The Virgin Suicides
The Dying Who Refuse to Bury the Dead: The Virgin Suicides, the Limits of Consciousness, Death and Decay
We can’t know how another person feels. Perhaps, in an age of “empathy workshops,” this is a disappointment, but on a deeper level of human behavior it is probably both simultaneously a relief and a tragedy. “Thank heavens,” some may say, “that we do not have a responsibility to the true experiences of others, that we do not have to be bothered, that it isn’t our problem.” These limits of consciousness are an essential and seemingly untalked about component of the human experience that lead to all kinds of frustration and malcontent. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides explores this unfortunate longing and the idea of “limits of consciousness” is a cornerstone of meaning in the novel.The Virgin Suicides is about five sisters who all eventually kill themselves. Except it isn’t. If that were true, the plot of the book would not be revealed in the first sentence (or the title). The story does recount the deaths of the Lisbon sisters, but these girls are not the main characters and the story is not theirs. Death is prominent in the story, but the girls’ deaths are not what is being lamented. The death of a community, the death of a city, the death of a dream, and the death of a country loom over the pages of this book, making adolescent suicide look unimportant. The tale is truly about the faceless, nameless, numberless group of neighborhood boys who spend their lives obsessing over the Lisbon sisters both before and long after their demise. But, due to the limits of consciousness the boys cannot understand the girls or their situation until it is too late – and even then, the deaths only cause an adolescent obsession to extend indefinitely.
While the boys long to understand the Lisbons, the community ignores them. The few attempts to reach out to them after the death of their youngest sister are shallow and ineffective. The miserable tale takes place in a middle-class Detroit suburb during the 1970’s, a decaying bubble containing a close minded and cloistered community. This community is hell-bent on preserving the middle-class mundanity it holds dear and yet, it is in deep decay and it is the close-mindedness of the community, the inability to even try to stretch the limits of consciousness, this is the quality that rejects and isolates a grieving family like the Lisbons, and contributes to the decay that permeates the book; a dying organism attempting survival by collapsing in on itself. The Lisbon sisters were dying and a group of neighborhood boys couldn’t understand it until the girls’ deaths became the boys’ death sentences. The Lisbon sisters die and nobody wants to know about it because they cannot accept that, they too, are dying .The Virgin Suicides delves to the heart of American despair and tells us of the dying who refuse to bury the dead. Although the book begins (and ends) with Mary’s suicide, the second paragraph of the novel dives right into the first suicide attempt of Cecilia – the youngest Lisbon and the first to commit suicide. In initial readings, as one slips into the story, it is easy to forget who the book is really about – the boys – but closer examination of this paragraph reveals less about Cecilia and more about others’ reactions to her and therefore is a microcosmic example of the hidden plot of the story. “Cecilia, the youngest, only thirteen, had gone first, slitting her wrists like a Stoic while taking a bath, and when they found her, afloat in her pink pool, with the yellow eyes of someone possessed and her small body giving off the odor of a mature woman, the paramedics had been so frightened by her tranquillity that they had stood mesmerized. But then Mrs. Lisbon lunged in, screaming, and the reality of the room reasserted itself: blood on the bath mat; Mr. Lisbon’s razor sunk in the toilet bowl, marbling the water.” (1) The paramedics’ reaction is peculiar. It is the job of a paramedic to rescue people who are in trouble. They rush around all day and see all kinds of strange and horrifying situations. They are trained to take immediate action. What kind of paramedic gets “mesmerized” by anything while on the job? And, why would anybody be “mesmerized” by the sight of a half-dead child? Would you not scream? Would you not try to help? Just as the boys, for the majority of the book remain oddly transfixed with the Lisbons, still obsessing and lusting after them when the girls are clearly mourning their family member and becoming increasingly isolated by their community and mother, the boys do not realize the truth of the situation until it is too late, and the paramedics, too, must be jolted to action by screams and blood. The situation has to “reassert” itself, which also makes no sense. The situation of a thirteen year old girl surrounded by her own blood is not a situation that should have to be reasserted.
The situation of four grieving sisters being locked away in a dilapidated house with a potentially abusive mother is not a situation that should have to be reasserted. In this first chapter, it soon becomes clear to any reader that these boys are objectifying and projecting their own ideas and fantasies onto the Lisbon girls, and are unable to understand them because of this. Their observations are tinted with idealization and plainly concerning events are made unimportant. “…[Mrs. Lisbon] checked each daughter for signs of makeup before allowing her to get in the car, and it was not unusual for her to send Lux back inside to put on a less revealing top. None of us went to church, so we had a lot of time to watch them, the two parents leached of color, like photographic negatives, and then the five glittering daughters in their homemade dresses, all lace and ruffle, bursting with their fructifying flesh.” (6) Here, also in the first few pages, the boys observe an extremely controlling mother (whose forceful nature only worsens as the novel progresses), but the boys are focused on how much they are able to watch them and “fructifying flesh.” Their behavior at Cecelia’s party is another example of this. After Cecelia attempts suicide unsuccessfully and Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon allow her to have a party, she is clearly still unwell. At the party, she is described as sitting off to the side and staring into her punch glass, still wearing her old wedding dress, with bracelets taped over her suicide scars “…[acting] as if no one were there.” (24) This image seems like the epitome of what a person looks like right before they are about to commit suicide, which she does, in the middle of the party. The sentence following this description is “We knew to stay away from her.” (24) Up until Cecelia’s jump, the boys only talk about their excitement about the other Lisbon sisters, and whether or not the sisters are the same as they are in the boys’ “bedroom fantasies” and spend the party attempting to impress the girls by making fun of “Joe the Retard.” It’s clear to the reader that everything about the party is off, and indeed having a party when a family member has just attempted suicide is odd. But the boys do not acknowledge or even think about what the party could signify, when they receive their invitations all they can think about is how the girls had to think about them. The boys are obsessed with the girls, but their objectification and fantasizing gets in the way of them coming even close to understanding them, let alone helping them. This is significant, because in the wake of Cecilia’s death, while the boys remain obsessed with the sisters, the community isolates them. They act as if nothing is wrong. Cecilia’s death is marked in town records as an accident. The ways that the community does attempt to reach out, do not fully acknowledge the situation and are wholly ineffective.
The boys think about nothing but the Lisbons, while the community tries to distract itself from them, but in the end, neither understand the Lisbons better than the other. This is why the examples of the boys allowing their fantasies of the girls to obstruct their understanding of the situation are significant, because if anyone could have understood the Lisbons, it would have been these boys; they spent their adolescence obsessing over them. But they couldn’t. That is the limits of consciousness. We will never understand each other. No matter what we do, something will get in the way. After Cecilia’s death, the Lisbons’ house fills with flowers. Everyone in the neighborhood sends them, along with sympathy cards. Hardly anyone goes to see the Lisbons. A few men and the priest, Father Moody, go, but end up talking with Mr. Lisbon about football. The flowers and cards are not genuine acknowledgements of tragedy as evidenced in the way the community strains over them, “[m]ost people opted for generic cards that said ‘With Sympathy’ or ‘Our Condolences,’ but some […] labored over personal responses.” (45) The cards and flowers are customary, they send them because that is what they have always done when someone has died and they are motivated to send them because of personal appearances – nobody wants to do what has not always been done: if you always have written personal responses then you must do that. Cecilia’s death creates a deep sense of urgency in the community – the urgency for nothing to be urgent. Mrs. Lisbon also appears to feel this way, “[t]he girls didn’t miss a single day of classes, nor did Mr. Lisbon, who taught with his usual enthusiasm.” The girls don’t even get new school uniforms, and have to keep wearing the old ones that don’t fit. In describing the sisters at school, the narrators contradict themselves, “[t]heir recent shock was undetectable, but sitting down they left a folding seat empty as though saving it for Cecilia.” (61) There seems to be a determination to see the girls as being withdrawing, or unaffected, so that there’s an excuse not to reach out to them, to not understand. “Who knew what they were thinking or feeling? Lux still giggled stupidly, Bonnie fingered the rosary deep in the pocket of her corduroy skirt, Mary wore her suits that made her resemble the First Lady, Therese kept her protective goggles on in the halls—but they receded from us, from the other girls, from their father…” (62-63) The girls looked the same as always so obviously their emotional states also were the same.
In the previous paragraph, Mary Lisbon’s former best friend confesses to ignoring her after Cecilia’s death because Mary “freaked her out.” Nobody makes any real effort to talk to the girls. One of the boys, Mike Orriyo tries, to speak to Mary and fails because he doesn’t know what to say. The girls are isolated, but they are not isolating themselves. Lux is the only one who talks to a lot of other students and, as one of her lovers puts it, “We weren’t exactly talking if you know what I mean….” This urgency for everything to remain as is, and attempting to achieve it by ignoring and isolating a grieving family once again relates back to the limits of consciousness. The community values its’ own preservation above helping and thus, unlike the boys, actively avoids stretching the limits or trying to understand what is happening to the sisters. They see a situation, and that it is a difficult one, and that connecting to someone who’s sister has died is challenging so they give up. It “freaks them out” too much. However, beneath the urgency to do nothing, lies the urgency to do anything. One gets a sense that the community does desire to do something, but since they can’t abide change, their efforts only further isolate the family – the removal of the fence, the leaf raking. the Day of Grieving. If we are limited, then why should we connect at all? We will do anything at all to make you feel better, so long as we don’t have to understand why you are this way. It’s clear that these limits of consciousness – both that of the community and of the boys – contribute to the demise of the Lisbon sisters. In the fourth chapter, it’s clear that the situation that the girls are in is dire. The house is literally shrouded in darkness by the pure will of Mrs. Lisbon and is completely dilapidated. Lux’s rooftop lovemaking is a cry for help, a performance. Earlier in the novel, right after Cecilia dies, the boys congregate on Chase Buell’s rooftop where they hear the sounds of Detroit. “Sounds we usually couldn’t hear reached us now that we were up high, and crouching on the tarred shingles, resting chins in hands, we made out, faintly, an indecipherable backward-playing tape of city life, cries and shouts, the barking of a chained dog, car horns, the voices of girls calling out numbers in an obscure tenacious game—sounds of the impoverished city we never visited, all mixed and muted, without sense, carried on a wind from that place. […] One by one, we all went home.” (31) Perhaps, in this story, rooftops represent the truth. Above the decaying suburb, above the refusal to die, above it all, the truth of the world that these characters live in is easily seen – their city is in decline and many people of a different race and class live closer than they would like to think. Above the dying neighborhood, Lux Lisbon is in pain. But they don’t think about the city – they go home. And they aren’t concerned for Lux at all – she’s a goddess who teaches them how to have sex.
It becomes clear that everything to do with the Lisbons secretes death. The girls are starving. The house is rotting. The family members start to get described like they are already dead, like zombies: Mary obsession with makeup and “keeping up appearances” only exaggerates her decay, Lux’s rib-cage protrudes, Mr. Lisbon goes to work with “fake smiles” and “no longer fortifying himself with a cup of coffee” and eventually resigns from the school, Bonnie is “visibly wasting away,” wears a smock made of chicken feathers and prays at the site of Cecilia’s death. The house literally begins to invade the neighborhood with the smell of rotting flesh. Nobody will even touch the house anymore. And this is the awful thing – nobody will touch the house. Nobody will talk to Mr. Lisbon. Nobody tries. Nobody tried. People develop theories, but nobody expresses the emotion and shock that the tragic sequence of events deserves, nobody except for Old Mrs. Karafilis, who in just two words speaks for the reader and says the only thing that is accurate in the entire book: “Holy shit!” She also summarizes what is wrong with the community: “What my yia-yia could never understand about America was why everyone pretended to be happy all the time.” (169) It’s the pretending that things are okay, the preservation of perfection, the refusal and inability to understand due to the limits of consciousness – this is what killed the Lisbon girls. In the title and introduction of this essay, I described the book as “the dying who refuse to bury the dead” – and this is why the cemetery workers’ strike is so important. Throughout the book, the cemetery worker’s strike is mentioned four times. The first time is in Chapter One, when the local newspaper won’t give a spot to Cecilia’s suicide attempt, and instead gives it to the cemetery workers’ strike. The second time is after Cecilia dies: “The cemetery workers’ strike hit its sixth week the day she died. Nobody had given much thought to the strike, nor to the cemetery workers’ grievances, because most of us had never been to a cemetery. Occasionally we heard gunshots coming from the ghetto, but our fathers insisted it was only cars backfiring.” (32) The third time is in Chapter Three and as the disrepair of the house attracts reporters, the local paper again refuses to cover it opting again for the cemetery strike. The last time is when Mary finally dies, which is also the day that the strike ends and the cemeteries are overflowing with the dead who have been waiting for months to be buried, “[o]n the Chrysler Freeway one truck got into an accident, flipping over, and the front page of the newspaper ran a photo showing metal caskets spilling from the truck like ingots. ” (233) This is not a story of sisters dying. This is a story of a community dying. Of a city dying. Of a lifestyle dying. Of a dream dying. This perfect, sunny suburb is laden with death and everyone knows it. But they can’t admit it. Their world is changing and instead of adapting, they feel the need to preserve themselves, preserve their bubble. This preservation is crystallization – yes the community looks intact, but it’s frozen, it cannot move on, and like crystal it’s destined to crumble.
When Cecilia dies, the response of the town seems apathetic and judgemental, because it is. Most people send meaningless bunches of flowers and hollow sympathy cards but won’t actually talk to the family. They get obsessed with the fence: “‘It was an accident waiting to happen,’ said Mr. Frank, who worked in insurance. ‘You couldn’t get a policy to cover it.’ ‘Our kids could jump on it, too,’ Mrs. Zaretti insisted during coffee hour following Sunday Mass. ” (50) They spend a whole day removing this fence (or getting someone else to remove it), but neglect to think that their own homes have fences too, that they live among blocks and blocks of suburban homes, each with identical fences. They want to isolate this issue of death because if it is not isolated, then maybe it will spread, maybe we already have it but let’s not think about that. Later, death is actually talked about like a disease, “Her suicide, […] was seen as a kind of disease infecting those close at hand. In the bathtub, cooking in the broth of her own blood, Cecilia had released an airborne virus which the other girls, even in coming to save her, had contracted. No one cared how Cecilia had caught the virus in the first place. Transmission became explanation. ” (152 – 153) It is in this lense, that people stop touching the house, that they stop acknowledging it, refuse to go near it. They don’t want to catch the disease. The initial reaction seems apathetic and judgemental, but in truth it is a reaction of great fear. All of the things that we pretend don’t happen, are happening in our backyard. Oh god. By the time that the cemetery workers’ strike is over, the city is literally overflowing with death. It has been bubbling under the surface, and was ignored until it couldn’t be ignored anymore. It’s not just the Lisbons in decay. It’s the whole city. Trees in this book are a symbol of suburbia. A symbol of protection. And as the novel progresses more and more of them are cut down and this peaks after the Lisbon house gets renovated and the neighborhood goes from slow decay to rapid decay.
People die, they move away. The boys become men and they still can’t stop thinking about the Lisbons, still can’t get away from the night that they followed their fantasies to corpses. That which was ignored, simply collapsed after too long, just like caskets piling up on the freeway. Concluding, The Virgin Suicides is a rich, melancholy text that explores the limits of consciousness and the nature of decay. It beautifully illustrates a community in denial and their reaction to tragedy. It explores adolescent obsession and the inability to move beyond one’s own mind to empathize with another. The pages drip with death; the characters pretend that they don’t.Our world is dying and I will never understand you.
Fighting Pressure from Both Sides: Gender and Feminism in The Virgin Suicides
The 1970s in the U.S. was a pivotal time in politics and social change. Second wave feminism was characterized by the sexual liberation of women. As women began to become familiar with their sexual identities there was also the desire for them to define the rest of their identities. The hope to create a unique female voice carried over to to the political sphere. After major changes started in Washington women stepped up to fight for workplace rights and other opportunities that matched their male counterparts. However, this struggle to create equality began long before this new group of feminists arrived on the scene. The same attack on unequal opportunity and the push for legislation protecting against this can be seen back to the 1920s; where brave women forged on with their newly granted voting rights and tried to gain more ground. The second wave feminists held onto those old goals while also redefining the platform on which they stood by focusing on an additional aspect of oppression; the social paradox that women deal with in regards to sexuality.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides is set during this critical era in feminism and follows the tragic lives of the five Lisbon sisters. Before they each committed suicide, the sisters dealt with pressure from both their mother and the boys who narrated the novel. This contrast between an overt sexualization of the Lisbon girls and the oppression to force innocence creates an inescapable struggle. The struggle that they face mirrors the larger pressures in society for women during that time. Each of the sisters rebelled in their own way, but Lux Lisbon was the most rebellious of them, openly flouting the harsh measures from her mother and the objectification by the boys. Lux’s rebellious actions through sexual liberation, a constant fight against boundaries and eventually her suicide are parallel to the major theme of second wave feminism.
Mrs. Lisbon had been oppressing Lux since she had begun adolescence; harshly punishing and banning anything that could lead her away from the innocence and purity that her mother so strongly desired. This constant beatdown of Lux’s burgeoning sexuality through the hiding of her body, removal of any makeup and the Biblical reminders that she would be additionally punished eventually pushed her to rebel in an extreme fashion. Her first act of sexual rebellion was having sex with the local heartthrob, Trip Fontaine. Not only pushing back against her mother’s oppression to keep her chaste, Lux also chose the societal definition of a bad boy, further adding to her rebellion. When her and Trip had sex after the homecoming dance it was the entering of a new world for Lux. She was able to explore what she had been so closed off from, “a creature with a hundred mouths started sucking the marrow from his bones. She said nothing as she came on like a starved animal,” (Eugenides 82). Her desperation to experience what had been so strictly forbidden epitomizes her rebellious spirit.
After being completely shut off from the world Lux increased her sexual rebellion by continuously having sex with strangers on the roof of her house. Over and over again the narrators saw men with her on the roof. She was so driven to rebel, to take control of her sexuality, that she braved the freezing winter to do so. “It was crazy to make love on the roof at any time, but to make love on the roof in winter suggested derangement, desperation, self-destructiveness far in excess of any pleasure snatched beneath the dripping trees,” (Eugenides 143). This shows Lux’s desire to have sex was not for the pleasure of it, but to attempt control over her life and her sexuality.
This mirrors the goals of second wave feminists who flaunted their sexuality in order to gain control of their sexual identities and establish their control in the situation, rather than merely being sexual objects. Lux also wanted control of the situation, seen in her encounter with Trip where she was forceful and voracious. She is also depicted as being controlling with the anonymous men on the roof by, “positioning the boys, undoing zippers and buckles,” (Eugenides 144). She did not want to be objectified by the boys, but wanted to prove herself as a master of herself. As an act of open rebellion Lux drew the name “Kevin” into all her bras and underwear. She was flaunting her sexual identity for her mother and reversing the typical role of men and women in bragging about conquests, as second wave feminists did in an attempt to decrease the fear of female sexuality. Once again, Mrs. Lisbon stripped her of that by bleaching them all until the name was gone. This repeated attack on sexuality by Mrs. Lisbon is a reflection of the larger opinion on it in society. She pushed so hard for the girls to remain pure because that was valued highly and sexuality was viewed as a dangerous thing. However sexuality proved not to be dangerous, but the fear and the fight against it by Lux’s mother proved to be deadly.
In addition to rebelling against sexual boundaries Lux also rebelled against the physical boundaries placed on her by her mother. Lux and her sisters had been confined to school and church by Mrs. Lisbon since the start of the novel, but after Lux breaks curfew returning from her escapade with Trip they are all pulled out of school. They were on complete lockdown, trapped in the decrepit house. Despite this, Lux is determined to escape the oppression by communicating with the boys and sneaking outside. She would leave notes for the boys and signal to them with flashlights. Sometimes she would even risk calling them.
Second wave feminists also fought against the control of the larger power in society, men. They worked tirelessly to extricate themselves from the separate class they had been born into; consistently proposing and pushing legislation that would put them equal with men in the workplace and society. Similarly, Lux craved getting away from the isolation forced by her oppressor, “A few weeks after Mrs. Lisbon shut the house in maximum-security isolation, the sightings of Lux making love on the roof began,” (Eugenides 136). She was rebelling against her mother’s control and constant threat of punishment by escaping to the freedom of outside.
Lux Lisbon’s final act of rebellion came in the form of her suicide. She died quietly and alone, a commentary on the death of spirit experience by so many women who were pushed down by society. “They found her in the front seat, grey faced and serene, holding a cigarette lighter that had burned its coils into her palm,” (Eugenides 281). She died by carbon monoxide poisoning in the car that was going to take her to her escape with the narrators. Her rebellion is expressed so strongly here; she would rather be dead than be controlled and continue to deal with constant social paradox she was living in. Taking her life in her getaway car reflects her decision to take her life as an escape from the isolation and powerlessness. Lux took control of her fate and resisted being a continued sexual object and an oppressed pinnacle of fear. This death parallels the death of the old attitude held by women prior to second wave feminism. That movement was exemplified by women taking control of their lives and not allowing society to dictate how they would be perceived or treated.
Throughout Eugenide’s The Virgin Suicides Lux Lisbon reflects the social movement occurring around her in her rebellious actions. By engaging in her growing sexuality rather than hiding it she possessed control over her sexual identity. Second wave feminists did the same; confronting the fear of sexual women as well as the simultaneous objectification of women, they lead a movement to give themselves back the power over their bodies. Lux’s encounters always held her as the controller through initiation as well as being decisive and forceful. She also repeatedly broke out of the confinement set up for her by Mrs. Lisbon. She risked further punishment to try and remove herself from isolation. During second wave feminism many actions were taken to put women on the same level as men in order to help them join society as equals. Finally, Lux committed suicide by suffocating herself in her garage. Taking her life was the most control she had ever experienced due to the pressure that she was equally a sexual object and also needed to be pure. She rebelled against both by killing herself in a poetic manner; showing the reasoning behind her decision lay in the constant crushing pressure coming from both sides of the spectrum. Although her rebellion parallels the second wave feminist movement, which was successful, the continued objectification by the narrators and the pressure from Mrs. Lisbon is a strong commentary by Eugenide that feminists still have work to do in order to be truly free from societal discrimination.
Pure Melancholy vs. False Happiness: Reading The Virgin Suicides
In The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides has the narrators describe seemingly average daily occurrences as extraordinary, exhibiting the search for something more significant in their uniform, designed-to-be-perfect lives. Through the narrators’ overstatements, it is evident that the boys become increasingly obsessed with the minute details of the Lisbon girl’s lives until it becomes their top priority. Observing the Lisbons becomes their sole purpose in life, causing the boys to stop upholding the perfect suburban illusion many have tried so hard to uphold. They wistfully dedicate their entire lives to dwelling on the deceased girls, suggesting that the false satisfaction that originates from constructed perfection is in fact necessary for suburban happiness. While Eugenides displays the depressing confinement of perfect suburban life, the boys’ exaggerated descriptions ultimately demonstrate “freedom” as more detrimental; their inescapable infatuation caused by deviating from the standard lifestyle portrays their escape into melancholy as a worse fate than false happiness.
Eugenides has the boys describe average interactions with the Lisbon girls as incredible to display their desire to find something momentous in their typical, boring lives and establish their increasingly detrimental obsession. Before the boys knew much about the Lisbon girls, Peter Sissen was invited to dine with the Lisbon family and recounted his experience: “In the trash can was one Tampax, spotted, still fresh from the insides of one of the Lisbon girls. Sissen said that he wanted to bring it to us, that it wasn’t gross but a beautiful thing, you had to see it, like a modern painting or something…” (8). Their detailed description of the tampon being “fresh from the insides of one of the Lisbon girls,” demonstrates the boys’ utter fascination with this unknown object and the girls themselves. The word “fresh” seems especially important to them, implying not only recent contact, but that this recent contact is appealing and alluring. It may be understandable that tampons are foreign to boys, but even girls don’t describe them as “beautiful.” The word “beautiful” shows their complete adoration of the girls, as anything that comes in contact with them is amazing, even a used tampon. The association to a “modern painting” goes beyond even beauty, implying elegance and a deeper significance to it. The tampon means nothing to the girls, but the boys view it as amazing and significant, displaying their clueless admiration for the girls from the very beginning. Furthermore, the fact that a tampon could have so much meaning to them signifies that they do not have a lot of truly meaningful things in their lives, demonstrating the boredom and futility of typical suburban life. Later, all the boys are invited to a party at the Lisbons. The boys vividly describe the scene:
The steps were metal-tipped and steep, and as we descended, the light at the bottom grew brighter and brighter, as though we were approaching the molten core of the earth. By the time we reached the last step it was blinding…On a card table, the punch bowl erupted lava. The paneled walls gleamed, and for the first few seconds the Lisbon girls were only a patch of glare like a congregation of angels (23).
The description of the stairs as being “metal-tipped and steep” provides a harshness and anticipation to the moment, along with the increasingly intense light. The idea of “approaching the molten core of the earth” suggests nearing a hellish state, which is further accentuated by “the punch bowl [that] erupted lava,” and the ominous descriptions such as “gleam[ing]” and “metal.” This contradicts the description of the girls as “a patch of glare like a congregation of angels.” The association to angels brings the admiration to a new level, suggesting that the girls are equivalent to something holy and god-like. Because visiting the Lisbons is not a common occurrence, the boys stray, even if only slightly, outside of their traditional life; however, they immediately descend into hell, displaying that there are immense consequences in defying the norms. The fact that they see the girls as angels is a mere delusion, the boys have put them on an irrational pedestal; angels could not be found in hell. Their unrealistic description demonstrates their hunger for something fascinating, but their delusion becomes a consequence of trying too hard to abandon the mundane norm. After reading Cecilia’s diary, the boys recount, “We felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy, and how you ended up knowing which colors went together. We knew that the girls were our twins, that we all existed in space like animals with identical skins, and that they knew everything about us though we couldn’t fathom them at all” (40). The boys reaction is extremely dramatic; the word “imprisonment” implies a perpetual oppression, and the “active and dreamy” mind implies creativity and irrationality, all of which is fundamentally based on emotion. However, it was previously revealed that Cecilia described only everyday occurrences in her diary, like the meals her sisters and her ate, and never her own emotions. It is ridiculous for the boys to feel such a dramatic and passionate shift to such simple entries, further establishing their imaginary connection to the girls. Additionally, they believe the girls are their “twins, that we all existed in space like animals with identical skins…” As the emotional connection with the girls is clearly made up, so is the idea that they are also physically identical, which “twins” suggests. The odd description of “animals with identical skins” is also illogical because humans are animals and have skins. “Animals” does imply a natural primal connection, but this is again unlikely considering they draw this conclusion from Cecilia’s diary, which was rather shallow. The boys are now deeper into their investigation, as they actually gathered written evidence from the girls, exposing their worrisome obsession. As the boys become entranced by the lives of the girls, they ignore their own supposedly flawless lives and depart from the suburban dollhouse lifestyle, until they are finally trapped in a cycle of melancholic investigation.
Although Eugenides displays that counterfeited happiness and strict perfection in suburbia can lead to a feeling of inadequacy and confinement through the Lisbon girls, the boys’ descriptions, previously expressing a concerning obsession, become an even more confining infatuation and ultimately demonstrate that deviating from constructed happiness leads to inescapable distress. The boys interviewed Trip years after he was with Lux. They describe their findings: “He would only tell us, ‘I’ve never gotten over that girl, man. Never.’ In the desert, with the shakes, he had sickly-looking wads of yellow skin under his eyes, but the eyes themselves clearly looked back to a verdant time” (71). Lux spent time with many boys and men to relieve herself of some societal pressure, illustrating the ignored despair underlying a supposedly flawless suburbia. By following the girls and becoming involved in their lives, the boys diverge from the traditional suburban life as well, ultimately becoming stranded in a cycle of misery and confusion. Trip is one of the boys who has become secured in the immortal web of the memory of the Lisbon girls, as even years after they’ve passed away he states “I’ve never gotten over that girl.” Furthermore, the memory of Lux has tormented him, as is evident through his current condition: in withdrawal with “sickly-looking wads of yellow skin under his eyes.” The “sickly looking wads” and “yellow skin” emphasize exhaustion as well as an unhealthy condition, and his state of withdrawal displays an attempt to escape his depression. The “verdant time” the boys describe was when Trip was together with Lux, but once she died, he cannot resume “happy” life in perfect suburbia as he has been exposed to a frightening mortality and bleakness, causing him to fall back onto drugs and alcohol. The boys are in a similar state, as they are obsessively interviewing Trip years after the suicides occurred and vividly recounting the experience to the reader.
Living with a false sense of satisfaction in a confining neighborhood is certainly a better fate than outright obsession, depression, or addiction. The boys infatuation has enslaved them, becoming even more of a confinement than suburbia ever was. In one of their last interactions between the girls and the boys before the girls commit suicide, they communicate through song and play music through the phone to each other. The final song the girls play shocks the boys: “(Without warning, the girls had thrown their arms around us, confessed hotly into our ears, and fled the room.) For some minutes, we stood motionless, listening to the buzz of the telephone line…We had never dreamed the girls might love us back” (192). The only somewhat romantic lyrics of the song simply state, “Life, it’s for us to keep/ And if you’re wondering what this song is leading to/ I want to make it with you” (192). The boys interpret “us” and “want[ing] to make it with you” as love, which is definitely an overstatement. “I want to make it with you” could be referring to running away together as friends, or simply accepting any help the boys have offered. There are many romantic songs in the world the girls could have played instead, yet the boys feel the Lisbons have “thrown their arms around us, confessed hotly into our ears,” which is a much more passionate description. The boy’s obsession has led them to wildly misinterpret the song, even if the girls do like them they did not “confess hotly into [the boys] ears,” demonstrating the boys inability to break away from their infatuation, which is ultimately much more constraining than feigned contentment. Although Eugenides intends to exhibit society’s ruthless pressure on the youth to conform to an identical standard, it is straying from the standard that leads the boys to a tragic delusional state as they are haunted by the girls, even after they pass away. The boys’ obsessive descriptions illustrate the imprisonment of their endless infatuation, making it a worse fate than trying to live up to societal expectations.
The pressure to fit into the suburban standard is aggravating, and can lead to depression and even suicide, as observed by the Lisbon girls. The boys have escaped this pressure by investing their energy in observing the Lisbon girls instead of their own lives, ultimately becoming completely hypnotized by their alleged charm and peculiarity. However, while their infatuation blinds them from the societal standard, they instead sink further into an eternal investigation for which their is no answer, and therefore no satisfaction or enjoyment. Blindly living with a false sense of satisfaction is certainly better than living in despair and mourning the incomprehensible death of what was life’s sole purpose: the Lisbon girls. Eugenides attempts to display a feigned happiness in society, but through the boys’ detailed and obsessive descriptions his story actually unveils a much more tragic state: exile from this feigned happiness, leading to complete sorrow.
The Virgin Suicides and the Suburban Ideal: How the American Dream Became Obsolete
The dramatic comedy The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides, is a controversial novel that revolves around the suicide of the Lisbon daughters. These five young ladies seek to end their lives as they lived them: together. With traces of cult-like behavior these girls are watched by the community with curiosity; though, it is specifically the boys of their neighborhood that narrate the events preceding and following their deaths. Eugenides’ novel was published in 1993, the beginning of the grunge era; the nineties saw the rise of emotional, angsty musicians like Nirvana, Alanis Morissette, Oasis, and a plethora of others who were singing about the dark places many of these teenagers felt they were in. The nineties also saw a spike in suburban living as parents packed their families up and moved them to a middle class wonderland (Schneider). This is where we find Eugenides’ main characters, struggling through life in suburbia just outside of Detroit. As we follow the boys and their tale of the Lisbons, it becomes clear how the Suburban Ideal was quickly transformed into the Suburban Nightmare.
A main focus of this essay and The Virgin Suicides is the mundane; how middle class parents believed that the lack of excitement in the suburbs would provide a stable home for their children, when in reality it simply stifled independent growth. This unchanging routine was often combined with an expectation of conformity from the community as people failed to look at each sister as an individual person, rather creating one singular person out of the five. Furthermore, their conformity was pushed on them by not only the society that surrounded them, but their own parents as well, specifically Mrs. Lisbon. The belief that young Catholic ladies were to dress, speak, and behave a certain way resulted in a mold none of the girls truly fit. The explanation of the Lisbon’s suicides and the focus of Jeffrey Eugenides novel is how the combination of a lack of excitement as well as the notion that the girls were supposed to meet a certain standard forced five sisters into a corner in which they believed suicide was the only answer. Cecilia, Mary, Lux, Bonnie, and Therese were victims of the Suburban Ideal and the incorrect idea that happiness could be found behind a white picket fence. Beginning in Europe, the suburban ideal was developed to separate those of differing races and social classes. Segregation was made easier and those who moved were “largely motivated by a desire to escape the mix of classes and racial and ethnic groups that characterize urban areas” (Miller 394). Though a bold claim, suburbs were built on inherent racist, classist, and misogynistic ideals that came together to form societies of repetitious architecture and homogeneous society members. White families, though almost all motivated originally by religion, moved away from cities and their temptations; they were told sin ran rampant in urban settings, claims that just happened to line up with their personal prejudices. Women were assigned to the kitchen and families were forced into together time, even if the pressure to be together created unhealthy living situations.
Furthermore, the necessity to remove themselves from any form of temptation caused a major lack of civilization beyond the basic necessities. Coffee shops, clubs, any semblance of a congregational space besides church was left in the city as was any chance of true socialization. As time went on the majority of suburbs retained their ability to keep out the urban features they so wished to avoid, meaning teenagers, whose independence has grown over decades, were forced into hanging out in unfinished basements and backyard forests. Parents of these children, the kids themselves, and perhaps even the next generation are unknowingly perpetuating a cycle of losing their “spirit of independence that had previously marked American life” (Dines 960). There was no space for these teenagers to grow or make mistakes and because of this, as we see within The Virgin Suicides, the longing to rebel grows. To understand what truly happened to these girls there is a need to understand how suburbia failed to live up to its promise of an ideal place to grow up. The idea that the suburbs would provide a life away from sin and temptation was proven false by not only the Lisbon girls themselves, but by the actions of their mother and, in a way, their father. The once “best locale for a family-centered lifestyle” was ironically made to “expose family life to the view of guests” (Miller 400). How is it possible that this new suburban life could be considered family focused when there was so much stress placed on portraying a perfect unit to the outside world? The Lisbons were private people, avoiding guests throughout the majority of the novel. In fact, the only time we truly hear about the inside of their home is through Peter Sissen in the beginning chapter and the narrators when Cecilia’s party occurs. This is a major comparison to consider, however, as one has seen the true personality of the house and it’s occupants while the others have only the washed-out, perfected view. If the upstairs of the house had “bedrooms filled with crumpled panties, of stuffed animals hugged to death by the passion of the girls, of a crucifix draped with a brasseire…and of the effluvia of so many young girls becoming women together in the same cramped space”, why was the downstairs so bland (Eugenides 7)? This is not to suggest we throw our underwear throughout our family rooms and place our stuffed animals on every open surface, but you would think there would be more personality than a “tidy, dry-looking place that smelled faintly of stale popcorn” (Eugenides 22). The girls have their individuality halted at the very steps they go down every morning; over half the house they occupy lacks any indication that they even exist within it. This is how “the home that all Americans strive to have is no longer a safe-haven of comfort and joy, but has turned into a prison where the inhabitants are living the American Nightmare” (Madsen 16). Eugenides uses the setting of the suburbs to build upon the Lisbons’ already limited freedoms; their clear lack of independence almost forces the girls to rebel in whatever way they can.
Though Lux chooses to use her body and sexuality to avoid conforming, eventually the girls are lead to commit the biggest possible act of rebellion: suicide. To find how the story leads to such a drastic ending we must examine the Suburban Ideal and the “stability, order, and ideal way of living that the suburbs promised” (Madsen 16). There are two key ways one can interpret the idea of stability and order; in the first, the suburbs are a place of escape, set up with stability and order in mind as to directly contradict life in the city. In this interpretation the suburbs “also captured the general public’s imagination and were often spoken of in almost utopian terms by urban planners, politicians, and private developers” (Baldassare 477). This is the interpretation many of the citizens of the Lisbon’s suburb exist in. Even when removing the fence post Cecilia threw herself onto we see Mr. Bates edging and “the old German couple appeared in their grape arbor to drink dessert wine. As usual they wore Alpine hates” (Eugenides 53). Eugenides explains this casual interest by writing “how accustomed they were to trauma, depressions, and wars”, the older generation has lived through so much sadness and death that they know no other reaction than simply getting through it by moving on (52). For younger generations this comes across as detached and cold, these younger generations live in the second interpretation of stability and order. The latter connotation of the suburban combination is one of all-consuming interest in maintaining stability and order; the narrators are excellent examples. While their parents and even Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon are so capable of moving on and restoring order, the children of the nineties cannot get over this disruption. The younger generation is more willing to notice “the sickness that challenges the perfect image of the carefree suburbia” (Madsen 15). They have lived with the Lisbon girls for years, they are a part of the mundane, even as “outcasts” they have a role to play in the repetitive existence of these people. “Various sightings of them merged into a general image of their careful cluster moving down the central highway” (Eugenides 96). The girls were treated like outsiders and celebrities, to lose a Lisbon is to lose a piece of their own lives, losing all five stuck with the boys forever. “It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling, still do not hear us, up here in the tree house, with our thin hair and soft bellies” (Eugenides 243). In a way, the narrators are correct; the Lisbon sisters could not hear them calling out, but perhaps they did not want to. Perhaps the sisters were so sick of conforming to the standards set for them by others that they stopped listening, especially to boys who could not tell them apart. “Then, however, our eyes got used to the light and informed us of something we had never realized: the Lisbon girls were all different people” (Eugenides 23). However, in defense of the narrators, Mrs. Lisbon never gave the girls an opportunity to present themselves as different people, meaning the boys never had a chance to see who they truly were.
It is possible to say that quite a bit of the refusal readers see from Mrs. Lisbon comes from her religion; Catholicism is not known for its acceptance. This is not okay with her daughters though, the Lisbon girls develop their own personal methods for defying their mother and her religion, the most notable being Cecilia’s attempt to take her own life, followed by her sisters doing the same. It is Lux though, that seems to contrast the most consistently with her mother. From writing “the name Kevin in purple magic marker all over her three-ring binder and even on her bras and panties” to “making love on the roof”, Lux deliberately defied her mother with no personal gain besides knowing she was breaking the rules. (Eugenides 39, 136). Though readers may view the narrators, the neighborhood boys, as simply part of the problem for their roles both as a group and individually, there must be a parallel drawn between the Lisbon girls and these boys. The boys, though assisted by their gender for less severe expectations, are still a part of the same community as the daughters; they face the same scrutiny and the same pressure to conform. “The trauma in the story emerges from a very personal act – the suicides committed by five adolescent sisters, the Lisbon girls – which eventually reveal a collective malaise repressed beneath evasive allusions to life in the Detroit suburbs in the 1970s” (Kostova 49). Yes, the girls were the ones to commit suicide and there is no way to detract from that, but this sense discomfort, sense of unease that exists in their lives is not only a product of their parents.
Throughout the novel the boys are aware of the strange sense that something is not quite right, but unlike their female counterparts they never do name it or do anything about it. Instead they grow into their parents opinions, thinking, when they’re grown up, that “the essence of the suicides consisted not of sadness or mystery, but simple selfishness. The girls took into their own hands decisions better left to God” (Eugenides 242). Though it doesn’t match up with their own experiences from their younger years, the boys accept this as an answer because nothing else truly makes sense. The Lisbon girls are not spectacular in any way beyond their suicides; they exist in a suburb that stifles their individual growth or any growth beyond the path already set for them. The major difference between these girls and the boys who narrate their lives and deaths in terms of the pieces and exhibits, is that the girls knew there was no true choice for them. Even at thirteen, Cecilia was intelligent and aware enough to see her future in her older sisters; to see the constant crushing weight of her parent’s expectations, to notice that she would always be just another Lisbon. She would always be just another blonde, pretty girl with too many teeth in her mouth. Though it would be easy to say that her suicide was a cry for help, it wouldn’t be accurate.
Cecilia and her sisters, Lux, Bonnie, Mary, and Therese, were victims of the Suburban Ideal applied with Catholic logic. Conformity and expectations shaped and raised them and then ultimately led to their death. None of the girls saw a point in living a life that was already so similar to death, and who can blame them? Struck down by a mother who did not appreciate who they were as transitioning young women and ignored by a society who saw them as almost celebrities, the girls did not see an end to the mundane and thus chose to make their own.
Baldassare, Mark. “Suburban Communities” Annual Review of Sociology 18 (1992): 475-494. Annual Reviews. Web. 29-11-2018 Dines, Martin. “Suburban Gothic and the Ethnic Uncanny in Jeffrey Eugenides’s ‘The Virgin Suicides’” Journal of American Studies 46.4 (2012): 959-975. British Association for American Studies. Web. 24-11-2018 Eugenides, Jeffrey. The Virgin Suicides. New York: Picador, 1993. Print. Kostova, Bilyana V. “Collective Suffering, Uncertainty and Trauma in Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides: Of Bystanders, Perpetrators and Victims.” Journal of the Spanish Association of Anglo-American Studies 35.2 (2013): 47-63. Atlantis. Madsen, Michael. “’All that we see or seem / Is but a dream within a dream’: Freud’s The Uncanny and the Destruction of the Suburban Ideal in Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides” American Studies in Scandinavia 40:1-2. (2008): 14-24. Miller, Laura J. “Family Togetherness and the Suburban Ideal” Sociological Forum 10.3 (1995): 393-418. Springer. Web. 27-11-2018