The Dying Who Refuse to Bury the Dead: The Virgin Suicides, the Limits of Consciousness, Death and Decay
We can’t know how another person feels. Perhaps, in an age of “empathy workshops,” this is a disappointment, but on a deeper level of human behavior it is probably both simultaneously a relief and a tragedy. “Thank heavens,” some may say, “that we do not have a responsibility to the true experiences of others, that we do not have to be bothered, that it isn’t our problem.” These limits of consciousness are an essential and seemingly untalked about component of the human experience that lead to all kinds of frustration and malcontent. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides explores this unfortunate longing and the idea of “limits of consciousness” is a cornerstone of meaning in the novel.The Virgin Suicides is about five sisters who all eventually kill themselves. Except it isn’t. If that were true, the plot of the book would not be revealed in the first sentence (or the title). The story does recount the deaths of the Lisbon sisters, but these girls are not the main characters and the story is not theirs. Death is prominent in the story, but the girls’ deaths are not what is being lamented. The death of a community, the death of a city, the death of a dream, and the death of a country loom over the pages of this book, making adolescent suicide look unimportant. The tale is truly about the faceless, nameless, numberless group of neighborhood boys who spend their lives obsessing over the Lisbon sisters both before and long after their demise. But, due to the limits of consciousness the boys cannot understand the girls or their situation until it is too late – and even then, the deaths only cause an adolescent obsession to extend indefinitely.
While the boys long to understand the Lisbons, the community ignores them. The few attempts to reach out to them after the death of their youngest sister are shallow and ineffective. The miserable tale takes place in a middle-class Detroit suburb during the 1970’s, a decaying bubble containing a close minded and cloistered community. This community is hell-bent on preserving the middle-class mundanity it holds dear and yet, it is in deep decay and it is the close-mindedness of the community, the inability to even try to stretch the limits of consciousness, this is the quality that rejects and isolates a grieving family like the Lisbons, and contributes to the decay that permeates the book; a dying organism attempting survival by collapsing in on itself. The Lisbon sisters were dying and a group of neighborhood boys couldn’t understand it until the girls’ deaths became the boys’ death sentences. The Lisbon sisters die and nobody wants to know about it because they cannot accept that, they too, are dying .The Virgin Suicides delves to the heart of American despair and tells us of the dying who refuse to bury the dead. Although the book begins (and ends) with Mary’s suicide, the second paragraph of the novel dives right into the first suicide attempt of Cecilia – the youngest Lisbon and the first to commit suicide. In initial readings, as one slips into the story, it is easy to forget who the book is really about – the boys – but closer examination of this paragraph reveals less about Cecilia and more about others’ reactions to her and therefore is a microcosmic example of the hidden plot of the story. “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 tranquillity that they had stood mesmerized. But then Mrs. Lisbon lunged in, screaming, and the reality of the room reasserted itself: blood on the bath mat; Mr. Lisbon’s razor sunk in the toilet bowl, marbling the water.” (1) The paramedics’ reaction is peculiar. It is the job of a paramedic to rescue people who are in trouble. They rush around all day and see all kinds of strange and horrifying situations. They are trained to take immediate action. What kind of paramedic gets “mesmerized” by anything while on the job? And, why would anybody be “mesmerized” by the sight of a half-dead child? Would you not scream? Would you not try to help? Just as the boys, for the majority of the book remain oddly transfixed with the Lisbons, still obsessing and lusting after them when the girls are clearly mourning their family member and becoming increasingly isolated by their community and mother, the boys do not realize the truth of the situation until it is too late, and the paramedics, too, must be jolted to action by screams and blood. The situation has to “reassert” itself, which also makes no sense. The situation of a thirteen year old girl surrounded by her own blood is not a situation that should have to be reasserted.
The situation of four grieving sisters being locked away in a dilapidated house with a potentially abusive mother is not a situation that should have to be reasserted. In this first chapter, it soon becomes clear to any reader that these boys are objectifying and projecting their own ideas and fantasies onto the Lisbon girls, and are unable to understand them because of this. Their observations are tinted with idealization and plainly concerning events are made unimportant. “…[Mrs. Lisbon] checked each daughter for signs of makeup before allowing her to get in the car, and it was not unusual for her to send Lux back inside to put on a less revealing top. None of us went to church, so we had a lot of time to watch them, the two parents leached of color, like photographic negatives, and then the five glittering daughters in their homemade dresses, all lace and ruffle, bursting with their fructifying flesh.” (6) Here, also in the first few pages, the boys observe an extremely controlling mother (whose forceful nature only worsens as the novel progresses), but the boys are focused on how much they are able to watch them and “fructifying flesh.” Their behavior at Cecelia’s party is another example of this. After Cecelia attempts suicide unsuccessfully and Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon allow her to have a party, she is clearly still unwell. At the party, she is described as sitting off to the side and staring into her punch glass, still wearing her old wedding dress, with bracelets taped over her suicide scars “…[acting] as if no one were there.” (24) This image seems like the epitome of what a person looks like right before they are about to commit suicide, which she does, in the middle of the party. The sentence following this description is “We knew to stay away from her.” (24) Up until Cecelia’s jump, the boys only talk about their excitement about the other Lisbon sisters, and whether or not the sisters are the same as they are in the boys’ “bedroom fantasies” and spend the party attempting to impress the girls by making fun of “Joe the Retard.” It’s clear to the reader that everything about the party is off, and indeed having a party when a family member has just attempted suicide is odd. But the boys do not acknowledge or even think about what the party could signify, when they receive their invitations all they can think about is how the girls had to think about them. The boys are obsessed with the girls, but their objectification and fantasizing gets in the way of them coming even close to understanding them, let alone helping them. This is significant, because in the wake of Cecilia’s death, while the boys remain obsessed with the sisters, the community isolates them. They act as if nothing is wrong. Cecilia’s death is marked in town records as an accident. The ways that the community does attempt to reach out, do not fully acknowledge the situation and are wholly ineffective.
The boys think about nothing but the Lisbons, while the community tries to distract itself from them, but in the end, neither understand the Lisbons better than the other. This is why the examples of the boys allowing their fantasies of the girls to obstruct their understanding of the situation are significant, because if anyone could have understood the Lisbons, it would have been these boys; they spent their adolescence obsessing over them. But they couldn’t. That is the limits of consciousness. We will never understand each other. No matter what we do, something will get in the way. After Cecilia’s death, the Lisbons’ house fills with flowers. Everyone in the neighborhood sends them, along with sympathy cards. Hardly anyone goes to see the Lisbons. A few men and the priest, Father Moody, go, but end up talking with Mr. Lisbon about football. The flowers and cards are not genuine acknowledgements of tragedy as evidenced in the way the community strains over them, “[m]ost people opted for generic cards that said ‘With Sympathy’ or ‘Our Condolences,’ but some […] labored over personal responses.” (45) The cards and flowers are customary, they send them because that is what they have always done when someone has died and they are motivated to send them because of personal appearances – nobody wants to do what has not always been done: if you always have written personal responses then you must do that. Cecilia’s death creates a deep sense of urgency in the community – the urgency for nothing to be urgent. Mrs. Lisbon also appears to feel this way, “[t]he girls didn’t miss a single day of classes, nor did Mr. Lisbon, who taught with his usual enthusiasm.” The girls don’t even get new school uniforms, and have to keep wearing the old ones that don’t fit. In describing the sisters at school, the narrators contradict themselves, “[t]heir recent shock was undetectable, but sitting down they left a folding seat empty as though saving it for Cecilia.” (61) There seems to be a determination to see the girls as being withdrawing, or unaffected, so that there’s an excuse not to reach out to them, to not understand. “Who knew what they were thinking or feeling? Lux still giggled stupidly, Bonnie fingered the rosary deep in the pocket of her corduroy skirt, Mary wore her suits that made her resemble the First Lady, Therese kept her protective goggles on in the halls—but they receded from us, from the other girls, from their father…” (62-63) The girls looked the same as always so obviously their emotional states also were the same.
In the previous paragraph, Mary Lisbon’s former best friend confesses to ignoring her after Cecilia’s death because Mary “freaked her out.” Nobody makes any real effort to talk to the girls. One of the boys, Mike Orriyo tries, to speak to Mary and fails because he doesn’t know what to say. The girls are isolated, but they are not isolating themselves. Lux is the only one who talks to a lot of other students and, as one of her lovers puts it, “We weren’t exactly talking if you know what I mean….” This urgency for everything to remain as is, and attempting to achieve it by ignoring and isolating a grieving family once again relates back to the limits of consciousness. The community values its’ own preservation above helping and thus, unlike the boys, actively avoids stretching the limits or trying to understand what is happening to the sisters. They see a situation, and that it is a difficult one, and that connecting to someone who’s sister has died is challenging so they give up. It “freaks them out” too much. However, beneath the urgency to do nothing, lies the urgency to do anything. One gets a sense that the community does desire to do something, but since they can’t abide change, their efforts only further isolate the family – the removal of the fence, the leaf raking. the Day of Grieving. If we are limited, then why should we connect at all? We will do anything at all to make you feel better, so long as we don’t have to understand why you are this way. It’s clear that these limits of consciousness – both that of the community and of the boys – contribute to the demise of the Lisbon sisters. In the fourth chapter, it’s clear that the situation that the girls are in is dire. The house is literally shrouded in darkness by the pure will of Mrs. Lisbon and is completely dilapidated. Lux’s rooftop lovemaking is a cry for help, a performance. Earlier in the novel, right after Cecilia dies, the boys congregate on Chase Buell’s rooftop where they hear the sounds of Detroit. “Sounds we usually couldn’t hear reached us now that we were up high, and crouching on the tarred shingles, resting chins in hands, we made out, faintly, an indecipherable backward-playing tape of city life, cries and shouts, the barking of a chained dog, car horns, the voices of girls calling out numbers in an obscure tenacious game—sounds of the impoverished city we never visited, all mixed and muted, without sense, carried on a wind from that place. […] One by one, we all went home.” (31) Perhaps, in this story, rooftops represent the truth. Above the decaying suburb, above the refusal to die, above it all, the truth of the world that these characters live in is easily seen – their city is in decline and many people of a different race and class live closer than they would like to think. Above the dying neighborhood, Lux Lisbon is in pain. But they don’t think about the city – they go home. And they aren’t concerned for Lux at all – she’s a goddess who teaches them how to have sex.
It becomes clear that everything to do with the Lisbons secretes death. The girls are starving. The house is rotting. The family members start to get described like they are already dead, like zombies: Mary obsession with makeup and “keeping up appearances” only exaggerates her decay, Lux’s rib-cage protrudes, Mr. Lisbon goes to work with “fake smiles” and “no longer fortifying himself with a cup of coffee” and eventually resigns from the school, Bonnie is “visibly wasting away,” wears a smock made of chicken feathers and prays at the site of Cecilia’s death. The house literally begins to invade the neighborhood with the smell of rotting flesh. Nobody will even touch the house anymore. And this is the awful thing – nobody will touch the house. Nobody will talk to Mr. Lisbon. Nobody tries. Nobody tried. People develop theories, but nobody expresses the emotion and shock that the tragic sequence of events deserves, nobody except for Old Mrs. Karafilis, who in just two words speaks for the reader and says the only thing that is accurate in the entire book: “Holy shit!” She also summarizes what is wrong with the community: “What my yia-yia could never understand about America was why everyone pretended to be happy all the time.” (169) It’s the pretending that things are okay, the preservation of perfection, the refusal and inability to understand due to the limits of consciousness – this is what killed the Lisbon girls. In the title and introduction of this essay, I described the book as “the dying who refuse to bury the dead” – and this is why the cemetery workers’ strike is so important. Throughout the book, the cemetery worker’s strike is mentioned four times. The first time is in Chapter One, when the local newspaper won’t give a spot to Cecilia’s suicide attempt, and instead gives it to the cemetery workers’ strike. The second time is after Cecilia dies: “The cemetery workers’ strike hit its sixth week the day she died. Nobody had given much thought to the strike, nor to the cemetery workers’ grievances, because most of us had never been to a cemetery. Occasionally we heard gunshots coming from the ghetto, but our fathers insisted it was only cars backfiring.” (32) The third time is in Chapter Three and as the disrepair of the house attracts reporters, the local paper again refuses to cover it opting again for the cemetery strike. The last time is when Mary finally dies, which is also the day that the strike ends and the cemeteries are overflowing with the dead who have been waiting for months to be buried, “[o]n the Chrysler Freeway one truck got into an accident, flipping over, and the front page of the newspaper ran a photo showing metal caskets spilling from the truck like ingots. ” (233) This is not a story of sisters dying. This is a story of a community dying. Of a city dying. Of a lifestyle dying. Of a dream dying. This perfect, sunny suburb is laden with death and everyone knows it. But they can’t admit it. Their world is changing and instead of adapting, they feel the need to preserve themselves, preserve their bubble. This preservation is crystallization – yes the community looks intact, but it’s frozen, it cannot move on, and like crystal it’s destined to crumble.
When Cecilia dies, the response of the town seems apathetic and judgemental, because it is. Most people send meaningless bunches of flowers and hollow sympathy cards but won’t actually talk to the family. They get obsessed with the fence: “‘It was an accident waiting to happen,’ said Mr. Frank, who worked in insurance. ‘You couldn’t get a policy to cover it.’ ‘Our kids could jump on it, too,’ Mrs. Zaretti insisted during coffee hour following Sunday Mass. ” (50) They spend a whole day removing this fence (or getting someone else to remove it), but neglect to think that their own homes have fences too, that they live among blocks and blocks of suburban homes, each with identical fences. They want to isolate this issue of death because if it is not isolated, then maybe it will spread, maybe we already have it but let’s not think about that. Later, death is actually talked about like a disease, “Her suicide, […] was seen as a kind of disease infecting those close at hand. In the bathtub, cooking in the broth of her own blood, Cecilia had released an airborne virus which the other girls, even in coming to save her, had contracted. No one cared how Cecilia had caught the virus in the first place. Transmission became explanation. ” (152 – 153) It is in this lense, that people stop touching the house, that they stop acknowledging it, refuse to go near it. They don’t want to catch the disease. The initial reaction seems apathetic and judgemental, but in truth it is a reaction of great fear. All of the things that we pretend don’t happen, are happening in our backyard. Oh god. By the time that the cemetery workers’ strike is over, the city is literally overflowing with death. It has been bubbling under the surface, and was ignored until it couldn’t be ignored anymore. It’s not just the Lisbons in decay. It’s the whole city. Trees in this book are a symbol of suburbia. A symbol of protection. And as the novel progresses more and more of them are cut down and this peaks after the Lisbon house gets renovated and the neighborhood goes from slow decay to rapid decay.
People die, they move away. The boys become men and they still can’t stop thinking about the Lisbons, still can’t get away from the night that they followed their fantasies to corpses. That which was ignored, simply collapsed after too long, just like caskets piling up on the freeway. Concluding, The Virgin Suicides is a rich, melancholy text that explores the limits of consciousness and the nature of decay. It beautifully illustrates a community in denial and their reaction to tragedy. It explores adolescent obsession and the inability to move beyond one’s own mind to empathize with another. The pages drip with death; the characters pretend that they don’t.Our world is dying and I will never understand you.
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