Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides and the Problems When Men Speak For Women

A poster from the film adaptation of 'The Virgin Suicides'.

A poster from the film adaptation of ‘The Virgin Suicides’.

Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel The Virgin Suicides starts out with a fascinating scenario that motivates patience in the reader, but the novel ultimately fails to satisfy and is problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the narrative voice.  It is written in first-person, or perhaps first-person plural (the voice says ‘we’ when referring to a group of boys, but the tone suggests a single voice).  The plural form would draw on the Greek chorus, but since there is no ‘chorus’, this method doesn’t fit well.  The formatting is also awkward.  The reader does not know what the manuscript is meant to be.  There are a number of references to ‘exhibits’, which draws on legal rhetoric, but none are actually provided, so it is hard to contextualize the voice.  It is not a legal proceeding, but if not that, then what are the exhibits for?  The voice, which has limited perspective, also seems to have access at times to conversations there is no reasonable way any of the boys in question could have had access to.  The girl Lux, for example, feigns an illness to get a pregnancy test which comes up negative.  In the process though, Lux is tested for various STDs and it comes up that she has genital warts.  There is no conceivable way that the narrator could have come across any of this information, however.  The voice randomly adopts an omniscient tone that is not consistent with the narrative voice.  There is also no character to the voice, but neither does it adopt a journalistic tone.

 

 

Jeffrey Eugenides, author of 'The Virgin Suicides'.

Jeffrey Eugenides, author of ‘The Virgin Suicides’.

The narrative voice is not only a problem because of its functional issues and lack of consistency, it is also a problem because it is a masculine voice that is trying to tell the narrative of a group of women.  Because the voice has no character, the reader can’t access the observations made as character development, so the teen girls inevitably become the focus of the story.  It seems very much a case of a group of women who have their autonomy usurped by men.  Their story is not told through their own voices, but through the voices of men.  This could be a satirization of the ‘male gaze’, but it doesn’t come across as that.  It is something that is common in the media.  Rape victims often do not have their story told, but rather it is the story of the rapist that is told.  This book seems to work in much the same way.  The details shared are those of interest to men, and they are not necessarily what the girls would want to be the focus of their own narratives.

 

As for the narrative itself, there doesn’t seem to be much of one.  Most of the action occurs beyond the view of the narrative voice, and so all that is left is conjecture.  This, in and of itself, can be an interesting commentary on how one can never really have comprehensive access to another person’s life, but such an observation seems self-evident and not a maxim that needs on an entire novel.  There also appear to be some allusions to morality and religion, but things remain unclear.  We are not certain how religion plays a role in the actions taken by the parents of the teen girls who kill themselves, or what the reasoning was.

 

There is an interesting passage that speaks to imperialism and ecocriticism.  A number of trees are being torn down in the neighbourhood where the sisters live because of an infestation of beetles.  The sisters circle around the tree in front of their house to protest this.  One sister notes: “These trees are ancient.  They have evolutionary strategies to deal with beetles.  Why don’t you just leave it up to nature?”  The men tearing the trees down note that: “If we left it up to nature, there’d be no trees left.”  The girls then note that: “If boats didn’t bring the fungus from Europe in the first place… none of this would have ever happened.”  This passage at once speaks to how the natural world finds a balance and how humans destroy that balance, but also speaks to how that human interference was a symptom of imperialism.

 

 

The Lisbon girls as they appeared in the film adaptation.

The Lisbon girls as they appeared in the film adaptation.

In the end, the novel leaves wanting on the part of the reader and no satisfaction.  Five teen sisters commit suicide and at the end, there is no clear reason.  Nor is there a clear response to their suicide.  We do not know why the family lets their house grow to disorder.  We never discover why the boys who followed them were and remain so enamoured with the girls.  The reader does not even learn the nature of the narrative.  The parents of the girls split up, but we do not know why.  There are many questions, none of which are answered.  It is perhaps unfair to expect any novel to answer all the questions, but this work fails to answer any.

 

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Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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