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.
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