48 pages 1 hour read

Jeffrey Eugenides

The Virgin Suicides

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1993

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Summary and Study Guide


The Virgin Suicides is a realistic fiction novel written by Jeffrey Eugenides and originally published in 1993. Using death by suicide as its central motif, the novel examines the themes of The Objectification of Women, Romanticizing the Past, and The Effects of Loss. A statement of youth disillusionment, death by suicide becomes The Death of the Future, another of the novel’s themes. The novel was adapted into a critically acclaimed film directed by Sofia Coppola in 2000.

This guide utilizes the 2011 Random House edition of the novel.

Content Warning: The novel, this guide, and each of its sections contain descriptions—some of which are graphic—of death by suicide, self-harm, and youth sexuality.

Plot Summary

The story unfolds in a quiet suburb in Michigan in the 1970s. It’s narrated by a group of men who look back on their lives as teens, when they continually obsessed over the five young Lisbon sisters, who lived on their street and who, in the narrative past, died by suicide for various reasons. These girls, named Therese, Mary, Bonnie, Lux, and Cecilia, live a confined life because of their fundamentally religious mother and unassertive father. Cecilia, the youngest, cuts her wrists at age 13, when fish flies invade the suburb, and is found barely alive in her bathtub, wearing a white dress and holding a photograph of the Virgin Mary. Cecilia’s attempted death by suicide prompts much speculation and gossip, and her parents are temporarily scared into allowing their other daughters more freedom than before.

The boys’ lustful obsession with the girls is immediately evident as they discuss their curiosities, collection of artifacts, and the gossip they’ve heard about the girls and their lives. Days after Cecilia’s attempt, the boys are invited for the first time to a party at the Lisbon home, intended to cheer up Cecilia. She spends the party in a corner, alone, before dismissing herself and going upstairs, where she falls out of her bedroom window onto the jagged fence below, succeeding on this second attempt to die by suicide. As Mr. Lisbon holds his daughter, the boys watch her die and witness the unfolding drama as paramedics arrive and slowly wheel Cecilia away, clearly knowing she’s gone. It’s the first death in the suburb since World War II, and because of a strike at the cemetery, Cecilia’s body is taken to a cemetery in the city for burial.

Afterward, the boys analyze Cecilia’s diary but find no hints about the reasons for her actions. However, they notice that she always referred to herself and her sisters as a unit and that her entries seemed increasingly detached from reality. The neighbors, unsure how to react to Cecilia’s death, keep their distance from the family other than to send flowers and drop off food. Mrs. Lisbon leaves the house less and less often, while Mr. Lisbon continues going to his job as a math teacher, behaving strangely but rarely revealing his distress. The Lisbons’ fence is declared a danger and removed, and the fish flies clear off. At school, the boys try to approach the Lisbon girls and talk to them, but their attention is viewed as pity and rejected.

Lux becomes preoccupied with sexual attention from boys and involves herself with several before drawing the eyes of a boy named Trip Fontaine. Popular and handsome, Trip becomes obsessed with making Lux his own. He convinces Mr. Lisbon to let him have a date with Lux at her house but is unable to talk to her and nearly gives up until Lux follows him to his car and the two become sexually involved. Lux’s parents clearly sense something because she’s no longer allowed to see Trip afterward.

As the months pass, the Lisbon house starts to deteriorate along with the mental state of the people who occupy it. It becomes messy and dilapidated, inspiring complaints from neighbors and a subsequent news story on Cecilia’s death. The story, which runs months after her death, spurs reports and stories on the subject of teen death by suicide. It becomes the focus in the school for a day, but none of the Lisbon girls participate in the mourning. The school hires a counsellor, who speaks to the Lisbon girls several times and seems to help brighten their spirits a little.

Trip soon finds a way to earn Mr. Lisbon’s approval to take Lux and the other sisters to the Homecoming dance. When the night arrives, the girls appear in frocks sewn by their mother, but the boys who take them pay no mind. The boys and girls drive to the dance and initially follow Mrs. Lisbon’s strict rules; eventually, however, Lux and Bonnie choose to drink with their dates under the bleachers, and Lux and Trip make love on the football field. Afterward, Trip suddenly feels disinterested in Lux. When she arrives home two hours late, her mother opens the door angrily, and the girls are never let out again.

The house is in full lockdown, and the boys see only shadowy movements behind its drawn curtains. The girls stop attending school, and Mr. Lisbon’s behavior becomes stranger. Mrs. Lisbon defends her decision years later, stating that the girls were becoming corrupted by boys and needed time to heal from their grief. She forces Lux to destroy her rock records and go nowhere but church. Soon, Lux is sexually involved with countless boys and men on the roof of the home each night. Boys who enter the home to see Lux report that it is a mess and has a rotting smell and that Lux always seems ready but never eager to have sex.

A few weeks later, Lux escapes the house by faking appendicitis, and the doctor finds that she has a human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. Lux confesses that she sleeps often and is growing thin, and the doctor believes that she and her siblings developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after Cecilia’s death. As the home continues to fall into disarray, the schools asks Mr. Lisbon to take a leave of absence because of his odd behavior, dark family history, and state of his house. The home becomes truly isolated after that, though Bonnie emerges each night before dawn to pray over the spot where her sister died. The house begins to emanate a distinct odor, and the reasons for the girls’ despair grow increasingly complex.

Breaking a long silence, they explode out of the home one morning to stop the sawing down of Cecilia’s favorite elm tree, managing to save its bottom half. The boys start to forget the girls’ appearance, smell, and how they sounded, but signs soon appear that the girls are trying to reach out. They begin leaving cards of the Virgin Mary all over the street, flicking their lights on and off, and sending the boys one-sentence letters. The boys take these signals as a chance to call the girls, but when they finally get through, the girls speak to them only briefly. A final letter instructs the boys to wait for a signal the following night.

That night, the boys wait in their treehouse and finally see a flashlight flicker after midnight. In the house, they find Lux sitting inside, smoking a cigarette. As the boys enter, Lux greets them coolly, distracting them with thoughts of sex by undoing one of the boys’ belts, and then wanders off, claiming that she and her sisters must finish packing. The boys hear strange thuds, and when Lux never returns, they search for the girls. In the basement, they find Bonnie hanging from a beam above the untouched, rotting food from Cecilia’s party. They realize that the girls have each found a way to die by suicide and brought the boys in only as witnesses. Mary survives her attempt, but the other three die that night, and when they’re taken away, the Lisbon parents look ghostly.

In the following weeks, Mr. Lisbon has the house cleared out and sells the furniture. The boys go through the trash in search of hints about the girls’ inner thoughts. Mary spends two weeks in a hospital and is rarely visited. After she returns home, she’s found dead from an overdose. No one’s shocked, and only her parents attend her funeral. The girls’ deaths are gradually considered less personal and more a political statement on the dissatisfaction of youth toward their future and the state of the world. Looking back, the boys know that the reasons for the girls’ actions were complex and that some will never be known. They regret never having reached out while they had the chance. Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon eventually divorce and go their own ways and appear later only for the interviews that the boys conduct.