Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 150
One of the more striking debuts of contemporary literature, Jeffery Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides has received lavish attention for its morbid subject matter and novel narrative voice. Using a unique first-person plural point of view, a collective “we” that stands for several boys who grew up together in the book, Eugenides plumbs the depths of teenage lust and angst in suburban America, meditating on how the unfulfilled and unfathomable past continues to haunt. The narrators, now middle-aged adults, revisit what they know about the five Lisbon girls’ lives and deaths through their own memories and interviews with neighbors, tracking the destruction of a family over thirteen months, and exploring the lingering feelings of love and pain that have persisted for twenty years. As witnesses to the girls’ demise, incapable of preventing the suicides of all five sisters, the narrators find that the innocence of their childhood cannot be reclaimed.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 856
While the narrative describes the demise of the five Lisbon sisters in a Detroit suburb during the early 1970s, the story itself is told some two decades later by witnesses to the events. The Virgin Suicides is unique in that its narrative voice is first-person plural: “we” rather than “I”. The “we” is a group of teenage boys who live in the same neighborhood as the Lisbons and who as adults still try to comprehend the suicides. The number of boys in the novel is intentionally never made clear, though the film adaptation chose four.
The book begins with Cecilia, the youngest Lisbon, and her initial failed attempt at suicide. The reader learns that the sisters are spread out in age across the teenage years—Cecilia, 13; Lux, 14; Bonnie, 15; Mary, 16; Therese, 17—and each possesses a “glittering” and surprising beauty. Mrs. Lisbon runs a strict, churchgoing household that isolates the daughters, so much so that the narrators’ initial interaction with the Lisbons is via voyeuristic gazes from across the street. That the Lisbons had allowed only one neighborhood boy into the house increases the desire of the narrators to talk to the Lisbon sisters.
After the hospital psychiatrist recommends that Cecilia and her sisters be allowed to interact with males and wear makeup, the girls are allowed to “throw the first and only party of their short lives.” The narrators become enamored of the girls, particularly of Lux, who radiates “health and mischief.” At the party, Cecilia avoids interacting with the boys, later excusing herself from the party, and then “hurling herself out of the world” by jumping out of the window and impaling herself on a fence post. After the funeral, the boys get a hold of her diary and discover that “Cecilia writes of her sisters and herself as a single entity”; they develop an understanding of and kinship with the girls, “our twins.” Their infatuation grows.
The Lisbons, however, “recede into a mist” for the rest of the summer and into the school year. Lux, in spite of her parents’ ban on dating, has a series of clandestine relationships with the narrators’ peers, including Trip Fontaine, the school’s heartthrob. Trip, later in rehab, “didn’t understand how she bewitched him,” but he falls in love with her, braving a visit to the Lisbon house to win her over; the visit ends with Lux’s “delectable force” smothering Trip with kisses. The Lisbons initially reject Trip’s request to take Lux to homecoming, but eventually agree to the date if all the girls go as a group. At the end of the evening, Lux and Trip escape to the football field, where Trip abandons her after they have sex; they never speak again. Because Lux misses curfew, Mrs. Lisbon shuts the house, effectively turning it into a prison, and takes the girls out of school. By winter, the narrators spot Lux using the roof to copulate with local teenagers and men.
The Lisbon house is described as “rotting” and in a “soft decay” in the months that follow: the roof is falling apart, leading to water leaks; garbage is strewn everywhere. Mr. Lisbon is dismissed from his teaching job. Groceries are no longer delivered. An overpowering stench from the house engulfs the neighborhood. “Now the house truly died,” the narrators say. The only sign of life occurs in the spring, when the girls prevent the diseased elm tree in their front yard from being cut down by the community Parks department.
Just as the narrators feel the girls were “slipping away,” the Lisbon daughters begin to send cryptic messages to them—postcards of the Virgin Mary, an indecipherable Morse code of blinking lights, candles, and letters left in the middle of the night. The narrators eventually devise a method of contact: phone calls playing music that “throbbed with secret pain.” The girls respond in kind. The ongoing communiqué convinces the narrators that the girls might love them back; however, the girls abruptly end the game and communication stops.
Three days later, the narrators receive a message from one of the sisters and the next night march confidently to the Lisbon house, where they make plans with Lux to take the girls out of town. She leaves them to go wait in the car. When minutes pass, the boys begin to explore the now silent house, first finding Bonnie in the basement, hung from the rafters; the narrators are later unsure of the sequence, but at about the same time Mary attempts to kill herself by putting her head in the kitchen oven, and Therese dies by overdosing on sleeping pills. Lux’s death, by asphyxiation, occurs as the narrators flee the house.
Mary survives, though kills herself a month later by overdosing on sleeping pills. Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon empty out the house—which is how the narrators come to possess so many artifacts of the Lisbons—and sell it, leaving town after Mary’s funeral. In the weeks that follow, the narrators transition toward adult life but remain obsessed with understanding how “something sick at the heart of the country had infected the girls.”
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