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Fifty years ago this month, the novelist Herman Wouk published Marjorie Morningstar, a romantic opus about a young Jewish girl from Central Park West with dreams of becoming an actress. By 1955, Wouk, an Orthodox Jew, had already established himself as a popular writer of entertaining, if bloated, novels, advocating for essentially conservative values, among them unquestioning respect for social propriety. Marjorie became an instant best seller, landing its author on the cover of Time and serving as the basis for a movie starring Natalie Wood and Gene Kelly. The book still sells several thousand copies a year and has become a staple of college courses and book clubs. Al Pacino recently optioned a remake of Marjorie and has reportedly landed his leading lady: Scarlett Johansson, who received the book from her mother. “I read it and thought, ‘Oh my god, this is me,’ ” Johansson said.
Actually, Johansson is not Marjorie at all: Wouk’s heroine never makes it to the stage. Instead, she winds up as the suburban matron she swore she would never become. But women like Scarlett Johansson continue to read and adore Marjorie Morningstar, overlooking its reactionary messages. Like a literary golem, Marjorie seems to have upstaged her creator, seducing readers in a way Wouk likely never intended.
She starts off as Marjorie Morgenstern, the beautiful, energetic, spoiled 19-year-old daughter of a Jewish family barely bourgeois enough to keep up with her. Through 556 of the book’s 565 pages, Wouk successfully evokes her inner life as she rebels against expectations. Marjorie outgrows everything from her past—her Bronx boyfriend, her Jewish surname, even her mother’s traditionalist messages about sex: “the strongest assault on her old convictions came from a most unexpected quarter: her own body.” As she matures, she shakes off emotional and intellectual baby fat, finding in their place the muscles to interact with the world on her own terms.
Marjorie’s independence is tested when she lets herself fall for Noel Airman, the charismatic summer-stock director who spouts Nietzsche and Freud and who, as one character puts it, “writes songs with his fingertips, the way he does everything else.” “I eat little girls like you,” he informs Marjorie, revealing why he’s not the kind of guy to bring home for Passover Seder. But within a few chapters, the hunter becomes the hunted, as Noel realizes he may have met his match. “I love you,” he exclaims at one point. “Don’t you understand, you little torturer? You’ve executed the vengeance of your non-existent God on me.”
Not surprisingly, readers—especially female readers—lap up this story: Naive good girl charms degenerate cad, finds herself along the way. Marjorie maintains her confidence, even as Noel accuses her of being one of the “Shirleys,” those dime-a-dozen girls who swear they’re destined for a higher calling but who are really out for “what a woman should want, always has and always will—big diamond engagement ring, house in a good neighborhood, furniture, children, well-made clothes, furs.” Marjorie ripostes by offering her own theory of “Sidneys”—men who, despite pretensions to the contrary, end up following in their fathers’ dull footsteps.
Still, Marjorie’s inherited prejudices about men and relationships—why buy the cow, etc.—inhibit her from breaching the final frontier of this adventure: sex. For several hundred pages, the reader is forced to endure the maddening on-the-one-hand-this, on-the-other-hand-that of adolescent decision-making, until Marjorie finally gets on a friend’s nerves. “What do you want me to do—sleep with him like all his other trollops? And then let him kick me out when he’s had all he wants?” she asks her friend, Marsha, who—mercifully—blows her top: “YES, God damn you, YES! If you’re not woman enough to hold him, all you deserve is to be kicked out. … Live your life, you poor boob.”
Sex here is a metaphor for “living one’s life”—which, as far as Wouk is concerned, is decidedly not a good idea for women. Marjorie lets herself follow her dream and, when it doesn’t work out, lashes out at herself for being stupid enough to try, for not seeing “the miserable fallacy” in Marsha’s argument: “Getting out of the bed, breaking off the affair, didn’t end the matter at all. It was only the beginning of the heart of the experience, which was an ever-deepening ordeal of pain and depression.”
Marjorie’s relationship with Noel is portrayed as a rebellion—from her parents and her tradition. But, as Time noted in 1955, “[t]o Wouk, rebellion for rebellion’s sake is an outmoded adolescent cliché.” So, in one of the swiftest switchbacks in literature, a book that appears at first to be a languid exploration of adolescence curdles into an anti-adolescent screed, a fierce argument against exploration of any kind for women. In the final nine pages, the formerly vibrant Marjorie gives up on her career, gets married to a man named Sidney—er, Milton—Schwartz, and moves to Westchester. She is one of the lucky ones, Wouk seems to be arguing, a fallen woman fortunate enough to land a nice Jewish doctor who can forgive her straying from the virtuous path: “He took her as she was, with her deformity … that could no longer be helped; a permanent crippling, like a crooked arm.”
Most female readers cry when they reach the end of this book, and for good reason. Marjorie Morningstar, as they came to know her, has become another woman entirely: “You couldn’t write a play about her that would run a week, or a novel that would sell a thousand copies. … The only remarkable thing about Mrs. Schwartz is that she ever hoped to be remarkable, that she ever dreamed of being Marjorie Morningstar.” These were Marjorie Morgenstern’s options in life: Mrs. Schwartz or Marjorie Morningstar; a dull life—comfortably rooted in family and tradition—or a spectacular one, marked by romance, but also by heartache and instability. Wouk, who has said he modeled Marjorie’s story after his sister’s experiences, recently acknowledged that he’s read “the occasional objection to the end as ‘disastrous, wrong, too sad, too religious,’ and what you will.” But, he added, “it’s just the truth.”
Even in 1955, critics noted the absurdity in Wouk’s Manichaean setup. Aspiring to be a famous actress may be an adolescent pipe dream, but, as literary critic Maxwell Geismar asked in the New York Times, “is there no other course for Mr. Wouk’s heroine except total social conformity?”
Of course there is, or at least there has been since the 1970s: a “third way” in which one’s professional aspirations are juggled with domestic ones, BlackBerrys balanced with baby bottles. So, why are today’s post-feminist women still reading—and loving—Marjorie Morningstar?
To start with, the juggling act has proved less glamorous than expected, with women now portrayed as running themselves ragged trying to have it all. As a result, Marjorie Morningstar has emerged as a new favorite of those post-feminists and traditionalists who share Wouk’s disdain for adolescent experimentation and his advocacy of more conservative roles for women. For them, Marjorie offers survivor’s wisdom from the outside world. “Trust me,” she seems to say, “I’ve been there, and it’s not worth it.”
Most contemporary readers, though, don’t come to the book with any agenda, nor do they leave with one. In fact, since the book’s publication, the end has confounded many readers, leaving more than one book club discussion in tatters over Wouk’s intended meaning.
Regardless, there is one point of agreement: Almost everyone loves the Marjorie of the first 556 pages. This Marjorie evokes the period when girls are still free to dream about their future, before they actually have to start making choices about it. Wouk might wince at the thought, but what women enjoy about his book is the promise of adolescence. As she enters middle age, Marjorie continues to defy her paternal creator, like the rebellious teenager she was meant to be.