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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).

As a consequence of their mythical status, the Lisbon sisters no longer exist as autonomous subjects — they are merely “flattened images” (Hayes-Brady, 2016, p.8). The girls are distanced from the authentic, and often only described in photographic or cinematic terms. When Mary’s body is discovered, the narration details how she “had on so much makeup that the paramedics had the odd feeling she had already been prepared for viewing” (Eugenides, 2002, p.232). The portrayal of the girls is mediated through televisual references — “the flattest kind of objectification” (Hayes-Brady, 2016, p.8).

As the sisters are elevated to mythological status, the narrators begin to dismiss the girls’ agency. Late in the novel, the narrator posits “We had never dreamed the girls might love us back” (Eugenides, 2002, p.192). The presumed passivity on behalf of the girls is indicative of the narrators positioning them solely as objects of affection. Michele Aaron explains in “Cinema and Suicide: Neoromanticism, Dead-already-ness, and the Logic of the Vanishing Point” that the film (and, therefore, the novel) dismisses the agency of the girls in favour of the “male existential experience” in which the girls function “as muse, spectre, and siren for the boys, and little else” (Aaron, 2014, p.79).

Figure 3: Still from "The Virgin Suicides" (1999)

This mythological dehumanisation not only deprives the girls of their subjectivity, but it also privileges the focus on the physical aspects of their characters. Throughout the novel, the narration makes apparent the lack of interiority given to the sisters: “Who knew what they were thinking or feeling?” (Eugenides, 2002, p.62). As Cecilia’s attempts suicide for the second time, the narrators’ memories prioritise the physicality of the tableaux:

“A human body falls fast. The main thing was just that: the fact of a person taking on completely physical properties, falling at the speed of a rock. It didn’t matter whether her brain continued to flash on the way down, or if she regretted what she’d done, or if she had time to focus on the fence spikes shooting toward her. Her mind no longer existed in any way that mattered”.

(Eugenides, 2002, p.27).

The material actualities of the fall are recounted rather than Cecilia’s subjective reality, contradictory to the standard literary practice of entering a character’s mind at a point of high drama. As Bert Cardullo asserts in “Of Virgin Suicide, Human Bondage, and Male Indulgence” the sisters are given no inner life or depth and ultimately cannot have any emotional connection to the external world. They simply remain “obscure objects of desire who are removed from reality, and whose existence is conferred on them only by the male gaze” (Cardullo, 2001, p.639).

Figure 4: Hanna Hall as Cecilia in Sofia Coppola's adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides' "The Virgin Suicides"

The identities of the Lisbon sisters are appropriated, and the narrators view them abstractly as “eternal Females” (Shostak, 2009, p.822). The boys misconstrue their voyeuristic appropriation of the sisters with the girls’ menacing power over them as femme fatales: “None of us remembers thinking anything, or deciding anything, because at that moment our minds had ceased to work, filling us with the only peace we’ve ever known” (Eugenides, 2002, p.199). Their mythology is upheld by the narration at the cost of the sisters’ interiority. To allow the girls any inwardness would be relegating them from “myth into history” and thus allowing them to move from “the status of objects to that of subjects.” (Shostak, 2009, p.826). The boys also see the girls as interchangeable —when joining them on their way to the dance, they do not decide beforehand who each is being paired with; “Whichever Lisbon girl a boy pinned became his date” (Eugenides, 2002, p.118). In the narratorial disregard for the girls’ subjectivity, Eugenides displays his narrators’ “dedication to the dehumanisation of myth” (Shostak, 2009, p.822).

The Virgin Suicides features several incidents whereby Eugenides makes it clear that his adolescent male narrators possess pre-conceived notions of the Lisbons that are not foregrounded in reality. When invited to the Lisbon house for Cecilia’s party, the narrators are taken aback by the house’s ordinariness: “‘Peter Sissen’s descriptions of the house had been all wrong. Instead of a heady atmosphere of feminine chaos, we found the house to be a tidy, dry-looking place” (Eugenides, 2002, p.22). Shostak argues that the reality of the Lisbons cannot support the myth constructed by the adolescent narrators and in doing so the reader becomes witness to “the incommensurability between [the sisters’] perspective and that of those to whom they serve as a primary spectacle” (2009, p.820).

Figure 5: Leslie Hayman, Kirsten Dunst, A.J. Cook, and Chelse Swain in Sofia Coppola's "The Virgin Suicides".

The narrators are given ample opportunity to demythologise their perception of the sisters during the few times they come into direct contact with the girls — most notably at the dance whereby they interact freely with the girls. The sisters’ carefree behaviour coupled with Therese’s confession to Kevin Head reveals them to be normal adolescent girls: “We just want to live. If anyone would let us” (Eugenides, 2002, p.128). These incidents most obviously reveal the limitations of the narratorial perspective: even from the brief moments of access to the girls’ point of view, it is clear that they are “historical, not mythic” creatures (Shostak, 2009, p.820).

Nevertheless, the narrators persist in their mythmaking undeterred, and the girls are memorialised as “a congregation of angels” (Eugenides, 2002, p.23). The brief reference to their subjectivity is incapable of alleviating their status as an object of obsession within the narrators’ field of vision. The effect this has on the reader, however, is the sense of being manipulated into a voyeur — one in which Hayes-Brady ascertains is “constantly aware of the aporetic cracks in which the Lisbon sisters might have told a different story.” (2016, p.14).

By the end of The Virgin Suicides, it is clear that the narrators’ portrayal of the Lisbon sisters is one steeped in innocence and the narrators’ “narcissism of their youth” (Shostak, 2009, p.817). Their perception of the girls is inhibited by their own desires and intentions and their nostalgic memorialisation casts the girls not as the heroines of the story, but as “myth”; “objects of erotic contemplation” (Aaron, 2014, p.81). The narrators preserve the memory of the Lisbon sisters prejudiced by their childhood fantasies, but they immortalise their myth, rather than the girls' selfhoods.


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Megan Maistre

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