The Virgin Suicides
|The Virgin Suicides|
|Publisher||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|Dewey Decimal||813/.54 20|
|LC Classification||PS3555.U4 V57 1993|
The Virgin Suicides is the 1993 debut novel by American writer Jeffrey Eugenides. The story, which is set in Grosse Pointe, Michigan during the 1970s, centers on the suicides of five sisters. The Lisbon girls' suicides fascinate their community as their neighbors struggle to find an explanation for the 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 who became infatuated with the girls, a style mirroring a Greek chorus. The narrator(s) rely on relics and interviews gathered in the two decades after the suicide to construct the tale. The novel is rich in descriptive detail, using observations about the state of the Lisbon house and the contents of the girls’ rooms to advance the plot. The effect is that the reader glimpses the novel’s main characters as if she or he were one of the neighborhood onlookers.
The Lisbons are a Catholic family living in Grosse Pointe, Michigan in the 1970s. The father, Ronald, is a math teacher at a private school and the mother is a homemaker. The family has five 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 an "outsider", attempts suicide by cutting her wrists. A few weeks later, the girls throw a chaperoned party, during which Cecilia jumps from their second story window and dies, impaled by a fence post.
The cause of Cecilia's suicide and its after-effects on the family are popular subjects of neighborhood gossip. The mystique of the Lisbon girls operates also for the neighborhood boys, the narrators of the novel.
Lux begins a romance with local heartthrob Trip Fontaine. 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. After having sex with Trip on the high school football field after the dance, Lux misses her curfew. Consequently, the Lisbons become recluses. Mrs. Lisbon pulls all the girls out of school, believing that it would help the girls recover. However, despite her attempt to protect the girls from boys and sex, over the winter, Lux is seen having sex on the roof nightly. A few months after Lux is sent to the hospital because of a pregnancy scare—which her parents were told was simply indigestion—Mr. Lisbon officially takes a leave of absence. 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. A strange smell coming from the house permeates the neighborhood. 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 and the narrator boys in particular. The boys call the Lisbon girls and communicate by playing records over the telephone for the girls.
Finally, the girls send a message to the boys to come to the house. Shortly after the boys arrive, three of the sisters kill themselves: Bonnie hangs herself, Therese overdoses on sleeping pills, and Lux dies of carbon monoxide poisoning. Mary attempts suicide by putting her head in the oven, but fails. Mary continues to live for another month before successfully ending her life by taking sleeping pills. Newspaper writer Linda Perl notes that the suicides come a year after Cecilia's first attempt. After the suicide "free-for-all," Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon leave the neighborhood. The house is 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" they mention.
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. Indeed the entire point of view reveals the reader to be part of this act of childhood voyeurism made innocent by the eventual deaths of the girls. The girls are very well aware of their viewers and are complicit in their participation as 'suicidal exhibitionists' and in this way the novel proves to be much darker than even the title suggests.
The narrators refer to several interviews they have conducted with people who lived in the neighborhood during the time of the Lisbon suicides. Some are people who played a prominent role in the story (Mr. Lisbon and an aging, substance-addicted Trip Fontaine) and some are merely onlookers, such as an old drunk who lived across from the Lisbons and a teacher who was the neighborhood's sole Communist. All the people mentioned in the novel—amounting to more than 150 names—become witnesses to, and commentators on, the tragedy that befalls the Lisbon family.
It remains unclear whom the narrative chorus is addressing. Though it sometimes seems as though the mourners have collected all their memorabilia and conducted their interviews for some official purpose, this is never made clear. In their attempt to understand who the Lisbon girls were and why they committed suicide, they never find a truly satisfying answer. But the entire novel, meanwhile, paints a poignantly sharp and critical portrait of the suburban American life experienced by the baby-boom generation.
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 Paris Review, The Paris Review.
- 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."
- Quotations related to The Virgin Suicides at Wikiquote