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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
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.
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.
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Virgin Suicides!