The Virgin Suicides Themes

Themes

The Inadequacy of Memory
The narrators, now approaching middle age, continue to try to “find the pieces to put [the Lisbons] back together,” going so far as to travel around the country to interview former neighbors about their memories, including Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon. At several points in the novel, they refer to pieces of evidence they have collected (including photos and diaries), the perspectives they have garnered, the knowledge they have gathered—but none of it is enough for them to bring back what was lost or to prevent the Lisbon suicides. While they confess that their perspective is incomplete and subjective, ultimately they are defeated by unrequited love—“they hadn’t heard us calling, still do not hear us”—and the sisters’ actions, evaluated at the end as “simple selfishness,” are beyond the understanding of the narrators. But it is clear that neither the Lisbon girls nor their actions were simple, because the thirteen months recounted in the novel continue to haunt the narrators.

Loss of Innocence
The narrators’ move from innocence—their collective yearning and childish misunderstanding of the opposite sex—is swift and jarring: by the novel’s end, after an all-night debutante ball, the boys are described as “married and divorced”; they and their peers were bound for an “unhappiness only dimly perceived.” This is not simply the result of experiencing the deaths of the Lisbon sisters but an overall failure to communicate, to find the words for the calamity around them. Cecilia, who is described as “eerily detached” even after her own suicide attempt, most astutely conveys this dislocation when a doctor tries to understand why she would want to kill herself: “Obviously, doctor,” she says, “you’ve never been a thirteen-year-old girl.”

The Destruction of Nature
Nearly every aspect of the natural world in The Virgin Suicides is in decay—animals, trees, bodies of water. Throughout the novel, pollution and disease spread and obscure the narrators’ community; the adult world’s solution is to tear down, paint over, or destroy—but nothing stems the decay. Indeed, smells, which Eugenides relies on for much of his imagery, are constantly overwhelming and overpowering. These extended metaphors capture the underlying pollutions of the homogenous suburban setting, the tumult of adolescence, and the destruction of moral values and goodness in the community. As artifice overwhelms Gross Pointe, the natural world further declines.

Ed. Scott Locklear