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The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides: Girlhood through the eyes of a man.

(Contains spoilers for both the book and film adaptation of The Virgin Suicides) 


‘”Obviously, Doctor” she said, “you’ve never been a thirteen-year-old girl.”’ 


The Virgin Suicides, published in 1993, is the debut novel of writer Jeffrey Eugenides. The narrative centres around the five Lisbon sisters and the unanswered question which plagues the narrator’s life: why did these girls commit suicide? Upon writing this review, I had just finished reading The Virgin Suicides for the first time, after watching Sofia Coppola’s 1999 film adaptation of the novel. Within the world of the novel, I found myself captivated by the Lisbon sisters. The way the unnamed narrator describes the love and obsession of the girls can be compared to cult like infatuation. The Lisbon sisters become myth, a story within a story, making them unable to control their own narrative. But why is this the case? As a man, is Eugenides truly criticising the destructive effects of the male gaze, or perpetuating it? Or is it up to us, as readers, to see it how we want to? 


The Lisbon sisters are brought up in a conservative Christian household. Their parents uphold strict rules surrounding dating and their personal lives. The primary interactions the Lisbon sisters have outside their family are with men; the most notable one being at the party hosted after Celia’s attempted suicide. The sisters are limited with their social contact, and as their interactions are nearly always with men, they never have the ability to explore their own identities and lives as women without men. Lux’s sexuality is the main focus of her character despite her being 14 years old, making her sexual encounter with Trip Fontaine and encounters with men on the roof of her house incredibly disturbing, to say the least. The only “favourable” attention the girls get is from men and this attention is purely born from sexual desire. The way sexual relationships are portrayed is deeply unsettling, further shown when Lux’s personal life becomes public knowledge. As the people of the neighbourhood talk about the girls  – and more importantly, the narrator and his friends attempt to take any parts of the Lisbon sisters that they can, including diary entries etc. – it seems that as the interest and intrigue of the Lisbon sisters grows, they lose more of what little they have in terms of their privacy and identity.  


The world is dominated by men and the male unnamed narrator only solidifies this. I would argue that the narrator is not meant to be liked, as his anonymity and obsession with the Lisbon sisters make him a symbol of the male gaze. His eerie collection of the sisters’ belongings creates an unsympathetic storyteller. We wonder what these girls were actually feeling beyond this outsider’s perspective which romanticises their entire existence and death.  

The Lisbon sisters can never escape the male gaze, always stuck between their mother’s strict views on chastity and the predatory men they encounter. The only solace they have is with one another and the only control they have is in their joint suicides. Reading this as a woman, I recognise the oppressive force of misogyny in the world of the Lisbon sisters. They are the central focus, but with a male narrator and the only insight being from men (Mr Lisbon, Trip etc.), men cast an eerie shadow over the novel. As readers, we are unable to know what the girls do and talk about when they are under house arrest towards the end of the novel; arguably, this shows how this was their only way to find peace and privacy in this world, with one another.  


Following the sisters’ suicide (except Mary, dying a month later), the town hosts an asphyxiation themed debutante party, due to the poor quality of air. The air is literally and metaphorically polluted, the loss of the sisters’ lives and the loss of their girlhood indefinitely taints the town:  

 

‘It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling, still do not hear us. 

‘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.’ 


It is hard to reach a definite conclusion about the intentions of The Virgin Suicides without asking Eugenides himself. Personally, I see it as a man’s inability to comprehend female suffrage at the hands of men. The narrator feels pity towards the Lisbon sisters, but he is still unable to make sense of them, even with physical distance and time. The Lisbon sisters, to me, are victims of a society which gives men alone the power of decision, and with it, the power to decide what is desirable. They are unable to take control in life and so they try to in death. This dark and disturbing conclusion creates a hopeless image for the fate of girlhood within a patriarchal society. 

 

Words: Eloise Kent, she/her

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