from The Virgin Suicides film. credit Paramount Pictures.

Theatrical agony in The Virgin Suicides

Jeffrey Eugenides’ debut celebrates its 30th year anniversary. CW: Suicide

Written in 1993, Jeffrey Eugenides’ debut The Virgin Suicides celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. The Virgin Suicides’ plot is outlined within the first couple of pages, opening on “the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide.” There are five teenage girls in the novel: Cecilia, Lux, Bonnie, Mary and Therese. Cecilia, age 13, is the first to take her life. Her sisters follow exactly one year later. The narrator is a group of middle-age men, a first-person-plural “we”, looking back at their adolescent infatuation with the Lisbon girls. Right after the novel’s publication, The New York Times pointed to its mythical undertones and resemblance to an ancient tragedy; the “we” narrator playing the role of Greek Chorus.

Should The Virgin Suicides be read as a myth about modern girlhood? Is the novel just another example of the male gaze in literature? Are the suicides symbolic of the end of an epoch? The novel raises swarms of unanswerable questions. Its readers endure the asphyxiating state of haziness, losing themselves in the characters’ delusions. The agony of adolescence is captured: the chaotic world appears twisted and theatrical, a “decorating scheme” where nothing makes sense yet everything is intensely felt.

Why has this controversial novel about the suicides of five adolescents remained popular for over 30 years now? Partially the answer resides in the plot’s culminating point: Mrs Lisbon locks up the family house. The girls are not allowed outside (even to attend school). Depicting the torments of not being able to leave the house, The Virgin Suicides became painfully relatable in the times of Covid lockdown. The Lisbon girls, “unable to go anywhere, […] travelled in their imaginations to gold-tipped Siamese temples, or past an old man with bucket and leaf broom tidying a moss-carpeted speck of Japan.” The New Yorker commented with dark humour on the problems of being house-bound. The magazine published a series of cartoons ranking staying at home practices—the Lisbon family, scoring one star, were second to only Typhoid Mary. Additionally, the lockdown coincided with the rise of BookTokers who have since been influencing their subscribers’ ToBeRead lists. Today, one can come across the book’s freshly coined subtitle “TikTok made me buy it.” This label overlooks the novel’s artistic qualities, ones we should not underestimate.

The Virgin Suicides has been captivating such a large audience over the decades because it denies any interpretation. To read the novel is to experience a lingering confusion, grief, anger, obsession, nothing, and everything at once. The feeling is disquieting. However, that is exactly what The Virgin Suicides seems to normalise. There is nothing wrong in enduring the suffocating weight of uncertainty; everything does not have to make sense. Surely, the lenses of literary criticism can elucidate the issues of male gaze, the concept of motherhood or the role of a house in the novel.

But should we really disentangle and put a label on a teenagers’ world—a bunch of inexplicable emotions, desires and dreamy aspirations? Arguably, it should be felt or sympathised with but not interpreted. There is one particularly haunting image in the novel: the solar system model attached by “nearly invisible white strings” to the classroom ceiling of Mr Lisbon, the girls’ father and the Maths teacher at a local school. He meticulously rearranges the planets to reflect changes in the night sky. “Each day they rotated and revolved, the whole cosmos controlled by Mr Lisbon, who consulted an astronomy chart and turned a crank next to the pencil sharpener.” The captivating power of this scene lies, I think, in our desperate need to feel a part of a logical cosmic order and to have an illusion of authority over it. Resisting interpretations, The Virgin Suicides ridicules the conviction that one can rationalise life, let alone other people. 

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