Who's Watching Who in "The Virgin Suicides"?
Let's talk about the most challenging — to some the most troubling — aspect of Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides.
Earlier this year, a friend of mine read Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides and criticised it for perpetuating the male gaze. I returned to the novel somewhat sceptical of her claim but taking it seriously. While there are various ideas about what precisely constitutes the so-called “male gaze” and which works of art deal in it, I’ve always understood it to be essentially:
“The depiction of women in the arts as objects, often sexual, that serve the pleasure of a heterosexual male viewer.”
This is the understanding I brought to my latest reading of The Virgin Suicides, suspecting as I made my approach that one of my favourite novels was guilty of peddling this sexist paradigm. I remembered clearly the objectification of the Lisbon girls, who exist not as people but as objects relative to the subjectivity of the neighbourhood boys. I realised there’s an unhealthy romanticising of the girls’ pubescent ambience, recalling how the boys can’t stop reaching out for the sisters even though (in life as much as in death) they remain untouchable. Now that I’d read more – and had my fill of books that exoticised people unlike their author – maybe I’d have outgrown this novel.
But no – as with all great books, this one has grown with me, becoming something new each time I read it. And on my most recent reading, I saw that the male gaze is not only present, it’s the point of the book. The Virgin Suicides is narrated by a fourth-person narrator, an individual pluralised by shared experiences. This is the collective voice of the boys who grew up around the Lisbon girls, having become versions of their fathers who were once “impossibly skinny young men” and are now “middle-aged, with paunches”. However, their old men, in the glory days of the Second World War, “wrote love letters to the girls who would become our mothers”, inspired into “poetic reveries that ceased entirely once they got back home”. Our narrators, by contrast, are inspired in middle-age to write poetically, ecstatically, about the girls who never grew up.
There are places where Eugenides winks at the reader, hinting that we should remain conscious to the male gaze he deliberately constructs. Take the fact that the collective male narrator quite literally reduces the Lisbon sisters to objects, sharing with us what they call “exhibits” consisting of photographs, stolen diaries, and medical reports; later, they describe the items to which these five girls have been relegated as “sacred objects”, including old cosmetics, shoes, candles, and a stolen bra. This literal objectification is as close as Eugenides gets to outright telling the reader that the male gaze in his novel is not accidental. No doubt there are readers for whom this level of subtlety reads as capitulation, but if Eugenides had made what he is doing any plainer on the page, he’d have rightly been criticised for being too didactic. Given a choice between nuance and preaching, I’ll take the former every time.
But let’s abandon the wide-angle lens to zoom in for a close reading of the novel’s incredible final line, in which the edifice of Eugenides’ male gaze is laid bare:
“It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling, still do not hear us, up here in the tree house, with our thinning hair and soft bellies, calling for them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.”
Everything is contained in this sentence, and it’s worth breaking it down, even at the cost of making ugly through analysis something otherwise elegant and heart-breaking. The narrators begin with a startling admission about their parasocial relationship with the Lisbon girls: “It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them ...” The individuality of the girls is entirely inconsequential to the narrators. All that matters is their own feelings directed at these human objects. By making it as clear as this, in the last line of his novel, Eugenides is signalling to us that this matters. He wants us to be conscious of that which his narrators fail to understand about themselves.
It’s an added irony (though not an incidental one) that what specifically doesn’t matter to them is the fact “that they were girls”, when everything about this story tells us that their sex couldn’t have been otherwise. There would have been no voyeuristic obsession, no male gaze, and no suicides of their kind had they not been girls. Eugenides is careful to never describe the suicides as the consequence of mental illness; though “bad genes” are one of the many explanations doctors, journalists, and members of the neighbourhood offer, everything in the story suggests that, at bottom, choosing death is the terrible outcome of being these five young girls in a world that simultaneously deifies and fears their femininity. They choose to exit a world that fundamentally fails to understand them. Early in the novel, a doctor patronises Cecelia after a failed suicide, telling her she’s not old enough to know how bad life gets. “Obviously, Doctor,” she responds, “you’ve never been a thirteen-year-old girl.”
Such specificities, such nuanced understanding of the details that truly matter, are irrelevant to the boys. They don’t value the Lisbon girls as people in their own right, only as mere conduits of the boys’ own sense of self and, more vulgarly, a source of pleasure. This is the reason that when one of them ends up kissing Bonnie and “he tasted mysterious depths in [her] mouth, he didn’t search them out because he didn’t want her to stop kissing him”. Depth and its complexity are, as far as the boys care, distractions from their own satisfaction.
In any case, the boys – and the men they become – need the Lisbon girls to remain in some sense simple. They need to reduce the girls so they can take on the role of damsel to which the boys/men can be the white knights, desperate to “find the pieces to put them back together”. Note also the phrasing of the failure to reach the Lisbons: not “we failed to reach them”, or “we didn’t call loudly or clearly enough” – no, it is the girls who failed them, who “hadn’t heard us calling”. And let me be as controversial as I can for a moment: I’m not convinced the boys truly wished to save the Lisbon girls. At some deep level of their subconscious – which Eugenides reveals to us in his text even as it eludes the boys’ self-consciousness – they need the girls to be dead. Let me explain.
To a boy playing with plastic soldiers, autonomy in the toy would be a design fault: the ability to choose not to be played with at any moment, or to change the parameters of the game the little boy has set up, would impede the child’s enjoyment. As much as he might try to give life to his toys by speaking for them and moving them around as if they were alive, what he values is not reality but his control over reality. He decides what is said, what is done, and who wins the game. The male gaze is the product of an immature mind. The boys and men looking at girls and women this way are simply setting up a game they want control over. The girls and women are mere toys.
Female autonomy, in this paradigm, is an obstacle to male control. And who is less autonomous and more like a doll than a dead girl? There’s something almost gnostic about this: the material reality of living, thinking girls is of less use to these boys than the abstract concepts they become. Once the girls are all dead and no longer liable to say and do things the boys don’t like, they can fully inhabit the ageless, unchanging playthings of the mind that the boys have viewed them as from the beginning. Nostalgia, after all, cannot exist without the absence of the thing one is nostalgic for. There’s a wonderful, seemingly incidental, line in The Virgin Suicides about one of the elderly men the narrators interview, and who keeps a framed photograph of his first wife, “whom he had loved ever since divorcing her”. It’s easier for some people to love an idea, or a photograph, than to love a real person.
Late in the novel, as the boys try to make sense of the suicides, they give themselves away when they say of the sisters:
“In the end, the tortures tearing the Lisbon girls pointed to a simple reasoned refusal to accept the world as it was handed down to them, so full of flaws.”
It is, in fact, the young boys and then middle-aged men who refuse the fact of their flawed world. They cannot or will not accept that the Lisbon girls are infinitely more complex, individuated, and human than they allow of them. This is why the narrators, throughout the novel, insist on collectivising the five girls as a group of sisters, as “the Lisbon girls”. This view of things is narrow and myopic. It fails forever to see Lux, Cecelia, Bonnie, Mary, and Therese.
No less short-sighted is reading The Virgin Suicides as merely one more iteration of a particular way of devaluing women. Contrary to the fatuous claim that “the master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house”, it can be worthwhile to engage in the very thing you wish to critique to provide a real-time, real-world demonstration of what’s wrong with it. Satire depends on exactly this. While Eugenides’ novel is far subtler than satire, it is no less incisive in its diagnosis of the ills inherent in the male gaze. And just as the narrators’ superficial view of femininity leaves them the poorer for it, not looking closely at what Eugenides is doing here impoverishes the reader. Maybe that’s what The Virgin Suicides is really about: the importance of looking closely, wisely, humanely.
• The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides (1993)