I have a confession to make: sometimes I miss writing essays. I miss reading a book with a question in my mind, I miss outlining and finding the perfect quotes, and I miss sitting down to construct a well-written argument. I get that this makes me a super-nerd, but it’s my blog, and in this new series I will be writing those essays that I have no reason to write otherwise. Feel free to leave my grade in the comments.
I read Marjorie Morningstar, by Herman Wouk for the first time in the summer before my sophomore year. It was one of the books on our summer reading list and when I read the description about a jewish girl who wants to be an actress, I knew I had to read it. I assumed it would be the story of my life and it pretty much was. Through the years, I have come to understand the book on different levels. On this reading, and the reason I decided to have Marjorie Morningstar be the first book in the Aging Academic series, I decided to approach Marjorie as a reader, instead of a long lost friend. By reading the book this way, I discovered that not only does Herman Wouk not seem to like his protagonist very much, he uses the great love of her life to tell the reader exactly the problem that he has with her, and women like her.
The book follows Marjorie Morgenstern (her stage name is Morningstar) through her life from age 19 until her 40s. Besides falling in love with the stage, Marjorie spends a majority of the book madly in love with a composer named Noel Airman. Noel challenges her, not just because of his age, but also because he refuses to submit to the standards of the time and marry her, though he is in love with her as well. He calls Marjorie a “Shirley,” which is his way of lumping all Jewish girls into the category of marriage-hungry, single-minded shrews. Noel often pushes Marjorie outside of the comfort of her Jewish upbringing, in the same night she eats pork and loses her virginity to him, and is rarely apologetic about forcing her to turn her back on all that she knows. After a year long affair, Noel all but disappears, leaving Marjorie with a 20 page letter about how he will never marry her and how, by the time she reads the letter, he will be on his way to Europe, so she can’t even attempt to convince him to stay. Marjorie ends up chasing him to Europe to pin him down once and for all, ultimately realizing that Noel is not the one for her. She returns to the states and within months marries a lawyer, abandoning all dreams of an extraordinary life.
Reading the book this time, as a literary critic not a fan, the first thing that bothered me was this story about a young jewish girl, was written by a man. Even though there is a lot that Wouk got right, it is clear that he struggled to understand Marjorie. In certain moments, even before Marjorie meets Noel, it feels like Wouk doesn’t actually like her at all. The second paragraph of the novel is a description of Marjorie through her mother’s eyes. He says, “Marjorie’s mother looked in on her sleeping daughter at half past ten on a Sunday morning with feelings of puzzlement and dread. She disapproved of everything she saw”(3). As a young reader, I immediately had sympathy for Marjorie as she was criticized by her mother, but as an adult, I can’t help wondering why Wouk decided to paint a disapproving picture of his protagonist not even 250 words into the book.
Though his opinions are clear from the first page, Wouk mainly uses Marjorie’s relationship with Noel to tear her down throughout the book. He forces Marjorie to chase Noel, something that a woman in her social position and age shouldn’t have been doing. In return, Noel tries to be upstanding and conventional, but ultimately blames her for forcing him to conform. He cheats on her and tosses her aside like garbage. After disappearing for days after her family’s seder, Marjorie finally tracks Noel down at his apartment only to find that one of his ex-girlfriends has been staying with him. Noel takes Marjorie out, dragging her all around the city to tell her his ridiculous theory about people’s drive to be successful. After Marjorie placates and supports him through all of the nonsense, Noel says, “Marjorie Morgenstern, love of my life, we’re through. Isn’t that obvious to you? We’re not going to see each other after today. We wouldn’t have seen each other today if you haven’t come barging down to my apartment, and if Imogene hadn’t thought you were a grocery boy” (343). He was going to sneak away without a word, all because the seder had made his love for her a little too real for him. Noel is a disgraceful character for many reasons, but it is through his treatment of Marjorie that we see Wouk’s feelings about his protagonist.
Though Marjorie says that she knows she’s better off with out him she is powerless against him when she sees him again after his musical is going to be produced on Broadway. All at once, Marjorie forgets everything he did to her when he dumped her the first time and follows him to a dress rehearsal, then back to his hotel room, and finally into his bed. Even that is not enough for Noel to believe she is not the typical Shirley, and he leaves her again, this time with a 20 page letter in which he states, “I will not be driven on and on to that looming goal, a love nest in the suburbs. I WANT NO PART OF IT OR OF YOU, do you understand?” (431). Noel blames Marjorie for the failure of his musical because she supported him and loved him when he was writing, what he deemed to be, crap. He accuses her of being powerless against her upbringing and that even her decision to have sex with him was calculated and manipulating and that everything she ever did was leading to the goal of getting him to marry her. Noel never allows Marjorie any real shot of being successful, of being her own person. He takes away her power and leads her to believe that there is no life for her except for the life of a Shirley.
As an adult, I have to wonder if, without Noel’s toxic influence, Marjorie would have become a brilliant Broadway actress before living out the rest of her life. Looking at the book as a whole now, I feel sad that Marjorie wasted her life with someone who was so clearly wrong. Though it seems that Wouk set out to write a book about an independent woman who fought against the restrictions of the time, his point appears to be that there was no such thing. Even though Marjorie finally says no to Noel’s proposal and leaves him in Paris, she walks right into her marriage to a nice Jewish lawyer. It’s as if all of the sense that she had in saying no to Noel vanishes. Or, it could be, that Wouk saw no other option for his protagonist in her mid-twenties. He and Noel had both decided she wasn’t going to be an actress, so what was left for her to do?
What bothered me about Marjorie, the first time I read it, was that, at 15, I couldn’t understand why she settled. At the time, I desperately wanted to be an actress and falling in love with someone like Noel seemed like the cherry on top of the dream. I couldn’t understand why, after traveling across the world to find him, she turned her back on him once and for all. On this reading, I know exactly why she refused him: he was horrible. I guess I should be grateful that Wouk didn’t write her into a marriage with such a selfish man, but I would like to believe there were more options for Marjorie than the fate that Noel predicted. Maybe Wouk’s whole point is that, there weren’t any other options, but I think that if he’d had more empathy for Marjorie from the beginning, he could have created a more appropriate ending for his fascinating character.