Summary I

Awkwardly and belatedly, the community attempts to reach out to the Lisbon household following Cecilia's death. Most send flowers. The few fathers that attempt personal calls to the Lisbon household find Mr. Lisbon obsessively watching baseball and Mrs. Lisbon in her bedroom, not receiving visitors. The house has fallen into disarray, coated with dust balls and half-eaten food. Father Moody, the local priest, is the only one who speaks personally with the girls, declaring them "buffeted but not broken." Meanwhile, the girls' suffering only makes them more fascinating to the neighborhood boys.

Hoping to prevent further tragedy, the neighborhood men get together and remove the "dangerous" fence on which Cecilia had jumped. With the fence gone, the neighborhood feels much better, and they begin a belated spring-cleaning. The boys work hard sweeping the summer's accumulation of dead bugs from their own houses and from the Lisbons'. Mr. Lisbon emerges to thank them. Returning inside, as he will tell the boys years later, Mr. Lisbon finds Therese eating candy and realizes that his children are strangers. Mounting the stairs to the second floor, he sees Cecilia's window still open, attended by Cecilia's ghost. Rushing to close the window, he realizes that the ghost is only his daughter, Bonnie, wrapped in a sheet.

In August Dr. Hornicker calls the Lisbons for a second consultation, but they do not go. Mrs. Lisbon begins taking charge of the house, as Mr. Lisbon seems to withdraw even further, sneaking unkempt out of the house in the morning on his way to the high school, where he teaches math. On Convocation, September 7, the four Lisbon sisters appear at school in last year's clothes as if nothing had happened over the summer. Over the next few weeks, the girls keep to themselves. Their friends are uncomfortable because of the tragedy, and give them space. Meanwhile, Mr. Lisbon arrives early to school each day and seems to throw himself into his work.

Although the Lisbons do not allow their daughters to date, Lux manages to have various secret short-term relationships. Her tryst with Trip Fontaine, the high school dream boy, trumps them all. One fateful day, Trip ducks into the wrong history class to avoid the principal and sits down behind Lux Lisbon. When she turns to look at him, Trip falls into love, a feeling from which he will never recover. He wanders the halls dreaming of her, but has no idea how to pursue her, having always been the one pursued. He gets his chance at a school assembly. Sitting beside her, he whispers that he will come watch television at her house on Sunday, and then ask her father if he can take her out.

On Sunday, Trip arrives and is ushered to a seat on the couch beside Mrs. Lisbon, where he sits until the family tires of the Walt Disney special and calls it a night. Trip returns mournfully to his car, envisioning a future of watching television beside Mrs. Lisbon, as Lux remains infinitely inaccessible. Suddenly Lux appears in Trip's car in a flannel nightgown, desperately kissing him, and after several life-altering moments WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?, flees back into the house. Lux is grounded, while Trip feels the agony of not being near her.

Analysis I

Trip's courtship of Lux exposes the values and rules of suburban society. Despite the changes that occurred in the '60s and the growth of the womens' movement, suburbia remains a bastion of the old patriarchic order. Men go to work, rake the yard, lift heavy things, and act as head of family, while women confine themselves to the home, cooking, cleaning and childrearing. Showing the power that men enjoy, Trip's plan to win Lux requires that he ask her father if he can take her out. The idea is absurd, not simply because of the Lisbon's restrictions on dating, but more importantly because Mr. Lisbon is in no position to give consent. It is Mrs. Lisbon, not he, who has clear and final say over the girls' lives and the family's rules. In patriarchal suburbia, Mr. Lisbon's failure to control his household brands him a failed father, an inadequate male, and as something less than a man. The image that emerges in this chapter and the next is of Mrs. Lisbon as an unfeminine tyrant. Likewise, the image of Mrs. Lisbon reflects the suburban belief that no real woman would consent to play such an unflattering gender role.

In this chapter, the family's decline is symbolized by the decay of the house and backyard. The girls need to scavenge for candy, which is further proof to suburban neighbors that Mrs. Lisbon is neglecting her role as cook and housecleaner. The book implies that Mrs. Lisbon has similarly neglected her role as mother. Subsequent chapters show that the Lisbon parents' gender roles are even more visibly skewed. Such speculation serves to reinforce the suburban patriarchal ideal. The Lisbon house's ruin serves as a warning to others who would challenge the status quo and push the boundaries of gender roles.

Furthermore, Trip's strategy to watch TV with the Lisbons hints at the crucial role of spectatorship in suburbia. As night falls around the neighborhood, lights turn on, illuminating families gathered around their television sets. Ironically for the suburban family, quality time means making it through a Disney special together. Television seems to be the American solution to intimacy, and family substitute shared experience for interaction. Trip's visit is a suitable overture to the family: his evening is spent in the Lisbon house next to Mrs. Lisbon, as he laughs politely at the television program's canned humor. Across the suburb and throughout the novel, friends gather in shared spectatorship. The Lisbons watch Disney, just as the neighborhood boys watch the Lisbons.

For the novel's characters, the prevalence of television has had a profound effect on what watching means and how it is understood. The boys' observations and descriptions of the girls are often given as if the boys themselves were a camera. The boys watch the girls drift by in slow motion and they describe bright sunlight as overexposure. In their role as camera, the boys imagine themselves to objective observers, impartially recording every detail for future reference. Yet the camera is also a tool of artifice, reinventing the girls as inaccessible heroines in a drama that the boys can only passively watch. The novel is obsessed with watching and sight. Eugenides' makes an interesting choice: he decides to cover themes of image and spectatorship by using the written word. This choice requires a kind of self-conscious distance and an acknowledgement of the inability of one art form to adequately contain another. The novel proceeds with full awareness of this failing, just as the boys narrate the story with the understanding that they do not have all the answers. By extension, both the image and the word are inadequate to contain the truth of the Lisbon girls' story.

Finally, as hinted at the end of Chapter Two, the neighborhood fathers' removal of the fence is typical of the suburb's response to the Lisbon tragedy. Rather than worrying about the causes of Cecilia's self-destructiveness, the men simply destroy her tools. They do not uproot every fence in the neighborhood, nor ask every father to switch to an electric razor, indicating an almost superstitious belief that the danger resides in the particular fence on which Cecilia jumped. Likewise, Cecilia's own suicide is rationalized as her own private sickness, rather than as a tendency latent in adolescents. The suburb's failure to consider the big picture reflects what journalist Christopher Hitchens has called 'a Maginot Line in the mind,—the stubborn belief that the enemy will always appear in the same form. The French, fearing another invasion of German ground troops after World War I, spent enormous amounts of money fortifying the trenches of the Maginot Line along the French/German border, only to find that the Germans appeared in airplanes. Meanwhile, the neighborhood men removing the fence will be surprised in Chapter Four to find that the girls have other means of suicide besides a pointy fence.