Catherine Cucinella, a freelance writer, has edited a reference volume on contemporary American poets and has published articles on poetry and film. She has a Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Riverside. In this essay, Cucinella analyzes the effects of domestic ideologies on the mother-daughter relationships in The Lovely Bones.
Although The Lovely Bones has garnered many reviews, critical work on the novel proves scarce. Most reviewers and critics comment on Sebold's innovative use of point of view, the omniscient first person narrator, Susie Salmon. These same critics point to Sebold's mastery in presenting a disturbing subject—the rape and murder of a young girl. More often than not, however, the unsettling elements in the text involve issues of motherhood and mothering. Through her depiction of mothers and daughters, Sebold examines the effects of patriarchy and domesticity on women. The Lovely Bones questions the roles and demands placed on women by society as it presents the consequences that arise for mothers and daughters if these roles and demands remain unexamined.
Sebold examines the dictates of patriarchy, the social system in which the father is the head of the family and men govern women and children; and domesticity, the devotion to home life. This examination of the place of women unfolds primarily through the first person omniscient narration, characterization, and through the motif (recurring images in a literary work) of confined spaces. Although the restrictive systems under which each woman must live come to light in The Lovely Bones, the novel makes clear that recognizing these restrictions begins the process of loosening them.
Susie's omniscient perspective affords the reader the opportunity to watch as the Salmon women work through that process. From her heaven, Susie provides insight into the internal thoughts of all the characters. Susie's insights work within the narrative itself, offering Susie the opportunity to experience the move from girlhood to womanhood. Significantly, the internal musings to which Susie is privy involve her mother's struggle with feelings of discontent, a discontent that feminist Betty Friedan labeled "the feminine mystique." According to Friedan, "a strange discrepancy [exists] between the reality of [women's] lives as women and the image to which [women are] trying to conform." Abigail Salmon, Susie's mother, provides the clearest example of this "schizophrenic split" and its consequences.
On the morning of her eleventh birthday, Susie, awake before the rest of the family, discovers her unwrapped birthday present, an Instamatic camera. Eager to use it she, she hurries to the back of the house and finds the back door open. There in the backyard, Susie comes upon her mother, unaware of her daughter's presence. Susie narrates:
I had never seen her sitting so still, so not there somehow…. That morning there were no lipstick marks because there was no lipstick until she put it on for … who? I had never thought to ask that question. My father? Us?
Because Susie retells this incident from her heavenly vantage point, she can now read significance into it. Her status as omniscient first person narrator allows her insight that she may or may not have possessed when the incident first occurred. After all, Susie's narration unfolds after all events have taken place. Significantly, however, Susie makes clear the split between the private, unencumbered Abigail and the woman who assumes a face for the world.
Susie's camera captures this moment, and the picture glaringly reveals the split to which Freidan refers:
When the roll came back from the Kodak plant … I could see the difference immediately. There was only one picture in which my mother was Abigail. It was that first one, the one taken of her unawares, the one captured before the click startled her into the mother of the birthday girl, owner of the happy dog, wife to a loving man, and mother again to another girl and a...
(The entire section is 7,741 words.)