Themes, Symbols and Motifs
The Horror of the Mundane
Set in an unnamed suburb in the American heartland, the particulars of The Virgin Suicides resonate throughout typical suburban America. Though nominally an investigation into five startling deaths, the novel's broad exploration of love, loss, adolescence, and memory is perceptive and deeply universal. The deaths are tragic precisely because the story presents them in the context of a town whose hypocrisies, crises, conflicts, and characters are largely unremarkable. The search for insight into the girls' deaths thus becomes a process of sifting through endless details of ordinary life, looking for the decisive and quietly fateful moment where something went wrong.
Likewise, though the suicides are spectacular, the narrative progression toward the suicides is not. Months pass in which nothing happens; the girls remain in their solemn house and the boys attend school. Throughout, the boys continually affirm the girls as ordinary human beings subjected to draconian law. Reading Cecilia's diary, the boys feel that the girls are their twins. At Homecoming, one boy remarks that the girls are just like his sister. Indeed, except for their suicides, the girls might be anyone. Their deep normalcy is perhaps best evidenced by the caricatured failure of Ms. Perl to produce a convincingly sensational documentary about their deaths.
In presenting the girls as ordinary, the novel deliberately challenges the distance that humans tend to create between themselves and disaster. The girls kill themselves with ordinary objects, and see destruction where others saw simply tools. Danger, doubt and even death became a trick of the light, a matter of looking askance. By presenting such mundane horror and asking what went wrong, the novel forces the reader's gaze inward. In the wake of ordinary tragedy, the causes, the suspects, the triggers, and the cures are everywhere—they inhabit our unconscious reflexes, haunt our houses and saturate the air we breathe. The effect is much more devastating than spectacular. Sensationalist tragedy, can be isolated and guarded against, while the mundane is inescapable.
The Superficiality of Vision
Throughout the novel, the boys freely admit their inability to do narrative justice to the Lisbon girls' story. Yet they continue to try to describe the truth of the girls' lives. Their increasing reliance on visual data becomes a symbol of the boys' ability to catalog the details of the Lisbon girls' lives without ever sounding their depths.
Sight is the sense of objectivity, analysis, perspective, juxtaposition, description, and distance—it traces the surface but does not penetrate beyond. Likewise, the boys' knowledge of the Lisbon sisters is inextricably caught up with what they can see. The emphasis on sight reflects a crucial physicality, a gaze that stops at the skin. The boys have no more idea what goes on inside the girls' minds than they can see the girls' thoughts or look through the impenetrable walls of the Lisbon fortress. Describing the girls, the boys use increasingly photographic language, speaking as if they have internalized a camera's lens. But these sketches of the girls will, like so many photographs, prove ultimately useless in the absence of a more substantive narrative -or- deeper,.unified sequence of events. Though the boys' emphasis on sight reflects their acknowledgment of the impossibility of insight, it is also their refusal or inability to look more deeply that has left them with only the husk of the girls they loved.
The boys' reliance on vision reflects a larger cultural emphasis on the visual media of television and movies. Instead of reading the paper or listening to the radio, the Lisbons' neighbors watch the nightly news. Increasingly, the rise of mass media meant that most American families began to replace words with images as the sources and corroborators of truth. Despite their own visual orientation, the boys are deeply suspicious of television and they lament the local stations' rife confusion of the Lisbon girls' lives. The superficiality of the image has given way to a larger mutability, pointing toward an era where lost frames and uncatalogued photographs will not retain any vestiges of their context, and instead can be used to illustrate any story at all.
The American Obsession with Happiness
Bowed by the weight of tragedy, Old Mrs. Karafilis does not understand why Americans pretend to be happy all the time. To her, the suburbs are a place where artificially manufactured surroundings and lives culminate in the tyranny of an enforced happiness. Rather than indicating one's personal feeling, suburban happiness is instead a matter of social ritual, a process by which the community continuously and collectively reaffirms itself. For Old Mrs. Karafilis, this hypocrisy is typified by the figure of Mr. Lisbon stringing Christmas lights despite his daughter's recent suicide.
The novel's sociological exploration of suburban ritual supports Old Mrs. Karafilis' theory. The high school holds a day of grieving in response to Cecilia's death, which the school considers to be a great success despite the fact that the suicide was never mentioned and that the Lisbon sisters wait out the day in the bathroom. The neighborhood fathers remove the particular fence on which Cecilia jumped, giving no thought to the other fences in the neighborhood. The Parks Department systematically removes all the neighborhood trees in the name of saving them. These examples describe a widespread suburban emphasis on form, ritual, and propriety over and above content. What is proper is infinitely better than what is morally or humanly appropriate, and the latter are readily sacrificed for the former. In this infrastructure of charade and self- destruction, the forgery of happiness is another necessary farce.
The deep irony of American happiness is suggested by the characters of Lux Lisbon and Trip Fontaine. After living his youth at the pinnacle of the American dream, Trip spends his middle age in detox recovering. Likewise, Lux's decadent sexuality culminates in her premature death. Trip and Lux's search for love and happiness takes a sharp toll on their bodies; similarly, the suburban attempts at American happiness prove false, fickle, and fatal.
The Ravages of Time and the Impermanence of Memory
Written to make sense of a great loss—the death of the Lisbon sisters—the novel is continually concerned with the progressive deterioration of the little life that has remained. The twenty years that have passed since the girls' suicides have affected the boys' precious archive of the girls' lives. Bras, makeup, photographs, tennis shoes, candles, and other trinkets have begun to stiffen, yellow, disintegrate, and fade. This physical deterioration parallels the gradual disintegration of the boys' memories, mental images, and sensory recollection of the sisters. Furthermore, the boys are aware that both artifact and memory are becoming less potent. Where a photograph might once have sparked an immediate surge of memory, it now takes minutes of concentration for the boys to conjure a similar response.
In many ways, the inexorable decay of what remains is more devastating than the initial loss. The boys' only consolation against the immense void left by the Lisbon suicides is their project of "putting the girls back together," or reassembling their lives, motives, visions, and dreams from the pieces they left behind. The boys' are unable to appropriately recreate the girls' lives. Their despair at failing to do so is exacerbated by the knowledge that each day that they fail, they have less knowledge, less evidence, and fewer memories to try again. In exploring this slow decay, the novel hints that tragedy need not be spectacular to be devastating, and contrasts the sudden loss of the Lisbon sisters' lives against the boys' own slow descent to death.
The Bra on the Crucifix
Lux's bra, which Peter Sissen finds while having dinner at the Lisbon house and subsequently steals, represents the girls' latent womanhood. In the midst of adolescence, the girls are caught between the innocent asexuality of childhood and the full potency of female eroticism. Most simply, the bra on the crucifix symbolizes Lux's sexual rebellion against Mrs. Lisbon's strict Catholic rules, dramatically evidenced by her habit of having sex on the roof with anonymous men. More subtly, Lux's bra draped over Cecilia's crucifix symbolizes the critical narrative tension between shy, retiring, suicidal Cecilia and vigorous, sexy, mischievous Lux. Finally, the juxtaposition of lingerie, symbolizing fertility and sexuality, and the crucifix, symbolizing sacrifice and death, reflect the dual powers that the boys attribute to Lux in Chapter Four. The boys suspect that Lux's deep and intuitive knowledge of sex points at a deeper and more familiar knowledge of death.
The Wedding Dress
Cecilia's vintage 1920s wedding dress is an anachronism—it is ill-fitting and out of place, as is Cecilia herself. The vintage dress, as well as Cecilia's collection of old Celtic records, reflects her connection to the past—and therefore with death—despite being the youngest of the sisters. Given her age, the wedding dress is in some ways simply ironic, reflecting her precocious attempts to play different roles, like death, for which no one thinks she is ready. In Cecilia's Catholicism, both nuns and the Church itself are referred to as the "bride of Christ," symbolizing exceptional purity and symbolic union with the male aspect of the deity. Yet her dress is soiled and hacked off above the knees, suggesting both a perversion of this pure image and the inevitable disintegration of vintage objects. Finally, Cecilia's choice to wear the dress to her death, after taking a marathon bath, suggests a kind of ritual sacrifice in which a pure maiden's death is offered to appease the gods.
The Laminated Picture of the Virgin Mary
The plastic cards of the Virgin Mary on which the girls scrawl their notes are copies of the same plastic card that Cecilia was found holding during her first suicide attempt. Mary, whom Catholics venerate as the mother of God, is a rich and important religious symbol. In the Catholic tradition, Mary was made pregnant by God in an act of immaculate conception, thus giving birth to Jesus while still a virgin. Furthermore, Catholics believe that while humans were originally immortal, they were banished from the Garden of Eden and became mortal after Eve, the first woman, disobeyed God by eating an apple from the forbidden tree. When Mary's son Jesus Christ died on the cross, his followers gained back the salvation and eternal life that they had lost in the Garden. Finally, Mary ascended bodily into heaven without dying, where she acts as a supreme advocate for human beings, and pleads to God for help on their behalf. In the American Catholicism that Mrs. Lisbon practiced, Mary remains a crucial figure, both in her role as advocate and as the "Second Eve" who repaired the damage done by Eve's original sin.
In keeping with Mary's many roles, the Lisbon girls' invocation of the Virgin Mary is a complex allegory, suggesting a number of possible interpretations. Most simply, Mary is a passive vessel for God's will, reflecting the boys' increasing suspicion that the Lisbon girls are passive victims of a tragic design. Just as the Bible prophesies Mary's acts long before they happen, the novel repeatedly forecasts the girls' acts, suggesting the inevitability of what is to come. More subtly, Lux, Bonnie, Mary and Therese's suicides can be seen as a response to Cecilia's earlier suicide, ending the tragic cycle and giving narrative closure. The later acts atone for the first, just as Mary's acts atoned for Eve's. Yet the association of Mary with suicide is ironic, given that Mary is a figure of extraordinary purity while suicide is considered a mortal sin, and that Mary herself did not even die. Mary's connection to death comes via her son, Jesus, who allowed himself to be crucified to ensure the world's salvation. While the girls are not messiah figures, the boys seem to think that their death serves a higher purpose, and that the girls have motives of which the boys are not aware. Finally, it is possible that the girls simply used the cards because of their immediate association with Cecilia's death. If they wanted to get the boys' attention, the girls knew that the boys would recognize the cards as Lisbon messages, reflecting the neighborhood's larger tendency to define the Lisbon sisters in terms of their tragedy.
The planned homogeneity of the Lisbons' suburb, with its evenly spaced houses, lawns, and elm trees, reflects the homogenized happiness of its inhabitants. When this happiness is challenged, there is a corresponding change in physical environment. As the Lisbon family's situation begins to decline, their house also falls into disarray, first internally and then visibly such that the neighbors and local media begin to take notice. More broadly, however, the environment continually influences its inhabitants and vice versa. The strength of environment's influence is demonstrated by the Lisbon sisters' remarkable transformation on the night of Homecoming, when they become radiant and normal upon leaving their house. By contrast, the strength of the inhabitants' influence on the environment is demonstrated by the neighborhood's rapid physical decline following the Lisbon sisters' deaths.
The novel's continual and explicit use of foreshadowing reflects its overriding sense of tragic fate. The deaths of the Lisbon girls are announced in the book's title and first sentence and then continually deferred, leaving the reader to wait in morbid anticipation. As the Lisbon sisters are introduced at Cecilia's party, the narrators mention their eventual means of suicide. Superlative remarks take on a sinister quality, like when Mary calls Homecoming "the best time of my life." More generally, the homologous structure of the book's events serves to subtly influence the reader's expectations of a scene. The boys' trip to the Lisbon basement on the night of Cecilia's party implicitly suggests their same descent, a year later, on the night of the girls' suicides. Likewise, Lux's post as lookout on Homecoming night echoes her post as lookout on the night of June 15. Finally, characters other than the narrators occasionally also make tragic or prophetic remarks. Old Mrs. Karafilis is thought to have sympathized with the girls in their view of death, the cemetery workers go on strike with the first suicide, and Dr. Hornicker warns of a high incidence of repetitive suicide in families.
Fences, Thresholds, Boundaries
Reflecting its concern with the limits of knowledge, memory, and vision, the novel continually invokes these limits through symbolic use of physical boundaries. The boys' failure to see or enter into the interior of the Lisbon house reflects their inability to understand the girls' lives or thoughts. Likewise, Lux's regular appearance in doorways and windows and on thresholds symbolizes her role as an intermediary between the boys and her sisters. The neighbors are upset when the Lisbons' unraked leaves blow onto their lawns, symbolizing that the disarray of the Lisbon house is exceeding its acceptable bounds. Most dramatically, Cecilia's jump onto the fence shortly after having begun to menstruate symbolizes that she is permanently stuck on the boundary between childhood and adulthood.
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