Essay: The Sacrificial Virgin Whore in The Virgin Suicides

In the novel The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, the five Lisbon sisters are ultimately unable to cope with the immense pressure they receive from not only their strict Catholic mother, but from their peers and society as well. While the sisters often seem to be the background of the story, with the male narrators as the protagonists and the sisters the antagonists, considering the novel as a feminist coming-of-age story offers insight into the Lisbon girls that is otherwise overshadowed by the narrators’ obsession with their femininity. Through a feminist perspective, Mrs. Lisbon’s character can be read as a symbol for traditional values, pressuring the girls to remain innocent in a society which fetishises adolescent girls. Meanwhile, the narrators are a symbol of society’s expectations of teenage girls, as they objectify the sisters as sexual women, not young girls. The contrast between the boys’ and Mrs. Lisbon’s understandings of how girls should behave creates a situation where it is impossible for the girls to satisfy both sides, thereby creating what I will call a “social paradox.” The existence of the social paradox aggravates the girls’ problems and is one of the main causes of their suicide. This essay will argue how the social paradox, caused by society’s contrasting expectations for young women, is not only acknowledged, but criticised by the Lisbon sisters during the novel and through their suicides.

While Mrs. Lisbon’s control over her daughters is often unreasonable or extreme, her character can be read as a metonymy of the social pressure on the young women to remain virginal and pure. Kenneth Millard, a senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh and expert on the contemporary American novel, argues Mrs. Lisbon’s control over her daughters represses the maturing girls’ sexuality in his novel Coming of Age in Contemporary American Fiction. Millard writes that Mrs. Lisbon’s “mortifying presence strictly regulates the girls’ appearance and behaviour,” meaning that Mrs. Lisbon uses her parental power over her daughters to force them to conform to her expectations. The daughters often worry about breaking their mother’s rules, such as during the dance when Lux doesn’t come home and Therese says “We’re cooked” (Eugenides 134). In addition to her values, Mrs. Lisbon’s Catholic faith also pressures the girls, as the family attends church regularly and there is a crucifix in each of their rooms (9). Millard writes that “Mrs Lisbon is partly to blame for the denial or repression of this emerging maturity; her exaggerated response to her daughters’ burgeoning sexuality is a violent prohibition,” using Mrs. Lisbon’s bleaching of Lux’s underwear, her attitude towards boys, and her reactions towards Lux when she fails to return by curfew after the dance as evidence for these claims. Furthermore, the narrators observe that the family photographs “virtually cease about the time Therese turned twelve” (Eugenides 229). Since Therese is the eldest daughter, the family photos stop just as their first daughter was reaching puberty, demonstrating how she does not want her daughters to mature. Therefore, Mrs. Lisbon and her Catholic faith serve as a consistent demand for the Lisbon girls to remain immature despite their unavoidable maturity.

However, outside the Lisbon house, society expects the girls to behave in a way that is almost the direct opposite of their mother’s standards. The narrators objectify the girls as sexual women throughout the novel. When Cecilia first attempts suicide, the boys describe her “budding chest” (Eugenides 4) and how she gave off the “odor of a mature woman” (3). Later in the novel, they describe a used Tampax by comparing it to a “modern painting or something,” beautiful because it is “still fresh from the insides of one of the Lisbon girls” (10). Their obsession with the Tampax stems from their misunderstanding of who the girls are. Debra Shostak, a professor of English and chair of Film Studies specialising in 20th and 21st century literature and films, states in her article “A story we could live with: Narrative voice, the reader, and Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides” that the narrators’ eroticisation of the girls causes them to commit suicide in her article. Shostak writes, “the narrators present the Lisbon girls as idols of burgeoning sexuality, with mastery of the knowledge of death that seems … inextricable from their sensuality.” Consequently, the narrators objectify the Lisbons as sexual beings, not individuals, and view their suicide as a romantic mystery. At Cecilia’s party, the boys are surprised to realise that the girls all look and act differently (Eugenides 26), proving that they do not idolise the girls for their personalities, or even looks, but instead they objectify the girls by their femininity. While the boys imagine the sisters as sexy, lustful women, in reality the girls are only beginning to explore their sexuality, and no matter how they act, the girls are unable to change the boys’ predetermined opinions of them.

In the novel, the boys represent the male gaze, which contrasts Mrs. Lisbon’s more traditional values to create the social paradox. The Lisbon sisters are unable to escape the paradox because their mother is too controlling to ignore and the male gaze will objectify the girls regardless of their actions. The girls’ suicides represent the hopelessness of their situation; even the boys realise the impossibility of the sisters’ situations, saying “we felt the imprisonment of being a girl,” (Eugenides 43) although they fail to recognise their own role in creating the paradox. Shostak views the Lisbons’ suicides as works of criticism: “Whereas the ritual sacrifice of the virgin accomplishes a social aim, the Lisbon suicides might, on the contrary, represent claims against social obligations.” The social obligations Shostak mentions are the unreasonable expectations the boys, their mother, and their society hold, imprisoning the girls to the point where they feel like they are not alive: “We just want to live. If anyone would let us” (Eugenides 132). Even though this statement is said after Cecilia’s first suicide attempt and could be seen as an admission that Cecilia’s suicide was a mistake, the fact that the girls do eventually commit suicide proves that this statement applies to all of them equally; they feel as though they are unable to live due to their confined roles within the paradox that surrounds them. Their imprisonment within the paradox causes the girls to not only commit suicide, but use their suicides as a way of explaining how impossible their lives are.

Cecilia, who is described as more cynical than her sisters, is the first Lisbon to act out against the social constraints that imprison the girls. The Virgin Mary card she has when she first attempts suicide (Eugenides 4) is a symbol of the social paradox: the Virgin Mary is both a virgin (pure and innocent, like Mrs. Lisbon wants) and a mother (a sexually active woman, which the boys want). Apart from the Virgin Mary, Cecilia’s white wedding dress also represents the paradox by being a symbol of both virginity and sex. Traditionally, a wedding dress is worn by a virgin, but after the wedding the marriage is consummated — therefore the wedding dress foreshadows a virgin’s loss of virginity. Due to the role of a wedding dress, Cecilia’s dress acknowledges the social paradox by representing both contrasting sides at once, in the same way the girls are expected to satisfy both sides of the paradox at once. In addition to her dress, on the night of the party Cecilia wears red crayon on her lips, which the narrators think “[gives] her face a deranged harlot look” (27). For this reason, on the night of Cecilia’s successful suicide, she is both an unwed virgin and a whore, fulfilling the social paradox only just before her death. Although Shostak argues that Cecilia has merely “embraced her role as the sacrificial virgin whore,” the following suicides reveal that Cecilia’s death, just like her sisters’, is the direct result of the impossibility of the social paradox.

Following Cecilia’s death, Lux not only acknowledges the existence of the social paradox, but, like Cecilia, she tries to find a way to satisfy it. While Cecilia tries to satisfy both sides, Lux chooses to fulfil only one side by succumbing to the narrators’ image of her and abandoning her mother’s demands. Her relationship with Trip, which ultimately ends with them having sex on the football field, is her primary mode of rebellion (Eugenides 138). When Trip abandons her after she loses her virginity to him, Lux responds by committing even further to society’s vision of a sexually active woman. Her following rooftop encounters with older men on the roof of her house are characterised by her lack of emotion and a tendency to repeat the same motion night after night (148). Therefore, it is questionable whether Lux enjoys having sex with the men, and it is far more likely she is doing so out of anger towards Trip and fulfilling the “whore” side of the paradox. The illegal sex, as well as to her note to Trip saying she is “over him,” demonstrates that her rebellion against the social paradox has become simply another means of entrapment (192). As Shostak writes, “Lux — the light, the sensually deluxe — in the end seems to fulfill the role of sacrificial virgin to which the boys’ objectification commits her, just as had her sister, Cecilia.” While the boys recognise her behaviour as self-destructive, their interest in watching her proves that she is indeed complying with the social expectations of the boys, and by extension society itself. Moreover, the male lovers expose society’s willingness to allow such behaviour, since plenty of men willing to have sex with Lux, an underage girl, yet none of them step forward to help her. Lux’s sexual activity during the novel indicates her acknowledgement of the social paradox, as she recognises that she cannot choose both sides like Cecilia so she chooses to follow society’s expectations.

The last four Lisbon sisters’ suicides are an act of rebellion, representing both their defiance of their mother’s standards and their criticism of the boys’ objectification of them. Upon the girls’ deaths, the narrators remark, “We had never known [them]. They had brought us here to find that out,” (Eugenides 215) meaning that the Lisbons accomplished their goal of proving the boys they were wrong in their assumptions of the sisters. As Shostak writes, “Lux’s blatantly seductive conversation with the boys can … be seen … as a calculated attempt to punish the boys for their innocence and for their willingness … to sacrifice the virgins to their narrative of transcendence” (Shostak). In “sacrificing the virgins” the boys choose fictionalise the girls’ personalities and believe that they are sexually repressed, imprisoned in their parents’ home, and in love with them. When the boys enter the Lisbon house, Lux tricks the boys into believing that the sisters are just as they imagined by undoing Chase Buell’s pants (Eugenides 210). However, Lux is merely distracting the boys and allowing her sisters to commit suicide undisturbed. Thus, she uses their naïveté to punish them for their objectification of the sisters and subsequent misunderstanding of them. Shostak claims that the boys objectify the girls to allow them to feel “transcendent,” but I argue that the boys are merely subscribing to the ideals of their society by believing that the girls are repressed virgins regardless of how they act in reality.

The Lisbon sisters’ suicides represent the girls’ criticism towards the social paradox. Although the sisters try to explain themselves through their actions and symbols, in the end the narrators still do not know why the girls kill themselves. The inconclusive ending to the novel hints that what happened to the Lisbons may happen to other girls; research by Mary Ann Tighe, an English professor in the USA, proves that like the Lisbons, modern teens are also affected by the social paradox. Tighe’s article on contemporary girlhood argues that modern girls are pressured to obey their parents and fulfil society’s expectations, often at the price of their own happiness. As Mary Pipher, an American clinical psychologist, writes, “[girls who subscribe to society’s expectations] are the ultimate people pleasers. Most are attractive with good social skills. Often they are the cheerleaders and homecoming queens, the straight-A students and pride of their families” (qtd. in Tighe). Like the Lisbon sisters, modern girls are pressured to be sexy and innocent at the same time. The girls’ parents want them to be studious, straight-A students, while their school peers encourage them to be sexy cheerleaders and beautiful homecoming queens. Due to the high expectations of their parents and peers, many girls who attempt to satisfy both parties end up with mental health issues that lead to suicide, just like the Lisbon girls.


Works Cited

Eugenides, Jeffrey. The Virgin Suicides. London: Bloomsbury, 2011. Print.

Millard, Kenneth. Coming of Age in Contemporary American Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012. Edinburgh Scholarship Online. Web. 6 June 2014.

Shostak, Debra. “A Story We Could Live With: Narrative Voice, The Reader, And Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides.” Modern Fiction Studies 55.4 (2009): 808,832,886. ProQuest. Web. 7 June 2014.

Tighe, M. A. (2005). Reviving Ophelia with young adult literature. ALAN Review, 33(1), 56–61. Web. 15 June 2014.

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