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Virgin Suicides

Jeffrey Eugenides

Chapter 5

Chapter 4, continued

Important Quotations Explained

Summary

The paramedics arrive for a fourth time, this time with a backup crew, as the boys huddle in their beds feigning sleep. Lux, Bonnie, and Therese are dead, while Mary is still alive. She ultimately survives for another month, but the community assumes she is as good as dead. Dr. Hornicker, realizing that his diagnosis of post-traumatic stress does not adequately explain Cecilia's initial suicide, suggests that the sisters suffer from a chemical imbalance of serotonin. A blood sample from Mary shows a slightly depressed serotonin level, and she is prescribed medication and therapy. The coroner performs autopsies on the sisters, in accordance with a state law requiring investigation of suicides, despite the coroner's great sadness at cutting into such pristine young bodies.

Ms. Perl, the investigative reporter, hashes together some offhand remarks about Cecilia's spirituality to write a conspiracy theory story that suggests the suicides were part of a pact, an "esoteric ritual of self-sacrifice," timed to coincide with some astrological event. Despite her untenable evidence, the media descends on the neighborhood, oblivious to the Lisbons' grief. Horrified, the boys watch as the television stations narrate and analyze the girls' lives, making huge factual errors and often confusing one girl for another. Worse, most of the neighborhood believes what they see on television. In guarding the sacred memory of the girls' truth, the boys realize that they are alone.

Though the Lisbons do not appear publicly, the local real estate agent receives a call from Mr. Lisbon asking him to put the house on the market, and Mr. Hedlie, the English teacher, is hired to clean out the house. While the Lisbons stay in a motel, Mr. Hedlie systematically clears the house of its artifacts, leaving huge sacks of trash on the curb through which the boys furtively search. Three days later, in a massive garage sale, the house's furniture is sold to out-of-towners, while the neighbors wander and gawk.

Meanwhile, the boys' parents seem able to deal with the tragedy, returning to the routine of suburban life while the boys nurse their horror and memories. The plaque on a bench that originally was dedicated to Cecilia is altered to read "In memory of the Lisbon girls, daughters of this community." No one seems to notice that Mary is still alive. Mary returns home from the hospital to join her parents in the empty house, sleeping in sleeping bags as all the furniture is gone. In the desolation of the days following the suicides, Mr. Lisbon obsessively checks the engine of his car, Mrs. Lisbon wanders the house, and Mary sleeps and takes six showers a day. Once, Mary appears unannounced at a neighbor's house for a voice lesson, and leaves without remembering to pay.

Now well into summer and more than a year since Cecilia's first suicide attempt, the air is thick with a rotten stench due to a chemical spill in a nearby lake. In deference to the smell, the O'Connor family chooses "Asphyxiation" as the theme of their daughter's debutante party, asking guests to arrive in tuxedos and gas masks. The neighborhood boys attend the party to try and forget the Lisbon girls amid the waves of drunken socialites. As they return home at dawn, they see the ambulance one final time at the Lisbon house, its lights flashing. Mary has taken sleeping pills and is dead, carted out on a stretcher. Neither of the Lisbon parents appears.

By an odd coincidence, the cemetery workers' strike is settled on the day of Mary's death. All five sisters can now be buried. The only attendees at the mass funeral of the Lisbon girls are Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon, a gravedigger, and a priest. Because of the huge rush of burials, the priest is exhausted, and can barely keep track of the girls in his mind as he gives their five separate rites. That night, Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon move away. Their house is sold to a new young couple, who begin extensive renovations, and remove all evidence of the girls' existence.

The neighborhood begins to decline. Gradually, the Parks Department removes all the trees, including the Lisbons' stump, leaving the suburb flat and glaringly bright. The boys themselves grow older, and though some of them leave the suburb, most eventually return. They are aware that their knowledge of the Lisbon girls, imperfect to begin with, is fading away, just as their precious artifacts of the girls' lives begin to rot, fade, and decay. Yet even from middle age, the boys remain haunted by what they see as the audacity and incomprehensible selfishness of the five suicides.

It didn't matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn't heard us calling, still do not hear us, up here in the tree house, with our thinning hair and soft bellies, calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.

Analysis

The resolution of the cemetery workers' strike, which began shortly before Cecilia's suicide and ends on the day of Mary's suicide, gives the final Lisbon daughter's death an air of tragic and narrative closure. Its horror now exhausted, the earth will once more consent to receive its own. The book's closure is also achieved by the careful juxtaposition of Cecilia's and Mary's deaths, the first and last Lisbon suicides, which frame the narrative like a question and its response. Both Mary and Cecilia were unsuccessful in their first suicide attempt, and successful on their second, a month later. Mary's obsessive showering recalls Cecilia's obsessive bathing, and both suggest a kind of ritual purification. The neighborhood's silence in the weeks after Cecilia's death is eerily echoed by its refusal to acknowledge the last month of Mary's life. More broadly, the air of certain death that seems to haunt Mary's last month suggests the inescapable force of tragedy, which must be allowed to run its course before the curse is lifted. However, given the strength of both the neighbors' and the reader's expectations that Mary's death will occur, the novel suggests that Fate itself can simply be a manifestation of the community's beliefs and fears. Public opinion in Virgin Suicides echoes the chorus in ancient Greek tragedy, which served as a vocal moral compass and explicitly told the reader about the play's hierarchy of horror and retribution. It is only after Mary's death that the reader's comfortable sense of narrative closure will be eroded by the boys' description of the neighborhood's continual decay, strikingly symbolized by the loss of its trees.

In a further attempt at closure, the psychiatrist, Dr. Hornicker, and the reporter, Ms. Perl, try to rationalize the horror of the girls' acts. Dr. Hornicker reasons that the girls' suicidal behavior was due to a chemical imbalance in the body—one that is easily diagnosed and treated—and suggests that suicide is both predictable and preventable. Ms. Perl describes the deaths as a pact, timed to coincide with an astrological event, thus raising the suicides to the level of the absurd. Both explanations serve to calm suburban parents worries that their children may be next, and to allay fears that the girls' deaths imply a larger social problem. Neither a treatable condition nor a statistical aberrance is truly threatening, and thus the community's guilt is alleviated and status quo is reaffirmed. Put otherwise, both psychiatrist and reporter reassure that neither suburban society nor its institutions are rotten at the core. Instead, the problem can be confined entirely to the Lisbon house, and to the bodies of its five young inhabitants.

Finally, the house's quick sale makes an ironic point about the American popular consciousness, in which tragedy is notable for its sensation, not its permanence. It is not clear whether the new couple knows of the house's history, but they evidently either do not care or do not care to know. Like the country itself, the couple is quite young and has a relatively short memory. In the Greek tragic tradition, the site of Agamemnon's palace at Mycenae, where a noble family met its end after the Trojan War, is still considered cursed. In Eugenides' America, history is not adhesive: it lingers in the mind, but not in the landscape. Memory is a flimsy and faulty thing, as the boys acknowledge. Their mental images of the Lisbon girls have not survived any better than the crumbling photographs of the tree house, and in most cases, their memories have decayed more. The boys attempt to witness the truth about the Lisbon girls, that is, to look around the neighborhood, letting their gaze conjure up its object's past. But in so doing, they are starkly aware of the paucity of their attempts and the failure of their comprehension. The body is no more a place of enduring truth than the Lisbon home or the carefully plotted grave. The sensation gone, the boys are left with its fading shadow, certain only of the immensity of their loss and the depth of their despair.

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