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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.
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.
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