Revisiting a Cult Classic Novel: Herman Wouk’s ‘Marjorie Morningstar’

Rapid midlife transformations that turn the most wayward young people into the most buttoned-up adults, though quite common, are nonetheless a marvel to me, and therefore one of my favorite themes to dwell on as a writer and a reader. It makes sense that those who push against a set of inherited values with particular aggression and fury are acknowledging that those values have power over their psyche, and might eventually swallow them up whole. For many of them, that swallowing is foreordained.

Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar is the ultimate novel about that modern paradox, chronicling the years  that a vivacious girl spends attempting to live differently from the way her parents and her community expect her to, without totally bucking them and running away. Even if she fails and becomes exactly the suburban “Shirley” that her bohemian boyfriend predicts she will,  Marjorie’s struggle to live the authentic life is a compelling one.

Marjorie Morningstar is  big, mid-century, very Jewish novel whose solid, second-tier status places it just below the behemoths by Bellow, Roth, Malamud, and their peers. Though the book is just as ambitious as those other works, its focus is intensely fixed on the (mostly romantic) inner life of a woman. Specifically, it’s about a  first-generation Jewish American Princess — the type of woman whose central role in her family and sexual hang-ups Roth ruthlessly dispatches with in his novella Goodbye, Columbus. 

At well over 500 pages, Marjorie Morningstar is certainly not as acidly concise as  Roth’s take on similar subjects, but count me among the generations of women who absolutely adored the experience of reading this book, despite its moralistic undertones. Purely on a page-to-page level, it felt like discovering a lost Edith Wharton or F. Scott Fitzgerald novel — except instead of being as horribly anti-Semitic as those books tend to be, it contains Passover Seder scenes, Catskill camps, and kibbitzing. Since it’s the story of a stunning and very marriageable women, the titular Marjorie, and her quest for self along with love, it follows naturally that it reads like a classic drawing-room novel. The preoccupation of these novels is what is to become of a heroine, who has a “spark” of rebellion which either gets  ground down into obeisance by Society or contained by a truly equal match. There is no third option.

For Marjorie Morgenstern, a child of the Bronx who moves on up to the Upper West Side in the 1930s, the dream is to live an actress’ life, with charming boyfriends and fascinating roles, under the stage name “Morningstar.” Her parents, on the other hand,  want her to marry a doctor type whose parents belong to the right Jewish organizations. Whether her fate will take her down one path or the other is the book’s central question.

Why can’t she have something in between? Well, the problem is that her charismatic first love, layabout-cum-songwriter Noel Airman (formerly Saul Ehrlmann), has no interest in marrying her even though he loves her. Yet if she gives up her virginity or lives in sin with him, she’ll bring shame onto her family and herself. Unquestionably, this pat, anti-sex subplot is the most dated part of the novel. It’s rather hilariously foreshadowed, in fact, given that Marjorie breaks her anti-pork taboo on the very same night she breaks her chastity vow.

Later, Marjorie regrets her decision, as she surmises that because she “had an affair,” she tumbled further into hopeless love with Noel and poisoned her stock with other men: “for that is what it amounted to in his eyes and in hers — a deformity… a permanent crippling, like a crooked arm.” Boo-freaking-hoo, a modern feminist reader wants to say, even  while knowing that in fact this idiotic virginity fixation was the bane of many a woman in Marjorie’s time, and afterwards — and even persists in many communities today.

Marjorie’s story of striving for a life less ordinary brings her to summer stock and community theater, to Noel’s bachelor pad in the village and lunches at the Ritz, to a much greater cultural and political knowledge than she once had, but never to that role on Broadway that might cement her fate. On the other hand, her family’s hold on her is evident at Seders and Bar Mitzvahs, whenever she’s broke, and every time she loses a role or is mistreated by a producer or director.

In the novel’s final chapters, the heroine returns home from a strange and enlightening trip to Europe and finds her parents’ conservative values far less noxious than she once did. Yet she’s not without criticism of society, even as she capitulates:

It was a strange set of customs, she thought, that drove a girl to conduct the crucial scenes of her life outside her own home: usually in a public place, usually over highballs, usually when she was a little tight or quite tight. As girls went nowadays, she was probably respectable, even a bit prudish. Yet this had been her story.

This is as feminist as the novel gets, a passage in which a woman laments how women of her station are forced to live. In a sense, it’s a complaint about how she’s a consumer object, something like Wharton’s Lily Bart, shaped for the gaze and satisfaction of others — men, her parents, her community — and never truly for herself. In the later parts of the novel, Marjorie is happiest on a ship where she can be completely away from all these people, even the ones she loves.

In her piece about the perverse persistence of feminists’ love for this conservative novel, Alana Newhouse writes about how Marjorie the character rebels against Wouk’s plans for her: 

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.

Beyond its delight in adolescence, I imagine Wouk’s novel is still popular because of how well it describes two aspects of growing up: the hard work and near impossibility of becoming an artist or a nonconformist if you’re not extremely bullheaded or very talented, as well as the difficulty of extricating yourself from the expectations of family and upbringing.  Marjorie’s eventual embrace of “Shirley”-esque suburban life isn’t just a defeat for the conception of Marjorie Morningstar, the actress. It’s about how reality forces us to compromise with our dreams. As we learn in the novel’s final flash forward, the realities of adult existence — death, disease, birth, war, misery, obligation, all passed over by the author’s jump through time — have now made those early years of rebellion, once so vital,  seem trivial to our heroine. As bitter as that transformation is, it also rings true, no matter how liberated the reader may be.