Why the Lisbon Girls Are Not the Protagonists of The Virgin Suicides
But all the glory lays in the hands of the artists — the circle of prepubescent boys. And their muses — the Lisbons — will never have ownership of the seraphic beauty that’s been forced upon them, and instead are left helpless in this labyrinth with their heads dipped back in a pond, all sounds muffled, daisies in their hair.
The neighborhood boys never got over the Lisbon girls, those five sisters across the street whose lives fascinated them and whose suicides haunted them. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides is not so much a story as it is an elegy of Cecilia, Lux, Bonnie, Mary and Therese Lisbon — an attempt at understanding these strange, untouchable creatures. Up in their treehouse, the boys exchange details that render the girls folkloric. After Cecilia’s first suicide attempt in the bathtub, her body on the stretcher, hands clutching a picture of the Virgin Mary, and her “pagan nudity” is glorified, likewise to the 1920s wedding dress she died in, a symbol of her innocence and virginity. The boys obsessively spy on Lux while she has sex on the roof with different men who are taken by her mischief and charm and paint her out to be an angel, telling tales of “of being pinned to the chimney as if by two great beating wings.” The Lisbon girls are a thing to marvel at from a distance. They’re art.
But behind art are artists. Up in the treehouse is a Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood resurrected in 1970s suburbia. The boys are fumble around with tools to sketch and color their muses, the five blonde Ophelias of their sexually charged desire. Art is often said to be powerful — not because it has power, but rather it lends the viewer or the artist a virile illusion that they themselves have power. As it happens, art itself is powerless — yet we are made to believe through admiration, even infatuation, that to be art is to harness the power of these affections as a god or goddess would. But all the glory lays in the hands of the artists — the circle of prepubescent boys. And their muses — the Lisbons — will never have ownership of the seraphic beauty that’s been forced upon them, and instead are left helpless in this labyrinth with their heads dipped back in a pond, all sounds muffled, daisies in their hair.
Accordingly, the Lisbon girls are not, in fact, the protagonists of this story, as they are never granted freehold of the first-person — while the neighborhood boys have a generous supply of we’s as they recount the “imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy, and how you ended up knowing which colors went together.” They collect their knowledge from Cecilia’s diary and use this recycled wisdom to build, in their minds, a kind of framework for the feminine realm that synchronically fascinates and frightens them. By understanding their female counterparts, whom they describe as their twins, they hope to stumble upon an understanding of themselves in this budding stage of their lives.
This desperate search for answers about the untouched, byzantium valleys of love and sex and death is normal at the boys’ age, and it would be wrong to condemn them for it. But the tragedy lies in this: the curiosity of the boys comes at the expense of the girls, whose cries for help are muted by romanticism.
After Lux breaks curfew on the night of homecoming, Mrs. Lisbon pulls the girls out of school on the grounds that they need time at home to grieve Cecilia. Even in their isolation, they’re further cloistered by fantasies of boys who don’t want to help them, only save them. The Lisbons’ only contact with the outside world is through travel catalogs in the mailbox, which the boys flip through hungrily, spinning out fantasies in which they are the ones to sweep the girls away to exotic destinations. It’s saddening that as readers, we never learn about hopes of adventure from the Lisbon girls themselves, because their dreams are already painted out for us, borrowed by boys who don’t know the depths of their grief and isolation. In their imaginations, the boys hiked with them, “stopping every now and then to help them take off their backpacks, placing our hands on their warm, moist shoulders and gazing off at papaya sunsets. We drank tea with them in a water pavilion, among blazing goldfish.” In this dreamscape, we see Cecilia as a bride in Calcutta, “with a red veil and the soles of her feet dyed with henna,” but we never see her in the last moments before she died. We don’t see any of them, because the narrative never pans in on the girls deciding to die. They are the most complex characters of the story, but not primarily because of their own psyches. They are complex for the sake of a bright, burning mystery that consequently eclipses their true selves, a sun eclipsing the cold surface of the moon. Images of femininity (a bra strewn over a crucifix, a tampon at the bottom of a waste bin, a flickering, sirenic light in the window) stack up like tarot cards for the boys to decipher. They use shards of the girls’ lives in an effort to understand the mysteries of the world, instead of simply trying to understand the girls.
All these boys claim to have loved them, but even if this is in any way true, it is a blind kind of love. Even after the girls have committed suicide, the boys imply that it had been selfish of them to do so, as they are left with only the carcass of their dreamscape, spell broken. They are in love with the shadows these girls left behind, fluttering against a wall in a Platonic cave, forever shaded in, drained of their color.
The Lisbon sisters might have lived had they been treated with more care. The boys were so obsessed with being their saviors, which ultimately distracted them from the act of saving. At homecoming, Therese tells of one them: “”We just want to live. If anyone would let us.”
It says it all in this one rare moment in which they relay their own conviction to us, unfiltered by gardens and honey and silk. Their suicide wasn’t charged by a desire to die. They did it because they wanted to live, and no one would let them.