Study Guide

Virgin Suicides Themes

  • Isolation

    Mrs. Lisbon's response to the dangers of the world is to isolate her daughters. At first she just seems like an overprotective mother, but over time she loses perspective, pulling her daughters out of school and keeping them literally on lockdown in the house. Her attempts to protect her kids backfire in the most horrible way. The real danger is inside—trapped in their oppressive family—rather than outside. Cut off from the world, some of the girls waste away physically as well as emotionally. You can see them come back to life when they finally get out of the house, but it doesn't last long.

    After Cecilia's death, the girls keep more to themselves at school and the other kids back off; no one really knows what to say. This isolates the sisters even more. One thing the novel suggests is that classmates and neighbors really failed the family by keeping their own distance.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. How does each daughter respond to the isolation?
    2. Why does Mrs. Lisbon stop leaving the house?
    3. Is the Lisbon household the only example of isolation in the novel?

    Chew on This

    The Lisbon girls' isolation contributed to their suicides, rather than saving them.

    Even if the Lisbon girls had been allowed out of the house, their grief about Cecilia would have caused their suicides.

  • Suffering

    In The Virgin Suicides, suffering isn't associated with any sort of physical problem. There's no war, starvation, or beatings; their pain is emotional. It's clear that life is unbearably painful for them. That's why people usually kill themselves—the suffering is too great and they don't see any hope for change. By the time things get really bad, the sisters are locked up in their house, so the boys can only speculate about what they're experiencing. They know it can't be good; they catch glimpses of the girls looking pale, disheveled, and skinny, and they see the house literally falling apart. It's only from the perspective of years later does it really sink in how horrible it must have been for the Lisbons.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. Who do you think suffers more, the girls or those left behind?
    2. What are the different signs (besides suicide) that the Lisbon sisters are suffering?
    3. Would contact with the outside world have alleviated their emotional suffering? Or would it have stopped mattering at some point?
    4. What was it about their suffering that made the sisters want to involve the boys in their demise?

    Chew on This

    The Virgin Suicides is about the universal suffering of adolescence: self-consciousness, clueless parents, sexual fears.

    The Lisbon sisters experience a unique suffering that no one understands.

  • Women and Femininity

    For the group of boy-narrators in The Virgin Suicides, anything having to do with girls or women is both an absolute mystery and a source of utter fascination. They're obsessed with learning the ways of young women, so they do lots of crazy scouting and investigating and come up with some pretty wacky ideas of what they think womanhood means. It's actually pretty funny, and provides the novel with some much-needed comic relief. But while the boys are entertaining their fantasies about Tampax, douching, and bras, the sisters are struggling through the real deal, trying to come to terms with their emerging femininity in a home where sex talk is totally taboo, dresses have to be baggy and unflattering, and one sister has opted out of life. It's a recipe for trouble.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. Why are the narrators so fascinated with the Lisbon girls, when there are so many other girls at school?
    2. How would the novel be different if it were about the suicides of five brothers?
    3. How do Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon protect their daughters from boys? Does it work?

    Chew on This

    In The Virgin Suicides, women are presented as the unknowable other.

    The author believes it's harder to be a teenage girl than a teenage boy.

  • Mortality

    There's a lot of death to deal with in The Virgin Suicides. In fact, even though there are only five sisters, there are seven suicide attempts in the novel—the girls aren't always successful on their first try. In the novel, suicide is a mystery. It's inexplicable to the narrators and just about everyone else why the teenaged Lisbon sisters would all decide to kill themselves. Understanding all these deaths is the narrators' obsession; they comb through the details of the sisters' lives in an attempt to explain their deaths. These deaths aren't in the typical progression of things, "death is a part of life" and all that. It's a shocking and unnatural thing.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Who do you think decides that the remaining sisters should kill themselves?
    2. Was Cecilia's wish for death different from her sisters'?
    3. What do you make of all the references to the short-lived fish flies?
    4. How does the revelation of the deaths early in the novel affect your feelings about them?

    Chew on This

    Death is presented as an unnatural, unwanted event in the novel.

    Death is a relief in the novel—a release from the horrible lives that the girls envision will be their inescapable fates.

  • Religion

    The Lisbon family are the only ones on their street who attend church. The devout Catholic mother tries to keep her five daughters in line, only allowing them to attend church and school after they're grounded. So religion becomes a punishment for the girls, and, after their deaths, an unsatisfying source of comfort for their parents. Religion is, at best, useless in the novel and, at worst, a destructive force in the Lisbon family. Eugenides has said that he intended the book's title to refer to the Virgin Mary, but he doesn't write much about the girls' own religious beliefs or practices except for a few references to Bonnie's piety or Lux's rebelliousness.

    Many kids rebel against the parents' religious practices, but Shmoop will venture a guess that for most religious families, their faith is something that brings them closer and makes them happier and more engaged with a community of believers. Not so with the Lisbons. They're still isolated and miserable.

    In the novel, religion and sex are sometimes seen as at odds, and at times related. The imagery of Lux's bra hanging on Cecilia's crucifix is a good example of how these themes are intertwined.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Do any of the daughters seem to have respect for religion in the novel?
    2. Why do you think the girls communicate using the Mary cards? What does it mean?
    3. Why does Mrs. Lisbon refuse to see Father Moody after Cecilia's death?

    Chew on This

    Religion is a source of order and comfort for the Lisbons.

    The repressive religious beliefs of their mother contribute to the Lisbon girls' deaths.

  • Coming of Age

    In some ways The Virgin Suicides is kind of an anti-coming-of-age novel. Its protagonists are all on the cusp of adulthood, ranging in age from thirteen to seventeen. Unfortunately, they don't make it past adolescence. They choose death rather than facing the challenges of real life growing up. What made the prospect of growing up so unbearable? It could have been grief over losing their sister; or the lack of guidance from their mother; or their mother's imposed isolation that would have made it impossible to have a supportive group of friends who were dealing with the same struggles. Their coming of age would have been distorted and stunted, so they opted out. There's something about the ending of a young life that's particularly tragic; this novel piles it on.

    Questions About Coming of Age

    1. Why do you think it's the youngest daughter that kills herself first?
    2. What kinds of pressures do the girls face as they grow up?
    3. How does Mrs. Lisbon deal with her daughters' coming of age?

    Chew on This

    That anyone survives the turbulence of adolescence is a minor miracle, especially if you have parents like the Lisbons.

    Most people make it through the teen years without serious problems. The Lisbon sisters are an aberration.

  • Madness

    The Lisbon girls all have their eccentricities, like wearing old wedding dresses, keeping lab goggles on in the hall, or protesting the cutting down of the diseased tree in their front yard. Don't all young people have crazy things they enjoy that the grown-ups just don't understand? But something more serious is going on with the Lisbon sisters; you don't kill yourself just because your parents misunderstand you or ignore you or make you go to church. Something else is lurking below the surface, and everyone seems to have a hypothesis about it. Professionals or neighbors, many people weigh in about what's eating the Lisbon sisters. The narrators have a different view; they've seen how "normal" the girls seemed on Homecoming night once they were out of the house. They see the problem as not one of madness inside, but as outside force—their oppressive family and the hopelessness it creates.

    Questions About Madness

    1. Whose explanation of the girls' suicides seems most plausible to you?
    2. What symptoms does Dr. Hornicker notice about the girls in his analysis?
    3. When do you think the older sisters decide to follow Cecilia in death?

    Chew on This

    Suicide, by definition, implies mental illness.

    The Lisbon sisters are perfectly sane, but no one wants to accept this.

  • Sex

    Time to get steamy. For the Lisbon sisters, sex is either totally rejected and suppressed (no makeup, no dating, baggy dresses), or completely out of control (Lux's voracious sexual appetite). There's no middle way, perhaps because the sisters were never given much guidance from their parents about how to manage those emerging sexual feelings that all teens have. The boys are all sexually naïve; they fantasize a lot, but only fantasize. They're intensely interested in sex, and seem in awe of people like Lux and Trip Fontaine, who actually do it. The boys are left to figure things out by examining bras and tampons and all the other mysterious evidence of female sexuality.

    Questions About Sex

    1. How do the sisters differ in their attitudes about sex?
    2. What do you think triggers Lux's promiscuity?
    3. What images does the novel use to associate sex with death?

    Chew on This

    Complete repression of their normal teenage sexual feelings leads to disaster for the Lisbon sisters.

    Mrs. Lisbon was right—active sexuality is the real disaster for her daughters, as evidenced by Lux's promiscuous behavior.