry, philosophy too difficult, geology too petroleum-oriented, and math too mathematical - because they weren't musical, artistic, financially motivated, or really all that smart, these people were pursuing university degrees doing something no different from what they'd done in first grade: reading stories. English was what people who didn't know what to major in majored in.
Her junior year, Madeleine had taken an honors seminar called The Marriage Plot: Selected Novels of Austen, Eliot, and James. The class was taught by K. McCall Saunders. Saunders was a seventy-nine-year-old New Englander. He had a long, horsey face and a moist laugh that exposed his gaudy dental work. His pedagogical method consisted of his reading aloud lectures he'd written twenty or thirty years earlier. Madeleine stayed in the class because she felt sorry for Professor Saunders and because the reading list was so good. In Saunders's opinion, the novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance. In the days when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later? How would Isabel Archer's marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup? As far as Saunders was concerned, marriage didn't mean much anymore, and neither did the novel. Where could you find the marriage plot nowadays? You couldn't. You had to read historical fiction. You had to read non-Western novels involving traditional societies. Afghani novels, Indian novels. You had to go, literarily speaking, back in time.
Madeleine's final paper for the seminar was titled "The Interrogative Mood: Marriage Proposals and the (Strictly Limited) Sphere of the Feminine."
Excerpted from The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. Copyright © 2011 by Jeffrey Eugenides. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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