The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides took its name from a plot common in the 18th and 19th centuries, which followed the courtship and eventual marriage of its main character. Think, as Eugenides’ main character Madeleine Hanna did, of Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Brontë sisters. The marriage plot was borne from the societal idea that characters needed to get married: for female characters in Western narratives, marriage was their only recourse to financial security.
Though times have changed, this doesn’t mean the marriage plot is dead. Adelle Waldman asks in the New Yorker:
“Are older novels about love more powerful because their protagonists contended with societal repression, instead of merely struggling with their lovers and with themselves—with their conflicting desires and changing moods? Have the liberation of women and liberalization of divorce law really deprived the novel of its high stakes?”
Like Waldman, I believe the answer is no. This is partly because marriage isn’t the end all, be all anymore, and not just because society and ownership laws have changed. In this economy, even marriage can’t save you from ruin. And so, the compromise modern day female characters have to make is in their work. Specifically, it’s the compromise the main characters of 2013’s The Circle by Dave Eggers, 2015’s The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips, and this year’s Surveys by Natasha Stagg and Break In Case of Emergency by Jessica Winter have all made.
These four novels all depict nascent elements of the emerging “Job Plot,” a story about women who enter workplaces and are asked to follow rules that they know make little to no sense–until they do. The Job Plot is based on several things: on a woman feeling out of sync with the strange culture her co-workers so excitedly shill, of a woman taking a job out of desperation (one which she is usually overqualified for), and finally, about a woman considering what this job means for her and her life in the long run.
The Job Plot goes a step further from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath or The Group by Mary McCarthy–our modern tales depict jobs that couldn’t even have existed in the 1950s, let alone jobs that demonstrate one’s artistic ambitions or act as metaphorical rites of passage. And the Job Plot is not even close to the workplace-set movies and stories of the 1980s, where the female protagonists of 9 to 5 and Baby Boom were most frustrated with their male coworkers’ creation of a hostile work environment. Even more contemporary novels such as Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close and The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank, with their revolving door of potential suitors and surreal but ultimately realistic workplaces, seem dated in comparison–job hopping, even if it’s between jobs one finds trying or depleting, seems like a forever-ago dream. Now, just getting a job is a triumph on its own.
The other outdated element is how tech factors into the jobs in these new books. This is unsurprising–technology has always been a harbinger of change, and the recent changes have been so rapid that they’ve radically reshaped the workplace (and the world) since Close’s and Bank’s novels. As Rebecca Traister explains in All the Single Ladies, several civil rights battles such as suffrage, unionization, prohibition, and other social welfare measures “were tied to a stream of technological innovations that made new professions possible, and employed new populations of Americans,” which itself led these new employee to become involved in struggles for their rights–especially women. “Young women, many forced by financial crises in 1873 and 1893 to seek employment, arrived in cities looking for professional opportunities that were rapidly becoming more diverse. The retail market for factory-made goods, alongside inventions such as the typewriter and telephone, created jobs for women as shop girls, typists, telephone operators, and secretaries.”
This phenomenon is echoed in The Circle, whose protagonist, Mae, takes on a customer service representative job at a Google-type behemoth. It’s the weakest book of the bunch, likely because it cares more about making grand statements than with exploring Mae’s interiority and self-awareness. In The Beautiful Bureaucrat, main character Josephine does data entry in an empty, windowless room before becoming curious about what data exactly she’s entering, leading the Job Plot along a sci-fi path.
All four books also touch on the theme of productivity, of using and optimizing every element of one’s life to its peak. One way in particular this is done is in the optimization and commodification of women’s bodies. Both Break In Case of Emergency and The Beautiful Bureaucrat exhibit contemporary married couples working on their own specific “jobs” at home–that is, the work of getting pregnant–turning the life half of in their “work/life balance” into another form of labor. In The Circle, Mae is taken to the campus–her workplace is called a campus–doctor and given several health trackers that are eventually used to broadcast her heart rate and emotional levels to millions of people. Finally, in Surveys, protagonist Colleen, who has described various men’s attempts to sleep with her either through courtship or coercion, engages casually in accepting payment from men she’s dating and sleeping with.
Relatedly, in the Job Plot, men–though they are often crucial to the plot–are not the main focus of the story’s female main characters. In The Circle and Surveys, the main characters’ male suitors are part of the job, though work always comes first. In Surveys, Colleen’s sex work is an interesting parallel to her becoming internet famous. The latter is described in the same murky, casual terms as the sex work, but sounds so much like science fiction, and Colleen is much more passionate about her followers and readers than any of her liaisons. Her path to Internet fame is made possible by publicly coupling with Jim, a celebrity on an unnamed text-based social media:
“I met him online, it doesn’t matter how, and we began to merge our following. Describing it would be pointless, and anyway, you can look it up.”
At first, this is only online, but after they meet, being seen together on social media and in real life with him becomes her “employment.” “The money poured in. All we had to do was answer emails about putting our names on flyers or apps. Half the time we didn’t even show up to the parties we were hosting.” She falls in love with Jim, and then out of it when he cheats, but their job as an internet couple prevails. Their job prevails, so they share hotel rooms when they go on the road for work. It prevails even as Colleen becomes obsessed with the following of the women with whom Jim had an affair, even as she sleeps with another man who becomes part of the online drama.
In The Circle, Mae’s various male suitors follow a kind of Austenian sense of bait-and-switch, but her Wickham and Darcy are merely metaphors for her changing, confusing relationship with technology. Both The Circle and Break In Case of Emergency contain the circular, absurdist jargon of a job where a lot of work is done and very little is accomplished. At one point in the latter novel, Jen freaks out to her co-worker Daisy that she didn’t receive an email about the president of their non-profit coming to work for a big meeting:
“Was there an assignment? Were we supposed to present? Fuck.”…
”I really wouldn’t sweat it,” said Daisy. “Any of it. Ever.”
The most frustrating element of the Job Plot, however, is how little power the female characters have in the face of these jobs. They are very much at the will of the company or corporation or (in the case of Surveys) the industry they work in. While Mae in The Circle is constantly promoted, it’s at the cost of her selfhood and privacy and personality. While Surveys’ Colleen is “famous,” she is also under the constant attention–both the spell and the eye that keep her addicted and trapped–of the very people who made her that way.
But like the Marriage Plot, the Job Plot has room to expand and change and develop as society, technology, and the economy develops. In the job plots of the 1980s, like Baby Boom, Working Girl, and 9 to 5, we find a struggle that persists today: to create workplaces that nurture accommodation and make space for daycare programs, flexible hours, mental health prioritization, and cooperation over competition.
In All the Single Ladies, Traister notes a small innovation that completely changed the gender dynamics of urbanization: “Electric street lamps had come to cities around the country, creating “white ways” that made it feel safer for women to be on the streets at night. This development changed the kind of jobs women could work, as well as the ways in which they could spend money and leisure time.”
In the same way the Marriage Plot was transformed by divorce and the increase in women’s individual rights, new “white ways”– whether it’s more women in power, in STEM fields, or equipped with adequate child care and mental health policies–may yet change the Job Plot again.