The Virgin Suicides: Jeffrey Eugenides reflects on his novel's legacy 25 years later
The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides’ beloved cult-favorite novel, is centered on the idea of legacy. Narrated by a collective “we,” a group of anonymous neighborhood boys-turned-lonely-middle-aged men, it looks back on the unsolvable mystery of the deaths of five sisters that fractured their quiet Michigan suburb. While the men, who were neighbors of the enigmatic Lisbon family, attempt to piece together the events that led the girls to end their lives, they reveal themselves to be obsessed with the legacy of Cecilia, Lux, Bonnie, Mary, and Therese and the hold they still have on them as adults.
And now, 25 years after its first publishing, the legacy of The Virgin Suicides itself is becoming clearer and clearer. When the novel hit shelves the subject matter was considered to be controversial, but a quarter of a century later the topic is not only startlingly current but apparent in pop culture, everywhere from Netflix original shows to Broadway to the big screen.
It’s almost as though you could draw a straight line (in red string, of course) from the Lisbon girls, confined to their room and playing records for the boys across the street over the telephone, to Hannah Baker, recording cassette tapes to leave on the doorsteps of her classmates in 13 Reasons Why. It’s a revelation that Eugenides himself is still having.
“I always wondered if there was some connection,” the author said to EW. “Especially with 13 being such a big number in The Virgin Suicides, right in the first chapter. ‘Obviously, doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl.'”
Fascination with numerology aside, 13 Reasons Why and The Virgin Suicides also share a narrative framework: They are stories about boys looking back on the deaths of girls they loved — and trying to understand why they did it.
“I think we’re drawn to stories of suicide because of how mysterious it is,” said Eugenides. “You can’t figure out exactly why someone went to that length, and that mystery is increased if the person is young and seemingly has so many reasons to live.”
13 Reasons Why was only one of several similar narratives that captivated the pop culture consciousness in the past few years. Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen, which follows a nervous boy juggling the aftermath of a classmate’s suicide, won six Tony Awards — including the 2017 Tony for Best Musical — and launched lead Ben Platt into stardom. In 2012, Stephen Chbosky’s best-selling epistolary novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower was adapted into a film starring Emma Watson and Logan Lerman, with Lerman playing a depressed student returning to school after the suicide of his best friend. Last year, even rapper Logic released a song called “1-800-273-8255,” the number to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
Another aspect of The Virgin Suicides‘ legacy that has followed it to its predecessors is the hand-wringing and concern that follows release. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the reaction to 13 Reasons Why: Its popularity, considered in conjunction with its graphic depiction of Hannah’s (Katherine Langford) death — and it’s revenge-esque narrative — incited questions as to whether it glorified the issue. Netflix added warnings to all of the show’s episodes as a result, and produced a video featuring the show’s stars that will autoplay before every episode of season two, encouraging viewers to call a local hotline or reach out to a friend or parent if they need help.
“I understand why people worry about books and movies and television shows contributing to a sense of malaise and pushing people to commit suicide,” said Eugenides. “But that’s an old argument — about whether art is inspiring people to do things, or whether it’s a reflection of the world people are already inhabiting and things they’re already feeling. I certainly never worried that my book would drive people to suicide, and I’m happy to say that hasn’t been the case in 25 years. I get letters from people who’ve read the book and the reaction is quite the opposite: They feel heartened by the book, they feel that their experience has been described in some way, and the letters I get are more intimate and more hopeful and more optimistic than you might think from the subject matter of the book.”
Based on the 2007 novel written by Jay Asher, the Netflix drama follows a teen named Clay who attempts to figure out what led his classmate and crush, Hannah, to commit suicide.