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
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