[Cecilia] sat on a barstool, staring into her punch glass, and the shapeless bag of a dress fell over her. She had colored her lips with a red crayon, which gave her face a deranged harlot look, but she acted as though no one were there.
We knew to stay away from her. (1.41-42)
Even in the middle of a party, Cecilia finds herself isolated from the rest of the group. She's different, and it shows in her posture, her strange makeup, and her behavior. She gives off a vibe that people should keep away, and they do. She's feeling isolated even in the middle of a party. Her sense of feeling different isolates her.
As the diary progresses, Cecilia begins to recede from her sisters and, in fact, from personal narrative of any kind. The first person singular ceases almost entirely, the effect akin to a camera's pulling away from the characters at the end of a movie, to show, in a series of dissolves, their house, street, city, country, and finally planet, which not only dwarfs but obliterates them. (2.18)
In her own writing, Cecilia seems to be isolated from herself. She loses her sense of identity as she loses her narrative "I". She seems to want to fade out of the world, where she already feels isolated. Definitely a warning sign of depression. Psychologists call this "decathexis": taking all the emotional energy you usually invest in the world and other people and pulling it back. You just don't care anymore.
We never learned whether Mrs. Lisbon caught Lux as she tried to sneak back inside, but for whatever reason, when Trip tried to make another date to come sit on the couch, Lux told him she was grounded, and that her mother had forbidden any future visits. (3.59)
After Trip visits Lux at her home, she sneaks into his car and they have a wild sexual encounter. Even if Mrs. Lisbon doesn't catch Lux in the act, she seems to have a sixth-sense about it and attempts to keep Lux from more of the same by isolating the girls, refusing all visitors. Lux's behavior just served to validate Mrs. Lisbon's fears about the world outside the family. She sees isolation as safety.
Other than to school or church the Lisbon girls never went anywhere. Once a week a Kroger's truck delivered groceries. (3.62)
Not only does Mrs. Lisbon isolate the girls, she does it to herself, even having the groceries delivered. Is she avoiding having to see people and the pity in their eyes about Cecilia? Does she think the girls will run wild if she leaves the house? Is she just too depressed to go out? This is our first sign that Mrs. Lisbon is losing it. Eventually, even the grocery deliveries stop.
Day by day, the girls ostracized themselves. Because they stayed in a group, other girls found it difficult to talk or walk with them, and many assumed they wanted to be left alone. And the more the Lisbon girls were left alone, the more they retreated. (3.79)
Even when they do go to school, the girls continue the isolation they experience at home, keeping to themselves. As often happens, the rest of the girls don't know how to handle the fact that Cecilia's killed herself. They'd rather say nothing than say the wrong thing, leaving the Lisbon sisters to cope on their own. They assume the girls want to be left alone together, but that might be their own fears talking.
"It hit me in the pit of my stomach that those girls weren't going on any more dates," Kevin Head told us years later. "The old bitch had locked them up again. Don't ask me how I knew. I just did." The window shades had closed like eyelids and the shaggy flower beds made the house look abandoned. (3.224)
Here the narrators interview a friend to find out more about what was happening with the girls, what it must have seemed like from the outside. Kevin Head was one of the lucky guys who got to take the sisters to Homecoming, and his description of their dear mum lets us know exactly what he thinks about the whole situation. The house itself looks all closed up and isolated.
A few weeks after Mrs. Lisbon shut the house in maximum-security isolation, the sightings of Lux making love on the roof began. (4.1)
Every prison has a black market, even Mrs. Lisbon's Home for Suicidal Sisters. Lux manages to find some way to signal to randos to come visit her and takes them up onto the roof for some loving. It's a very public place; all the neighbors knew about it, but her jailers, her parents, have no idea. But Lux is still emotionally isolated; all her lovers comment how remote she seemed during sex.
Following the Homecoming dance, Mrs. Lisbon closed the downstairs shades. All we could see were the girls' incarcerated shadows, which ran riot in our imaginations. (4.2)
The use of the adjective "incarcerated" to talk about the girls compares their home to a prison, which is what it must seem like to them as young people trapped in the house. In fact, the narrators call the girls incarcerated "shadows" as if they were no longer real people to the rest of the world. They're total unknowns now.
The house receded behind its mists of youth being choked off, and even our own parents began to mention how dim and unhealthy the place looked. (4.9)
As the girls dig in at home, even the house begins to look depressed—unhealthy, neglecting its appearance. "Youth choked off" is a powerful description; it seems to foreshadow the girls' death.
"Why all the commotion? Why the ambulance?"
"Only way I could get out of the house." (4.25-4.26)
Lux complains of a stomachache and is taken to the hospital for a burst appendix. It turns out she's worried that she's pregnant and wants to get to the hospital for a test. Her mother won't let her out of the house so she has to fake an emergency to get out of her house and get help. If an ambulance ride is the highlight of your week, things are pretty bad indeed.
Now the soft decay of the house began to show up more clearly. We noticed how tattered the curtains had become, then realized we weren't looking at curtains at all but at a film of dirt, with spy holes wiped clean. The best thing was to see them make one: the pink heel of a hand flattening against the glass, then rubbing back and forth to uncover the bright mosaic of an eye, looking out at us. (4.55)
This description, along with the one of Therese's sad conversation on the ham radio, is really a killer. The girls' isolation is complete; all they can do is peek out at the world and know they're not part of it anymore. It's a sad, hopeless scene.
Chucking her under her chin, he said, "What are you doing here, honey? You're not even old enough to know how bad life gets."
And it was then Cecilia gave orally what was to be her only form of suicide note, and a useless one at that, because she was going to live: "Obviously, Doctor," she said, "you've never been a thirteen-year-old girl." (1.7-8)
The doctor seems to associate suffering with adulthood, as though teenagers and children were immune to it. He approaches Cecilia's difficulties with humor, while Cecilia takes her suffering terribly seriously. Her message about adolescence is that it's synonymous with suffering. Is Cecilia's suffering typical?
"She was in deep denial," Dr. Hornicker told us later. "She was obviously not sleeping—a textbook symptom of depression—and was pretending that her problem, and by association her sister Cecilia's problem, was of no real consequence." (4.51)
Dr. Hornicker wants to explain the Lisbon sisters' actions as a result of mental illness, and associates Lux's insomnia with depression. Lux tries to minimize her problems; obviously she can't possibly feel that Cecilia's suicide was not a big deal, and she's not in such great shape herself. She's been promiscuous, isn't sleeping, is on permanent house arrest. Something is obviously very wrong. Why didn't Dr. Hornicker push a little harder?
At night the cries of cats making love or fighting, their caterwauling in the dark, told us that the world was pure emotion, flung back and forth among its creatures, the agony of the one-eyed Siamese no different from that of the Lisbon girls, and even the trees plunged in feeling. (4.54)
In The Virgin Suicides, the girls' suffering is often described with sexual imagery. The cats' "caterwauling" is a sign of their desire to get it on. The "agony" is the need to find some love, and the Lisbon girls are just like the cats. Except they're not free to find other people to satisfy that need.
Our concern increased when we saw Bonnie visibly wasting away. (4.63)
The girls' suffering is emotional, not physical. They have a place to live (however creepy), food to eat (however non-nutritious), clothes to wear (however baggy and tattered). But Bonnie's wasting away is a visible, physical sign of her emotional distress. People sunk in grief or sadness don't take care of their health—they don't care—and eventually their health deteriorates. The mind/body connection in action.
"Twenty-one. Handsome. Beautiful on violin.
"Bridge nearby. Swift current."
"How get over?"
"Never will." (4.72-76)
While we don't get many up-close descriptions of the girls' inner turmoil in the aftermath of Cecilia's death, this exchange between Therese and a stranger in Colombia over the ham radio (think of an early version of a Reddit thread) gives us a hint. Her question, how her radio buddy got over his brother's suicide, reveals that she's suffering, too. What's worse is the answer: he'll never get over it.
Technically, Mary survived for more than a month, though everyone felt otherwise. After that night, people spoke of the Lisbon girls in the past tense, and if they mentioned Mary at all it was with the veiled wish that she would hurry up and get it over with. (5.4)
This passage seems to describe the neighbors' reaction to the unimaginable suffering of the Lisbon family. They don't really want Mary dead, but they can't tolerate the situation any longer. The deaths have had a huge impact on the neighborhood as well as the family, and the narrator suggests that the entire neighborhood fell apart after the Lisbon tragedy.
From our viewpoint, the Lisbons' sadness was beyond comprehension, and when we saw them in those last days, we were amazed at anything they did. How could they actually sit down to eat? Or come out to the back porch in the evening to enjoy the breeze? How could Mrs. Lisbon, as she did one afternoon, stagger outside, and across her uncut lawn, to pick one of Mrs. Bates's snapdragons? (5.19)
After their family tragedy, the Lisbons' neighbors consider them to be the walking dead. The fact they can do the simplest things in the world, like sitting down to dinner or wanting to pick a flower, seems impossible to the narrators. What makes people go on after something like that? Obviously, suicide runs in the family, but Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon somehow keep on living even if they're just going through the motions.
"I was outside, having a smoke. It was about two in the morning. I heard the door open across the street and then they came out. The mother looked bombed. The husband sort of helped her in. And then they drove away. Fast. Got the hell out." (5.33)
Uncle Tucker is the last person on the street to see the Lisbons. They leave under cover of darkness, like criminals. Their humiliation exacerbates the suffering caused by their daughters' deaths. They must feel like total failures, and the silence of their neighbors only increases their pain. Maybe Mrs. Lisbon took to drinking to make it through the nights.
They made us participate in their own madness, because we couldn't help but retrace their steps, rethink their thoughts, and see that none of them led to us. We couldn't imagine the emptiness of a creature who put a razor to her wrists and opened her veins, the emptiness and the calm. And we had to smear our muzzles in their last traces, of mud marks on the floor, trunks kicked out from under them, we had to breathe forever the air of the rooms in which they killed themselves. (5.42)
The narrators' obsession with the Lisbon girls causes them intense suffering; every time they try to make sense of what happened, they have to relive those terrible moments. But they know that they'll never understand the depths of the sisters' pain.
He inventoried deodorants and perfumes and scouring pads for rubbing away dead skin, and we were surprised to learn that there were no douches anywhere because we had thought girls douched every night like brushing their teeth. (1.12)
The hilarity of the final phrase in this sentence shows the narrators' youthful misunderstanding about young women. The items the boy finds in the Lisbon bathroom are all very closely linked to the girls' femininity—hiding smells and getting rid of dead skin is part of a traditionally feminine image.
In the trash can was one Tampax, spotted, still fresh from the insides of one of the Lisbon girls. Sissen said that he wanted to bring it to us, that it wasn't gross but a beautiful thing, you had to see it, like a modern painting or something, and then he told us he had counted twelve boxes of Tampax in the cupboard. (1.12)
We'd never really considered the beauty of a used tampon before. Why on earth would this be so fascinating? Perhaps because a menstrual cycle is the sign of puberty, that a girl has become a woman, and this makes them more sexually attractive to the boys. The tampon was from the "insides" of one of the sisters, so imagine the fantasies that produces…
Our local newspaper neglected to run an article on the suicide attempt, because the editor, Mr. Baubee, felt such depressing information wouldn't fit between the front-page article on the Junior League Flower Show and the back-page photographs of grinning brides. (1.21)
The five Lisbon sisters don't behave properly—their suicide attempt is so out of the norm that no one knows what to do with it. The newspaper editor has an idea of what kinds of news about young women is acceptable: flower shows and weddings with happy girls all around.
She came back still wearing the wedding dress. Mrs. Patz, whose sister was a nurse at Bon Secours, said that Cecilia had refused to put on a hospital gown, demanding that her wedding dress be brought to her, and Dr. Hornicker, the staff psychiatrist, thought it best to humor her. (1.25)
While Mr. Baubee, the newspaper editor, can only think of women in terms of flowers and weddings, Cecilia turns the stereotype of the blushing bride on its head. She's suicidal, but also insists on a wedding dress as her costume. It's a traditional symbol of virginity and purity, but she turns it into a bizarre get-up whose meaning is unclear. It's cut short, tattered, and dirty from constant wearing and it gives Cecilia a strange vibe, like a defiled ghost. We're told that Cecilia gets her period right before her suicide attempt, so the wedding dress might have some sexual connotations. Some orders of nuns have wedding ceremonies, complete with white gowns, in which they are joined to God as "brides of Christ." Being raised in a strict Catholic home, Cecilia may have also been playing with or attacking this idea.
[A] creature with a hundred mouths started sucking the marrow from his bones. She said nothing as she came on like a starved animal [. . . ] with terror he put his finger in the ravenous mouth of the animal leashed below her waist. It was as though he had never touched a girl before; he felt fur and an oily substance like otter insulation. Two beasts lived in the car, one above, snuffling and biting him, and one below, struggling to get out of its damp cage. (3.57)
Once Trip shows some interest in her, Lux's sexual desire comes roaring out. When she pounces on Trip in his car she's compared to a wild animal, even a monster (a hundred mouths, what?) rather than a virginal young woman. Her vagina is referred to as a beast (two beasts, one above and one below), as though her sexuality were predatory. Trip is sexually experienced, so he can handle it, but imagine if it would have been one of the other neighborhood boys. They would've run for the hills.
Usually Mr. Lisbon did their raking alone, singing in his soprano's voice, but from fifteen Therese had begun to help, stooping and scratching in mannish clothes, knee-high rubber boots and a fishing cap. (3.67)
The division of labor between the genders is alive and well, especially when it comes to the home. Mr. Lisbon, as the only man in his family, takes on all of the yard work. When Therese helps him, we see her disguise herself as a man (not literally, of course). Therese is the least traditionally feminine of the sisters. She's not much interested in clothes, and she's a science nerd—typically a boy's thing in the 1970s.
They could sense Mrs. Lisbon watching them, and even though they were close enough to feel the Lisbon girls' breath and to smell the first perfume they had ever been allowed to wear, the boys tried not to stick the girls or even to touch them. They gently lifted the material from the girls' chests and hung white flowers over their hearts. Whichever Lisbon girl a boy pinned became his date. (3.140)
This scene reads like an anthropological account of a mating ritual. The girls are allowed to act like women for the first time, wearing perfume and going out alone with boys. The boys know that this is a big deal, and treat the young women like they are forbidden fruit, not touching them, trying not to poke them with the pins of their corsages. Each boy claims his girl by putting a flower on her. Mrs. Lisbon watches and makes sure there's no body contact. But to her credit, she actually instructs her daughters what to do with the corsages. It's the first piece of useful feminine advice we see her give them, kind of an initiation into the world of proper young women.
The smoky sound of her voice brought the scene to life for us: the old woman at the kitchen table, her skimpy hair up in an elasticized turban; Mrs. Lisbon tight-lipped and grim in a chair opposite; and the four penitents, heads lowered, fingering knickknacks and porcelain figurines. There is no discussion of how they feel or what they want out of life; there is only the descending order—grandmother, mother, daughters [. . .]. (4.8)
This scene exemplifies the feminine archetypes of women: Maidens (the daughters), Mother (Mrs. Lisbon) and Crone (the grandmother). Do the girls look at mother and grandmother and see their futures? Right now they're the "penitents," the low men (women) on the totem pole, but they short-circuit the progression with their suicides.
In addition to a pregnancy test, Dr. Finch gave Lux a complete gynecological exam. [. . .] The simple appraisal "mild abrasions" reports the condition of her uterine walls, and in an advancement that has since been discontinued, a photograph was taken of her rosy cervix, which looks like a camera shutter set on an extremely low exposure. (It stares at us now like an inflamed eye, fixing us with its silent accusation.) (4.33)
The boys get their hands on the records of the gynecological exam from Lux's trip to the emergency room, which they find "titillating," (4.33) because it describes a sexually active girl and includes photos of her cervix. The narrators have some guilt about this admittedly very intrusive spying on Lux's private moments, but they're still fascinated. The dry clinical details of the medical report further objectify poor Lux, who went to the ER in a state of desperation about a possible pregnancy.
"It's the smell of trapped beaver," Paul Baldino said, sagely, and we didn't know enough to disagree, but we found it hard to imagine such an aroma issuing from the ventricles of love. The smell was partly bad breath, cheese, milk, tongue film, but also the singed smell of drilled teeth. (4.66)
There are lots of myths about what a woman's vagina smells like. Paul Baldino's vulgar reference to the Lisbon girls compares the smell that comes from their closed-up house to the girls' repressed sexuality. It's a disgusting description, and some of the narrators, still caught up in their romantic idealization of the girls, don't believe it.
"Twenty-one. Handsome. Beautiful on violin."
"Bridge nearby. Swift current."
"How get over?"
"Never will." (4.72-76)
This conversation over ham radio between Therese and a Colombian stranger shows the universal difficulty of surviving a sibling's suicide. The short, choppy sentences show the way that amateur radio operators talk to one another, since they're communicating with Morse code, and make the deep sadness and complex emotions conveyed even more powerful in contrast.
In the end, it wasn't death that surprised her but the stubbornness of life. She couldn't understand how the Lisbons kept so quiet, why they didn't wail to heaven or go mad. (4.91)
Old Mrs. Karafilis, the Greek grandmother of one of the narrators, has lived through extreme trauma in her long life. She doesn't speak English, but does understand the goings-on in the neighborhood; the way that Americans deal with (or actually don't deal with) the suicides mystifies her. That's not how things are done in the old country. Grief there is loud and public; the Lisbons keep it underground.
The newspapers, later writing about what they termed a "suicide pact," treated the girls as automatons, creatures so barely alive that their deaths came as little change. (4.93)
Once the girls are dead, it's as though they had never existed as real, individual human beings. For one thing, they're collapsed into a unit: the girls. For another, their deaths are understood as almost inevitable, as though they were broken, doomed to die. Perhaps that's the only way their fellow citizens can wrap their heads around the tragedy—to depersonalize the sisters. The narrators have much more information about the community's reaction to the deaths than they do about the suicides themselves. You could say that this is the real story of the novel—how a community deals with a tragedy like this.
How long we stayed like that, communing with her departed spirit, we can't remember. Long enough for our collective breath to start a breeze through the room that made Bonnie twist on her rope. She spun slowly, and at one point her face broke out of the seaweed of balloons, showing us the reality of the death she'd chosen. It was a world of blackening eye sockets, blood pooling in lower extremities, stiffening joints. (4.207)
The boys believe that they are rescuing the Lisbon girls on the night of their suicides, but instead the sisters involve the boys as witnesses to their terrible deaths. Bonnie, hanging in the room where they'd partied only a year before, brings home the horrible reality of death. It's a traumatizing sight; they don't see the "peaceful" aftermath of an overdose or carbon monoxide death, but the more gruesome result of a hanging. (The film spares us those visual details, btw.)
As for the other girls, autopsies were performed on each of them, in accordance with a state law requiring investigation in all deaths by suicide. [. . .] A single coroner, brought from the city with two fatigued assistants, opened up the girls' brains and body cavities, peering inside at the mystery of their despair. (5.5)
The girls' young bodies aren't damaged (besides the self-inflicted injuries that cause their deaths), so the image of the coroner looking in their brains and bodies for a sign of why they died is almost absurd. The message is that the reason for their suicides is beyond anything the coroner can see.
After the suicide free-for-all, Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon gave up the attempt to lead a normal life. Mrs. Lisbon stopped attending church, and when Father Moody went to the house to console her, no one answered the door. (5.9)
This is all we need to know about the effects of the deaths on Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon. They withdraw completely.
It was full-fledged summer once again, over a year from the time Cecilia had slit her wrists, spreading the poison in the air. A spill at the River Rouge Plant increased phosphates in the lake, producing a scum of algae so thick it clogged outboard engines. Our beautiful lake began to look like a lily pond, carpeted with an undulating foam. (5.21)
Cecilia's suicide is compared in this metaphor to a spill at the Ford automobile factory, as though her death wish was contagious, killing her sisters and contaminating the community just like the algae spread over Lake St. Clair. The polluted lake is dead, too.
She had on so much makeup that the paramedics had the odd feeling she had already been prepared for viewing by an undertaker, and this impression lasted until they saw that her lipstick and eyeshadow were smudged. She had clawed herself a little, at the end. She was dressed in a black dress and veil […].(5.29)
Mary, the last Lisbon girl to die, becomes her own undertaker, dressing as if for her own funeral—heavy makeup and a black veil—before overdosing on pills. The smudges suggest to the narrators that her body tried to fight off death in her last minutes. The image of the dead Mary is in ironic contrast to Mary's longtime love of makeup, which was her way of exploring womanhood and was a kind of life-affirming interest. She finally got to wear it in public.
As luck would have it, on the day of Mary's suicide, the cemetery worker's strike was settled after 409 days of arbitration. The strike's length had caused mortuaries to fill up months ago, and the many bodies awaiting burial now came back from out of state, in refrigerated trucks, or by airplane, depending on the wealth of the deceased. (5.31)
The strike means that no one has been buried in the city for over a year. Because it ends on the day of Mary's death, all five sisters are buried together in a single ceremony. It's interesting that social class affects even the dead—the rich cadavers travel in style, while the poorer ones are trucked in. The stark death imagery really starts piling up in the novel after the sisters' suicides.
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)
Lourdes and Fatima are sites of shrines to the Virgin Mary in Europe (France and Portugal, respectively), where she's said to have appeared to faithful followers who happened to be children (Fatima) and a teenage girl (Lourdes). Why Cecilia includes a photo of Mary in her suicide attempt isn't really explained. Is she protesting the rigid Catholicism in her family? Is she fascinated by it? Is it part of her emotional disturbance? Is she praying for salvation after her death? The narrators and the readers are left to wonder. Later, when the girls leave the Virgin cards around the neighborhood, it's a little more understandable as a way of identifying themselves to the boys and an ominous statement of their connection with Cecilia.
Mr. Lisbon read the words three times. Then he said in a defeated voice, "We baptized her, we confirmed her, and now she believes this crap."
It was his only blasphemy during the entire ordeal. Mrs. Lisbon reacted by crumpling the picture in her fist (it survived; we have a photocopy here). (1.19-20)
We guess Mr. Lisbon wasn't the one directing the girls' religious upbringing; he calls the beliefs "crap." Sounds like he feels responsible for giving her an experience that somehow got associated with the idea of suicide. Mrs. Lisbon, the devout one, reacts by crumpling the card. It's probably horrifying to her that her religious beliefs got wrapped up in Cecilia's problems.
Father Moody showed more perseverance. [. . .] "How about we get the Mrs. down here? Have a little chat."
Mr. Lisbon hunched toward the screen. "Afraid she's not seeing anybody right now. [. . .]"
"She'll see her priest," Father Moody said. (3.4-6)
After Cecilia's death, her mother's understandably devastated and withdrawn. She doesn't want to receive any visitors, and her husband plays goalie, defending her from stray do-gooders who might want to cheer her up. The priest knows she's a devout Catholic and figures that she'll make an exception for her priest. He's wrong. She never looks to him as a source of comfort.
The Reverend Pike spoke of the Christian message of death and rebirth, working in a story of his own heartrending loss when his college football team failed to clinch the division title. (3.82)
At school, the teachers and students attempt to deal with their grief over Cecilia's death, but everyone's a little misguided. The Reverend Pike tries to remind everyone that Christians believe in life after death to give them hope, but seriously—he's comparing his football team's loss to the tragedy that's on everyone's minds? It's an example of the general cluelessness that we see in the community at large when trying to deal with the Lisbon tragedies. Religion isn't much help.
Their loose dresses reminded Kevin Head of choir robes. "They didn't seem to notice, though. Personally, I think they liked their dresses. Or else they were just so happy to be going out they didn't care what they wore. They looked great." (3.134)
Another example of the juxtaposition of religious and sexual imagery in the novel.
It was church music, a selection from among the three albums Mrs. Lisbon liked to play over and over again on Sundays. We knew about the music from Cecilia's diary ("Sunday morning. Mom's playing that crap again"), and months later, when they were moving out, we found the albums in the trash they put at the curb. (3.207)
When Lux comes home late after the Homecoming Dance, the church music blaring from the house is a message from her mother that she's in deep trouble. The fact that Mrs. Lisbon ditches these treasured albums when she moves out of town might be a hint that her faith has been irreparably shaken by the deaths of her daughters.
The next Sunday, arriving home after a spirited church sermon, she had commanded Lux to destroy her rock records. (4.6)
Mrs. Lisbon believes that rock music is sinful and, to protect her daughters from its effects, takes drastic action. It's just another way that she stifles her daughters.
Mr. Lisbon continued to go to work in the mornings and the family continued to attend church on Sundays, but that was it. (4.9)
After Cecilia's death the family goes on lockdown. They strip down their activities to the bare necessities. Mr. Lisbon has to go to work because they have to pay the bills, so that's not negotiable. Mrs. Lisbon does pull the girls out of school, but she doesn't cut church. It must be extremely important to her, a requirement for life and maybe at this point a way of coping with Cecilia's death.
[M]ore laminated pictures of the Virgin began showing up. Mr. Hutch found one tucked into the windshield wiper of his car and, not recognizing its significance, crumpled it up and threw it into the ashtray. [. . .] Still, we could see right away that it was identical to the picture of the Virgin Cecilia had clutched in the bathtub, and when we wiped off the soot, the 555-MARY telephone number emerged on the back. (4.129)
So what's with those Virgin Mary cards anyway? They're certainly a reference to Cecilia, who tried to die with one of them in her hands. And they're a surefire way to let the recipients know who was distributing them. Were they an accusation against the neighbors who were ignoring the family? A veiled threat of more suicides? A cry for help? Like with Cecilia's Mary card, the novel never answers the question.
[. . . T]he girls had created a shrine to their dead sister. Those who attended church said the window resembled the Grotto at St. Paul's Catholic Church on the Lake, but instead of neat ascending rows of votive candles, each alike in size and importance like the souls they pilot-lighted, the girls had engineered a phantasmagoria of beacons. (4.133)
The Church Eugenides refers to here is an actual Catholic church in Grosse Point, Michigan. The grotto is an area filled with candles that devout believers light as part of their prayers. The girls create their own shrine to remember Cecilia, once again taking over their mother's religious custom and making it their own. This is like the Virgin Mary cards; they were knowledgeable about Catholicism but gave it their own meaning. Bonnie was a believer, but it didn't keep her from committing what traditional Catholics like her mother would consider a mortal sin.
Cecilia, the youngest, only thirteen, had gone first, slitting her wrists like a Stoic while taking a bath, and when they found her, afloat in her pink pool, with the yellow eyes of someone possessed and her small body giving off the odor of a mature woman, the paramedics had been so frightened by her tranquility that they had stood mesmerized. (1.2)
Cecilia's youth is emphasized at the beginning of this sentence: "youngest," "only thirteen." However, that juvenile character contrasts with the way she seems after her suicide attempt: "mature," "tranquility." It is as though her suicide is her passage into adulthood—a shortcut.
There had never been a funeral in our town before, at least not during our lifetimes. [. . .] Nobody's grandfather had died, nobody's grandmother, nobody's parents, only a few dogs: Tom Burke's beagle, Muffin, who choked on Bazooka Joe bubble gum, and then that summer, a creature who in dog years was still a puppy—Cecilia Lisbon. (2.5)
The neighborhood leads a charmed existence; it's really Happy Valley. People just expect that everything will be fine, especially with their children. They just don't know what to do with a child who decided not to grow up. It's clearly a totally extraordinary experience for the narrators.
The truth was, even the wimpiest boys were more adept than Trip at asking girls out, because their sparrows' chests and knock-knees had taught them perseverance, whereas Trip had never even had to dial a girl's phone number. It was all new to him: the memorization of strategic speeches, the trial runs of possible conversations, the yogic deep breathing, all leading up to the blind, headlong dive into the staticky sea of telephone lines. (3.50)
Coming of age can be a struggle. You know what it's like—having to deal with your weird gawky body getting all out of whack on hormones and growth spurts. But check this out—those difficult moments really do build character. Someone like Trip Fontaine, who magically skips over the awkward stage, doesn't have practice dealing with awkward times.
"I'm here to tell you that my intentions toward your daughter are entirely honorable."
Mr. Lisbon's eyebrows rose, but his expression was used up, as though six or seven boys had made the same declaration that very morning.
"And what might those intentions be?"
Trip brought his boots together, "I want to ask Lux to Homecoming." (3.92-95)
Whether you realize it or not, lots of high school rituals are really just part of making sure everyone comes of age in a timely fashion. Dances, and the pain of asking for permission and for a date, are part of growing up. It's a public declaration of adulthood, and Trip handles this one like a champ.
In the background, Mrs. Lisbon said, "Why don't you let the boys pin them on?"
At that, the girls stepped forward, shyly presenting the fronts of their dresses. The boys fumbled with the corsages, taking them out of their cases and avoiding the decorative stickpins. They could sense Mrs. Lisbon watching them, and even though they were close enough to feel the Lisbon girls' breath and to smell the first perfume they had ever been allowed to wear, the boys tried not to stick the girls or even to touch them. (3.139-3.140)
This is a pretty touching scene. The girls really don't know what to do with the corsages, and for the first time we see their mother helping them along in this small coming-of-age ritual. They each step forward as though it were rehearsed, and the boys must show that they will treat their dates carefully even while doing something slightly dangerous, like pinning a flower to a dress.
Each of us had said he was sleeping over at a friend's house, so we had all night to sit and drink, unmolested by adults. (4.160)
The boys have to escape the adults in order to feel like adults. They drink and stay up all night, and also make radical decisions for themselves, attempting to rescue the girls and take them to Florida. But they are still kids under their parents' control, and they have to lie in order to get the freedom to carry out their plan.
Like everyone else, we went to Alice O'Connor's coming-out party to forget about the Lisbon girls. The black bartenders in red vests served us alcohol without asking for I.D., and in turn, around 3 A.M., we said nothing when we saw them loading leftover cases of whiskey into the trunk of a sagging Cadillac. (5.22)
A coming-out party is, for those of you who don't know, an event in which a usually affluent teenage girl is presented to society as an eligible young adult. Alice O'Connor isn't the only one being treated like a grown-up for the first time; the boys, too, are served alcohol. It's a sad irony that while Alice is coming out, Mary is going out for good. The novel's juxtaposition of these two events is pretty genius. You have to wonder: Did Mary know about the party? Was she invited? Could she see all the girls in their party dresses going to Alice's house while she was thinking about being dead?
Inside, we got to know girls who had never considered taking their own lives. We fed them drinks, danced with them until they became unsteady, and led them out to the screened-in veranda. They lost their high heels on the way, kissed us in the humid darkness, and then slipped away to throw up demurely in the outside bushes. Some of us held their heads as they vomited, then let them rinse their mouths with beer, after which we got back to kissing again. (5.22)
More aspects of coming of age: getting so drunk you puke. The girls and boys lose their inhibitions (and their lunches), which lets them act like adults on a sexual level. They're "unsteady" because they're new at this, but they get the hang of it pretty quick.
The girls were monstrous in their formal dresses, each built around a wire cage. Pounds of hair were secured atop their heads. Drunk, and kissing us, or passing out in chairs, they were bound for college, husbands, child-rearing, unhappiness only dimly perceived—bound, in other words, for life. (5.22)
The coming-out party is the tipping point between adolescence and adulthood. Coming-of-age is presented as a less than desirable process: the girls are "monstrous" as teenagers, but their future as adult women sounds pretty awful, too. The stereotyped path to adulthood for these girls will lead to unhappiness, even if they don't realize it.
Someone fell in, was rescued, and laid on the pier. "I've had it," he said, laughing. "Good-bye, cruel world!" He tried to roll into the lake again, but his friends stopped him.
"You don't understand me," he said. "I'm a teenager. I've got problems!"
"Be quiet," a woman's voice scolded. "They'll hear you." (5.23-25)
The Lisbon girls' suicides are impossible to explain, but the closest thing we have to an explanation is Cecilia's declaration that being a thirteen-year-old girl is difficult. The thing that's hard for everyone to understand, then, is why all teenagers don't kill themselves. For this drunken boy, the trials of adolescence are a joke.
After talking with Cecilia, Dr. Hornicker made the diagnosis that her suicide was an act of aggression inspired by the repression of adolescent libidinal urges. To each of three wildly different inkblots, she had responded, "A banana." She also saw "prison bars," "a swamp," "an Afro," and "the earth after an atomic bomb." When asked why she had tried to kill herself, she said only, "It was a mistake," and clammed up when Dr. Hornicker persisted. (1.34)
Adolescent libidinal urges? What the heck? Let's get out our old Freudian handbook and unpack this. Dr. Hornicker believes that Cecilia's teenaged sexual (libidinal) urges are being repressed and have to come out somehow. Thus, seeing the bananas (phallic symbol alert!) on the Rorschach (ink blot) cards. Dr. Hornicker believes it's her anger about the repression that causes her suicide attempt.
Even up close, the girls didn't look depressed. They settled into the seats, not minding the tight fit. Mary half sat in Kevin Head's lap. They began chattering immediately. As houses passed, they had something to say about the families in each one, which meant that they had been looking out as intensely as we had been looking in. […] They were, after all, our neighbors. (3.142)
Who would've thought that, up close, the girls seemed like totally normal teens? This passage makes the reader happy for them, but sad at the same time because we know what happened to them—and what could have been different.
Dr. Hornicker happened to be on call that night and managed to see Lux for a few minutes without Mrs. Lisbon's knowledge. "The girl was still waiting for the test results, so she was understandably tense," he said. "Still though, there was something else about her, an additional unease." Lux had gotten dressed and was sitting on the edge of the emergency room cot. When Dr. Hornicker introduced himself, she said, "You're the doctor who talked to my sister." (4.35)
When Dr. Hornicker finds out that Cecilia's older sister is in the hospital, he runs to talk to her. He's probably worried that she's not doing well after her little sister's suicide and wants to check her out. Cecilia must have told her sisters that she'd seen Dr. Hornicker after the doctors stitched up her wrists. With Cecilia dead, you can imagine that Lux feels a little uneasy about this particular psychiatrist.
"Ceci told us all about your tests. I'm just not in the mood right now."
"What kind of mood are you in?"
"No mood. I'm just kind of tired is all."
"Not getting enough sleep?"
"I sleep all the time." (4.41-45)
Again it's hard to read Lux's behavior. Is she suffering from mental distress or is she just being a moody teenager? She doesn't feel like talking to the doctor that tested her sister (and keep in mind that sister still killed herself), but can you really blame her? Her sleep habits are alarming though. Sleep disturbance, as Dr. Hornicker knows even if he's a fictional character, is a major symptom of serious depression. Not sleeping or sleeping all the time—both are danger signs.
"She was in deep denial," Dr. Hornicker told us later. "She was obviously not sleeping—a textbook symptom of depression—and was pretending that her problem, and by association her sister Cecilia's problem, was of no real consequence." Dr. Finch came in with the test results soon after that, and Lux jumped happily off the cot. "But even her delight had a manic quality to it. She bounced off the walls." (4.51)
Dr. Hornicker believes that Lux is denying her own pain over Cecilia's death, and he's decided that she's indeed depressed. His use of the term "manic" suggests he thinks Lux might have bipolar disorder. That makes sense when you think of her compulsive sexual behavior. Hypersexuality is sometimes a symptom of mania. Lux seems to feel that if she can minimize her own problems, then she can pretend she's coping okay with losing Cecilia.
Citing a recent study by Dr. Judith Weisberg that examined "the bereavement process of adolescents who have lost a sibling by suicide" (see List of Funded Studies), Dr. Hornicker gave an explanation for the Lisbon girls' erratic behavior—their withdrawal, their sudden fits of emotion or catatonia. The report maintained that as a result of Cecilia's suicide the surviving Lisbon girls suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. (4.52)
The narrators sound like an academic article here, citing their sources in ways that would bring tears of admiration to your psychology professor's eyes. Dr. Hornicker uses psychological research to try to make sense of the Lisbon girls. It seems that their symptoms are not unique, but rather common in surviving siblings of suicides. The way the narrators present this information—clinical, unemotional—suggests they're not happy with this explanation. It doesn't do justice to the sisters' suffering.
Winter is the season of alcoholism and despair. Count the drunks in Russia or the suicides at Cornell. So many exam-takers threw themselves into the gorge of that hilly campus that the university declared a midwinter holiday to ease the tension (popularly known as "suicide day," the holiday popped up in a computer search we ran, along with "suicide ride" and "suicide-mobile"). (4.92)
The narrators are still searching for explanations; they've done some research and found out about an epidemic of suicides at Cornell in the 1970s, when a number of students jumped into a nearby gorge. Cornell didn't have any more suicides than other colleges; it's just that the deaths were very public. Those suicides were attributed to "the winter blues". However, the girls killed themselves in June, so what's up with this digression about Cornell? The boys are just reflecting that suicide isn't an uncommon cause of death for young adults. Even college students with plenty of freedoms commit suicides, they note. How much worse, then, for the Lisbon girls, shut up in their house.
After the suicide free-for-all, Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon gave up the attempt to lead a normal life. Mrs. Lisbon stopped attending church, and when Father Moody went to the house to console her, no one answered the door. [. . .] During Mary's entire stay in the hospital, Mrs. Lisbon appeared only once. Herb Pitzenberger saw her come out onto the back porch with a stack of manuscript pages. Putting them into a pile, she lit them. We never learned what they were. (5.9)
While the girls are considered to be suffering from mental illness because of their suicides, we only catch a short glimpse of the toll their deaths take on their parents. It does seem that they lose their minds a little bit, isolating themselves and doing strange things. Mr. Lisbon's behavior at work deteriorates despite his best efforts to carry on.
They had killed themselves over our dying forests, over manatees maimed by propellers as they surfaced to drink from garden hoses; they had killed themselves at the sight of used tires stacked higher than the pyramids; […] In the end, the tortures tearing the Lisbon girls pointed to a simple reasoned refusal to accept the world as it was handed down to them, so full of flaws.
As the neighborhood declined, the neighbors began to see the girls not as crazy, but as almost clairvoyant, as if they'd foreseen the future and rationally opted out. This is a retrospective opinion, of course, and a pretty romanticized one. Can suicide ever be a rational choice?
"With most people," [Dr. Hornicker] said, "suicide is like Russian roulette. Only one chamber has a bullet. With the Lisbon girls, the gun was loaded. A bullet for family abuse. A bullet for genetic predisposition. A bullet for historical malaise. A bullet for inevitable momentum. The other two bullets are impossible to name, but that doesn't mean the chambers were empty." (5.41)
Dr. Hornicker sees a lot of reasons for the sisters' suicides. But whereas in Russian roulette a person has a 5-out-of-6 chance of survival, Dr. Hornicker's convinced that the Lisbon girls had a 0% chance. Too many things were wrong in their lives and their DNA.
[Trip] received letters emblazoned with ten different sets of lips (the lines of each pucker distinct as a fingerprint). He stopped studying for tests because of all the girls who came over to cram with him in bed. He spent his time keeping up his tan, floating on an air mattress around his bathtub-size swimming pool. The girls were right in choosing to love Trip, because he was the only boy who could keep his mouth shut. (3.41)
Trip Fontaine, the sexiest guy in school, has girls throwing themselves at him left and right. He doesn't have to work at school anymore, because he can exchange sexual favors for study tips. The sexually inexperienced boys see Trip as a love god who they'll never be able to measure up to. They also point out one of the real dangers of teenage sex—boys like to brag about their conquests. Trip, to his great credit, doesn't.
He didn't understand how she had bewitched him, nor why having done so she promptly forgot his existence, and in desperate moods he asked his mirror why the only girl he was crazy about was the only girl not crazy about him. For a long time he resorted to his time-tested methods of attracting girls, brushing his hair back as Lux passed, or clomping his boots up on the desktop, and once he even lowered his tinted glasses to give her the boon of his eyes. But she didn't look. (3.49)
In Lux, Trip finally finds a girl who doesn't just jump him at first sight. Perhaps the challenge, or the unexpectedness of her coolness, is what makes her irresistible to him. It wouldn't be the first time that unrequited love just made the beloved that much more attractive.
He thought about Lux getting ready for bed, and just the idea of her holding a toothbrush excited him more than the full-fledged nudity he saw in his own bedroom nearly every night. (3.57)
Trip is used to having sex. He has a parade of girls and women coming through his home, attracted by his good looks. But since he can't have Lux, every single, mundane thing she does is attractive to him. The toothbrush, that most unsexy accessory, becomes sexier than full frontal nudity. It's the mystery that's exciting.
He felt himself grasped by his long lapels, pulled forward and pushed back, as a creature with a hundred mouths started sucking the marrow from his bones. She said nothing as she came on like a starved animal, and he wouldn't have known who it was if it hadn't been for the taste of her watermelon gum, which after the first few torrid kisses he found himself chewing. (3.57)
When Lux and Trip finally get together, it's more of an attack than a romantic encounter. The sex is described with violent terms: sucking the marrow, a creature with a hundred mouths, starved animal. It's like something non-human has been unleashed in Lux.
It was as though he had never touched a girl before; he felt fur and an oily substance like otter insulation. Two beasts lived in the car, one above, snuffling and biting him, and one below, struggling to get out of its damp cage. Valiantly he did what he could to feed them, placate them, but the sense of his insufficiency grew, and after a few minutes, with only the words "Gotta get back before bed check," Lux left him, more dead than alive. (3.57)
More animal imagery: "fur," "otter insulation, " "snuffling and biting." It's all Trip can do to manage it. Women's sexuality is often seen as dangerous in some societies. Many ultra-religious sects make women cover up their bodies, not because they're shameful, but so the men don't become aroused by the sight and do something inappropriate. It's that powerful and dangerous.
Even though that lightning attack lasted only three minutes, it left its mark on him. He spoke of it as one might of a religious experience, a visitation or vision, any rupture into this life from beyond that cannot be described in words. "Sometimes I think I dreamed it," he told us, recalling the voracity of those hundred mouths that had sucked out his juice in the dark, and even though he went on to enjoy an enviable love life, Trip Fontaine confessed it was all anticlimactic. (3.58)
While the actual sexual encounter is compared to an animal attack, afterward, in his memory, Trip elevates it to a spiritual experience. There was something about this distant, inaccessible girl suddenly emerging as a ravenous sexual animal that had an unreal and dreamlike quality. It's still mystifying to the narrators as well.
We never learned whether Mrs. Lisbon caught Lux as she tried to sneak back inside, but for whatever reason, when Trip tried to make another date to come sit on the couch, Lux told him she was grounded, and that her mother had forbidden any future visits. (3.59)
Mrs. Lisbon obviously doesn't catch Lux in the act of sexing Trip, but she has that maternal sense that someone's up to something and puts the kibosh on it immediately. Maybe she just feels the sexual tension between the two, but she sees sex as sinful and clamps down.
In Dr. Hornicker's opinion, Lux's promiscuity was a commonplace reaction to emotional need. "Adolescents tend to seek love where they can find it," he wrote in one of the many articles he hoped to publish. "Lux confused the sexual act with love. For her, sex became a substitute for the comfort she needed as a result of her sister's suicide." (3.60)
Dr. Hornicker believes that Lux's depression after her sister's death, the trauma of Cecilia's suicide and her mother's withholding of love causes her to look for love in sex. Her mother disagrees strongly with this analysis and insists there was plenty of love in their home. Again, it's a simplistic explanation. Bereaved siblings don't usually become sex maniacs.
A sense of playacting permeated much of her behavior. Willie Tate admitted that, despite her eagerness, "she didn't seem to like it much," and many boys described similar inattention. […] Other times she treated it like some small chore, positioning the boys, undoing zippers and buckles with the weariness of a checkout girl. (4.14)
Lux's promiscuous sexual behavior has a compulsive quality to do it. She can't stop luring boys to her rooftop but doesn't seem to be really enjoying it. It becomes routine and almost boring, but she can't stop.
It was crazy to make love on the roof at any time, but to make love on the roof in winter suggested derangement, desperation, self-destructiveness far in excess of any pleasure snatched beneath the dripping trees. (4.15)
You betcha. The boys nailed this one.