Thoroughly Basic Marjorie

When I launched The Marjorie last year, I noted that one of the Marjories from whom the site takes its name is Marjorie Morningstar, the eponymous protagonist of Herman Wouk’s 1955 novel. I read Marjorie Morningstar for the first time at the beginning of 2015, and loved it. I have wanted to write about it ever since, but, as is often the case when feelings are strong, it has taken time to gather my thoughts.

In short: Marjorie Morningstar is the story of Marjorie Morgenstern, a young Jewish woman coming of age in New York during the Great Depression, and onward into the looming threat of World War II. Marjorie is an aspiring actress who, at a summer theater camp, falls in love with a songwriter/director/philosopher who calls himself Noel Airman. Noel’s given name is Saul; he has changed it in order to emulate one of his heroes, Noel Coward, and to strip himself of his Jewish identity. Marjorie uses “Morningstar,” the English translation of “Morgenstern,” as a stage name. Noel teases her for not rejecting her religion as thoroughly as he does.

Themes of identity (religious, cultural, and otherwise) are strong throughout the book. Marjorie and Noel seem to be asking, through their name changes and other actions, whether reinvention is possible; whether a person can make their own fate; whether things like fame and talent and “special-ness” are predestined, or can be earned.

Some of the most striking passages in the book are those that demonstrate that the more things change, the more they stay the same. As I mentioned, Morningstar was published in 1955, and the story is set even earlier, beginning in the 1930s. So often while reading it, I found myself thinking, “I didn’t know people did that in the Thirties! I thought that was new!” (Some of this may be attributed to my ignorance, but stay with me regardless.) For example, raw veganism:

Soon everybody was very merry except Aunt Dvosha, who sat nibbling at a platter of dry chopped-up carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, raw potatoes, and apples. She had recently given up cooked vegetables, on the grounds that vitamins were destroyed by heat. As she looked around at seventeen people stuffing themselves with vast quantities of fried meat, her face became long and gloomy, and she grumbled to herself, and to whoever would listen to her, about stomach linings, amino acids, protein poisoning, and sudden death.

-Page 313

Or yoga:

After lunch Mr. Meredith, with an odd change of manner, came fawning around, and started to talk to her about yoga exercises. He recommended a couple of books, and suggested that Marjorie might like to come with him to a meeting of his yoga group.

-Pages 359-360

Or a beauty standard that emphasizes extreme thinness:

She had had a few modelling jobs recently. But for her medium stature she might have had more. She was not attractive in the stereotyped pattern of the fashion models; her cheeks weren’t sunken, her eyes didn’t glare or smolder, and there was nothing bony about her.

-Page 425

I don’t think I’m alone in having assumed that these things were more contemporary trends. The fact that they have been around since at least the Great Depression is fascinating! But these kinds of historical tidbits are not the only reason for the novel’s timelessness. That is due also to Wouk’s apt descriptions of the way young people think and behave; their desires, conflicts, and imperfections. It was almost uncomfortable how true some of this rang to my own experiences, though I was born about eight decades after Marjorie.

Never is that discomfort more acute than in the scenes with Noel Airman. Noel is that awful monologuing guy from Philosophy 101, except a decade older, when you run into him at a bar and he hasn’t changed at all, and he spends three hours telling you how original his ideas are, and doesn’t bother to ask you what you’re doing these days. The charm for Marjorie is that he makes her feel special too, by association. In this moment, for example, shortly after she meets him:

Marjorie laughed louder than anyone. She was transported with pleasure at her own acuteness in understanding Airman. She felt she had come into the circle of wit and charm in the world that she had always dreamed of.

-Page 121

Noel is the kind of guy who makes sweeping generalizations about how petty and unintelligent women are, and then tells Marjorie, “I thought we’d agreed that no generalizations whatever applied to you” (page 271). Even when he toys with the idea of settling down and getting married, Noel makes it clear that he would only do so ironically, as he’s really above such things:

“Do you know, you’ve had an effect on me? I respect cat wisdom. I think now I might very well enjoy that kind of life, myself—and buying in these shops, and staying weekends at the Pierre, or the Plaza, and all that—always providing one thing. Providing that my wife and I both regarded such a life as a pleasant comic mask, put on like Mexican living or Fiji Island living, because at the moment it pleased us—but in itself unreal, empty, of no importance, and discardable overnight.”

-Page 272

The question of whether to try for something different (fame, premarital sex, etc.) or settle for something more traditional (security, family, etc.) effects Noel and Marjorie in different ways. Rather than making it a simple story of Progress vs Tradition, casting one as the bad guy, Wouk gets at the fact that most humans (even young people) desire a bit of both. One of the book’s greatest characters is Marjorie’s friend, Marsha Zelenko. Initially quite ambitious, and far more savvy than Marjorie, Marsha eventually settles into marriage with a wealthy old man. She explains her reasoning to Marjorie as the following:

“But frankly, I was all ready for Lou when I met him. I tried for two years at Lamm’s. No go. A high IQ is a drug on the market, do you know that? It only disables you for most jobs, which consist ninety percent of doing some goddamn dull thing over and over. Of course you tell yourself at first that you’re not shining in this low menial work because you’re cut out to be a big shot, and as soon as you get to the top you’ll show them. You tell yourself this, that is, until you hear a dozen lamebrains, misfits, and good-for-nothings all around you saying the same thing week in and week out. Then what? Then you tell yourself, as long as you can, that you’re different. I don’t know. I’m ambitious, sure, but I’ve never been able to keep up lies about myself to myself for very long. It’s taken me awhile to find out what I’m all about, but the long and short of it is, I ain’t got it.”
“Marsha, you–”
“I’m very far from pitying myself, sugar bun. But I did keep my beady little eyes open. I gradually learned that big shots mostly work twice as hard, and are twice as thorough about dull detail, as the small fry. That’s the big open secret, baby. I don’t know where the hell the idea got around that big shots just sit on their can and make decisions a couple of hours a day, and for the rest play golf and drink champagne and commit adultery.”

-Pages 384-385

Wouk’s point seems to be less about whether or not change and ambition are “good” or “bad,” but rather, that all of us (but perhaps women in particular) are forced to make choices that place us on one side or the other, progressive or conservative, and that no matter which we way decide, it will be painful.

In addition to Marsha, one of the book’s most affecting characters is Marjorie’s uncle, Samson-Aaron, who is old-fashioned, yes, but also reliable and firmly rooted. The scenes in which he, and Marjorie’s other family members, are present, feel full of life, solid and substantial. This is a pleasant departure from the pages of Noel’s airy, wishy washy monologues. And in other small ways, Wouk points out how satisfying the more ordinary parts of life can be. For example, when Marjorie takes a temp job in an office:

She began to find a certain arid pleasure in the office work. Keeping her desk clean and severe, getting her work done on time, drawing a grunt of praise from Greech for letters typed up swiftly and without errors—however petty, these things were satisfying.

-Page 163

Or later, when Marjorie volunteers for the war:

She didn’t exactly enjoy the work, but the emptiness at her heart went unnoticed while she was doing it; and at night she slept, untroubled by the sense of exasperated futility that had broken her rest during her years of haunting Broadway and battling with Noel.

-Page 542

I think of Marjorie Morningstar now when I hear the terms “basic” or “normcore” used against someone. They seem like insults that Noel Airman would use, if they had been around in his day. The book made me think about “specialness.” Who is “special” and who is “basic” and, most important of all, who gets to decide which people fall into which category. There’s an oft-quoted line (among many) in Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick. The line is, “Who gets to speak and why is the only question.” I thought of that line while reading Morningstar, especially in regard to the ending.

I am compelled to mention, now, that there is some controversy around Marjorie Morningstar. A Slate article from 2005, subtitled “the conservative novel that liberal feminists love,” covers the gist of it. However, if you have not already read the book, I would encourage you to hold off on reading that article for the time being. The thrust of the “controversy” of Morningstar has to do with the ending. What Marjorie “gets” in the end of the book, and what she does not get. And the lens of judgement through which these things are viewed.

It is worth mentioning that it is very, very common for any novel that depicts women’s lives with any measure of realism to be deemed either “dull” or “controversial” or both. As I am far from the first to point out, women don’t get to write autobiographies titled “My Struggle.” (Straight rich white men do.) Though written by a man, Morningstar focuses solely on the life of a woman, one who makes her own choices (pursuing a career, having sex out of wedlock, examining her religion, etc.) in a world where that is not easy. However one interprets the book’s ending, it seems reductive to dismiss the entire novel as “conservative” because of it.

But enough of all this. If you have not read Marjorie Morningstar, please do so. It’s great. I’ll leave you with one more Marsha Zelenko quote, from page 388:

“Ah, God, it’s a marvelous life, Margie, I’m telling you, if you don’t get easily discouraged and cut your throat. It’s a temptation now and then, I grant you. Come on, let’s shop.”