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Virgin Suicides

Jeffrey Eugenides

Study Questions and Suggested Essay Topics

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Study Questions

Discuss the novel's narrative "we." What is the effect of a plural narrator? What are the narrator's characteristics? How does the narrator compare to other characters in the novel?

The novel considers a group of neighborhood girls, the Lisbon sisters, who are continually watched, analyzed, and described by the book's narrators, a group of neighborhood boys. Both groups—:the masculine "we" and the feminine "they"—vacillate continuously between being cohesive, homogenous groups and sets of distinct individuals. The Lisbon girls are introduced on page seven, and differentiated at Cecilia's party later in the chapter. By contrast, though the reader meets many of the neighborhood boys, the identity of "we" is never explicitly given as a list of names. Instead, "we" is a category that exists independent of any particular boy, whereas individual boys are always described in the third person. The "we" voice has access to the collective knowledge of the neighborhood boys, and expresses their common observations and desires. "We" is not omnipotent, however, though its plural constituency gives "we" access to more knowledge than one person could have gathered. Furthermore, as the novel is told in the past tense, the narrators are able to give details in the order they wish, rather than in the order in which the details were learned.

The reader of the novel is invited to become part of the narrative "we," despite several sentences in which the narrators single out the reader as "you." The plural "we" gives the effect of an audience, suggesting an arbitrarily large group of friends watching the spectacle of the Lisbon lives. It also suggests the totality of the book's readers, and of others who have tried to make sense of the girls' suicides. Yet, in its totality, the narrative "we" also implies the enormity of the tragedy, the inability for the boys to define the world that the Lisbon sisters live in, as well as the uniformity of public opinion in their tiny suburb.

How are vision and sight important to the novel? What role do images play?

The Virgin Suicides is a deeply voyeuristic novel, a record of the neighborhood boys' continual observance of the Lisbon girls. The narrators' primary sense is that of sight, as they take copious mental notes of spectacles provided by the Lisbon girls—from their tattered knee socks at school to Lux having sex on the roof of her house in midwinter. Yet the narrators' sight is hidden, secret, and skulking. They watch out of the corners of eyes, through binoculars, and when they think the girls are not looking. When the girls glance up or back, the boys pretend not to see. Not seeing, both in the sense of discretely declining to look and in the stronger sense of blindness, is used to further imply the scope of what the boys do not know, as well as their refusal to accept the facts of the girls' deaths. Sight is the sense associated with objectivity and distance. In hindsight, or the further someone can move away from a situation, the more one can understand the situation. Now that years have elapsed since the suicides, the boys invoke their visual memory, hoping for insight, clarity, and perspective. But their attempts at objective analysis are unconvincing. The boys remain too close to the narrative to see it clearly, their desire for objectivity driven not by science but by guilt.

Practically, the boys' mental pictures of the girls are set against the actual photographs that they collect and classify as part of an ongoing archive of the girls' lives. These images serve as triggers for the boys' memories and as concrete witnesses to the past. Yet the boys', and the novel's, cataloguing of images is necessarily an incomplete project. Just as an image is always haunted by the stories beyond its borders, the boys' photographs of the Lisbon lives serve mainly to attest to the magnitude of what was not recorded. No finite number of artifacts can capture the depth and richness of human life and neither, by extension, can a limited memory. Furthermore, by describing images that the reader will never see, the boys hint at the deep privacy of their memories, acknowledging the existence of bounds which even the most empathetic reader will not be able to cross.

The word "Suicide" is mentioned in the book's title, and Mary's death is the subject of the first sentence. What is the effect of this narrative structure on the novel? How does it influence the reader's perception of events?

Though the novel mentions Mary's death first, it is chronologically the last of the Lisbon suicides, occurring an excruciating month after Lux, Bonnie, and Therese's deaths. During that month, the community assumes Mary is as good as dead, and the reader, having been warned in advance, does as well. Thus, the narrative effect of mentioning the deaths early on is to create in the reader's mind a sense of doom that parallels that of the Lisbons' neighbors. The deaths take on a tragic inevitability, allowing both the reader and the neighbors to see the girls as victims of Fate rather than of suburban circumstance. As in a Greek tragedy, it seems as though the girls' actions can help them postpone but not avoid their destiny. Yet easily accepting this tragic sense prevents the reader from attempting to understand the reasons for the deaths by focusing only on the details. Likewise, the community's growing sense that the Lisbon girls are doomed frees them from examining their own responsibility for the suicides, or from asking how and why suburbia failed the Lisbon sisters.

More generally, the novel's title, The Virgin Suicides, locates the Lisbon deaths as the central point around which the narrative will revolve. Yet the title is self-consciously sensationalist, suggestive more of one of Ms. Perl's headlines and less of the somber reflections of the neighborhood boys. Its homogeneity and consensus belies the temporal and practical differences of the deaths. Put in other words, the effect of the novel's title is to tie the Lisbon suicides into a neat, presentable package, which the subsequent narrative will unravel.

Suggested Essay Topics

What is the effect of setting the novel in suburbia, the symbolic home of American middle-class happiness? How does the suburban landscape influence the story's events and narrative style?

Compare and contrast Lux Lisbon and Trip Fontaine. What is the significance of their relationship? Why does it matter that Lux made love to Trip instead of one of the neighborhood boys who narrate the novel?

At the end of the book, the boys admit that they still do not understand the girls' deaths. How does this failure affect the novel? In what ways does the novel use the tropes of blindness and loss to explain their imperfect knowledge?

Though the book purports to be about "virgin" suicides, Lux's encounters on the roof suggest otherwise. How does Lux's sexuality affect the reader's and the boys' perception of her character and that of her sisters? How does Lux's promiscuity affect the girls' suicides? How are the themes of sexuality, virginity, and death connected in the novel?

All five Lisbon girls and all the neighborhood boys are teenagers during the fateful year of the girls' suicides. How and why is adolescence important to the story? How are the physical and social changes of adolescence dealt with in the novel?

Compare and contrast Lux and Cecilia, the two sisters about whom we know the most. What is the significance of comparing them? What do they represent? How is this reflected in the image that Peter Sissen sees of Lux's bra draped over Cecilia's crucifix?

The neighborhood boys are impressed with Trip's gentlemanly refusal to discuss the details of his erotic adventures. To what extent is love in the novel something that can be expressed? Compare and contrast Trip's love of Lux with the boys' own love affair with the Lisbon girls. Does the fact that Trip kept his mouth shut make his love any better or more real than the narrators' love, who divulge all they can?

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