illustration of Susie in the clouds with her charm bracelet above her head

The Lovely Bones

by Alice Sebold

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How is death portrayed in The Lovely Bones?

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Death is depicted as both a powerful force and an incomplete state. As long as Susie’s killer goes free, she remains tied to her earthly state of being. This tethering includes her sharing the experiences of her family and friends’ grief. Her transcendent existence in Heaven cannot be fully separate as long as her killer is alive and free. The dead Susie is also allowed to trade experiences with the living Ruth.

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The Lovely Bones presents death primarily through the perspective of Susie Salmon, who was a teenager when she was murdered. Later in the novel, her killer also dies, but it is Susie’s experience after death that largely structures the novel. The author conveys the dual power of death to remove a person from Earth and to shatter the lives of those left to mourn the deceased. Susie’s interior personality remains largely intact as she observes how her family and friends struggle to cope without her. Along with its tremendous potency, death is presented as an incomplete state for both Susie and the survivors. As long as her killer goes free, she remains strongly—and unnaturally—connected to those on Earth.

As the other characters age and develop, striving but not always succeeding in moving beyond their grief, Susie is caught in the temporal state of the moment of death. She is an adolescent who had not experienced loss and mourning of the kind that her parents and siblings, no matter how young, must endure. Her empathetic connection with the mourners is not quite adequate for understanding what they are going through.

A brief encounter between the dead Susie and a living girl, Ruth, offers a path toward Susie’s release. The incompleteness of death is illustrated by the potential for a dead spirit to inhabit someone who is still alive, which in this case allows Susie to fulfill her desire for Ray. In exchange, the highly sensitive Ruth is able to gain a brief taste of what Heaven is like.

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