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Literature / The Virgin Suicides

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Dr. E.M. Horniker: What are you doing here, honey? You're not even old enough to know how bad life gets.
Cecilia Lisbon: Obviously, Doctor, you've never been a 13-year-old girl.

The Virgin Suicides is a 1993 novel by Jeffrey Eugenides about the death of suburbia in the 1970s.

The story is told from the point of view of a group of teenage boys who are fixated on the beautiful, sheltered, and enigmatic Lisbon girls: Bonnie, Mary, Lux, Therese and Cecilia. Armed with stolen diaries, photos, an intimate knowledge of the girls' incoming mail, and a telescope, the boys seek to solve the mystery of the girls' existence. The entire book is about the boys trying to find out the motives of the girls and the reason why they come to such an untimely end.

The novel was adapted into a 1999 film by Sofia Coppola as her feature-length debut, and the first time she worked with Kirsten Dunst.


  • Adaptation Name Change: A couple very minor examples. Tim's surname is spelled "Winer" in the book but "Weiner" in the film, but pronounced the same way ("WHY-nurr"). Very minor character Joe Hill Conley becomes Jake Hill Conley, likely due to there being another minor character named Joe.
  • Adults Are Useless: With the exception of Mr. Lisbon and the psychiatrist, both of whom are rendered impotent by Mrs. Lisbon, everyone older than a teenager in this book cares only for themselves.
  • Apathetic Citizens: The adults of the town are concerned with little more than their own illusion of idyllic living, and when bad things such as impending economic troubles or a mass suicide come along they respond with either denial or finding some "other" to pawn the blame off on.
  • Artistic License Biology: The narrator likens the Lisbons' plight to the life cycle of the fishfly, a ubiquitous insect that is born, mates, lays eggs and dies in under a day. Fishflies do exist and are known for their short lifespans, but in real life they live for around a week as adults and spend several years as larvae beforehand. Though it should be noted that in certain regions in the United States and Canada, "fishfly" is also another word for "mayfly"; in this case, however, the trope would be more downplayed since, while mayfly adults indeed only live for one day, their larvae forms do not.
  • Born in the Wrong Century: The best guess the boys have for the Lisbons' mass suicide - they simply didn't belong in the ugliness of The '70s. Indeed, their distaste for buttoned-up authority figures, empathy for nature, and in Lux's case, sexually liberated philosophy make it seem likely they'd have thrived just one decade prior.
  • The Charmer: Trip Fontaine has shades of this. He is generally quite gentlemanly about his conquests.
  • Compressed Adaptation: In the book, there are quite a lot of neighborhood boys interested in the Lisbons, most of whom just get a name and a character trait or two. The film cuts it down to just Tim, Chase, Parkie, and David, plus Paul Baldino, the gangster's son, who unlike in the book isn't part of the circle of friends. The only other major omissions are Lux's Pregnancy Scare and the fallout thereof, Mary's survival of the mass suicide and subsequent death by overdose, and a short subplot about the mysterious death of one of the boys' ailing grandmother that may or may not have also been a suicide.
  • Cynicism Catalyst: Zig-zagged, along with every other cut-and-dried explanation for the suicides; it's clear that the death of Cecilia takes a toll on the other four, but whether it pushes them to follow suit is less clear. A fringe theory, embraced by reporter Ms. Perl, holds that the suicide pact between the sisters was in place all along, and the remaining Lisbon sisters are said to have winked when passing Cecilia's open casket.
  • Daddy's Girl: Inept as he is, Mr. Lisbon does adore his girls and does his best.
  • Death by Newbery Medal: Times five, and of a significantly darker permutation than most - unlike the typical use of this trope, the narrators never move on from the Lisbons' deaths.
  • Disaster Dominoes: With the town's rapidly dying trees acting as an allegory, Cecilia's death kills her sisters; their deaths kill the town.
  • Dwindling Party: Averted; the first line ("On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide...") leads you to expect this, but after Cecilia's death as the inciting incident, no one else dies until the climax, when Theresa, Bonnie and Lux all die at once. Mary survives the incident and finally passes away in the epilogue. Interestingly, Eugenides played the trope straight in his initial draft, and the back jacket of several editions still characterizes the plot this way.
  • Dying Town: Detroit has definitely seen better days in this book, and as much as the Apathetic Citizens are loath to admit it, it's starting to affect the nearby suburbs as well.
  • Evil Matriarch: Mrs. Lisbon. Oh God Mrs. Lisbon has all the classic traits.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: The novel is about virgins who commit suicide. Subverted, probably intentionally, because Lux does not die a virgin.
  • Female Gaze: While much of the film is about the boys trying to sort out the mystery of the girls' deaths, one strong example is Trip's "babe walk" down the hall at school, to Heart's "Magic Man."
  • Foregone Conclusion: From the very first page it's clear that none of the Lisbon girls make it.
  • The Fundamentalist: Mrs. Lisbon is a die-hard Roman Catholic.
  • Future Loser: Trip Fontaine goes from big man on campus in the '70s to washed up recovering addict in the '90s.
  • Gilded Cage: What Mrs. Lisbon turns her house into after Lux and Trip's tryst. With her Villainous Breakdown following Lux's Pregnancy Scare, she drops the "gilded" part.
  • Greek Chorus: The boys are often described as this, though author Eugenides himself disagrees somewhat and believes the trope only gets attributed to them because of his (Greek) last name.
  • Handsome Lech: Trip Fontaine
  • Hate Sink: The majority of the adult cast bar Mr. Lisbon, Dr. Hornicker and Father Moody fit this role to some degree, but Mrs. Lisbon and pestilential yellow journalist Lydia Perl stand out in particular.
  • Henpecked Husband: Poor Mr. Lisbon.
  • I Let Gwen Stacy Die: The narrators feel this way about all the girls, but most especially Lux, after they discover she was still alive when they fled the house.
  • In Medias Res: The story begins with the paramedics taking away Mary's dead body.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Sensationalistic journalist Lydia Perl, who irritates the boys by coming up with nonsensical "explanations" for the Lisbons' behavior.
  • Ivy League for Everyone: Tim mentions applying to Yale, because his father went there, despite living in Michigan.
  • I Was Quite a Looker: Mrs. Lisbon is said to have once been a beauty of some renown, much like her daughters, but it's almost impossible to tell now. Crosses into meta as well, as in the film she's played by former sexbomb Kathleen Turner.
  • Lady Killer In Love: Trip develops a intense and passionate crush on the elusive Lux, having previously never had more than a passing interest in any girl. However, after they have sex on the football field he "just gets sick of her right then and there", leaves, and the two of them have no further contact.
  • Loving a Shadow: For all their supposed love toward the Lisbon girls, it turns out that ultimately the boys know very little about who they really were as people.
  • Mafia Prince: Paul Baldino, one of the neighborhood boys, is the son of a wealthy man who is very obviously a gangster.
  • Mama Bear: Mrs. Lisbon. Dear god Mrs. Lisbon.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: The Lisbon sisters represent a more subdued type to the narrators.
  • Massive Numbered Siblings: The five sisters.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: In the film, Mr. Lisbon, Tim, and Chase all in quick succession glimpse a mysterious apparition of Cecilia after her death. Its nature is never explained.
  • Nerds Are Sexy: Therese is a science geek who's preoccupied with getting into a good college, but she's considered just as attractive as her sisters.
  • No Name Given: Despite being a major character and the closest thing to a main villain the story has, Mrs. Lisbon's first name is never mentioned.
  • Parental Fashion Veto:
    On [Sunday] mornings Mrs. Lisbon assumed a queenly iciness. Clutching her good purse, she checked each daughter for signs of makeup before allowing her to get in the car, and it was not unusual for her to send Lux back inside to put on a less revealing top.
  • Parents as People: Prior to the lock-down, the Lisbon couple made some effort to give the girls breathing space in the aftermath of Cecilia's first attempted suicide.
  • Proud to Be a Geek: Mr. Lisbon, at least in the movie. Want to see his model airplanes?
  • Riddle for the Ages: Why did the girls commit suicide?
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: In the film adaptation, when Perl's news van drives to their home, the girls suddenly lose interest in protecting their tree and run back inside their house.
  • Ship Tease: In the movie Tim gets some with Therese, Parkie with Bonnie, and Chase with both Mary and Lux at different times.
  • The Smart Guy: Tim is "the brain" among his friends. In the film, the sister he's most interested in is his Distaff Counterpart Therese.
  • Spear Counterpart: With only four main boys in the film, each of the sisters gets one:
    • Chase and Lux, the youngest and most energetic ones who get more Character Focus than the others.
    • Tim and Therese, The Smart Guy and Girl
    • Parkie and Bonnie, the straight-laced ones who try being "bad" at prom and don't like it. The only pair to get a kiss.
    • David and Mary, the ones who are just sort of there.
  • Stacy's Mom: There's a brief scene in the film that implies that, while most of his peers go for her daughters, Paul Baldino has a crush on Mrs. Lisbon.
  • Stalker with a Crush: The narrators' infatuation with the Lisbon girls, though more well intentioned than most examples of this trope.
  • Standard '50s Father: Subverted with the weak and ineffectual Mr. Lisbon. Any attempt he makes in being this is to no use as his family crumbles around him.
  • Suicide Is Painless: Subverted with Dominic Palazzolo, who jumps off the roof without much thought, then walks away unscathed.
  • Unknown Character: The Narrator. He's stated to be one of the neighborhood boys with crushes on the Lisbons all grown up, but it's never specified which one he is. He tells the story in first-person plural, speaking for all his friends at once. Even with the film cutting the main male cast down to four, the narrator isn't identified, though he's probably David or Chase since Tim and Parkie get referred to in the third person.
  • Unreliable Narrator
  • Villainous Breakdown: Mrs. Lisbon completely loses it after Lux's Pregnancy Scare, effectively turning her house into a prison for her daughters and husband and letting it go to rack and ruin; the boys describe that the once beautiful house becomes increasingly dilapidated and is surrounded by disgusting smells of never-cleaned-up rotten food.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: The boys, especially in the film, seem to believe they're in a chivalric Rescue Romance setting with the Lisbons. Unfortunately, they live in suburban Michigan.
  • Women's Mysteries: The closest we get to a Motive Rant is one of the girls telling her therapist "Obviously, Doctor, you've never been a 13-year-old girl." The narrative also showcases the Lisbon family's many difficulties trying to keep the girls pure of heart and body and failing miserably.