The Effect of Narration on the Virgin Suicides
“Suicide is like Russian roulette. Only one chamber has a bullet. With the Lisbon girls, the gun was loaded …The…[last] two bullets are impossible to name, but that doesn’t mean the chambers were empty ”(Eugenides 228). The sisters were beautiful, desirable, privileged, and seemingly perfect girls that had everything and yet, they all commited suicide. Their nostalgic life, their love from their family, the admiration of onlookers, their put together facade, and their normal town, could have never of changed the tragedy of their deaths. The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides, used narration to show how people could love each other, break each other, and most importantly how sometimes, no matter what people do, they can only save themselves.
The Virgin Suicides was“the collective consciousness of a group of males looking back from adulthood at the experience of their adolescence when they were infatuated with the five girls in their neighborhood-the Lisbon sisters” (Hoskin). The narrators narrate “The novel…at a distance of twenty years from the time of the suicides” (Burn).
Some two decades after the year of the five Lisbon sisters’ suicides, the men who narrate have set themselves the task of reconstructing a history of the girls who continue to haunt them, a project that causes them incidentally to construct a history of their own adolescent selves. They become readers of their own incomplete memories, of the contradictory eyewitness testimony they collect in interviews with a variety of participants in the original events…In this intensely imagined novel, the “”we”” voice thereby produces an inquiry into desire and the intractability of otherness. (Shostak)
The third person Jeffrey Eugenides used allowed for any reader to see an outside perspective of the story. Eugenides’ narration told of not only how the narrators were stuck on the suicides of the sisters but how, “Their authoritative plural voice and sense of community become shattered by trauma, guilt and shame, which ironically [were] also the threads that…[sewed] together their group identity for twenty years” (Kostova 50). The narration of the young boys gave the story character, as it was told as a story from multiple points of views at once, giving space for any reader to obtain the theme that was hidden deep in the text.
“Cecilia, the youngest, only thirteen, …” was the first sister to commit suicide (Eugenides 1). The reason she committed suicide was never revealed and even the narrators are stuck on this horrific mystery, reliving the sister’s deaths every time the book is read, but still never having an answer:
We knew that Cecilia had killed herself because she was a misfit, because the beyond called to her, and we knew that her sisters, once abandoned, felt her calling from that place, too. But even as we make these conclusions we feel our throats plugging up because they are both true and untrue. 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 (Eugenides 241).
The narrators are left with only objects left behind by the girls and “…despite the fact that they appear to be collectors of the girls’ possessions, it is actually the collection of mementos that possesses them … ” (Kostova 49). They are not left with a suicide note but the “remains [of] battered high-tops, dried-up cosmetics, a microscope … ” (Shostak). “… and mirrors that would never again hold [the lisbon sisters’] images” (Eugenides 224). “Even at the end, the narrator constantly replaces the girls by the objects that belonged to them. The sentence ‘[w]e haven’t kept our tomb sufficiently airtight and our sacred objects are perishing’ (246) sounds more like a confession of their status as perpetrators than as a description of the passing time” (Kostova 50). “The group … never succeeds … in preventing them from committing suicide” (Kostova 50). Now, they are not the sisters’ heroes because they did not save them (Shostak). So these narrators have become obsessed with these girls and the fact that could not help that they have kept these objects as a way to cope. Because, they have been haunted, for 20 years, by the virgin suicides (Shostak). And when they “ … tried to go back to [their] old lives, to let the girls rest in peace, … a haunted quality persisted about the Lisbon house, making [them] see, when-ever [they] looked, a flame shape arcing from the roof, or swinging in an upstairs window. Many of [them] continued to have dreams in which the Lisbon girls appeared … ” (Eugenides 233). Causing this haunting of 20 years because they “ … had never known [them and when the sisters died they brought them there so] they could find that out” (Eugenides 210).
The suicides seem inevitable because they have stopped time for the narrators, who seem to live in a timeless zone of contemplation of the Lisbon deaths. The girls, and the consciousnesses of the boys who follow them, are always moving toward the moment of dying, despite the boys’ romantic impulse to save them by becoming “”custodians of the girls’ lives””. (Shostak)
They are stuck on the suicides, caught in an endless loop, hoping to find something, anything, that could have been missed. Their collection is not just a memorial full of the sisters’ objects anymore. It has become an obsession of what could have been done to save them. But, as the narrators can not admit, their deaths were fate and it was not preventable. The Narrators could not of told Cecilia to put down the blade or close her window because they did not hold control of her limbs and as they said they “ … couldn’t imagine the emptiness of a creature who put a razor to her wrists and opened her veins … ” (Eugenides 243). So not only could they not stop her from physically jumping out the window, they also could not understand her mental instability and what was truly going on inside of her mind. They could not solve a problem they did not understand.
Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon could not of saved their daughters either because of the same idea of the sisters’ inevitable fate. No matter how many times it is played through their heads or how many times the book is published, the sisters’ fate is sealed for all of eternity. No person can make others’ decisions, although someone can influence someone else, they can not mold them into something they are not. Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon may have loved their daughters, and although love is powerful, it can not force a person to do something against their will. Jeffrey Eugenides used narration to show how Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon were dealing with the suicides of their daughters. The narrators told how when four of the five sisters ended their lives Mrs. Lisbon followed behind Therese, holding her arm as she murmured “…what some people heard as, ‘Not you, too,’” (Eugenides 214). Her pain becomes very obvious in these parts of the text as she loses her daughters. But, it seemed as though this pain became too overwhelming, because, as the narrators continued she seemed to become more and more numb. The couple stopped attending church, answering their door, and “During Mary’s entire stay in the hospital, Mrs. Lisbon appeared only once” (Eugenides 220). Her not going to the hospital showed how numb she was becoming since she once rode in the EMS truck for Cecilia’s suicide attempt. Soon after they even took their house off the market, disposing “…not only replaceable items such as shoe polish tins…but family photographs…” (Eugenides 223). It was even described that “the Lisbons’ sadness was beyond comprehension, and when [they were seen] in those last days, [they] were amazed at anything they did” Eugenides 228). Mr and Mrs. Lisbon were beaten into mindless submission by tragedy, as their daughter’s deaths completely broke them (Eugenides). The narration stays in third person throughout the book, never giving insight into any of the characters thoughts. This lack of perspective doesn’t deprive the reader of how the parents saddened, but rather shows an outside perspective of the glossed over eyes. Neither parent could have expected these suicides and therefore could not of prevented them. But, after the deaths they did move quickly, leaving nothing behind of the past, while they tried to save themselves.
The narrators gave multiple reasons as to why the Lisbon sisters committed suicide and one of the most common reasons is that they are all just teenage girls, trying to make it in the demanding world. Such as when Cecilia attempted suicide for the first time:
Dr. Armonson stitched up her wrist wounds. Within five minutes of her transfusion he declared her out of danger. 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”. (Eugenides 5)
This section of the text displays how Cecilia felt about life and how difficult it really was to be a young teen during it. After her first attempt at suicide, she stayed in the hospital for a week under observation, but, also visited a psychiatrist to try and maintain her mental health (Eugenides). The hopes of this were to try and discover why she attempted but to also try and prevent her from attempting again. Even with these efforts there was no way to of prevented the sisters from killing themselves, that decision was up to them. As for why the girls committed suicide there was still the possibility of them having depression. “ … Dr. Kotbaum … had found that many suicidal persons possessed deficient amounts of serotonin, a neurotransmitter essential for the regulation of mood…[and] He did…examine a blood sample taken from Mary, which showed a slight deficiency of serotonin” (Eugenides 215). Or as the parents thought in the story “ … it had to do with [the] music, [their] goodlessness, or the loosening of morals regarding sex [they] hadn’t even had” (Eugenides 226). But, it could even be“ … that the boys’ approach to the girls -physical and also objectifying- is what does violence to the latter and makes them commit suicide (2009:814).” (Kostova 51). Although, there is many theories, the deciding reason of why they did it is still unknown, which is why no one could of saved them. Even the narrators of the story are lost when it comes to understanding why they could have commited. The story is written with lack of an explanation as to why to killed themselves and tends to focus more on the aesthetic of the suicide (Aaron). When Jeffrey Eugenides uses this narration he insures the mystery of the tragedy. He included insufficient explanations and narrators that told the story 20 years later as they continued to be haunted by the deaths. Their overwhelming thoughts that led them to this tragic conclusion were an unknown problem, which meant that there was an unknown solution. A person can not solve a puzzle without all the pieces, which is the reason they could not solve and prevent the puzzle of the Lisbon sisters’ suicides. Even if there was a blunt answer for why they did it, no person could’ve of stopped them, they could yell and scream, and gather up every single reason of ‘why not’, but that, that couldn’t be enough, that wouldn’t be enough. This is because only Cecilia could have chose to put her razor down, only Bonnie could have decided to not tie that rope into a noose, only Mary could have chose to close the oven instead, only Therese could’ve closed the bottle of pills, and only Lux could’ve chose to turn off the car and unlock the doors. Their decisions on this matter could have only been influenced, because in human nature people have opinions. Each opinion is formed for each person from their own cluster of thoughts and others can only try to change it, because it is not something that can be changed by force. And at this point, after the narrators shared their story on how they could not save the Lisbon sisters they had to choose to save themselves. The girl’s suicides could have not been stopped, unless they, themselves, chose to live.
Suicide is complicated. The person behind the weapon of their own self destruction has all the power over whether or not they use it. A bystander can only encourage them to not self destruct but the victim of the suicide chooses to live or die and nobody else can make that decision for them. The suicide is a choice, yes, but it is not selfish. The one commiting the act does not want to hurt anybody, they just want the madness to end. Cecilia, Bonnie, Lux, Therese, and Mary did not wish to hurt anybody. Eugenides spoke of them as if they were flawless, mysterious angels and the Narrators went deeper than that. They shared how they have been haunted by these suicides of these seemingly perfect girls. And through narration Jeffrey Eugenides displayed how everyone in the story loved, how everyone broke, and how in the end, no matter what, they could only save themselves.
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Shostak, Debra. “”‘A Story We Could Live With’: Narrative Voice, the Reader, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides.”” Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Jeffrey W. Hunter, vol. 312, Gale, 2012. Literature Resource Center, http://link.galegroup.com.douglascountylibraries.idm.oclc.org/apps/doc/H1100106183/LitRC?u=cast18629&sid=LitRC&xid=e3c5824d. Accessed 5 Dec. 2018. Originally published in Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 55, no. 4, Winter 2009, pp. 808-832.