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On the day of Mary Lisbon's death by sleeping pills, the paramedics' arrival at the Lisbon household seems almost routine. In the past year, all four of her sisters have committed suicide. Watching the EMS truck arrive the narrators, a group of neighborhood boys, recall the paramedics' first visit.
It is June of the previous year. Thirteen-year-old Cecilia, the youngest sister, is found with slit wrists in the bathtub clutching a picture of the Virgin Mary. She is rushed to the hospital and her is life saved. Neighborhood speculation suggests that Celia attempted suicide because of her ill-fated love for Dominic Palazzolo. Dominic, an Italian boy, had shown his own unrequited love for Diana Porter by jumping off the roof of his family's house. After giving Cecilia a series of tests, the hospital psychiatrist, Dr. Hornicker, simply diagnoses the suicide attempt as a cry for help. He suggests to Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon that Cecilia would benefit from social outlets outside of school.
As a result of the psychiatrist's advice, Mrs. Lisbon allows the girls to throw the only party of their lives—a small chaperoned gathering in the Lisbon basement to which the neighborhood boys are invited. Although the boys were long fascinated with the Lisbon girls, they remained admirers from afar. Prior to the party, only one neighborhood boy, Peter Sissen, had entered the Lisbon house. Peter had been invited to dinner in return for helping Mr. Lisbon install a model of the solar system in his math classroom. His eyewitness testimony of a house throbbing with femininity had provided the boys with many hours of discussion and speculation. Now, the chance to actually enter the Lisbon household and speak to the girls seems to the boys heady and unreal.
Arriving at the party, the boys are shepherded into the basement. Amidst the glow of fluorescent lights, Mrs. Lisbon ladles punch, Mr. Lisbon attempts to show the boys his toolkit, and Therese and Mary play dominoes. Though the party is nominally in her honor, Cecilia, wearing a vintage '20s wedding dress and bracelets to cover her scars, sits slumped on a barstool acting as if no one is there. For the first time, the boys begin to see the sisters as individuals, rather than as interchangeable blondes: pious Bonnie, awkward Therese, dark Mary, radiant Lux, stoic Cecilia. Of the five, only Lux is as beautiful as they had imagined, full of "health and mischief." Yet the party remains uncomfortable, and the boys are happy when Joe the Retard, a mongoloid neighbor, arrives with his mother and provides a distraction.
Shortly after Joe's arrival, having spoken to no one, Cecilia asks her mother to be excused from the party. She sounds old and tired and pulls at her bracelets, and then proceeds upstairs. Several minutes later the guests hear a sound of wind followed by a moist thud. Mrs. Lisbon screams. Mr. Lisbon runs upstairs to find that Cecilia has jumped from her bedroom window and impaled herself on the spikes of the fence. The boys run to the lawn just in time to see the dead girl in her fluttering wedding dress, balanced cleanly on the spike with her eyes open, as Mr. Lisbon tries gently and unsuccessfully to lift her off.
With the book's first phrase—"On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide'"—we learn that all five Lisbon girls will attempt to kill themselves. When Cecilia's suicide attempt is unsuccessful, we realize that this introductory phrase does not imply that the girls will succeed in ending their lives, only that they will try. With Cecilia's second, successful attempt, this hope is dashed, and we begin to suspect that all five girls will eventually die. This critical shift from hope to hopelessness parallels a later change in Chapters Four and Five. The town changes its opinion, as neighbors cease trying to intrude on the Lisbon family's solitude and resign themselves, perhaps prematurely, to the girls' deaths. The parallel is meant to twinge the reader's conscience. The neighbors, who did not intervene and treat the girls as already dead, bear some the responsibility for the girls' suicides. Eugenides' narrative structure forces us to wonder whether our belief that the tragedy will occur helps to make the suicides inevitable. Again and again, the book will hint that tragic fate is possible only with the implicit consent of the community.
Our participation in the novel is encouraged by the book's narrative style. The story is told entirely in the first person plural, "we." The narrators are a group of neighborhood boys who are contemporaries of the Lisbon girls. Still haunted by the memories of the Lisbon sisters, these boys review the events of their adolescence from their current perspective of middle age. The story is told through a series of contextualized narrative flashbacks. The boys are not omniscient narrators, but their historical perspective allows them to present facts, disregarding chronological order. Significantly, the narrative use of "we" remains ambiguous throughout the novel and we do not know exactly to whom "we" refers. Though names of many of the boys are mentioned, the narrative voice is impossible to pin down. The ambiguity allows the narrative to proceed under a pretext of objectivity and analysis. The boys have gone to great lengths to interview other members of the community in the years since the girls' deaths, and present these opinions alongside their own. Thus, there is a constant tension between the subjective, familiar "we," and the objective, impersonal presentation of detail. The reader is alternately treated as part of the intimate "we" and as a dispassionate observer who must be impressed with the truth.
The use of the narrative "we" also reflects a stronger tension in the uncertainty of gender roles throughout the novel. As the boys attempt to make sense of the girls, an ambiguous "us" must confront an ambiguous "them." At the Lisbon party, the boys are first able to see the girls as unique creatures, and their vague desire for the girls becomes more focused. More generally, both the Lisbon sisters and their guests are children in the midst of adolescence. They are beginning to understand themselves as distinctly male or female. Making sense of one's gender role requires the construction of an opposite sex. Similarly, the boys' scrupulous attempts to make sense of the Lisbon girls' motives are also attempts to make sense of themselves and their own desires. Assembling an image of a Lisbon girl becomes, for each neighborhood boy, an act of self-creation. Crucially, however, these acts and attempts are always unfinished. Characters like the effeminate Mr. Lisbon and the mannish Mrs. Lisbon remind the boys that it is possible to go too far over the gender line, or to not go far enough, and thus to become stuck in an almost caricatured role. Yet just as Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon complement each other's flaws, the self- actualization of the Lisbon girls and that of the neighborhood boys are critically linked. For this reason alone, to the boys, the girls' suicide will prove devastating.
Finally, religion and religious imagery saturate the chapter, setting questions of faith and belief against the boys' investigative attempts at truth, evidence, facts, and certainty. Cecilia's "pagan nudity" on the stretcher, fresh from the bath, and her clasped picture of the Virgin Mary, remind the reader that human truth can never be absolute, whether compared to the depth of superstition or the omnipotence of belief. Cecilia's favorite dress, a vintage wedding gown, suggests both a virgin nun and the Church itself, each referred to in the Catholic tradition as a "bride of Christ." The connection is also ironic: suicidal Cecilia's wedding dress is stained and torn, whereas Catholic tradition holds that Mary remained pure and ascended into heaven without actually dying. Though virginal, Cecilia is evidently not pure: her death by a stake through her heart suggests the killing of a vampire rather than the death of an angel. In a final symbolic loss of purity, shortly before her death, Cecilia begins menstruating. Her death, an implicit rejection of fecundity, is also a refusal to cross the boundary into womanhood. Instead, she will remain forever a liminal creature, caught on the fence between two worlds, dead because she could not stay in one and would not enter the other.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Virgin Suicides!