Academic Exchange Quarterly      Spring     2007    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  11, Issue  1

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Interrogating Suburbia in The Virgin Suicides

 

Lisa A. Kirby, Ph.D.

North Carolina Wesleyan College

 

Kirby, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of English at North Carolina Wesleyan College.

 

Abstract         

Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel The Virgin Suicides provides a compelling commentary on American values, the American dream, and postmodern suburban life. The text makes clear that the suburban community is a place of failed dreams, illusions, and isolation. The novel and the discussion it evokes provide important teachable moments in American literature courses and ways for students to think about their own communities.

 

Introduction

Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel The Virgin Suicides is a text that works well for both high school and college-level English courses. Eugenides’s clear, conversational writing style, his emphasis on the themes of love, sex, and death, and his sharp portrayals of adolescent characters have made his text a favorite among many college-level students. Interestingly, little secondary scholarship exists on Eugenides’s novel, though it has been well received critically. As such, instructors who seek to include it in their curricula face the problem of finding relevant and engaging approaches to teaching the text. Yet as one begins to explore the complex issues of American values, success, and suburban life in the novel, it is clear The Virgin Suicides presents an important text that interrogates and problematizes the American Dream. When one investigates the text, it becomes clear that Eugenides’s novel is a document chronicling the isolation and illusion that exists in the postmodern American suburban community.

 

I taught The Virgin Suicides at a small, four-year, private liberal arts college in eastern North Carolina. The novel was one of several texts the class read in a sophomore-level course titled Studies in a Genre. I chose to focus this course more specifically on short stories and novels centered on the theme of “The American Experience.” We read a variety of short stories and other novels, including F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Gish Jen’s Mona in the Promised Land. The course was set up as an exploration and examination of such issues as diversity in America, the American Dream, and race, class, and gender. My hope was that students would begin to question these notions as a way to consider whether these important symbols of American identity truly exist in the way in which most Americans perceive them, and through class discussions and the students’ writing, it is clear that many students began to see how complicated the notion of the American Dream really is.  The Virgin Suicides is an important text in terms of its portrayal of the darker side of the American dream and in its setting of the “ideal” American suburb.

 

Teaching this novel also makes clear how prevalent the theme of American suburbia is in American literature and popular culture. One need only look at recent movies and television shows such as the remake of The Stepford Wives, Desperate Housewives, Showtime’s Weeds, and even HBO’s The Sopranos to see that the modern American suburb is constantly being reconstructed and reexamined. Discussing this popular culture phenomenon in the context of literary representations of suburban life offers an important opportunity for students to consider how this landscape has so dramatically changed from its original inception. Once the paradise of American life, the place of refuge for those escaping the city, the suburb has now become not-so-dissimilar to perceptions of urban dwelling, a place of death, disillusionment, and degradation, the site of Columbine and sprawl.

 

“An Asylum for the Preservation of Illusion”

Eugenides’s novel tells the story of the Lisbons, a seemingly normal family of two parents and five daughters living in “a comfortable suburban home” outside of Detroit (Eugenides 5). The five teenage Lisbon sisters are the objects of desire and interest of the neighborhood boys, one of whom, as a grown man, is the novel’s narrator. All appears fairly typical in the Lisbon house until the youngest sister, Cecilia, commits suicide, throwing the community and the Lisbon family into utter turmoil. What follows is a year in which the other Lisbon sisters are confined to their home, their parents fearful that outside influences might corrupt them, as their lives and their abode literally deteriorate before the eyes of the community. The neighborhood boys observe and even interact with the Lisbon girls until the rest of the sisters, Therese, Mary, Bonnie, and Lux, themselves commit suicide. In many ways, the book is insular and self-reflective, focusing on the Lisbon family and the boys’ reaction to them; however, at the same time, the novel is an interesting representation and problematization of American suburbia.

 

In the 1960s, social critic Lewis Mumford stated, “the suburb served as an asylum for the preservation of illusion” (494). This sense of illusion could not be more true of the community in which the Lisbon family lives. At once narcissistic and voyeuristic, the neighbors of the Lisbons both pity the family and yet find a strange sense of fascination, dare I say, even enjoyment in their tragedy. The family is the subject of all manner of gossip as the neighbors speculate who is to blame and what will happen next. As one of my students stated, there is a real Desperate Housewives-quality to the novel. There is the feeling that everyone in the Lisbon neighborhood is peeking around their curtains, peering out curiously to discern what will happen next. Among the neighbors, there is the illusion of concern and sympathy for the Lisbon family; however, there is a darker, more voyeuristic element at work as well. The community’s response to the suicides is focused more on its own need to understand the senselessness of the girls’ deaths and purge communal grief, though this is done in superficial ways. After Cecilia’s death, the girls’ high school, where Mr. Lisbon also teaches, decides to have a “Day of Grieving” to help the community make sense of the deaths and the Chamber of Commerce produces educational pamphlets on teenage suicide (Eugenides 107). Yet the artificiality of this compassion is apparent in the fact that community leaders are more concerned about the color of the pamphlets than they are helping the family:

 

        Pamphlets arrived, dark green with white lettering, sent out by our local Chamber of

        Commerce. “We thought green was cheerful. But not too cheerful,” said Mr.

        Babson, who was president. ‘Green was also serious. So we went with it.” (98)

 

If anything, the sisters’ deaths are a temporary diversion from other societal concerns: “while the suicides lasted, and for time after, the Chamber of Commerce worried less about the influx of black shoppers and more about the outflux of whites” (99). The community has no real sense of how to deal with the death of Cecilia and, as a result, as the Lisbon sisters become more isolated from the outside world, the community allows them to, gossiping about their situation but doing nothing to alleviate it.

 

The only characters who seem to sincerely care about the well being of the girls are the neighborhood boys, who harbor a fascination for the sisters. For these young men and others, they realize that the downfall of their community really began with the deaths of the Lisbon sisters. As the narrator makes clear:

 

        everyone we spoke to dated the demise of our neighborhood from the suicides of the

        Lisbon girls. Though at first people blamed them, gradually a sea of change took

        place, so that the girls were seen not as scapegoats but as seers. [ . . . Many] instead

        put the deaths down to the girls’ foresight in predicting decadence. (243-44)

 

The community is not so much interested in the girls’ deaths as they are what the deaths say about the community itself. There appears to be a cycle of narcissism at work in which communal self-reflection serves only to validate and justify the community’s response.

 

The Lisbon suicides affect the boys profoundly, both emotionally and in terms of how they view their community and the world. Personally, no other women can ever measure up to the ideal of the Lisbon girls. As the narrator reveals, their memories of the sisters “have scarred us forever, making us happier with dreams than wives” (169). For the boys, the Lisbon sisters represent an important diversion from everyday life: “in an ordinary suburban world of lawnmowers and barbecues, they represent the extraordinary: the odd, the inexplicable, the romantically extreme” (Kakutani 54). Yet more important than this personal fascination with the girls, at least from a societal perspective, is that the “virgin suicides” reveal to these young men everything that is insipid and unappealing about their world, namely suburban life:

 

        we got to see how unimaginative our suburb was, everything laid out on a grid

        whose bland uniformity the trees had hidden, and the old ruses of differentiated

        architectural styles lost their power to make us feel unique. (Eugenides 243)

 

This fit wells with another of Mumford’s visions of suburban life: that “it was not merely a child-centered environment: it was based on a childish view of the world” (494). I think, then, that if we read this statement in the context of The Virgin Suicides, much is revealed. It makes clear why the focus of this novel is not only the teenaged Lisbon sisters but that it is also told from the perspective of a narrator who is reverting back to his own adolescent self. In this way, we can see how the “child-centered environment” applies well to the setting of the novel. It is the adults in the community who have the “childish view of the world,” much more so than the adolescents themselves. The narrator, the other neighborhood boys, and even the Lisbon girls appear to be the ones who have the more sophisticated and astute perspectives of the world. In short, it is the adolescents in the novel who are to be the bearers of truth.

 

Critiquing the American Dream

When teaching The Virgin Suicides in the context of literary history, the novel fits well into a course that examines American society and values. As Jeffrey L. Partridge points out:

 

        the belief in America as ‘the land of opportunity’ for all of its citizens

        regardless of birth status, race, and religion has been a hallmark of

        American idealism since the beginning of American arts and letters. [ . . . ]

        In the early twentieth century, particularly with the rise of modernism and

        the impact of World War I and the Great Depression, American writers

        began to write more critically about the bulwark of American idealism. (216)

 

Critiquing this “American idealism” includes an interrogation of the American Dream and values. Perhaps no other iconic image of America symbolizes so well the concept of the American Dream as the suburb. The suburb, with its non-descript, conformist housing and its artificial impression that all inhabitants are equal, emerged in the 1950s as the embodiment of the American Dream. And it is this decidedly American lifestyle that Eugenides is really evaluating in The Virgin Suicides. As a book review in the Times Literary Supplement makes clear, Eugenides’s “real fascination is with the rhythms [sic.] of suburban, malled America” (22).  Much of this fascination also includes a representation of the disparity between suburban and urban life. According to Richard Porton:   

 

        The urban historian Robert Fishman has, rather oxymoronically, labeled

        the increasingly anemic suburban ideal ‘bourgeois utopia’—a supposedly

        placid refuge from urban woe. This comforting but always chimerical

        vision of the artificial paradise untouched by urban blight looks more

        tarnished than ever as the news informs us that both poor and wealthy

        suburban dwellers find themselves confronting metropolitan-style violent crime.

        (par. 15)

 

In conjunction with this view of suburbia, it is clear that in the novel Eugenides is not only commenting on the community in which the Lisbon girls are living (and dying), but also the urban life which the suburbanites originally sought to escape. The novel, set in the early 1970s, references multiple times the problems plaguing the urban landscape:

 

        it had to do with the way the mail wasn’t delivered on time, and how potholes never

        got fixed, or the thievery at City Hall, or the race riots, or the 801 fires set around

        the city on Devil’s night. (Eugenides 231)

 

The inhabitants of the suburban neighborhood in which the novel is set all seem to be escaping what they view as the corruption, violence, and degradation of city life. As the narrator mentions, “occasionally we heard gunshots coming from the ghetto, but our fathers insisted it was only cars backfiring” (36). Suburbia was supposed to offer a refuge from this inner-city turmoil, and perhaps it is for this very reason that the deaths of the Lisbon girls so greatly affect the community: “the Lisbon girls became a symbol of what was wrong with the country, the pain it inflicted on even its most innocent citizens” (231). When the Lisbon girls die, and even more importantly die by their own hands, it makes clear to the community that suburban life has, in a sense, failed. The girls, whose demises really came about due to isolation, are symbolic of the isolation that is inherent in the modern suburban community, an environment that in its need to escape the corruption of the larger world in fact becomes so insular that it can no longer survive.

 

Conclusion: Teaching The Virgin Suicides

The Virgin Suicides, then, offers a commentary on many important issues and themes that are particularly relevant in a course that examines the American Dream and values. The novel and its critique of American culture intrigued my students. In class discussions, we repeatedly came back to the reality of the American Dream and whether it truly exists. Many students used both real-life historical examples, such as Sam Walton and Bill Clinton, to support their position that the American Dream does exist. Others argued that the American Dream was merely an illusion, as Mumford points out, and they cited examples of inner-city schools, poverty-stricken neighborhoods, and unequalized healthcare as support. The Virgin Suicides, meanwhile, offered the students a way to think about popular culture representations of the American Dream and, at least in the case of this novel, its failure. In a culture that relies so heavily on the premise of the American Dream, my students were interested in the way a postmodern writer like Eugenides reveals the failure of this notion. In class discussions, students often asked why a writer like Eugenides chooses to vilify the American Dream in the way he does.

 

Moreover, reading the novel offers an important opportunity to problematize the American middle class. Read in the context of other texts that deal with middle-class life, such as John Updike’s “A&P” and Gish Jen’s Mona in the Promised Land, The Virgin Suicides offer another perspective on how middle-class life is not as predictable as one might suspect. As Nicci Gerrard mentions, the subject of the novel is “the American suburb undomesticated, and the banal American Dream gone ecstatically wrong” (61). The American suburb is one many students are familiar with and, often, take for granted. Eugenides’s novel offers an interesting way for students to think about how their own communities compared to that of the novel and consider whether suburban life and all its trappings is really an entity that can continue to exist in our postmodern society. Again, in class discussions, students would share details about their own suburban or small-town communities, remarking on the insulated and narcissistic qualities they often shared with the community in The Virgin Suicides. Based both on student comments and writing, it is clear the Eugenides’s 1970s-era suburbia still shares a great many similarities with my students’ post-millennial communities. As Eugenides writes, the Lisbon family possessed “an ancient pain arising from [ . . . ] the sum of [their] people’s griefs. [ . . . ] The sadness had started long before. Before America” (120). According to Eugenides, though the American suburb may be a fairly recent convention, it is one that has not been able to escape the inevitable corruption and failure of the American Dream. The Virgin Suicides is a document of suburban life that reinvents long-held notions of the American Dream, in short proving that this suburban “asylum” can no longer even support the illusion of success.

 

References

Burn, Gordon. “Death in the Suburbs.” Times Literary Supplement 18 June 1993: 22.

Eugenides, Jeffrey. The Virgin Suicides. New York: Warner, 1993.

Gerrard, Nicci. “Five Sisters Stun Suburbia.” The Observer 6 June 1993: 61.

Kakutani, Michiko. “Of Death in Adolescence and Innocence Lost.” The New York

Times 19 March 1992: 23.

Mumford, Lewis. The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects.

            New York: Harcourt Brace, 1961.

Partridge, Jeffrey L. “Gish Jen’s Mona in the Promised Land.” American Writers

Classics. Vol. II. Ed. Jay Parini. New York: Scribner’s, 2004.  215-32.

Porton, Richard. “American Dreams, Suburban Nightmares.” Cineaste 20.1 (July 1993):

12-15.