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 story, which is set in Grosse Pointe, Michigan during the 1970s, centers on the lives of five sisters. The Lisbon girls fascinate their community as their neighbors struggle to find an explanation for their 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. 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 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, claiming that it would help the girls recover from Cecilia's suicide. However, despite her attempt to protect the girls from boys and sex, over the winter, Lux is seen having sex with various unknown men 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. The boys that once loved them from afar are now grown men, determined to understand a tragedy that has always defied explanation. For still, the question remains – why did all five of the Lisbon girls take their own lives?
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-day period, one year after Cecelia 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. 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’s risky sexual choices on her roof, and the manner in which her sisters made damaging decisions as well. 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, 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