The Lovely Bones Themes
by Alice Sebold

The Lovely Bones book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download The Lovely Bones Study Guide

Subscribe Now

The Lovely Bones Themes

(Literary Newsmakers for Students)

Loss and Grief

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.

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...

(The entire section is 2,048 words.)