top of page

Constructing the Female Myth in "The Virgin Suicides"

The Virgin Suicides follows the narrators’ attempts to amass memories of their teenage years during the 1970’s — the period of time the five Lisbon daughters took their own lives. Growing up in the same neighbourhood as the Lisbon family two decades earlier, the narrators — now adults but teenage boys at the time — present the readers with their own memories, official reports, witness testimonies, and memorabilia taken from the girls, which they accrue in order to present their own account of the sisters’ mystifying deaths.

Despite their personal connection to the Lisbons, the knowledge set forth by the narrators throughout the novel is persistently undermined and the reliability of their memories is frequently questioned. After reporting a conversation between the sisters once they managed to preserve the elm trees outside their house, the narrators immediately contend that “Actually, none of this might have been spoken. We’ve pieced it together through partial accounts, and can attest only to the general substance” (Eugenides, 2002, p.176). This general uncertainty assigns the narrators the role of merely distant observers of the Lisbon sisters, and calls into question their very portrayal of the girls.

Figure 1: Chelse Swain, Hanna Hall, Leslie Hayman, Kirsten Dunst, and A. J. Cook in Sofia Coppola’s film adaptation of “The Virgin Suicides,” by Jeffrey Eugenides.

In her article “‘A Story We Could Live With’: Narrative Voice, The Reader, And Jeffrey Eugenides’s ‘The Virgin Suicides.’”, Debra Shostak discusses the perplexing unreliability of the narration. As the narratorial voice is plural, it promises a more reliable point of view than a singular one, and thus legitimacy is lent to the plural voice’s claims. In The Virgin Suicides, however, “the ‘we’ exacerbates the indeterminacy” of their claims as the composite nature of the narrator “resists the distinctiveness of person, standpoint, ideological position, and personal interests.” (Shostak, 2009, p.809-810).

Shostak goes on to say that the nostalgic nature of the narration “lends to the events an appearance of inevitability” — the suicides have become entombed in the narrators’ consciousness, and, to them, the sisters are always moving toward the moment of dying. (2009, p.813) As the narrators remain fixated on the enigmatic past, they are provoked to construct “a myth rather than a history” in their presentation of the Lisbon family (Shostak, 2009, p.816). The inaccessibility of the girls transforms them into objects of fascination and mystery and makes them a suitable subject for the mythic imagination of the narrating men.

Figure 2: Leslie Hayman, Kirsten Dunst, A.J. Cook, and Chelse Swain in Sofia Coppola's "The Virgin Suicides".

Clare Hayes-Brady characterises this mythologisation in “‘Anthropologists of our own experience’: Taxonomy and Testimony in The Museum of Innocence and The Virgin Suicides”, as a “post-mortem memorialisation” whereby the narrators omit the subjectivity of the Lisbon sisters in favour of privileging them as objects of desire (2016, p.2). In their use of mythic language, the collection of objects as memorabilia, and the memorialisation of the girls’ bodies, Hayes-Brady argues the narrators’ mythologising dehumanises the sisters. She identifies this as an adolescent sexual narcissism through which “the male protagonists seek to know and thereby possess the memories of their deceased lovers” (Hayes-Brady, 2016, p.4). With this view in mind, the novel is subsequently a reflection of the narrators’ own desires: they focus on the girls only as far as their effect on the narrators’ developing masculine subjectivities. They turn the “memorialising of a beloved” into “an excavation” of the narrators’ adolescent selves (Hayes-Brady, 2016, p.14).