To recap, The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides deals with the deaths of five sisters in a family. The novel does not happen in real time—no linear plot nor enduring scenes. All the boys who grew up with the Lisbon sisters remember them into middle-age and mourn their loss, but they filter their mourning through sexual frustrations and a paraphilic kinkiness that still bothers me—voyeuristic and unwholesome. Eugenides is every Feminist's Sigmund Freud.
I did not especially care for The Virgin Suicides when it came out in 1993, but I was working then and had my hands full with other things. Now that I have retired, I can return to Virgin Suicides in a leisurely way and take my time with it. It has stuck in my psyche like a cocklebur; so I can unleash a little intellectual energy and angst to expiate the cocklebur.
The longer I thought about Virgin Suicides, the more I realized that the suicide-literature genre had quite a history already. Eugenides must have known about suicidal adolescent-angst when he wrote it, and the quantity of suicide-literature already on library shelves.
We'll start with Mark Twain's (real name Samuel Clemens) classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Twain wrote perhaps the greatest work of fiction in the American canon. Huck, a boy with a violent, alcoholic father, a seldom-mentioned mother, and lots of extended family, fears that family friends want to adopt him and "sivilize" him; so he boards a raft on the Mississippe River and goes on the lam, accompanied by a runaway slave named Jim.
We think of Huck Finn as a children's book, which we shouldn't do. That the lead character is just a boy does not alter or lessen the novel's mature perspective. By helping a slave escape, Huck breaks the laws of the pre-Civil War South. Not surprisingly, the pair run into problems.
irst of all, a steamboat runs over their raft and separates them. Huck accepts shelter from a family named Grangerford, who have to unfortunately carry on a blood-feud with another family, named Sheperdson. That such handsome, respectable, generous people keep killing each other will bother the reader, for the same reason it bothers Huck.
The Grangerfords show Huck the bedroom of their deceased fifteen-year-old daughter Emmaline. On the walls of Emmaline's bedroom is art-work that she did herself, accompanied by poems that she composed. Huck says "They was different from any pictures I ever see before." He says that the pictures give him "the fantods," because they are all about death.
One picture shows a woman at a tombstone. The caption reads,"Shall I Never see Thee More Alas."
A second shows a woman standing over the body of a dead bird. The caption reads, "Shall I Never Hear Thy Sweet Chirrup More Alas." In the third, a woman reads a death notice. The caption reads, "And art thou art gone? Yes, thou art gone alas."
Huck continues, "She was at work on what they said was her greatest picture, when she took sick; and every day and every night, it was her prayer to be allowed to live till she got it done, but she never got the chance. It was a picture of a young woman in a long white gown, standing on the rail of a bridge all ready to jump off, with hair all down her back. She had two arms folded across her
breast and two arms stretched out in front, and two more reaching up towards the moon—and the idea was to see which pair would look best and then scratch out all the other arms, but as I was saying, she died before she got her mind made up.
"Everybody was sorry she died, but I reckoned that with her disposition, she was having a better time in the graveyard."
Twain uses a sardonic tone to keep this story humorous. As for Emmaline, at least she has enough personal honesty to admit to melancholia overflowing in her little heart, unlike the under-inflated Lisbon sisters, who do nothing but spout trendy mantras.