TRIGGER WARNING: This review deals with death by suicide.
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The Virgin Suicides were first published in 1993 and it was Jeffrey Eugenides’ breakout debut novel. It was received with critical acclaim and some reviewers at the time called his novel a modern Greek tragedy. It has captured readers since its release and was turned into a film in 1999 directed by Sofia Coppola staring Kirsten Dunst (as Lux Lisbon). The novel has polarised reviews on Goodreads with many readers feeling perturbed by the male narration of the Lisbon sister’s deaths, the hyper-sexualisation of teenage girls, the manic pixie dream girl feel of the novel (albeit this notion was coined after Eugenides’ novel and was made popular after the 2009 film 500 Days of Summer), and the fetishism of dead white girls. I would argue that the concerns raised by readers and critics about the novel are not unwarranted.
When I reread the novel recently, I was instantly reminded of the discomfort I had first felt when I read it. The whole novel is frankly off-putting. It recounts the tragic lives and deaths of five young women ageing from 13 to 17. It details the brutal ways they killed themselves and also hints at a suicide pact the sisters made after Cecilia, the youngest Lisbon girl, died by suicide. The male narration is blurred and hazy. It is grown men recounting their childhoods and their relationships they had with the Lisbon sisters. The narration could be described as polyphonic, to use literary and linguistic critic Mikhail Bakhtin’s words, yet the polyphony of voices and perspectives is undefined. When rereading the novel, I struggled with knowing who was speaking and what memories really belonged to which boy. This blurred and incomplete picture of the Lisbon sisters and their short lives is telling of Eugenides’ intentions with the novel. I believe he wrote it from the perspective of the boys, outsiders to the Lisbon sisters and their family, specifically to highlight the mystery and allude to connotations of abuse and restrictions from the parents of the girls. Arguably, the novel is entitled The Virgin Suicides, however, it is as much about the boys and their polyphonic narration and blurred remembrances as it is about the five girls who died.
The novel hints at a complete loss of meaning and understanding. It outlines a breakdown of contemporary America from the trees dying in the neighbourhood where the Lisbons lived, to the dehumanisation and therefore hypersexualisation of the Lisbon girls and in particular Lux Lisbon, and to the disconnect between communities and families. When the school decides to have a memorial day of sorts for the death of Cecilia some teachers get their students to make lollies with bunsen burners, while other teachers hint to the pointlessness of it all and carry on with their day in a lasseiz-faire manner.
Academic Anton Van Hooff on talking about Greek tragedy and suicide states: “the overall character of self-killing in antiquity requires the use of sure and therefore hard methods.” When the Lisbon sisters die by suicide the reasons behind their motivation for self-destruction are explored but never truly elucidated. In Greek mythology, death by suicide is common especially in relation to grief and the loss of a loved one (think Alcyone, Cleite, or the infamous Cleopatra). Keeping with the Greek form, the loss of Cecelia seems to spark something in the girls. What that it is exactly is never explained, but we do know that the girls help each other die. For example, the sisters are seen helping fill the trunk that will act as a weight to help Bonnie hang herself. Similarly, Lux distracts the boys so they can die without intervention before she kills herself by exhaust fume poisoning. Indeed, the girls pick sure and hard methods to remove themselves from life.
So, what does this novel have to say to a new audience 25 years on? I would argue the novel speaks of a suburbia that while different from now is still a deep and troubling reflection of contemporary society. It grapples with the inevitable loss of meaning and understanding that is brought on by death, any death. It challenges the way we see the world and asks us if we can ever really know the truth of a person. Whilst the novel is jarring and tragic, it has a place in the literary cannon 25 years on and I feel that it will continue to hold that place.
What do you think of Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides? How do you feel is speaks to a new era of literary readers? What do you love/hate about the novel? As always, share the reading love.