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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
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.
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 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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Virgin Suicides!