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

The Lovely Bones

by Alice Sebold

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The Lovely Bones Themes

The three main themes in The Lovely Bones are loss and grief, life and death, and coming of age and rites of passage.

  • Loss and Grief: The novel illustrates how each of the changes the characters experience generates a sense of loss that ultimately helps them move on and let go.
  • Life and Death: The novel shows life as in constant change, and how existence is temporary, suggesting that both are related to one another and accepting this is key to realizing the relationship between them.
  • Coming of Age and Rites of Passage: As a coming-of-age novel, The Lovely Bones involves rites of passage as the author explores the process of growing up.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2048

Loss and Grief

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Loss of a loved one and the stages of mourning or grief manifest as overriding themes in The Lovely Bones. Through the voice of Susie Salmon, the fourteen-year-old narrator of the novel, readers get an in-depth look at the grieving process. Susie focuses more on the aftermath and effects of her murder and rape on her family rather than on the event itself. She watches her parents and sister move through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. However, Alice Sebold makes clear that these categories do not necessarily remain rigid and that individuals deal with grief in various ways. For example, Abigail, Susie's mother, withdraws from her living children, Lindsey and Buckley, whereas Jack, her husband, draws closer to them. Lindsey, Susie's sister, vacillates between denial and acceptance, sometimes exhibiting both elements simultaneously. In addition, Sebold expands the definitions of both loss and grief by including Susie herself in the process. If readers limit their understanding of grief to losing and coping with the death of a loved one, then they have trouble accounting for Susie's emotions. She mourns her own death and the missed opportunity of getting to grow up, but more significantly, Susie grieves over the loss of living people. In other words, the novel extends the grieving process to include the dead themselves.

By including Susie in this process and having Abigail leave the family, Sebold investigates the nature of loss and its relationship to grief. The novel suggests change equals loss, which in turn initiates grief. While Susie's death emerges as the most blatant change in the lives of the Salmons, other significant changes also occur. Lindsey changes from adolescent to adult; Buckley changes from child to adolescent; Jack changes from a man secure in his place in the family to one questioning his ability to hold the family together; and Abigail changes from a woman questioning her position as wife and mother to one who redefines and then embraces that position. While each of these changes generates a sense of loss, ultimately each character moves on from the loss and grief. In The Lovely Bones, both the living and dead learn letting go opens up possibilities.

Life and Death

On some level, all literature investigates the nature of human experience or the human condition. Certainly life and death constitute the two most significant experiences of being human, and as such, much literature deals with these two issues. The Lovely Bones pointedly asks two questions: "What does it mean to be alive?" and "What does it mean to be dead?"

As Susie learns what being dead means, she must deal with what being alive means as well. The fact she can no longer experience the physical world—that she can no longer experience living—emerges as her biggest disappointment. The novel then offers experiencing the physical as an attribute of living. Although denied this aspect of living, the dead Susie can engage in the human condition of wanting, wishing, and desiring. Thus Sebold blurs the lines between what constitutes life and death. Susie clearly understands she is dead. She knows she inhabits a realm different from earth, but in many ways, not completely separate from it. After all, Susie's heaven looks earthly, not celestial, and she participates in activities that associate much more closely with earth than heaven: eating ice cream, romping with dogs, living in a duplex.

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The novel presents life as a series of changes, all of which involve the body and the physical environment—physicality seems the defining characteristic of life. The event that allows Susie to move on in her heaven, or to move on in death, is her return to earth. Although she has "returned" in a disembodied form, when she inhabits Ruth's body, Susie "realize[s] that the marvelous weight weighing [her] down was the weight of the human body." Yet Susie understands the temporariness of this corporality, but perhaps that realization is precisely one of Sebold's points.

Coming of Age and Rites of Passage

The coming-of-age novel involves the initiation of the protagonist into adulthood. This initiation usually occurs through the acquisition of knowledge and experience. In many of these novels, the move into adulthood includes a loss of innocence or the destruction of a false sense of security. The protagonist often experiences a shift from ignorance to knowledge, innocence to experience, idealism to realism, or immaturity to maturity. In addition, coming of age involves rituals or rites of passage. The Lovely Bones focuses on these issues as the author explores the process of growing up.

The novel begins when Lindsey Salmon is thirteen years old and ends almost ten years later, with Lindsey as wife and mother. It traces her move through the routines and events of female adolescence—first kisses, shaving of legs, makeup, summer camp, love, friendship, college. The novel, however, also traces Susie's coming of age. By presenting the development of a dead girl along with a living one, Sebold imbues the experiences of growing up with enhanced significance. Susie cannot move on in death until she finishes "growing up."

Susie's rape and murder hastens the process of moving from innocence to experience for both girls. Susie learns her suburban and rather ordinary world is not safe—men murder children in this world. She moves swiftly and violently from innocence to experience, and from idealism to realism. Yet this shift does not culminate in her "coming of age;" rather, it initiates a need for her to experience these things more slowly and more naturally. While Susie's death also hastens Lindsey's loss of innocence, it does so less dramatically. Although Lindsey understands that her world is not particularly safe, that bad people exist and that these people do bad things, she still participates in the normal rituals of growing up.

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Like many teenage girls, Lindsey experiments with makeup and with finding a style that suits her. She experiences a tender first kiss with Samuel, and they move slowly through the rituals of courtship. She grows into her sexuality, developing a relationship based on trust, gentleness, and understanding. However, Susie's murder, combined with her mother's absence, pushes Lindsey into adult roles early in her life. So while acknowledging the naturalness of growing up, Sebold also contextualizes that experience. In The Lovely Bones, moving from a place of innocence to one of knowledge can occur violently and abruptly. Coming of age can happen in circumstances that circumvent the normal, perhaps suggesting a need to rethink normal.

Additional discussion on themes:

1. Pain and violence distort everything.
The existence of the story told within The Lovely Bones is itself the most emphatic emphasis for this theme: Susie Salmon should not have to tell her life story in bits and pieces, from above, and after she's been killed. She should be able to live it, but instead, Mr. Harvey's terrible rape and slaughter of this innocent girl transforms her. It kills her, of course, but it also rips her innocence from her and hurls her into heaven long before her time.

But Susie is not the only one transformed through violence. Her murder twists her family until it is barely recognizable. It separates her sister Lindsey from the other kids at school. It drives Buckley into hiding in the forts he makes. Susie's murder drives a wedge between her parents, causing her mother to flee into the arms of another man for comfort and her father to seek justice on his own late at night—and get crippled by accident. Later still, Buckley's anger over how his father can't release his sister's death causes his father to have a heart attack.

The character of Ruth Connors is a good metaphor for how even casual contact with true violence changes things. Susie's soul accidentally brushes her as it flies from her dying body to heaven; this brief contact changes Ruth's life forever. She becomes obsessed with Susie, but also acutely sensitive to the violence women suffer in the world. She walks the streets of New York, sensing and commemorating their pain. Eventually, she and Susie swap bodies, and Ruth goes briefly to heaven ahead of her time as a result of this one fleeting encounter.

But it is not just the likeable characters who are shaped by violence. Mr. Harvey, too, is distorted by the pain he's suffered. He is driven to be not a woman, and not a child, by the painful memories of his own family life, and of the loss of his own mother.

2. Tremendous implications ripple outwards from individual events.
In The Lovely Bones, each and every small individual action or event might have tremendous implications. The neighbors identify the body parts found early in the book by the specific book found with them, for example, and Lindsey realizes that her mother is having an affair through the scarf she sees in the police station. Likewise, Mr. Harvey takes care to "manage" the details of the life he leads to maximize his appearance of reality; he runs his home by a time clock to make sure he "hits" each of his targets. It is the detail of his making dollhouses that reopens the investigation late in the novel, and it isn't a heroic police action that finally brings Mr. Harvey down. It is the random fall of an icicle.

However, it is in the emotional area that these individual events matter most in The Lovely Bones. Susie's death puts her entire family under a magnifying lens. Their pain allows readers to see how important the smallest choices in life are. Susie's choice of the shoe when playing Monopoly, the snapshots she takes of her family, the songs to which she and her grandfather had danced, the grave rubbings her parents had completed: each event that makes up a human life is shown to have tremendous meaning, and a weight that can be felt, quite literally, beyond the grave.

3. Stories have a power and a logic beyond mere words.
Rather than being simply words—mere entertainment—in The Lovely Bones, stories have a tremendous power, and a logic all their own. Their power comes from their emotional and ethical resonance. It matters that Len Fenerman will not allow cases to be closed; it is a way of paying homage to them. Likewise, Susie starts her own list of the living, to balance Mr. Harvey's list of the dead. Mr. Harvey himself survives by the quality of his stories. When he's out hunting, he fabricates convincing stories of his wife to cover his evil intentions; when he's questioned by the police, the level of detail he provides convinces them that he is weird, but not guilty.

Stories are so important that dead women greet Ruth Conner in heaven as a hero when she visits them. The records of their pain and death matter to them, even after they are dead and in heaven, and having someone remember them in the right way is intensely important to them.

Finally, stories have their own logic in The Lovely Bones. In a just universe, Susie Salmon should have gotten more than the one kiss from Ray Singh; in this universe, she does. She gets to come back to complete their interrupted love affair, and in a more general sense, Susie watches her family until their story reaches a happy ending.

4. Love is the only real answer to loss.
Jack Salmon tries to balance his daughter's death through vengeance: he goes out into the night with a baseball bat to kill her killer. He fails, and is crippled as a result. What does work to help the world recover from loss is love. When Samuel Heckler and Lindsey Salmon kiss for the first time, Susie thinks that "it was glorious. I was almost alive again." After that, the key moments of restored balance in The Lovely Bones are when Jack and Abigail Salmon get back together, when Susie gets to borrow Ruth's body to make love to Ray Singh, when Abigail Salmon tells her dead daughter that she loves her, when Susie's grandfather dances lovingly with her in heaven, and, finally, when Samuel and Lindsey get the house they want, and marry. Love is the only real answer to loss in The Lovely Bones.

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