1993’s The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides takes place in the mid-70s, and reveals, through often painfully narrow insight, the lives of the five teenage Lisbon girls.
Having saw the film years previous, I must recommend the book to anyone who truly was moved, or made curious by the movie.
Since the novel takes place through the eyes of the girls’ teenage male neighbors, we rarely get firsthand information, as well as dialogue, from the girls’ themselves. The novel is filtered through information supposed collected by the boys as they grew older, concerning the five girls’ mysteriously fated suicide, which happened within one year. All facts concerning what led up to these events are formed from the keepsakes the boys obtained during the girls’ lives and after their deaths, as well as quotes from surrounding neighbors, onlookers and the people that were lucky enough to encounter the Lisbon girls during their lifetime.
While Sofia Coppola’s film adaptation of the book may have appeared simple and poetically beautiful, reading Eugenides text will have you scraping for clues as to why these suicides took place. Throughout the novel, the boys recall that many blamed the remaining four suicides on the initial suicide of the youngest daughter, Cecilia; this chain reaction, due to having lost a sister and being manically depressed due to oppressive and restricting parents, is the excuse many formulated as to the girls’ demise. In this sense, Cecilia merely triggered the fate that was destined for all the girls:
“In the bathtub, cooking in the broth of her own blood, Cecilia had released an airborne virus which the other girls, even in coming to save her, had contracted. No one cared how Cecilia had caught the virus in the first place. Transmission became explanation.”
However, the one question that no one dared to ask, but which often crossed the boys’ minds, was why Cecilia committed suicide in the first place (which was unsuccessful the first time, but successful the second time.)
From the clues we are given, it is clear that the girls’ mother was indeed overly strict. Although Cecilia spent all her days wearing a vintage wedding dress, her mother buried her in a dress she hated in life. She made Lux burn all of her rock and roll records. She didn’t let the girls date, and on the one occasion she let them throw a party, her and her husband creepily chaperoned. She pulled all of the girls out of school, coincidentally after Lux came home late after a curfew (during which she was with a boy.) She only visited Mary once during her hospital stay. While we have even less details into Mrs. Lisbon’s make-up than that of her daughters, it is clear that she was overtly religious and feared her daughters having premarital sex (of which only Lux did.) From the text:
“… Even college students, free to booze and fornicate, bring about their own ends in large numbers. Imagine what it was like for the Lisbon girls, shut up in their house with no blaring stereo or ready bong around.”
Still, we cannot pin-point the mother as being to blame, although she willingly cooped up her children in a house when they should have been out socializing like other kids their age.
Mr. Lisbon is a math teacher, who seemingly let his wife wear the pants in the relationship. He rarely questioned his wife’s motives, even after Cecilia killed herself, and it was obvious the remaining girls, being cut off from the world, would seek destruction as well. There are also instances in the novel where Mr. Lisbon almost seems insane, not because his daughter had just taken her life, but because he was constantly surrounded in a house full of women. Being a father, readers almost get angry with Mr. Lisbon for not standing up to his wife and allowing the girls to be free, although no one questions his quirky behavior after Cecilia’s death, as he is a father in mourning.
At first I tried to hypothesize that there was some underlying event taking place that was disguised from the reader, as it was ultimately disguised from the teenage boys. Perhaps there was some sort of sexual abuse going on, as unlike her four sisters, who shared two rooms between them, Cecilia for some reason had her own room, (which I felt was odd as she was the youngest,) and her suicide was the most mysterious. Being pious and holy, Mrs. Lisbon is also the type of woman who would ignore any signs that her husband was abusing a daughter, not to mention any other man abusing them. In her journal that the boys’ found after her death, Cecilia writes nothing about feeling suicidal, but “writes of her sisters and herself as a single entity.” While this could suggest simple sisterhood and bonding, it’s clear that these girls had an unspeakable bond that couldn’t be shaken by outsiders because they all experienced something that changed their worlds; something perhaps that teenage girls should never have to experience. The novel also mentions the girls seeing the school psychiatrist, who seemed disturbed after listening to them, suggesting that they revealed to her the truth about their home life.
In addition, we see in the film that Cecilia stands out as having a different appearance than her sisters, suggesting that maybe she was adopted, and therefore was preordained to be an outcast. However, other than brief instances of observation, there are no facts to back up these ascertains, while at the novel’s conclusion, when tedious autopsies were done on the daughters, one would assume that signs of abuse would’ve been found if present. (Interestingly, no official tests or procedures were performed on Cecilia, as most considered her a freak that was destined to die.)
There was also extensive detail concerning the condition of the house itself. Although most of what is observed comes from word-of-mouth, when the boys enter the Lisbon home at the end of the novel, it’s clear the house was more in shambles on the inside than out. Observations from others said that their was leftover food in the house, nothing was cleaned, shingles were falling of the roof, and the boys’ witnessed the basement, identical to Cecilia’s party one year earlier, except with flooding, mold and infestation. If the parents truly did not care enough to keep house, and the girls were living in an unsanitary home, this may have caused them ailments or sickness which moved from physical to mental. (At the end, Lux mentions having swollen feet, which can be a sign of infection.) Still, other than the basement, we can’t be sure that the Lisbon girls lived in turmoil upstairs, where they mostly resided, and as mentioned previously, the girls’ autopsies all showed them as being healthy.
There was more detail into the life of Lux than any other daughter, presumably as she was the most sexually active, but it’s clear that she didn’t really enjoy the sex, but merely craved the attention, which again is a sign that she wasn’t feeling love, or was feeling the wrong sort of love, from a father figure. The fact that Trip left her alone after having sex, and even admitted that he lost all interest in her afterwards, is another fact that could have contributed to Lux’s individual demise. As Cecilia was noted as having watched a boy jump off his roof to profess his love for a neighborhood girl, and Cecilia jumped off her roof which ended her life, Lux died from carbon dioxide poisoning sitting in her parent’s sealed car, as Trip, earlier in the novel, stated that his car was sealed tight so he could get the best high from marijuana. There is also an instance where Mary goes to see a dentist to remove a set of her canine teeth; the doctor notes that she began crying as he left the room, which suggests either Mary was unhappy with her appearance or there was an underlying reason why she wanted them removed.
This is obviously a novel that brings about more questions than answers. For example, as mentioned previously, Cecilia observed a boy jumping from his roof to profess love; the boy survived. So was Cecilia’s death the second time merely an accident, or was she trying to kill herself still? Also, what were the manuscript pages that Mrs. Lisbon burned while Mary was in the hospital? Why did the girls take their lives on the day Cecilia tried to kill herself instead of the day she succeeded? (Maybe because that was the day she was meant to die, and the jumping was merely an accident?) And most importantly, why did the girls invite the boys over to witness their quartet-suicide?
There are also certain passages which stuck out, such as when Mr. Lisbon gets rid of a neighborhood boy’s retainer left at his house:
“Acts like these-simple, humane, conscientious, forgiving-held life together. Only a few days earlier he would have been able to perform them. But now he took the retainer and dropped it in the toilet. He pressed the handle. The retainer, jostled in the surge, disappeared down the porcelain throat, and, when waters abated, floated triumphantly, mockingly, out.”
To me, this signified that perhaps the father was in part to blame for Cecilia’s demise, and forever he would be haunted by decisions he did or didn’t make (beginning with the deaths of his remaining daughters.)
Also, when the girls form a ring around their tree and refuse to back down to the construction workers, a worker says, “Look, we leave this tree and the others will all
be gone by next year.” Mr. Lisbon replies, “Will be anyway, way things are going.” To me, this suggested that the father knew instinctively that his home, as well as his daughters, were rotting away, and it would only be a matter of time before he lost them too. In addition, many believed the girls didn’t want the tree cut down because Cecilia loved it, suggesting that they wanted to keep her memory alive; however the tree was rotting, which suggests that by holding on to Cecilia’s memory, the girls would continue to rot, and would never shake the thought of death as a possible escape.
I feel that no matter what Eugenides’ intentions, one shouldn’t write off an underlying cause to the suicides. However, the point of the novel is that the readers, like the boys, will never truly know what drove the daughters off the edge. Some attributed it to the dying morals of the world at large:
“Something sick at the heart of the country had infected the girls. Our parents thought it had to do with our music, our godlessness, or the loosening of morals regarding sex we hadn’t even had. The Lisbon girls became a symbol of what was wrong with the country, the pain it inflicted on even its most innocent citizens.”
“Often, in today’s world, the extended childhood American life has bestowed on its young turns out to be a wasteland, where the adolescent feels cut off from both childhood and adulthood. Self-expression can often be frustrated. More and more, doctors say, this frustration can lead to acts of violence whose reality the adolescent cannot separate from the intended drama.”
Others felt is was out of sheer stupidity, and these people lacked any remorse towards the suicides, such as the boy in the end who pretends to drown and mockingly says, “I’m a teenager, no one understands me!”
Said by Dr. Hornicker, who examined Cecilia, Mary and Lux:
“It was the combination of many factors… With most people, suicide is like Russian roulette. Only one chamber has a bullet. With the Lisbon girls, the gun was loaded. A bullet for family abuse. A bullet for genetic predisposition. A bullet for historical malaise. A bullet for inevitable momentum. The other two bullets are impossible to name, but that doesn’t mean the chambers were empty.”
The ending of the novel has the boys’, (now older men who’ve grown weary over their obsession,) concluding that they loved the Lisbon girls, but the girls were too wrapped up in their worlds of pain and too adept at dreaming that they lost touch with the one piece of reality that could have saved them. Although the boys’ were the only ones who truly appreciated the Lisbon girls, this last passage brings into question whether or not the suicides were an act of bravery or cowardice- which perhaps is the longest-running debate among living people who seek to understand why someone would take their own life. Still, the boys’ had an inkling that the Lisbon girls didn’t want to be like other girls their age, “bound for college, husbands, child-rearing, unhappiness only dimly perceived-bound, in other words, for life.”
“In the end, the tortures tearing the Lisbon girls pointed to a simple reasoned refusal to accept the world as it was handed down to them, so full of flaws.”