Academic Exchange Quarterly Spring 2007 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 11, Issue 1
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Interrogating Suburbia in The Virgin Suicides
Lisa A. Kirby, Ph.D.
Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of English at
Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel The Virgin Suicides provides a compelling commentary on American values, the American dream, and postmodern suburban life. The text makes clear that the suburban community is a place of failed dreams, illusions, and isolation. The novel and the discussion it evokes provide important teachable moments in American literature courses and ways for students to think about their own communities.
Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel The Virgin Suicides is a text that works well for both high school and college-level English courses. Eugenides’s clear, conversational writing style, his emphasis on the themes of love, sex, and death, and his sharp portrayals of adolescent characters have made his text a favorite among many college-level students. Interestingly, little secondary scholarship exists on Eugenides’s novel, though it has been well received critically. As such, instructors who seek to include it in their curricula face the problem of finding relevant and engaging approaches to teaching the text. Yet as one begins to explore the complex issues of American values, success, and suburban life in the novel, it is clear The Virgin Suicides presents an important text that interrogates and problematizes the American Dream. When one investigates the text, it becomes clear that Eugenides’s novel is a document chronicling the isolation and illusion that exists in the postmodern American suburban community.
I taught The Virgin Suicides at a small, four-year,
private liberal arts college in eastern
Teaching this novel also makes clear how prevalent the theme of American suburbia is in American literature and popular culture. One need only look at recent movies and television shows such as the remake of The Stepford Wives, Desperate Housewives, Showtime’s Weeds, and even HBO’s The Sopranos to see that the modern American suburb is constantly being reconstructed and reexamined. Discussing this popular culture phenomenon in the context of literary representations of suburban life offers an important opportunity for students to consider how this landscape has so dramatically changed from its original inception. Once the paradise of American life, the place of refuge for those escaping the city, the suburb has now become not-so-dissimilar to perceptions of urban dwelling, a place of death, disillusionment, and degradation, the site of Columbine and sprawl.
“An Asylum for the Preservation of Illusion”
Eugenides’s novel tells the story of the Lisbons, a
seemingly normal family of two parents and five daughters living in “a
comfortable suburban home” outside of
In the 1960s, social critic Lewis Mumford stated, “the
suburb served as an asylum for the preservation of illusion” (494). This sense
of illusion could not be more true of the community in which the
Pamphlets arrived, dark green with white lettering, sent out by our local Chamber of
Commerce. “We thought green was cheerful. But not too cheerful,” said Mr.
Babson, who was president. ‘Green was also serious. So we went with it.” (98)
If anything, the sisters’ deaths are a temporary diversion
from other societal concerns: “while the suicides lasted, and for time after,
the Chamber of Commerce worried less about the influx of black shoppers and
more about the outflux of whites” (99). The community has no real sense of how
to deal with the death of Cecilia and, as a result, as the
The only characters who seem to sincerely care about the
well being of the girls are the neighborhood boys, who harbor a fascination for
the sisters. For these young men and others, they realize that the downfall of
their community really began with the deaths of the
everyone we spoke to dated the demise of our neighborhood from the suicides of the
place, so that the girls were seen not as scapegoats but as seers. [ . . . Many] instead
put the deaths down to the girls’ foresight in predicting decadence. (243-44)
The community is not so much interested in the girls’ deaths as they are what the deaths say about the community itself. There appears to be a cycle of narcissism at work in which communal self-reflection serves only to validate and justify the community’s response.
we got to see how unimaginative our suburb was, everything laid out on a grid
whose bland uniformity the trees had hidden, and the old ruses of differentiated
architectural styles lost their power to make us feel unique. (Eugenides 243)
This fit wells with another of Mumford’s visions of suburban
life: that “it was not merely a child-centered environment: it was based on a
childish view of the world” (494). I think, then, that if we read this statement
in the context of The Virgin Suicides, much is revealed. It makes clear
why the focus of this novel is not only the teenaged Lisbon sisters but that it
is also told from the perspective of a narrator who is reverting back to his
own adolescent self. In this way, we can see how the “child-centered
environment” applies well to the setting of the novel. It is the adults in the
community who have the “childish view of the world,” much more so than the
adolescents themselves. The narrator, the other neighborhood boys, and even the
Critiquing the American Dream
When teaching The Virgin Suicides in the context of literary history, the novel fits well into a course that examines American society and values. As Jeffrey L. Partridge points out:
the belief in
regardless of birth status, race, and religion has been a hallmark of
American idealism since the beginning of American arts and letters. [ . . . ]
In the early twentieth century, particularly with the rise of modernism and
the impact of World War I and the Great Depression, American writers
began to write more critically about the bulwark of American idealism. (216)
Critiquing this “American idealism” includes an
interrogation of the American Dream and values. Perhaps no other iconic image
The urban historian Robert Fishman has, rather oxymoronically, labeled
the increasingly anemic suburban ideal ‘bourgeois utopia’—a supposedly
placid refuge from urban woe. This comforting but always chimerical
vision of the artificial paradise untouched by urban blight looks more
tarnished than ever as the news informs us that both poor and wealthy
suburban dwellers find themselves confronting metropolitan-style violent crime.
In conjunction with this view of suburbia, it is clear that
in the novel Eugenides is not only commenting on the community in which the
it had to do with the way the mail wasn’t delivered on time, and how potholes never
got fixed, or the thievery at City Hall, or the race riots, or the 801 fires set around
the city on Devil’s night. (Eugenides 231)
The inhabitants of the suburban neighborhood in which the
novel is set all seem to be escaping what they view as the corruption,
violence, and degradation of city life. As the narrator mentions, “occasionally
we heard gunshots coming from the ghetto, but our fathers insisted it was only
cars backfiring” (36). Suburbia was supposed to offer a refuge from this
inner-city turmoil, and perhaps it is for this very reason that the deaths of
Conclusion: Teaching The Virgin Suicides
The Virgin Suicides, then, offers a commentary on many important issues and themes that are particularly relevant in a course that examines the American Dream and values. The novel and its critique of American culture intrigued my students. In class discussions, we repeatedly came back to the reality of the American Dream and whether it truly exists. Many students used both real-life historical examples, such as Sam Walton and Bill Clinton, to support their position that the American Dream does exist. Others argued that the American Dream was merely an illusion, as Mumford points out, and they cited examples of inner-city schools, poverty-stricken neighborhoods, and unequalized healthcare as support. The Virgin Suicides, meanwhile, offered the students a way to think about popular culture representations of the American Dream and, at least in the case of this novel, its failure. In a culture that relies so heavily on the premise of the American Dream, my students were interested in the way a postmodern writer like Eugenides reveals the failure of this notion. In class discussions, students often asked why a writer like Eugenides chooses to vilify the American Dream in the way he does.
Moreover, reading the novel offers an important opportunity
to problematize the American middle class. Read in the context of other texts
that deal with middle-class life, such as John Updike’s “A&P” and Gish
Jen’s Mona in the Promised Land, The Virgin Suicides offer another perspective on how
middle-class life is not as predictable as one might suspect. As Nicci Gerrard
mentions, the subject of the novel is “the American suburb undomesticated, and
the banal American Dream gone ecstatically wrong” (61). The American suburb is
one many students are familiar with and, often, take for granted. Eugenides’s
novel offers an interesting way for students to think about how their own
communities compared to that of the novel and consider whether suburban life
and all its trappings is really an entity that can continue to exist in our
postmodern society. Again, in class discussions, students would share details
about their own suburban or small-town communities, remarking on the insulated
and narcissistic qualities they often shared with the community in The
Virgin Suicides. Based both on student comments and writing, it is clear
the Eugenides’s 1970s-era suburbia still shares a great many similarities with
my students’ post-millennial communities. As Eugenides writes, the
Burn, Gordon. “Death in the Suburbs.” Times Literary Supplement 18 June 1993: 22.
Eugenides, Jeffrey. The Virgin Suicides.
Gerrard, Nicci. “Five Sisters Stun Suburbia.” The Observer 6 June 1993: 61.
Kakutani, Michiko. “Of Death in Adolescence and Innocence
Times 19 March 1992: 23.
Mumford, Lewis. The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects.
Partridge, Jeffrey L. “Gish Jen’s Mona in the Promised Land.” American Writers
Classics. Vol. II. Ed. Jay
Porton, Richard. “American Dreams, Suburban Nightmares.” Cineaste 20.1 (July 1993):