The Lovely Bones
by Alice Sebold
Susie is the hero and the starring ghost of The Lovely Bones. She's only fourteen when she's beaten, raped, and murdered by her neighbor, Mr. Harvey. She tells us her story from the afterworld. Part vengeful ghost, part wise sage, part hyper-romantic and sexually frustrated teen, Susie provides a fresh (though definitely ghostly) perspective on Earthly happenings, and on how the dead and the living interact.
Live Susie's Talents and Dreams for the Future
When Susie is on Earth, her dreams are fairly typical for a well-adjusted, talented girl. High school is the big deal in her immediate plans. In her Earthly life she sees the mediocrity of junior high fading into the past, as she becomes the queen of high school. This is why, in her first heaven, "all the buildings looked like suburban […] high schools build in the 1960s" (2.1).
She is a natural with the camera, and learns from photographing her mother, Abigail, that a photo can reveal a person's inner needs and desires. The photos of her mother that Susie leaves behind help her father, Jack, to understand Abigail. This understanding leads to a strengthening of their relationship. Susie carries this photographic eye with her into heaven, and she often tells her story pictorially, as stressed in one of the few titled chapters, "Snapshots."
Susie is obsessed with design and arrangement. She sees the elements of the world as bones, or pieces of structures in the process of being built. The photos she leaves behind, Len Fenerman's photos of the dead, and all the metaphorical photos she takes from heaven are potent, overlapping structures within the body of the novel. As she moves through time in the afterlife, her perceptions become keener. Thus offering us with the fascinating idea that our talents and interest continue to grow after we die.
Susie and Mr. Harvey, Foils
In Lucky, Alice Sebold's nonfiction account of being raped and the aftermath, she says, "I share my life with my rapist. He is husband to my fate" (Lucky, p. 53). There is a similar connection between Susie and Mr. Harvey. The magnitude of their horrid encounter ensures a seemingly eternal link. Plus, they are opposite ends of the axis around which the story revolves. Remove either one, and there is no story.
Susie is everything Harvey wasn't as a child – loved, happy, and safe. Bizarrely, he creates an imitation of Susie's suburban life. He has the same house she has, and he looks kind of like he belongs in her world. They even share the same bedroom in their respective homes. In fact, his appearance is a disguise he'll use to foil all of Susie's plans to continue her life. Similarly, she, ultimately, foils his plans to keep destroying girls, and by extension the families they come from.
As noted below when we discuss Susie as a tragic hero, the fact that Susie and Mr. Harvey share an interest in building, design, and structure is part of why he is able to victimize her. Some other girls might have run, and fast, the moment he started talking about the weird hole in the ground he built. This shared interest is also why Susie is able to understand and describe her killer so vividly. She is the sane to his psycho, and while she never understands precisely why he does what he does, she understands how he looks at the world.
Although they are both enraptured by building and design, their visions ultimately diverge. For Susie, everything is material to be shaped and designed positively. For Mr. Harvey, his interest in building is only to further his urge to tear down, break apart, and dispose of the structures (girls, families) he sees in the world.
If Susie was a nonfictional victim, we would never talk about her as a tragic hero with fatal flaws. But, since she's a character in a book, and she presents herself to us as just such a figure, we have no choice. So let's go through some of the key elements of a tragic hero and see how she fits the mold.
Too nice… In Poetics Aristotle argued that the hero in a tragedy should be an exceptional person, but with certain character qualities that lead him/her to make certain choices that result in his/her tragic end. In this case, Susie's so-called tragic flaws are trust, politeness, and curiosity.
Susie's curiosity about design, structure, and building make her easy prey for Mr. Harvey. She tells us (like Alice in Wonderland gone wrong), "I was no longer cold or weirded out by the look he had given me. It was like I was in science class: I was curious" (1.34). Curiosity alone couldn't get her into that hole. Innocence, trust, respect for authority, and politeness were also involved. Susie was acting within the rules, norms, and expectations of her culture.
Mr. Harvey is a neighbor, and her dad even called him "a character" (1.41) to explain his eccentric behavior. Susie and her parents have no idea that people like Harvey even exist, at least not in their very own neighborhood. So, Susie has nothing but a slight intuition to warn her of Mr. Harvey. But her curiosity, innocence, and trust in adults in general override that intuition.
Already dead… Now, Susie is also markedly different from most tragic heroes. They usually meet their end near the close of the stories they exist in. We could look at The Lovely Bones as Hamlet-type revenge tragedy, but with the end and the beginning switched. For most of Hamlet the ultra-introspective Hamlet wants revenge for his father's death. And at the end he dies (by poison-tipped sword to be exact).
Susie, on the other hand, is murdered at the beginning of The Lovely Bones. Like Hamlet, she spends the bulk of the tale being introspective, and seeking (and ultimately finding) revenge for her own and the other victims' deaths. This becomes a rather mature type of revenge, with the main goal of stopping Harvey from hurting other women, rather than making him 'pay' for his crimes.
What's the point? In classical literature the tragic hero might exist in part to instruct us on the danger of things like pride, vengefulness, or what have you. The Lovely Bones is more about showing us the beginnings of a cultural shift. After crimes like Mr. Harvey's became more known, schools, the media, parents, policeman, and politicians would warn us against the kind of trust Susie exhibits. "Don't talk to strangers" would take on a whole new meaning.
But, there is always somebody out there reinventing the game. There's no list of things to not do that will guarantee our safety. In the 2000s, such predators have the Internet at their disposal even. So, until/unless a time comes when we stop producing such predators in our society, we will continue adapting to try to keep ourselves safe. Keeping open a frank dialogue, like The Lovely Bones does, is vital for self/other-defense, and possibly, toward a world where people do such things less and less.
Susie's Focus on Female Victims
If you were from another planet and you read The Lovely Bones you might conclude that males are never the victims of violent sexual attacks and murders. Of course, we (and author Alice Sebold) know this is not the case. See, Susie is a very focused sort of ghost. We are all intrigued by people we can relate to. Susie can relate to those who are, or could be, like her. She might even consider it a personal responsibility to try to avenge victims who resemble her and to try to protect other girls who could end up like her.
Actually, Susie becomes an expert in the area of female victims (as does Ruth) and she is sharing what she knows. The story is told in the past tense, except for a few important moments. In the final chapter, Susie goes into present tense: "Now I am in the place I call this wide wide Heaven" (Epilogue.15). This suggests that she's telling us the story, now, from big "H"-Heaven. In fact, the final (present tense) line of the story is directed right at us, the readers: "I wish you a long and happy life." We Earthlings are her audience. Only after she matures to the wide wide Heaven is she ready to tell us her story.
Susie and Sexuality
Throughout the novel, Susie offers fresh, candid perspectives on sex and sexuality. As in all things, she has the opposite attitude toward sex as Mr. Harvey. Susie sees sex as a beautiful and healthy human activity – so long as it's consensual. Before Mr. Harvey, her direct experience with sex consists of a single kiss with Ray. Since she was fourteen and in the throes of her late junior high era, she's curious about sex. She's aware of herself as an object of desire, even to Mr. Harvey when she encounters him in the cornfield. She says,
I'd had older men look at me that way since I'd lost my baby fat, but they usually didn't lose their marbles over me when I was wearing my royal blue parka and yellow elephant bell bottoms. (1.26)
But, she certainly doesn't see herself as a potential rape victim. As she tells her story, she switches back and forth between depicting the consensual sexual relationships of her loved ones, and Mr. Harvey's previous rapes. When she watches Lindsey and Samuel make love for the first time, she says,
At fourteen my sister sailed away from me into a place I'd never been. In the walls of my sex there was horror and blood, in the walls of hers there were windows. (10.138)
Even Abigail and Len Fenerman's affair is represented sympathetically by Susie. She sees it as part of her mother's process of healing and self-discovery. As she matures in the afterworld, not getting to experience healthy sex becomes a huge regret, and something that holds her back from renouncing Earth. Since Ruth is a virgin, and she lets Susie use her body to make love with Ray, it's like Susie is a virgin again and gets a chance to experience sex in a loving way. The novel does a pretty fabulous job of contrasting the extremes of healthy and unhealthy sexual relationships.