The Virgin Suicides
||This article's lead section may not adequately summarize key points of its contents. (September 2014)|
|Publisher||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|LC Class||PS3555.U4 V57 1993|
The Virgin Suicides is the 1993 debut novel by American writer Jeffrey Eugenides. The fictional story, which is set in Grosse Pointe, Michigan during the 1970s, centers on one year reflecting upon the brief lives of five doomed sisters. The Lisbon girls fascinate their community as their neighbors struggle to find an explanation for their tragic acts. The book's first chapter appeared in Issue No. 117 of The Paris Review (Winter 1990), where it won the 1991 Aga Khan Prize for Fiction.
The novel is atypical in that it was written in first person plural from the perspective of an anonymous group of teenage boys whose lives were forever changed by their passionate and awkward obsession with the Lisbons, style mirroring a Greek chorus. Eugenides told 3am Magazine: "I think that if my name hadn't been Eugenides, people wouldn't have called the narrator a Greek chorus. The traditional Greek chorus stays apart from the action, but the boys in The Virgin Suicides meddle in the action quite a bit, so they really [are] different from a traditional Greek chorus." The narrator(s) rely on relics and interviews gathered in the two decades since the events to construct the tale.
The Lisbons are a Catholic family living in the decaying suburbs of Grosse Pointe, Michigan in the mid-1970s. The father, Ronald, is a math teacher at a private school and the mother is a homemaker. The family has five beautiful daughters: 13-year-old Cecilia, 14-year-old Lux, 15-year-old Bonnie, 16-year-old Mary, and 17-year-old Therese.
Their lives change dramatically within one summer when Cecilia, a stoic and astute girl described as a "misfit", attempts suicide by cutting her wrists in a bathtub. She is found in time to be saved and survives the attempt. A few weeks later, the Lisbon parents allow the girls to throw a chaperoned basement party in hopes of cheering Cecilia up. However, during this event Cecilia exuses herself and jumps from her second story bedroom window, dying when she is impaled by one of the iron spikes of the fence post below.
Cecilia's suicide and its aftermath, forces the Lisbon parents to begin to watch over their four remaining daughters even more closely. This further isolates the family from the community and heightens the air of mystery about the girls to the gossipy neighbors and the neighborhood boys in particular.
When school begins in the fall, the girls return as if nothing has happened. Lux, a secret smoker described as a "carnel angel", begins a secret romance with local heartthrob Trip Fontaine. When interviewed years later, it's a romance he admits he never fully recovered from. Determined to be with Lux, Trip negotiates with the overprotective Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon to take Lux to a homecoming dance, on the condition that he finds dates for the other three girls, to go as a group. After winning homecoming king and queen, Trip persuades Lux to ditch the dance to have sex on the high school football field. Afterwards, Trip becomes somewhat disenchanted with Lux and abandons her. As a result she misses her curfew. Consequently, having broken curfew, Lux and her sisters are punished by a furious and overbearing Mrs. Lisbon by being taken out of school and sequestered in their house of "maximum security isolation". When interviewed years later, Mrs. Lisbon says she believed she was doing what was best for her daughters, as being in school was making things worse.
Soon, the Lisbons sink into a reclusive lifestyle and rarely leave their home, with the exception of Mr. Lisbon, who drives to and from work, and the family attending church on sunday. However, despite Mrs. Lisbons' attempt to protect her daughters from the outside world of boys and sex, over the winter, a promiscuous Lux is seen at night having intercourse on the roof of the Lisbon residence with unknown men. The neighborhood boys spy and watch Lux in action from across the street. A few months after, Lux is sent to the hospital because of a pregnancy scare which her parents were told was simply indigestion. Not much later, Mr. Lisbon officially takes a leave of absence from his teaching job. Their house falls into a deeper state of disrepair; none of them leave the house and no one visits, not even to deliver milk and groceries. Soon, a foul smell coming from the house permeates the entire block. From a safe distance, all the people in the neighborhood watch the Lisbons' lives deteriorate, but no one can summon up the courage to intervene.
During this time, the Lisbons become increasingly fascinating to the neighborhood in general. After months of confinement, the sisters reach out to the boys across the street by using light signals and sending anonymous notes. The boys decide to call the Lisbon girls and communicate by playing records over the telephone for the girls to share and express their emotions.
Finally, the girls mysteriously send a message to the boys to come to the house at midnight, leading the boys to believe they will help the girls escape and elope with them. When they arrive, they meet Lux who is alone and smoking a cigarette. She invites them inside and tells them to wait for her sisters while she goes to start the car. As the boys wait, they briefly fantasize about the Lisbon sisters, not realizing that meanwhile, the girls are killing themselves in a suicide pact in the surrounding darkness: Bonnie hangs herself, Therese overdoses on sleeping pills, and Lux dies of carbon monoxide poisoning after sealing herself in the garage with the family's station wagon running. Mary attempts suicide by putting her head in the oven, but later it is revealed that her attempt fails. Disillusioned, the boys all flee from the Lisbon house. In the morning, the authorities come for the dead bodies. Mary continues to live for another month, but the community assumes she is as good as dead. Eventually, Mary successfully ends her life by taking sleeping pills like Therese on the same day of another neighborhood girls' debutant party. Seemingly unsure how to react, the adults in the community go about their lives as if nothing had happened or as if they had seen this all before. Newspaper writer Linda Perl notes that the suicides come exactly one year after Cecilia's first attempt, and incorrectly describes the girls as creatures so cut off from life, that death wasn't much of a change.
After the suicide "free-for-all," Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon leave the neighborhood immediately after the funerals, and give up on any attempt at living a normal life. Once the house is cleaned out and emptied, it is quickly sold to a young couple from the Boston area and most of the Lisbons' personal effects are either thrown out or sold in a garage sale. The narrators scavenge through the trash to collect much of the "evidence" to save as keepsakes and mementos to fathom the girls. The boys never forget about the Lisbon sisters, however much they tried. And the dead girls forever haunt them and remain a source of mystery and grief for the boys, who even declare that they had loved them. Despite their life-long efforts, the boys, (now middle-aged men with families of their own) confess that they will never put together the pieces to unsolve the mystery, or unveil the series of events that lead the Lisbon family to their fatal melancholy all those years ago.
Style and point of view
The story is told by an anonymous narrator in the first person plural. The narrator is one or all of a group of adolescent boys who obsessed over the Lisbon girls from a distance in their youth, and now, as middle-aged men, continue to try to piece together the girls' story. Several of the boys are mentioned by name, but the narration never slips into first-person singular and the speaker's identity remains unclear.
The narrative looks back on the time when the boys knew and loved the Lisbon girls, who continue to haunt them in adulthood. The men keep in touch with each other to continue to be the "custodians of the girls' lives", and the subject of the girls always comes up when they "run into each other at cocktail parties or business luncheons."
Still in mourning, the group treasures a collection of "evidence" they have gathered ("Exhibits Nos. 1-97") concerning the Lisbons. It includes Cecilia's diary, family photographs and personal objects from the girls' rooms. Due to their connection with the Lisbon girls, many of the objects are seen as having an almost religious quality.
Sofia Coppola wrote the screenplay and directed a 97-minute film version, filmed in Summer 1998, and released on May 19, 1999 at the Cannes Film Festival. It was then released on April 21, 2000, in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. The film starred Kirsten Dunst, James Woods, Kathleen Turner, and Josh Hartnett (as well as Danny DeVito in a short cameo). Much of the dialogue and narration is taken directly from the novel. The film is considered faithful to the book in spite of the latter's non-traditional narrative and was rated R for strong thematic elements involving teens.
The Virgin Suicides portrays an example of a cluster or contagion suicide, where one sister’s initial death acts as the catalyst for the others. Cluster suicides, or copycat suicide are understood as several completed suicides within a given range of area and time. In the book, the sisters all die within a two-month period, one year after Cecilia dies. Research has examined the possibility of a young person’s reaction and ability to cope with a suicide within a family, very much like the circumstances described in the book. The research demonstrated a strong correlation between suicide attempts and shared familial psychopathology (i.e. depression and capacity for suicide) and genetic makeup. At the conclusion of the study, researchers found that suicidal behavior increased nearly three times when the subject was in a family that had others who completed or attempted suicide. Thus, making everyone around the victim more prone to suicide compared to the average person. Based on this, it can be hypothesized that the suicides in the Lisbon family were not independent of one another. This idea would also explain many of the sisters’ risky behaviors throughout the book, like Lux secretly smoking behind her parents' backs, or her risky sexual encounters with various male strangers on the roof, or the girls inviting the boys over to witness their deaths, and the manner in which each sister subconsciously making damaging decisions that contributed to their demise. These similar destructive actions behaviors could solidify that the Lisbon girls shared a biological tie leading to their ultimate deaths.
Many studies have been conducted regarding cluster suicides within families with results pointing to similar disabilities to take in serotonin, a necessary neurotransmitter to avoid depression. Another study concluded that it is more likely that contagion and cluster suicides are a result of genetic factors, implying that the other sisters did not merely mimic Cecilia, who set off the chain reaction of tragedies, but biologically were predisposed to the notion of suicide. The predisposal laid in their genetic makeup, a shared string of close DNA that, much like a hereditary illness, was bound to manifest at one point. This hypothesis explains the lack of rationale as the remainder of the sisters completed suicide, and the sudden cluster of their deaths.
- The Paris Review, The Paris Review.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (1988)
- Mittendorfer-Rutz, et al. (2008) "Familial clustering of suicidal behavior and psychopathology in young suicide attempters" Social Psychiatry & Psychiatric Epidemiology 43(1) 28-36
- Ping & Mortensen (2002) "Suicide risk in relation to family history of completed suicide and psychiatric disorders: a nested case-control study based on longitudinal registers. Lancet 360(9340)
- Baldessarni & Hennen (2004) "Genetics of suicide: an overview" Harvard Review of Psychiatry 12(1), 1-13
- Quotations related to The Virgin Suicides at Wikiquote