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Virgin Suicides

Jeffrey Eugenides

Chapter 1

Themes, Symbols and Motifs

Chapter 1, page 2

page 1 of 2

On the day of Mary Lisbon's death by sleeping pills, the paramedics' arrival at the Lisbon household seems almost routine. In the past year, all four of her sisters have committed suicide. Watching the EMS truck arrive the narrators, a group of neighborhood boys, recall the paramedics' first visit.

It is June of the previous year. Thirteen-year-old Cecilia, the youngest sister, is found with slit wrists in the bathtub clutching a picture of the Virgin Mary. She is rushed to the hospital and her is life saved. Neighborhood speculation suggests that Celia attempted suicide because of her ill-fated love for Dominic Palazzolo. Dominic, an Italian boy, had shown his own unrequited love for Diana Porter by jumping off the roof of his family's house. After giving Cecilia a series of tests, the hospital psychiatrist, Dr. Hornicker, simply diagnoses the suicide attempt as a cry for help. He suggests to Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon that Cecilia would benefit from social outlets outside of school.

As a result of the psychiatrist's advice, Mrs. Lisbon allows the girls to throw the only party of their lives—a small chaperoned gathering in the Lisbon basement to which the neighborhood boys are invited. Although the boys were long fascinated with the Lisbon girls, they remained admirers from afar. Prior to the party, only one neighborhood boy, Peter Sissen, had entered the Lisbon house. Peter had been invited to dinner in return for helping Mr. Lisbon install a model of the solar system in his math classroom. His eyewitness testimony of a house throbbing with femininity had provided the boys with many hours of discussion and speculation. Now, the chance to actually enter the Lisbon household and speak to the girls seems to the boys heady and unreal.

Arriving at the party, the boys are shepherded into the basement. Amidst the glow of fluorescent lights, Mrs. Lisbon ladles punch, Mr. Lisbon attempts to show the boys his toolkit, and Therese and Mary play dominoes. Though the party is nominally in her honor, Cecilia, wearing a vintage '20s wedding dress and bracelets to cover her scars, sits slumped on a barstool acting as if no one is there. For the first time, the boys begin to see the sisters as individuals, rather than as interchangeable blondes: pious Bonnie, awkward Therese, dark Mary, radiant Lux, stoic Cecilia. Of the five, only Lux is as beautiful as they had imagined, full of "health and mischief." Yet the party remains uncomfortable, and the boys are happy when Joe the Retard, a mongoloid neighbor, arrives with his mother and provides a distraction.

Shortly after Joe's arrival, having spoken to no one, Cecilia asks her mother to be excused from the party. She sounds old and tired and pulls at her bracelets, and then proceeds upstairs. Several minutes later the guests hear a sound of wind followed by a moist thud. Mrs. Lisbon screams. Mr. Lisbon runs upstairs to find that Cecilia has jumped from her bedroom window and impaled herself on the spikes of the fence. The boys run to the lawn just in time to see the dead girl in her fluttering wedding dress, balanced cleanly on the spike with her eyes open, as Mr. Lisbon tries gently and unsuccessfully to lift her off.


With the book's first phrase—"On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide'"—we learn that all five Lisbon girls will attempt to kill themselves. When Cecilia's suicide attempt is unsuccessful, we realize that this introductory phrase does not imply that the girls will succeed in ending their lives, only that they will try. With Cecilia's second, successful attempt, this hope is dashed, and we begin to suspect that all five girls will eventually die. This critical shift from hope to hopelessness parallels a later change in Chapters Four and Five. The town changes its opinion, as neighbors cease trying to intrude on the Lisbon family's solitude and resign themselves, perhaps prematurely, to the girls' deaths. The parallel is meant to twinge the reader's conscience. The neighbors, who did not intervene and treat the girls as already dead, bear some the responsibility for the girls' suicides. Eugenides' narrative structure forces us to wonder whether our belief that the tragedy will occur helps to make the suicides inevitable. Again and again, the book will hint that tragic fate is possible only with the implicit consent of the community.

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