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Marjorie Morningstar Revisited

Marjorie Morningstar’s daughter is well and living happily in a feminist collective near Boston. She left her husband and three children back in the suburbs two years ago, determined to find herself. Marjorie and her lawyer husband, Milton Schwartz, still live in Mamaroneck — both in a state of shock.

This is the inevitable 1970’s sequel to Herman Wouk’s best-selling novel of the ’50’s in which the heroine struggled ineffectually against her fate and then succumbed — to Milton, Marriage and Mamaroneck.

Marjorie was the first Jewish American folk heroine, the foremother of the Jewish American Princess. The novel that bears her name was more popular in the ’50’s than Goodbye Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint were in the ’60’s. In fact, Marjorie Morningstar and Goodbye Columbus might be viewed as counterparts of one another. Roth denigrates the suburban Jewish culture that Wouk only a few years earlier held up as an ideal, and Wouk mocks the psychiatric culture that was nurturing Roth and his imitators.

But the fact that Wouk chose to center his novel around a woman is significant. Women are readily associated with continuity and in this novel Wouk is essentially concerned with nothing less than Jewish continuity. Marjorie is presented as a true heroine whose decision for a middle class existence is vital to the continuity of the Jewish community. In this novel it is clear that although the Jewish penis carries the mark of the covenant between God and Israel, the Jewish womb is the very house of Israel. Wouk saw that house threatened by paganism and idolatry and Marjorie Morningstar represents a book of prophecy within the format of a romantic novel.

It is illuminating to return to Marjorie Morningstar at this time because it throws a good deal of cultural history into relief. The narrative is set in the late ’30’s, a time when Jews were moving out of first-generation immigrant status. Marjorie’s father is only a small businessman, a feather importer — in a novel filled with sociological metaphors, this one is a reference to Mr. Morgenstern’s lightweight economic status. Nevertheless, the business at which he grubs from a squalid office has enabled the family to emerge out of The Bronx to the splendor of the El Dorado apartments on Central Park West. This move, which broadens Marjorie’s social horizons and spurs her to dump her unglamorous boyfriend, gives Mrs. Morgenstern the opportunity to comment shrewdly, “It’s a long way from Bronx Park East to Central Park West.”

A triumph in a Hunter College play inspires Marjorie to dream of becoming an actress. She decides to change her last name from Morgenstern to Morningstar and this Anglicization of a European name is, in this book, always associated with a rejection of Judaism. Almost immediately afterward, Marjorie begins to dine out with people who eat treif. However, she pushes aside the bacon on her own plate in revulsion. The author is showing us that Marjorie’s Jewish instincts are profoundly rooted. In her deepest being, Marjorie is gastronomically and genitally dedicated to Judaism.

But Marjorie is drawn to the glitter of the great profane world and when she gets a chance to work at a Catskill hotel, South Wind, slyly spoken of as Sodom, she grabs it. She is hired as an entertainer to work under the brilliant Noel Airman (nee Ehrmann), with whom she instantly falls in love. Noel is one of those talented individuals who somehow always miss the decisive opportunity to bring their abilities to full fruition. Noel is attracted to Marjorie, but he is a committed bohemian and lets her know from the beginning that he will not be hooked. They then proceed to play one of those lengthy courtship games of the pre-Pill era, in which the woman holds out as long as possible and only succumbs to “passion” if there seems no other way to bind the man In Marjorie’s case it doesn’t work. The affair continues for a year before Noel flees to Europe, leaving Marjorie a devastating letter.

The novel is divided into two unequal parts. The events leading up to the climactic, or rather, anti-climactic, defloration of Marjorie take about two-thirds of the book. The final third is devoted to showing how Marjorie manages to repair the damage — that is, knit herself together, at least in the spiritual and psychic sense.

Marjorie’s recuperation is effected through a trip to Europe in which she meets a man who is only slightly Jewish, but who is engaged in highly dangerous work to rescue German Jews. Marjorie’s brief encounter with a true hero enables her to see Noel for the luftmensch or “nothing” the author claims he is. Marjorie is able to reject Noel when, down and out in Paris, he finally proposes.

Soon after returning from Europe, Marjorie meets and falls in love with Milton Schwartz. She feels obliged to tell him about her damaged genital condition and this has an almost fatal effect on the man. However, Milton’s love is so great that after a brief nervous breakdown he returns to Marjorie with a big diamond ring. The author tells us:

He never said anything about Noel, thereafter; not for the rest of their lives. But she never again saw on his face the pure happiness that had shown there during the drive across the George Washington Bridge in the sunset. He loved her. He took her as she was, with her deformity.

Despite the deformity, Marjorie gets a $6,500 wedding with a seven-piece orchestra. Noel attends and his eyes brim — presumably because he now sees what he has lost.

Now a book as popular as Marjorie Morningstar must hit a vital nerve in the public’s feelings. Indeed, Marjorie’s dilemma — whether or not to sleep with a man she loved but who refused to be tied up in the bonds of matrimony — was the dilemma of the period for gentile as well as Jewish young women. Mary McCarthy’s The Group, which was also set in the mid-’30’s and came out in the mid-’50’s, shows WASP young women confronting the changing sex customs. Some of them have bad experiences, but in no case does the author appear to regard the young woman’s loss of virginity as being of concern to anyone but herself. How different it is for Jews! Marjorie’s defloration is fraught with immense consequences for the Jewish people. At one point in the novel, Marjorie decides to succumb and is on her way to her lover when her beloved Uncle Samson-Aaron, who represents basic Jewish goodness, saves her by managing to get himself drowned in the hotel fountain in the nick of time!

When the defloration finally occurs some years later, it has not only sociological but cosmological implications. As the act takes place, there is an eclipse of the moon! The great orb whose changing face is so closely identified with the changes in women’s bodies actually hides in shame! Wouk assures us that Marjorie herself experienced nothing but shock and shame and that she cried a great deal afterward. This, however, didn’t discourage her from continuing the affair for a year.

In the metaphorical context of the story Marjorie’s lost hymen represents the loss of innocence of East European Jewry in their transplantation from the tiny closed-off shtetl to the wide-open democratic Golden Land. The geographic and economic aspects of the move were negotiated by Marjorie’s grandparents and parents. But the problem of how to maintain Judaism within the new context, even why to maintain it in such a context, was first felt by Marjorie’s — that is, Wouk’s — generation.

The cement of profound religious conviction and cultural isolation had kept the Jews together in the past. But that cement was eroding in the Golden Land. Wouk had a “solution” that blended perfectly with the universal American dream of the period — retreat to the nuclear family in a reconstituted shtetl of split-level homes choking with gadgets: The perfect contemporary reconstruction of the Garden of Eden or greene felde. There was only one hitch. It didn’t work. That became obvious in the ’60’s when the supposed chief beneficiaries of this dream, the children, started fleeing like refugees out of a nightmare pogrom.

When the book first appeared, Isaac Rosenfeld, regarded by many as the most brilliant critic of the day, reviewed it in an important essay in Partisan Review. He pointed out that Wouk had come out for “God and the suburbs,” that is, he had equated middle-class values with Jewish values. Indeed, nowhere in the book does Wouk suggest that Jewish values might involve anything more than Mrs. Morgenstern’s maternal pragmatism.

However, what really bothered Rosenfeld was that Wouk had not permitted Marjorie to experience orgasm. Rosenfeld was a zealous Reichian, a fashion of the period shared by Mailer, Bellow and other Jewish rebel writers. As far as Rosenfeld was concerned, Marjorie would have been fulfilled if she had experienced the Reichian Cosmic Orgasm with Noel.

Would she? Today, Rosenfeld’s view is as questionable as Wouk’s. Both men focused on where Marjorie’s sexuality was to go for the benefit of herself and society. Neither saw her as a total human being.

The fact is that the affair between Marjorie and Noel was not one of great passion. Wouk’s limitations as a writer would not permit him to depict great passion. But it is noteworthy that in a book filled with cardboard characters, Noel Airman actually comes through with a certain conviction as a man who will not be harnessed. And his fascination for Marjorie lies precisely in that fact. She may have told herself that she was really trying to bind Noel to her, but the subterranean vibrations of the book tell us that she didn’t so much want to have Noel as to be like him!

“Oh give me the novel!” cried D. H. Lawrence half a century ago. “Let me hear what the novel says. As for the novelist, he is usually a dribbling liar.”

How true! Wouk marries off Marjorie and assures us that she will be happy and Judaism will survive.

But the novel refuses to end with Marjorie’s wedding. It insists on an epilogue. An old admirer visits Marjorie 15 years later. She is living well. She and her husband are happy and they have four children. Marjorie is active in the synagogue and she and her husband are “rather strictly observant.” Despite her gray hair Marjorie is still attractive — a model suburban matron. Yet the old suitor sighs for the Marjorie of old who has been replaced by a “sweet-natured, placid gray Mama.” He recalls that the Marjorie of old wasn’t merely pretty — she was radiant! He concludes that he was mistaken — he had projected radiance on her with his “own hungry young desires.” Marjorie had really always been “ordinary.”

Ordinary? Is the novel really telling us that Marjorie has become a wife, mother and suburban matron because she couldn’t do anything better with herself? Despite the novelist’s conscious message, the novel makes its own wayward point.

Nevertheless, we the readers supply still another dimension. We know that Marjorie was both ordinary and radiant. We know that an “ordinary” young woman can be so filled with appetite for life that she becomes radiant — and she stays radiant. Unless something happens to destroy her radiance. The novel tells us that a happy marriage to Milton will turn a radiant woman into a suburban zombie by the time she is 40. Can this be good for the Jews?

There was something wrong with the blueprint. Today many place the blame for the diminishment of Jewish life on the collapse of the family. It might be more correct to blame the collapse of the family on the diminishment of Jewish life.

But the purpose of this essay is not to place blame, nor is it to encourage young women to follow the footsteps of Marjorie’s daughter into the feminist commune. It is simply to acknowledge the facts and question where do we go from here. The facts tell us that Wouk’s formula was a bust. Even if the nuclear family could be held together, even if Marjorie’s daughter could be led home and induced to continue her parents’ mode of being “rather strictly observant” it would offer no great assurance for the survival of Judaism.

What is to be done? Nobody has yet suggested a satisfactory new structure for contemporary lives. Neither has anyone come up with a satisfactory way to reenergize the spiritual content of Jewish life. But Judaism has survived the profound change in family structure that took place when polygamy outlived its uses. There is no reason to believe that it cannot adapt to the withering away of the current form of the nuclear family with the woman playing a zombie wife and mother.

There are fewer and fewer Marjorie Morningstars around and, for that matter, nobody of any age or sex is today a virgin untouched by a sense that the old sexual structures are mutable matters. The educated Jewish woman today is more sophisticated about Judaism and woman’s role than Marjorie Morningstar. She no longer deludes herself with the simplistic formula that Judaism depends essentially upon a series of gastronomic and genital don’ts. She knows that the future of Judaism doesn’t rest on her fragile vaginal membrane.

The educated Jewish woman today is also forced to ask ultimate questions about being both a woman and Jewish. Her questions and challenges and even her defection from her traditional role will not bring down the ancient structure of Judaism. On the contrary, it is possible that the ferment roused by the conjunction of live questions about Judaism and about female identity will engender a new perspective and produce an energy that will make the House of Israel a place that contemporary Jews can live in.

Elenore Lester is a journalist and critic who writes frequently for The New York Times. Her articles and reviews have also appeared in the New Republic, MS., the Village Voice, Midstream and the Jewish Week. She teaches contemporary theatre at New York University and initiated courses there on the images of women in media and the arts.