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Virgin Suicides

Jeffrey Eugenides

Chapter 4

Chapter 4

Chapter 4, continued

Summary

After Homecoming, Mrs. Lisbon withdraws her daughters from school and confines them to the house. The boys are shocked by the severity of punishment for Lux breaking curfew. Mrs. Lisbon will later explain that she thought the girls needed time by themselves to recover from Cecilia's death. Mr. Lisbon seems neither involved in nor aware of this decision.

The following Sunday, after church, Mrs. Lisbon forces Lux to destroy her rock records. Besides family trips to church, and Mr. Lisbon's trips to school, no one is ever seen leaving the house. As the weather turns cold, the boys begin to notice Lux on the roof of the Lisbon house copulating with random men. No one knows how Lux meets these men, or how she manages to sneak them up onto the roof at night without her parents' knowledge. Some of these men tell the boys stories of being led through a dark house full of rotting and congealed food and empty cans, indicating that Mrs. Lisbon has stopped cooking and cleaning entirely. The men all speak of Lux's incredible presence, likening her to an angel. Yet they report that she often seemed bored by the sex itself, and speculate her ultimate motive. The boys, who are virgins, watch incredulously with binoculars, haunted by the fantastic image of Lux in the act of love.

Three weeks later, the ambulance appears at the Lisbon house, this time for Lux. The rumor is that she suffers from a burst appendix, but once at the hospital it becomes clear that Lux has faked stomach pain to see a doctor and be given a pregnancy test. The sympathetic doctor determines that Lux is not pregnant, and tells her parents that it was a bad case of indigestion. Dr. Hornicker, the psychiatrist, stops by to see Lux in the hospital and concludes that she is in deep denial of Cecilia's death. Dr. Hornicker writes a second report on the Lisbon girls, diagnosing the remaining sisters with post-traumatic stress disorder and warning of the high incidence of repetitive suicide in a single family. In light of his report, the community begins to think of suicide as a contagious disease and vilifies Cecilia for infecting her sisters. No one asks how Cecilia caught the suicide virus in the first place.

Meanwhile, as winter deepens, the Lisbon house continues to decay. No repairman comes to fix the leaks, and not even Father Moody dares intrude on the Lisbons' solitude. Only Mr. Lisbon leaves the house on his daily trip to school, appearing with a fake smile and puffy red eyes. Six weeks after Homecoming, Mr. Lisbon resigns. It is rumored that he was asked to leave by local parents concerned by his failure to manage his own children.

Once Mr. Lisbon's trips to school cease, the Lisbon house becomes completely desolate. No one ever leaves, the lights rarely go on, and the grocer stops delivering groceries. The boys, watching, worry that the girls are not eating. They witness Bonnie wasting away, appearing progressively more waifish as she comes out onto the porch in the mornings just before dawn to recite the rosary. The boys begin to smell wafts of a palpable stench beginning to emerge from the Lisbon house, thick and overpowering.

Analysis

The external deterioration of the Lisbon house closely mirrors its internal chaos, suggesting the ways an environment can reflect the mental and emotional state of its human inhabitants. The house's drawn shutters and continually closed windows and doors suggest a body whose eyes are closed and whose mouth never opens, illustrating the Lisbon girls' isolation and silence throughout the winter. But while the Lisbons' isolation is largely self-imposed, it is accepted and even encouraged by the community. Following Dr. Hornicker's theory, the neighbors conceive of Cecilia's suicide in the language of infectious disease—a virus that is liable to spread to her sisters and to anyone else who comes too close. In the community's eyes, the Lisbons's shut house serves as a kind of quarantine, an isolation of the sick so they cannot infect others. Unlike hospital quarantine, however, the community makes no provisions to help the "infected" Lisbons recover. Instead, the community's encouragement of the Lisbon quarantine suggests a troubling tendency to hold the victim responsible for the tragedy. Stated more broadly, if America gives the successful person credit for his or her success, then America must also hold the miserable human being responsible for his or her failure. This argument shows the dark side of the American dream.

Second, Lux's sexual promiscuity suggests that she has access to worlds beyond suburbia and to wisdom beyond her years. The boys are as mystified by her ability to summon partners as they are by her seemingly intuitive knowledge of the sexual act. Without ever leaving her house, Lux meets and copulates with men from places that the boys are free to roam but have never seen. Furthermore Lux's partners, reporting that she often seemed bored by the sex itself, feel that they have been merely part of her greater plan. Lux's access to the world beyond house arrest is mirrored in her access to a world beyond her body. The limitations of Lux's physical environment are simply factors to which she adapts. Her physical presence in the house does not prevent her interacting with other places, any more than the physical act of sex prevents her mind from focusing intently on other things. The neighborhood boys are shocked by this revelation because for them, the physical world, and physical sex, is what is most important. To them, Lux's ability to move beyond the physical warns of an ability to leave the physical world entirely. Lux's knowledge of sex implies a concomitant knowledge of death.

Finally, Lux's "burst appendix" is the only time in the novel in which the ambulance arrives without finding a suicide. This is the third time the ambulance has appeared, having come once after Cecilia's suicide attempt and again after her success. Lux's ambulance ride due to faked illness is an important counterpoint to her sisters' ambulance rides due to suicide. What haunts Lux is not death but life, in the form of pregnancy. The theatrics of her "illness" implicitly call the nature of her sisters' suicides into question, suggesting that they be understood not only as private acts, but also as a kind of performance art. Sitting up on the stretcher, clutching her stomach, Lux is a perfect caricature of the victim. Lux plays on the latent fears of her audience to be allowed to escape the house. It is a brilliant ploy, exposing not only the boys' dire expectations, but also our expectations that the girls will eventually commit suicide. The fake illness makes it difficult for us to ultimately accept Lux as the victim of an inexorable narrative. Like the boys, we are left to wonder whether even Lux's eventual suicide is a trick she has played, or a charade whose real purpose we are not yet clever enough to see.

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