57 pages 1 hour read

Maggie Nelson

The Argonauts

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 2015

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Summary and Study Guide


Writer and professor Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, originally published in 2015, is a work of “autotheory”— it combines Nelson’s personal experiences of marriage and motherhood with reflections on the writing process, queer and feminist theory, and psychoanalysis and developmental psychology. This blending of genres gives the book its unconventional form; unlike a more traditional memoir, The Argonauts jumps backwards and forwards in Nelson’s life as she explores ideas and images related to pregnancy, sexuality, identity, and conformity.

The Argonauts does employ a very loose chronological structure, beginning with the early days of Nelson’s relationship with her eventual husband, Harry Dodge, and ending with the birth of their child, Iggy. Dodge is an artist and, though assigned female at birth, identifies as neither a man nor a woman by the time Nelson meets him. The two enter a passionate and highly intellectual relationship, buy a house and move in together, and marry on the spur of the moment when it looks as though Proposition 8 (banning same-sex marriage) is likely to pass the California Legislature. Meanwhile, Nelson has begun acting as a stepmother to Dodge’s son from a prior relationship—a role that stirs up complex feelings for Nelson since her own mother had left her father (who died shortly afterwards) to marry a man who later left her in turn.

About a year after Nelson and Dodge begin living together, their relationship hits a rough patch. Dodge’s mother has recently been diagnosed with terminal breast cancer and Dodge himself is increasingly unhappy with his female body. Nelson, meanwhile, is worried about Dodge, but also anxious about how he might change if he chooses to pursue a mastectomy and testosterone injections. Nevertheless, Dodge goes ahead with these medical interventions, and at the same time, Nelson begins undergoing IVF treatments in an attempt to become pregnant. By the time she becomes pregnant with Iggy, Dodge has already been on testosterone for several months and has top surgery scheduled, so the couple’s physical transformations take place in tandem. The Argonauts ends with Nelson giving birth to Iggy—a scene Nelson juxtaposes with Dodge’s firsthand account of sitting by his mother’s bedside as she dies.

Within this general narrative structure, Nelson often pauses to recount events that took place outside the main timeframe of the book, or to reflect on the work of philosophers and theorists including D. W. Winnicott, Judith Butler, and Roland Barthes. Broadly speaking, these flashbacks, flash forwards, and asides serve to underscore or complicate Nelson’s reflections on issues like the limitations of language, what it means to be “queer,” and the nature of identity.