Study Guide

Virgin Suicides Analysis

  • Tone

    Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered

    The narrators of The Virgin Suicides have an attitude of obsessive fascination towards the subject of the Lisbon sisters' deaths. They're absolutely enamored of the girls, obsessed with learning everything they can about them. After one boy, Peter Sissen, manages to go into their house, he comes back with awe-inspiring stories:

    […] of bedrooms filled with crumpled panties, of stuffed animals hugged to death by the passion of the girls, of a crucifix draped with a brassiere, of gauzy chambers of canopied beds, and of the effluvia of so many young girls becoming women together in the same cramped space. (1.11)

    The tone of the novel has been described as "dreamlike." Because the boys actually know so little, their imaginations run wild. The result is a tone of wonder and fantasy—"gauzy chambers," "the passion of the girls," etc.

    There's also a very melancholy tone running through the novel. After all, the subject matter is death and loss. The narrators constantly reach back and try to understand what happens, but the reality of the girls' experience eludes them. In trying to understand the girls, they're trying to bring them back. They never can understand them, so it's a reliving of that loss over and over again. The parents' grief, the sisters' withdrawal—it's sad, sad, sad. There's a general feeling of decay and disintegration. "Ruin and decay" were the atmosphere the author was going for and we'd say he succeeded (source).

  • Genre

    Coming-Of-Age, Family Drama

    The Virgin Suicides is almost an anti-coming-of-age novel. While the narrators grow up around the events of the novel, which take place during their adolescence, the Lisbon sisters don't grow up; they cut off their own lives just at the point when they become aware of their emerging sexuality and adulthood. We see the boys struggle with coming to terms with the suicides as they mature themselves. These experiences have a profound impact on them even as adults.

    The novel's a family drama as well. We're meant to wonder about what were the family dynamics that may have driven the girls to suicide. We see Mrs. Lisbon's oppressive parenting, her husband's passivity, and the family's reaction to the first suicide—to retreat into depression and isolation.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The title of The Virgin Suicides is figurative; the girls aren't necessarily virgins, but the term can refer to their youth and innocence. Call us morbid, but it reminds Shmoop of virgins being sacrificed to please the gods. The title comes up in the story with a made-up song called "Virgin Suicide" that Lux listens to. Some characters consider the song the reason for the girls' deaths, but the narrators know that it's not a good enough explanation. Eugenides himself thought the title was ambiguous. He said he was thinking about the Virgin Mary, and that the title referred more to suffering and religious imagery. He thought that if the events of the book had really happened, "The Virgin Suicides" would have probably been the tabloid headline (source).

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    The novel ends with a long, poetic sentence lamenting the impossibility of ever understanding the Lisbon girls:

    It didn't matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn't heard us calling, still do not hear us, up here in the tree house, with our thinning hair and soft bellies, calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together. (5.42)

    The ending finally brings us to the present, where we find that the narrators are now middle-aged men rather than teenagers. It's a final abandonment of the novel's project, which is to piece together the explanation for the suicides. There just isn't one.

  • Setting

    20th-Century Detroit Suburbs

    The narrators never specifically mention it, but they live in an affluent suburb of Detroit, Grosse Point, where Jeffrey Eugenides himself grew up. The clue is at the very end of the novel, when the narrators are describing the demise of the neighborhood:

    Families moved away, or splintered, everybody trying out a different spot in the Sun Belt, and for a while it appeared that our only legacy would be desertion. After deserting the city to escape its rot, we now deserted the green banks of our waterlocked spit of land French explorers had named the "Fat Tip" in a three-hundred-year-old dirty joke no one ever got. (5.39)

    Middle-class families had left the city to avoid its "rot" (aka immigrants, race riots, crime, poverty, traffic) and tried to build oases like the one in which the Lisbons live. Unfortunately, even their safe suburbs can't keep them safe from themselves. The deterioration of the Lisbon home is a stand-in for the demise of the American dream. The book reveals the neighborhood to be a sterile, mundane, conformist place where people preoccupied with just themselves can't understand a family like the Lisbons.

    Eugenides has often spoken about how the demise of Detroit due to the decline of the auto industry strongly affected him. He said he assumed it would have affected the Lisbon girls as well:

    I grew up watching houses and buildings fall apart and then disappear. It imbued my sense of the world with a strong elegiac quality—a direct experience of the fragility and evanescence of the material world.

    That was what I was really writing about. I had imagined a family of suicidal sisters, five brief lives, and I'd put them in an atmosphere of ruin and decay—the dying automobile plants, the dying elm trees—but the source of all this, psychologically and emotionally, had to do with the impermanence of everything I knew as a child. (Source)

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (3) Base Camp

    Other than the mysterious narrator, an unidentified "we," the novel's pretty straightforward. You know what it's going to be about starting with the first sentence, and it stays obsessively focused on the topic: the Lisbon sisters' suicides. Eugenides uses some nice, big words once in a while, but nothing that you haven't seen when studying for the SAT. The novel skips back and forth in time, but it doesn't interrupt the flow of the story.

  • Writing Style

    Legalistic and Distant; Descriptive and Lyrical

    The novel is written in part as a demonstration of evidence. The boys present all of the artifacts they have collected as "exhibits", as though they were in a court of law. For example, they present a photograph of the Lisbon house to the reader: "Exhibit #1 shows the Lisbon house shortly before Cecilia's suicide attempt" (1.4). In cataloguing their exhibits and reporting the evidence they obtain from interviews with doctors or reading the medical records, the writing style is clinical and dry.

    This contrasts starkly with the style of most of the novel, which has been described by many reviewers as dreamlike, poetic, and incantatory—almost invoking a spell to cast on the reader. This style is used when the author is describing the boys' fantasies, or their speculation about the Lisbon sisters' inner world. The last paragraph of the novel is a great example:

    It didn't matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn't heard us calling, still do not hear us, up here in the tree house, with our thinning hair and soft bellies, calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together. (5.42)

    Shmoop's opinion of the author's writing style? Gorgeous.

  • Fire and Light

    The girls are sometimes described as seeming to be "possessed" (1.2), and that otherworldly quality often comes with a light that illuminates them. The image first shows up in a snapshot that the narrators find of the Lisbon house before the suicides begin:

    The upper-right second-story window contains a blur that Mrs. Lisbon identified as Mary Lisbon. [. . .] In the photograph Mary is caught in the act of blow-drying her hair. Her head appears to be on fire but that is only a trick of the light. (1.4)

    Here the fire is a mirage, a trick, not to be trusted, but it seems to have a foreboding quality.

    Fire shows up again in a seemingly harmless scene. After Mr. Lisbon rakes his leaves, he lights the leaf pile:

    ... like the rest of the fathers, but his anxiety over the fire's getting out of control would diminish his pleasure. He patrolled his pile, tossing leaves into the center, tidying the conflagration, and when Mr. Wadsworth offered him a sip from his monogrammed flask, as he did every father on his rounds, Mr. Lisbon would say, 'Thanks no, thanks no." (3.67)

    Mr. Lisbon is doing his fatherly duty, keeping his yard looking nice, but he feels the threat of everything in his nice suburban home going out of control. He can keep the fire in the leaf pile contained, but there's another fire smoldering that he's not aware of.

    Light also represents the narrators' understanding of the girls. Since the boys' relationship with the Lisbon sisters consists in large part of spying on them, the imagery of light pervades the novel: the light in the girls' bedrooms that lets the boys watch them going about their lives. As long as the lights are on, there's life in the house and the boys can watch and wonder. In fact, when they're first allowed in the house, for Cecilia's fateful party, the light almost introduces them to the girls:

    We were directed to the downstairs rec room. […] and as we descended, the light grew brighter and brighter, as though we were approaching the molten core of the earth. […] for the first few seconds, the Lisbon girls were only a patch of glare like a congregation of angels. Then, however, our eyes got used to the light and informed us of something we had never realized: the Lisbon girls were all different people. (1.42)

    Later the light becomes the last signal from the girls to the boys, a flashlight flashed on and off. And seeing an eerie light fro the bedroom, the boys realize that the sisters have created a shrine to Cecilia with candles and glowing incense.

    From the windowsill, from cups suspended on clothes hangers, from old flowerpots, from cut-out milk cartons, the candles burned. At night we saw Bonnie tending the flames. Occasionally, finding candles drowning in their own wax, she dug runoff trenches with a pair of scissors; but most often she watched the candles as if their outcome held her own, the flames almost extinguishing themselves, but, by some greed of oxygen, persisting. (4.133)

    The makeshift shrine, with its homemade candles and candleholders, is connected to the girls' own fate. The boys believe that by keeping the candles alive the girls are keeping themselves alive. However, they're also calling them to death:

    The candles were a two-way mirror between the worlds: they called Cecilia back, but also called her sisters to join her. (4.155)

    The night of the mass suicides, the narrators return to the rec room, drawn by a light down there in an otherwise darkened house. They see Bonnie hanging there. Again, the light reveals important knowledge about the girls:

    We had never known her. They brought us here to find that out. (4.206)

    Even after the girls all die and their parents move away, the flames continue to be a sign of the tragedy. The boys can't shake their obsession with the Lisbon sisters: "a haunted quality persisted about the Lisbon house, making us see, whenever we looked, a flame shape arcing from the roof, or swinging in an upstairs window" (5.30). Talk about holding a torch for someone; the Lisbon girls will never be forgotten.

    BTW, "Lux" means "light" in Latin. In modern use, it's a unit of illumination. We'll let you ponder that one. Great essay topic.

  • The Fish Flies

    The narrators mark time in the book via the arrival of the fish flies, an insect that lives a short life before dying and stinking up the Great Lakes. They first appear when Cecilia makes her first suicide attempt:

    That was in June, fish-fly season, when each year our town is covered by the flotsam of those ephemeral insects. Rising in clouds from the algae in the polluted lake, they blacken windows, coat cars and streetlamps, plaster the municipal docks and festoon the rigging of sailboats, always in the same brown ubiquity of flying scum. (1.3)

    Just as Cecilia's suicide spreads a dark blanket of sadness over the town, the fish flies settle on everything, making the neighborhood ugly. Cecilia foreshadows the connection between the fish flies and the suicides:

    "They're dead," she said. "They only live twenty-four hours. They hatch, they reproduce, and then they croak. They don't even get to eat." (1.3)

    Cecilia has zeroed in on the tragically short life of the flies, and her words are an uncanny foreshadowing of her own longevity. We see a girl fascinated by death.

    Just after she dies, so do the fish flies:

    No one understood what got into us what year, or why we hated so intensely the crust of dead bugs over our lives. [. . .] The collective action of digging the trench led to cooperative sweeping, bag-carting, patio-hosing. [. . .] We didn't stop with our own houses. Once our walls were clean, [. . .] soon we were all over at the Lisbon house, brushing walls and scraping away bug husks. (3.18-20)

    Maybe because they can't erase Cecilia's death and its effects on the neighborhood, they focus their attention on the fish flies, something they can control.

    One year later, around the anniversary of Cecilia's death and the time when the girls will follow her in suicidal sisterhood, the fish flies return (nothing supernatural; they're just seasonal creatures):

    Around the aureolae of streetlights we noticed a dim swirling we didn't recognize at first because we knew it so well, a senseless pattern of ecstasy and madness: the massing of the first fish flies of the season. (4.126)

    They're baaaack.

  • Virgin

    In the idea of the virgin, several themes of the novel collide. First, there's the sexual element. Although we know not all the sisters are virgins (Lux is quite promiscuous), we know that they've been sheltered from sex by their mother, who thinks that boys are out for only one thing. The girls dream of boys and makeup and beautiful dresses, but the tragedy is that they die before they can experience any of it (except for Lux's rooftop trysts, which were more like a nightmare). The sexual nature of the virgin image also comes up as part of a song Lux used to listen to called "Virgin Suicide" about a girl who gives up her virginity.

    The second element is religious; when Eugenides titled his book, he was thinking of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus known for her purity and her suffering, revered by Catholics and probably very important to the devout Mrs. Lisbon. Mrs. Lisbon's religion is what makes her so strict with her daughters, what keeps them innocent and inexperienced (again, the rebellious Lux being a huge exception). This conflict between the girls' emerging sexuality and their mother's repressive religious ideas is one reason that the girls lose hope of ever having a normal life.

    When the paramedics pull Cecilia out of the bathtub, they see that she's holding a printed card with a picture of the Virgin Mary and these words:

    The Virgin Mary has been appearing in our city, bringing her message of peace to a crumbling world. As in Lourdes and Fatima, Our Lady has granted her presence to people just like you. For information call 555-MARY. (1.18)

    Mr. Lisbon calls it "crap" and Mrs. Lisbon crumples up the card. We never learn what the image means to Cecilia, but to the reader, it's an image of a pagan virgin sacrifice. The narrator creates a living tableau out of the emergency scene of Cecilia's suicide attempt:

    […] the two slaves offering the victim to the altar (lifting the stretcher into the truck), the priestess brandishing the torch ([Mrs. Lisbon] waving the flannel nightgown), and the drugged virgin rising up on her elbows, with an otherworldly smile on her pale lips. (1.5)

    Are we meant to think that Mrs. Lisbon has emotionally sacrificed Cecilia on the altar of her rigid religious beliefs? That Cecilia, a spiritual, ethereal girl, has offered up her hopeless youth as a sacrifice?

    The Virgin Mary cards show up again a year later, just before the time that the other girls commit suicide:

    Mr. Hutch found one tucked into the windshield wiper of his car [. . .]. Mrs. Hessen found one pierced among her rose bushes. Joey Thompson heard an unfamiliar whirring in his bicycle tires one day, and looked down to see a Virgin picture taped between the spokes. Finally, Tim Winer found a picture stuck into the grout of his study windows, facing in at him. (4.129-30)

    The cards are a signal; everyone knows they're coming from the Lisbon girls who are trapped in their house, because they know that Cecilia held one of the cards when she slit her wrists. The Virgin cards mix sexual and religious metaphors just like the bra hanging on a crucifix in the girls' bedroom. It has a lot to say about how the girls are trying to understand their emerging sexuality while dealing with their mother's insistence on purity and religious morality.

  • The Elm Trees

    The neighborhood where the Lisbons and the narrators live is attacked by blight; specifically, all the elms are dying. One by one the Parks Department is condemning the neighborhood trees. The neighbors hate to see the trees go (Dutch Elm Disease killed most of the elms in North America by the 1980s). Most families came out to watch the cutting, but the sisters watch from an upstairs window "their faces cold-cream white," as the first branches came down (4.100).

    When the men return to take the main trunk, the girls run across the lawn and, holding hands, surround the tree. They argue with the men to leave the tree to survive or die on its own; they claim that the tree won't necessarily die (they're right, some don't). The girls refuse to budge and the men eventually leave without finishing the job. All the neighbors felt like applauding, and the girls' stand made the newspapers. The trunk of the tree remains on the Lisbon lawn, at least for now, sick and wounded but alive.

    It's hard not to see the similarities between the dying tree and the Lisbon sisters, who are gradually dying emotionally and wasting away physically themselves, shut up in their crumbling, neglected house. Are the girls fighting for their own lives? Saving the tree because they don't believe they can save themselves? Trying to salvage something from their lives?

    There's another important aspect to the symbolism of the elm: contagion. Dutch Elm Disease is a really contagious fungal disease. It can pass from a sick tree to the trees nearby, which is one reason why the Parks Department wants to take down the Lisbons' tree—to protect the others. This mirrors how the neighbors view Cecilia's suicide: contagious in some weird way. They avoid the Lisbons for that reason; they don't want their kids to start thinking morbid thoughts. After the rest of the girls die, the neighbors believe that Cecilia's death caused the other girls' suicides.

    Her suicide, from this perspective, was seen as a kid of disease infecting those close at hand. In the bathtub, cooking in the broth of her own blood, Cecilia had released an airborne virus which the other girls, even in coming to save her, had contracted. (4.54)

    Un-fun fact: The study mentioned by Eugenides in the novel was made up, but unfortunately, there's scientific evidence for the existence of "suicide contagion." It's not a virus, of course, but it's been shown that in the wake of suicides, particularly celebrity suicides, people who may have been thinking about killing themselves can get pushed into action.

  • Evidence

    Throughout the novel, the narrators tell us they've been collecting "evidence' about the Lisbon sisters, both before and after the mass suicides. They steal stuff from the girls' bedrooms, go through the trash after their deaths, and order catalogs they pilfer from the Lisbon mailbox, desperately trying to understand who these girls are and what's happened to them. The "evidence" consists of physical stuff that belonged to the girls and photos and documents they've acquired. Some of it's pretty intimate: hairbrushes with the girls' hair on them, for instance, and medical records from their doctor visits. The boys present this "evidence" to the reader as if they're all being really objective about it. Later in life, the narrators interview doctors the girls saw and track down Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon to get more info.

    The items they collect over the years are obsessively catalogued and kept by the boys even as middle-aged men:

    All of it is going—Exhibits #1 through #97, arranged in five separate suitcases, each bearing a photograph of the deceased like a Coptic headstone, and kept in our refurbished treehouse in one of our last trees: (#1) Ms. D'Angelo's Polaroid of the house, scummed by a greenish patina that looks like moss; (#18) Mary's old cosmetics drying out and turning to beige dust; (#32) Cecilia's canvas high-tops yellowing beyond remedy of toothbrush and dish soap; (#57) Bonnie's votive candles nibbled nightly by mice; (#62) Therese's specimen slides showing new invading bacteria; (#81) Lux's brassiere […] We haven't kept our tomb sufficiently airtight, and our sacred objects are perishing. (5.39)

    But the narrators realize the futility of it all:

    In the end, we had pieces of the puzzle, but no matter how we put them together, gaps remained, oddly shaped emptinesses mapped by what surrounded them, like countries we couldn't name. […] So much has been written about the girls in the newspapers, so much has been said over backyard fences, or related over the years in psychiatrists' offices, that we are certain only of the insufficiency of explanations. (5.40)

    This is exactly what the "evidence" represents—the inability of anyone to really know what's going on in the mind and heart of another person. The boys' perspective on the Lisbon girls has been a distant one, the perspective of observers, not participants. Same goes for the neighbors, who have watched the tragedy unfold from a distance. In a sense, the family wasn't more than an object of curiosity for many people. But the boys learned all too well that the outward trappings of a life tell you very little about the person within.

  • Narrator Point of View

    First Person (Peripheral Narrator)

    The narrative voice in Eugenides' novel is one of the most interesting things about it, at least for literary nerds like us. Sure, first person peripheral narrators are a dime a dozen in the novel, but a first-person plural is something special. The narrative voice comes from the chorus of voices made up of neighborhood boys. We can't pin down just one boy as the leader or main voice; they are a collective, almost a Greek chorus, describing a shared experience. Here they describe the homecoming dance:

    We held their sweaty palms, turning them under the mirrored ball. We lost them in the vastness of their dresses and found them again, squeezed the pulp of their bodies and inhaled the perfume of their exertion. A few of us grew brave enough to insert our legs between theirs and to press our agony against them. (3.178)

    Who is "we"? We know some of the boys' names that seem to be included in that "we" (see the Narrators' Character Analysis for more on this) but the narrative style conveys the strong sense of shared experience and common perspective. It also adds a dreamy quality to the writing.

    Eugenides thought that reviewers would have mentioned the "Greek chorus" thing less if the author hadn't been of Greek descent himself (source).

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      Anticipation Stage

      The heroines of the story are unfulfilled: their strict religious mom is always ragging on them and grounding them. When their youngest sister, Cecilia, escapes the controlling environment by killing herself, the rest of her sisters focus their energies on escaping somehow.

      Dream Stage

      After Cecilia's death the family finds a sort of peace. The parents ease up on the rules and even let the girls go to the homecoming dance. They might have found a way to lead normal lives without resorting to suicide.

      Frustration Stage

      Lux misses curfew after the dance and the girls are put on lockdown. Their mother becomes a monster, yanking them out of school and never letting them leave the house.

      Nightmare Stage

      Lux starts meeting men on the roof of the house for sex. The other girls are wasting away.

      Death Wish Stage

      The girls bring about their own deaths by suicide. The heroines of our story destroy themselves.

    • Plot Analysis

      Exposition (Initial Situation)

      Everyone Dies

      The narrators tell us right off that all five of the Lisbon sisters kill themselves, so there are no surprises. The rest of the novel will revolve around explaining why they do it, or at least trying to explain it. It all starts with Cecilia's first, failed attempt at suicide, which, according to the narrators, unleashes a contagion that spreads to her sisters.

      Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)

      One Down, Four to Go

      At a party thrown to cheer up Cecilia and her sisters after her return from the hospital, Cecilia goes upstairs and hurls herself out of a window to her death. Shock all around.

      Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)

      A Fatal Mistake

      There are a few candidates for "point of no return" in The Virgin Suicides, and we're going to go out on a limb and say that it's not when the girls kill themselves, but rather when Lux fails to make it home by curfew. The homecoming dance is the girls' chance to reenter society, but when Lux gets grounded everything returns to isolation and depression, sealing the family's fate.

      Falling Action

      Goodbye, Cruel World

      After living under virtual house arrest for months, the four remaining Lisbon sisters orchestrate an elaborate suicide pact. Each girl kills herself in a different way, finally ending her teenaged torture. No more grounded for life—these girls have finally escaped from their controlling mother and joined their youngest sister.

      Resolution (Denouement)

      The Last to Go

      Mary, unsuccessful during the group suicide, finally finishes the job a month after coming home from the hospital. She leaves her parents childless and the neighborhood completely shattered by the Lisbon family tragedy.

    • Three-Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      The story opens with Cecilia's suicide and continues until all four of her surviving sisters are committed to their macabre mission of ending their own lives. What would make them do such a thing? Perhaps their stifling home life, where their mother doesn't even let them leave the house for school.

      Act II

      Now that the girls are under house arrest they escape the only way they know how: into the next life. Each sister sets up a personalized suicide method, and the other girls help each other out, so that they fall like a line of dominoes.

      Act III

      Mary, the last girl, survives her attempt and comes home from the hospital for one month. It's enough time for the parents to clean out the house and sell it, and for her to finally tie up the loose end of her life: she overdoses on sleeping pills and the Lisbon parents move away. Oh, the humanity…

    • Allusions

      Pop Culture References

      • Handel's Messiah (3.207)
      • Mozart's Requiem (3.207)
      • Gilbert and Sullivan, "Alone Again, Naturally" (4.150)
      • James Taylor, "You've Got a Friend" (4.150)
      • Cat Stevens, Tea for the Tillerman, "Where Do the Children Play?" (4.150)
      • The Beatles, "Dear Prudence" (4.150)
      • Elton John, "Candle in the Wind" (4.150)
      • The Rolling Stones, "Wild Horses" (4.150)
      • Janice Ian, "At Seventeen" (4.150)
      • Jim Croce, "Time in a Bottle" (4.150)
      • Carole King, "So Far Away" (4.150)
      • Simon and Garfunkel, "Bridge Over Troubled Water" (4.151)
      • Bread, "Make it with You" (4.151)
      • The Great Escape (4.155)
      • Cabaret (5.20)
      • Jackie Kennedy (5.29)