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Virgin Suicides

Jeffrey Eugenides

Chapter 4

Chapter 4

Chapter 4

Summary II

In the months of inclement weather that follow, the Lisbon sisters remain elusive. Mr. Lisbon, now jobless, appears in the yard in mid-January, stringing Christmas lights. At one point, the boys pick up bits of Therese's ham radio conversations. When they see the Lisbons' mailbox filling up with high-end clothing and vacation catalogues, the boys order the same catalogues and scan them endlessly, dreaming of vacations with the girls to exotic places during happier times. But in truth, as much as they try to empathize with the Lisbon girls, the boys actually have no idea what they are thinking, feeling, and doing. The boys cannot judge how bad the Lisbon girls' lives may actually be and this will haunt the boys into their old age.

Around dinner tables, the boys' families idly discuss the Lisbon plight, wondering whether Mr. Lisbon will get another job. To everyone's surprise Old Mrs. Karafilis, grandmother of neighborhood boy Demo, also seems to take an interest in the girls. Having survived a Turkish massacre in her Greek village, Mrs. Karafilis now lives quietly in semi-darkness in Karafilis' basement. She usually remains nonplussed by the comparatively minor dramas of suburbia. However, though she seems interested in news of the girls, she never seems surprised by it. Suicide makes sense to his grandmother, Demo explains to the other boys, while Mr. Lisbon putting up Christmas lights after his daughter's death does not. "What my yia yia [grandmother] could never understand about America was why everyone pretended to be happy all the time."

The local newspapers, writing later about the girls' suicides, will describe them as creatures so shut off from life that death was hardly a change. Ms. Perl, an overeager local reporter, will proudly quote lyrics from a rock song—supposedly one that Lux had liked or at least listened to—in which sexual conquest is referred to as a "virgin suicide." The neighborhood boys, reading this prose, will feel instinctively that the attempt to sensationalize or generalize the girls' experience, to describe them as a monolithic, doomed unit, is inaccurate and unfair. Even during the winter months of enforced solitude, while Lux is having sex on the roof, Therese is growing seahorses and doing science experiments, Mary is experimenting with makeup, and Bonnie is perfecting her piety.

With the arrival of spring in early April comes the Parks Department, on orders to cut down the Lisbons' elm tree, one of several which has caught Dutch elm disease and must be removed to prevent its infection from spreading. While other families come out to say goodbye to their trees, the Lisbon girls watch ashen- faced from the window but do not emerge. The Parks Department cuts off most of the upper branches and leaves. When they return three weeks later to finish the job, the girls rush suddenly out of the house and join hands around the tree, barely missing the chainsaw's blades. The Parks Department points out that the tree is already dead. Unable to persuade the girls to leave, the department moves the tree indefinitely down the list of removals. The neighborhood imagines that the girls are saving the tree because Cecilia loved it, though Mr. Lisbon will later say that he does not remember that Cecilia was particularly interested in trees. Though the tree's denuded trunk remains, the sound of sawing other trees will be heard throughout the spring. The girls return indoors indefinitely, as the boys become caught up in baseball season.

Analysis II

Old, wise, but equally housebound, Old Mrs. Karafilis is an important counterpoint to the Lisbon sisters. Like the girls, she is mourning the untimely death of her loved ones. Her Old World sadness, locked in a foreign language, reflects the sisters' own silence and exile. The Karafilis character is introduced after Cecilia's death, and she serves as a narrative substitute for the Lisbon's missing sister. Her solidarity with the girls is similar to the girls' solidarity with Cecilia. The juxtaposition of Old Mrs. Karafilis with the very young Cecilia symbolizes the tragic reversal caused by Cecilia's death, when the youngest in the family became the first to die. The boys' suspicion that Old Mrs. Karafilis and the girls secretly communicate, despite their isolation, reflects the neighborhood's greater suspicion that the girls remain in mystical contact with Cecilia and are secretly planning to join her. Furthermore, by suggesting that the girls and Old Mrs. Karafilis understand each other, the boys imply that the girls have access to some hidden reservoir of tragedy, and to a deep sadness beyond their years. Thus, Old Mrs. Karafilis also appears as a symbol of Fate, a prophet who reveals the tragic inevitability of death amid the suburbs' pretense of immortality. Mrs. Karafilis's presence and Cecilia's death exposes the American glorification of youth, and the hypocrisy of the suburban dream of perfection and innocence.

Through Demo, Old Mrs. Karafilis expresses a significant theme of the book—the American obsession with happiness. American happiness is characterized by the wish to appear happy regardless of the realities of the situation, exemplified by Mr. Lisbon stringing Christmas lights in January despite his family's misery. Mr. Lisbon's charade is not simply self-deception, but reflects his perceived duty to his neighbors to pretend that everything is all right. In other words, suburban happiness is a social phenomenon, a condition invented for the benefit of others rather than an indication of personal contentment. Indeed, suburbia itself exists primarily as a continual and communal affirmation of each member's happiness, as evidenced by their impeccable front lawns, block parties, and other public displays of well-being. The emphasis on appearance rather than substance reflects the larger influence of media and visual culture on the American consciousness. The prevalence of television, a centerpiece of the suburban home, ensures that each family is constantly exposed to generic displays of happiness, which create a culture of unrealistic dreams and shared expectations. The effect is not simply to homogenize happiness, but also to universalize it—to make the ordinary person feel as if it is his or her right and duty to be happy all the time. Old Mrs. Karafilis points out that it is humanly impossible to actually be happy all the time, and therefore extremely unnatural to pretend to be.

Finally, the epidemic of Dutch elm disease serves as an allegory for the suburb's attempt to deal with a natural disaster. It is no longer simply the Lisbon's house but the very fabric of the suburb that is falling apart—a mysterious force slowly turns the neighborhood's green canopy to a sickly yellow. Old and venerable, the trees have stood for as long as the boys can remember, and the boys' despair at their sudden removal echoes the boys' shock in Chapter Two following Cecilia's untimely death. Dutch elm, a foreign disease, has crept insidiously into the boys' suburb, leaving behind a scarred landscape. Its presence reflects the arrival and spread of suicide, which the neighbors in Chapter Five describe using the language of infectious disease. The Parks Department's systematic removal of the trees, and the constant buzzing of the saw throughout the spring, also reminds the boys of their own powerlessness against a natural disaster. Though the boys lived among the trees, they are no more able to save them from the Parks Department than they will be able to save the Lisbon girls from fate. The dying trees reflect the book's emphasis on the interaction between humans and their physical environment, and the ways in which the chaos of one is mirrored in and exacerbated by the decline of the other.

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