James and Marilyn meet at Harvard, and Nath’s imminent enrollment there haunts the entire book. However, each of these characters has a very different relationship with the institution. Harvard represents James’ academic accomplishments—he completes both his undergraduate and doctoral degrees there—but it also represents his failures. As a graduate student, James has no friends and he isn’t awarded a tenure-track position in the history department even though he is the most qualified candidate. Although James is intellectually skilled, he fails to meet the social (and arguably racial) criteria demanded by the institution. As an undergraduate, Marilyn enrolls at Radcliffe, the women’s college housed within Harvard. Marilyn excels academically, yet fails to be taken seriously by her male classmates and professors. Furthermore, she is haunted by Doris’ hope that she marry a “Harvard man.” Marilyn insists to herself that she wasn’t there “to find a man” but “for something better.” However, despite her best efforts, Marilyn does marry a Harvard man (though not the kind Doris had in mind) and, in doing so, jeopardizes her own dreams of graduating from Radcliffe and continuing on to medical school. Although Marilyn tells herself that she will only take a few years off before returning to complete her degree, once she leaves Radcliffe, her dreams of becoming a doctor remain forever out of her reach.
To Nath, Harvard presents an opportunity to escape his family and achieve a kind of rebirth. Whereas in Middlewood Nath is socially alienated and burdened by the tensions within his family, he hopes that in college he will have the opportunity to remake himself as a more carefree, popular, and mature person. Attending Harvard also allows Nath to pursue his dream of studying outer space. At the same time, Lydia’s death casts a dark shadow over what would otherwise be a joyous, liberating moment. Rather than being able to focus on the excitement of going to college like any normal 18-year-old, Nath must deal with feelings of shock, guilt, and grief, even as he looks forward to moving into the next stage of his life.