*Trigger warning: extensive mention of suicide and mental illness*
“Why, what could she have done, being what she is?”
— William Butler Yeats, “No Second Troy”
The body was found at sunrise. Or was it sunset? Maybe sometime between the two. It was her lover who found her. Her mother. The milkman. The boy down the street. A tourist. She had washed up on the shore of the river. Bled out in the bathtub. Hung from the basement rafter. Gone into a pill-induced slumber. No one could have predicted this. Everyone saw it coming. Whoever she was, she had an entire life ahead of her. A marriage. College. She was 14. 15. 16. The town reels, the family mourns. Black is the color of the hour, unless it was white. As the news spreads, everyone asks the same question.
There are dead girls running through my dreams. They have been there for as long as I can remember, perhaps my whole life. Their names and faces are always shifting, growing as I find more of them. Some fade with time, forgotten by even my subconscious, the last thing binding them to me. In the mass of white fabric and silky hair, there are six constants. Therese. Mary. Bonnie. Lux. Cecilia. Ophelia.
The Lisbons of The Virgin Suicides and Ophelia from Hamlet are the peak of a cultural obsession with suicidal young women. They belong to a trope, the tired storyline of a girl who goes mad and dies, often over a man. We turn our cheeks at these stories, dismissing them as morbid, while also consuming them with a vigor. Rosalind Jana describes this phenomenon as “All beautiful, all sumptuously dressed, all doomed (well, nearly all of them). Female insanity and death were reimagined as something sensual, potent, easy to project onto, and, crucially, aesthetically appealing.” (1) By holding these girls up as icons, they made death erotically beautiful. Knowing that these girls will not grow older, they became relics of youth, as if they were dolls preserved in resin. This makes them no less compelling, no less enticing. Part of their charm is due to the utter lack of characterization. The Lisbons and Ophelia have little definitive character, existing only as vessels for the audience to pour their hopes and fears into. They are desperate whores. Heartbroken virgins. Potential mothers. They are mad, they are delusional, they are the result of circumstance. It is all both true and not true, because anything a reader sees in them is a greater reflection of their own identity than that of the characters. I know that better than anyone, having hemorrhaged pieces of myself with each page I turned.
I was fourteen when I stumbled upon The Virgin Suicides, a dirty hardcover hidden in the back alcove of the Adult Fiction section at my local library. Even then, I liked realism and despised when anyone, book or person, tried to pretend as if the world was not tragic at its core. From the first line of the book, I knew that Eugenides was going to tell the story of the Lisbons without any regard for the reader. There was no sense of mystery, any chance of a twist ending removed by that opening line “On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide”. The knowledge that they were going to die overshadowed every second I spent with the Lisbons. Unlike the neighborhood boys who narrated their story, I was never deluded into believing that I, or even that anyone, could save them. For years, I read The Virgin Suicides repeatedly, keeping it on my desk and writing random lines on the edges of my biology notes, the words of the Lisbons swirling into a diagram of the cellular body. My budding hubris, the result of a newborn English major, made me think that I would be the person to finally crack the code and determine why the sisters killed themselves. I was wrong. I would never find an answer because I was asking all the wrong questions.
During college, I read Hamlet for the first time. I’ll be honest, I despise Shakespeare, and yet, I found myself infatuated with Ophelia. It was not the first time I met Ophelia, or even the first time I’d used her as a reference in a discussion of literature. I first understood her as the archetype of female insanity when I read the line “The Mad Scene. Enter Ophelia!” from a Long Day’s Journey into Night. You can’t know a character until you’ve read the work they originally appear in and I could not have been more wrong about Ophelia. I had assumed she would be like Juliet Capulet, who I found vain and irresponsible. Despite being a minor role, with only 58 speaking lines, Ophelia was one of the most fascinating characters I had ever encountered. I loved her almost from the start, finding myself enraptured with her madness and her beauty. I loved her more when she was dead. I understood, finally, why it was that poets still use her as a muse. Of course, I knew from the start what was going to happen to Ophelia. When I read her death scene, a sense of déjà vu hit me. I knew this story. It was the same story I had loved at fourteen, the same story told in The Virgin Suicides. These books were published almost 400 years apart, in nations separated by the Atlantic ocean. Why, then, are they so eerily similar?
It is a scary thing to see yourself reflected in a crazy girl, especially one who kills herself. Looking back, it was a bit naive of me to not recoil from my sheer willingness to align myself with dead girls. But Ophelia and the Lisbons don’t begin as corpses. The Lisbons, although already watched by the neighborhood boys, are relatively normal by societal standards. They are interested in music, science, and writing. Lux tries to sneak by her mother in a tube top, like every other teenage girl in America. At her age, I was begging my mother to let me go to the beach in a string bikini. Of all the daughters, Cecilia is the only one that anyone describes as strange, due to her habit of wearing a vintage wedding dress and writing in a diary. Ophelia is too, by all accounts, an impressive young woman, set on the path to a comfortable life through a possible marriage with Hamlet. There is little indication that she will lose her mind, until she does. I understood little about her life, but I understood that. How one day the world could make sense to you, and the next, you felt as if you were Alice stuck in Wonderland. Knowing that this is how the girls begin, and also knowing how their stories end, the questions I asked seemed obvious. What did they do to put themselves in this scenario? Still, not the right question. Scholars have puzzled over these stories, unable to come to conclusion about how a well-adjusted teenage girl with a bright future suddenly plunges headfirst into death. Ophelia and the Lisbons offer no answers. So instead of trying to force their secrets out of them, I asked another question. What happened to these girls, what did they endure, that put them in so much pain that suicide was the only answer?
When I looked at it, it kept coming back to sex. I hated that it did, because these were children, but I was once their age and I knew better. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. That’s the burden placed onto teenage girls, boiling them down to two groups: the virgins and the whores. The Lisbons and Ophelia are both, a “virgin-whore” (2), if you will. They embody purity, wearing white dresses and clinging to their innocence, while also serving as sex symbols by the men around them. Hamlet makes crude remarks about Ophelia’s genitals, telling her that nothing is “a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.” The boys imagine the Lisbons as angels, while also dreaming of having sex with them. One of the few surprises in The Virgin Suicides is Lux’s sexual escapades. I was exactly Lux’s age when I first read the book and I had yet to have my first kiss; losing my virginity was a concern for a much older version of myself. It haunts me now how young she was, to have sex with the perfect boy and wake up alone in a football field. I won’t pretend to have any idea how Lux felt in that moment, how quickly her teen romance turned to abandonment. It is clear that the sex was consensual to some degree, but it is a messy situation. When girls are Lux’s age, they imagine that their first times will be special, even though that is so rarely the case. A tale like Lux’s, one of a girl being betrayed by a boy, is more common amongst teenage girls than we are willing to admit. Hamlet provides enough textual evidence to raise the possibility that Ophelia may be in this group. During her infamous mad scene, she sings the tale of a maiden deceived by her lover. Why would she do so, if it wasn’t her grief-stricken way of declaring her traumas? As she doles out flowers to the Danish court, Ophelia says “there’s rue for you, and here’s some for me.” In her time, rue was an abortifacient, as well as a symbolic gesture of washing away sin. She may have not only lost her virginity, but become pregnant as well. Lux, too, becomes worried that she may be pregnant, eventually faking a burst appendix to obtain a pelvic exam. By this point, she is openly promiscuous, having sex with adult men on the roof of her house. Her sisters remain chaste until they die. Or do they? Who’s to say that they weren’t also having sex, but were smart enough to do so out of the sight of a telescope? It’s a remark on the way that society views virginal girls that so much of the story hinges on the idea that these girls were virgins, even if that may not be the truth.
Boys, no matter how old, belong to themselves. Girls, especially teenagers, belong to men. The Lisbon’s lovers and Hamlet have a sense of self and agency that is absent in their female counterparts. Ophelia is one of, if not the most, passive character in Hamlet. Her only role is to serve as Hamlet’s love interest and her father’s pawn. The Lisbons are seen through the eyes of the boys who desired to be their lovers, barred from being the protagonists of their own stories. There is an insurmountable amount of pressure placed on these girls to be exactly who they are supposed to be. Who can blame them for cracking under the strain of it all? In each story, the descent to madness begins with the loss of a loved one. The Lisbons grieve the death of Cecilia, the youngest sister and first to commit suicide. Ophelia’s budding romance with Hamlet disintegrates, and then he kills her father. Before Polonius’s death, she is mentally sound. Afterwards, she is a babbling madwoman. So was Polonius’ death the sole reason for her demise? Or rather the straw that broke the camel’s back? It is rare to find a critic who will argue that Ophelia’s madness is unfounded. There is a reason, even if Ophelia does not give us the privilege of knowing what it is. Of all the possibilities, the common denominator is the brutal treatment she receives at the hands of the men who should have loved her. When her father dies, Ophelia loses the little sense of identity she had. Her entire self-worth is tied to being a daughter and a lover, someone who belongs to another person. Without Polonius and Hamlet, she had nothing, no one to protect her. It’s desperately sad. It’s also the fault of everyone except for her. Polonius knew better, as did Hamlet, and they failed her. Knowing this, her brother makes the same mistake as every other man she loves: he leaves her to the mercy of a world that she was not prepared to face. Ophelia may have walked into that river, but she was put at its edge by people she trusted. The Lisbons were similarly driven to madness by their juvenile admirers, by their overbearing parents, and by a community that failed to love them as it should have.
She looks at the water. The razor. The pills. The rope. This was always her plan. This was a decision made less than an hour ago. She takes a deep breath, fills herself with a sense of emptiness and calm. She writes a final letter. She never writes a note. Part of her is unsure. Part of her is set. It is not the choice she wants to make. It is the only choice she thinks she can make.
What must it have taken, for these girls to throw themselves into the abyss of death? “Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself, / She turns to favour and to prettiness,” says Laertes, as if Ophelia believed that beauty could erase her pain. I find it unlikely that Ophelia was that naive. I tried that, to cover up insanity with perfection, when I was a freshman in high school. I would wake up early to iron my hair straight, apply makeup, and put on a clean uniform. That didn’t stop me from crying hysterically in the nurse’s office and landing myself in extensive therapy. If you had asked me then, I couldn’t put into words what I was so distraught about and I still don’t understand it now. Things are never as simple as we desire them to be. These suicides weren’t about love or sex or even madness. They were about power. The narrators claim that “…they had deciphered the secret to cowardice or bravery, whichever it was And the Lisbon girls were always there before them.” When the survivors in The Virgin Suicides and Hamlet try to decode the suicides, they cannot fathom someone who would choose death because they fixate on all that these girls had to lose. But that’s just it. They had absolutely nothing to lose. From an outside point of view, it’s easy to say that they threw their lives away. I would never ever say that suicide is the right choice for anyone, but we should spend a moment looking at why it became a choice at all. It’s telling that those are the choices given to them “cowardice or bravery”; I never quite understood which option was which.
Once the girls are gone, they lose whatever limited control they had over the narrative of their lives. The last thing they get to decide is how they will die. Ophelia’s drowning is a matter of convenience, as she had very limited methods from which to choose. The river makes the most sense, fitting with her infatuation of wildflowers. Water is also tied to femininity, specifically to the idea of the fallen woman. Meesen says, “The water in which the fallen woman typically drowned symbolically washed off her sins, and cleansed her.” (3) This motif repeats in The Virgin Suicides, when Cecilia’s first suicide attempt occurs in a bathtub. In the film adaptation of the novel, the image of Cecilia in the bath water invokes Ophelia’s body in the river. Her second attempt, the leap from the roof, was absurd, implying that she was desperate and out of options. I could wrap my head around suicide, but not a method so violent and public. Her sisters were not as desperate, seeing as they each chose a different manner of death. This stands at odds with the way they are often viewed, as interchangeable, but that may have been the point. If no one would see them as they were in life, they would assert their individuality in death.
What is so haunting about these girls is that no one can get close to them. Ophelia isn’t given the long soliloquies that Hamlet is allowed, she only graces the stage when it serves the plot. The Lisbons’ only true memorial is created by boys who never truly knew them. Looking at the way their stories are told, we only get them in pieces. It is terrifying because it is so real. Beyond the textual evidence, we see this dissonance in visual interpretation. During the Victorian era, Ophelia became the subject of a great number of paintings, each of which are a unique take on her character. There is Millais’s Ophelia, Delaroche’s The Young Martyr/Ophelia, Waterhouse’s Ophelia, and, my personal favorite, Steck’s Ophelia Drowning. There exists fewer images of the Lisbons, with the only well-known medium being Sophia Coppola’s film from 2000. When asked about the actresses playing the girls, Eugenides said, “…the girls are seen at such a distance. They’re created by the intention of the observer, and there are so many points of view that they don’t really exist as an exact entity.” (4) There is no set way to portray these girls because no one knows who they are. They exist only as a conglomerate of memories. Hamlet’s Ophelia is not the same as Laertes’ Ophelia, just as the Lisbons are different girls for each of their admirers.
The girls lay in bed. A phone pings with a notification for a secret Tumblr account. One had a stack of books next to the bed. The Bell Jar. Prozac Nation. Girl, Interrupted. Music plays from a speaker. Lorde. Lana del Rey. Stevie Nicks. Tangled hair sticks to tear-stained cheeks. Layers of blankets and sweatshirts cover trembling bodies. They question if they will survive this.
Diagnosing a fictional character with a mental illness is a tricky road to walk. It is a given that Ophelia and the Lisbons were not sane, if only for the fact they did die from suicide. It would be so easy to slap a label of depression onto them and move on, but that wouldn’t be the truth. Cecilia may have taken her life as the result of a serious depressive state. She’s dead by the second chapter, so I don’t have much to work with. Her sisters are more complicated than Cecilia due to the events that unfold over the course of the book. Depression, as a result of grief, and PTSD from the trauma of Cecilia’s death. I would also argue a type of shared psychosis. Eugenides writes their deaths in such a stunning prose that it causes the reader to overlook the most central detail: it was planned. Those four girls sat in their bedrooms and planned out how each one of them would die. If it wasn’t psychosis, it was a shared delusion, except delusions don’t become reality. Ophelia’s diagnosis would be almost identical to the Lisbons. Anxiety and depression as a result of the limited choices available to her in her time. PTSD from her father’s death. From her single scene of madness, she was delusional, indicating schizophrenia or psychosis. But does it change anything if someone had given them a diagnosis? If we give a diagnosis, it is to make ourselves feel better. The girls are already dead, knowing what exactly was wrong with their serotonin levels won’t change that. Cecilia and Mary received psychiatric help after their first suicide attempts, yet it didn’t save them. That’s not to say that they weren’t mentally ill, because they were. Mental illness isn’t the answer to the mystery, but it could be an important clue.
A common criticism of stories like Hamlet and The Virgin Suicides is that they sugar-coat mental illness. The image of a beautiful girl in a waterlogged dress is easier to take than a woman screaming at a hallucination. I agree with that, that to truly de-stigmatize mental illness we have to go beyond the stereotypical. I want more stories of women with borderline personality disorder, or trichotillomania, or autism. And yet, part of me still clings to girls like the Lisbons and Ophelia. I, as well as thousands of other teenage girls, need to see these characters because they look like us. It is possible to be a beautiful teenage girl with a mind like a black tornado. Sometimes, the one relief girls like that can find is in others like ourselves. Woodhead says, “It’s considered cliché to be a teenage girl and to love Sofia Coppola’s films — or the poems of Sylvia Plath, or Lorde’s Melodrama — but these clichés only serve to hem us in and shame us for what we connect with.” (5) What many fail to realize is that clichés are almost rooted in popularity. The reason that so many teenage girls flock to Sofia Coppola, Plath, and Lorde is the simple fact that they remind us that we are not alone. Girlhood is brutal, especially girlhood with mental illness. In a given year, upwards of 1 in 10 adolescents will be diagnosed with a mental illness (6) and girls like that deserve to see themselves in the media just as much as the sane ones do. That is what makes this bond so strong and so perplexing to outsiders.
At one time, I believed that I would leave the Lisbons and Ophelia behind when I was no longer a teenage girl. As if the second I blew out the candles on my 20th birthday, my subconscious would erase them. Unfortunately, or most fortunately, that was not the case. The truth of it is, I love these girls because they remind me of the very real people in my own life. I have lost count of the number of women I loved who considered taking their own lives. I don’t know why that is, but I can’t imagine my life being any other way. There’s a principle in chemistry known as the “like attracts like”, which explains the phenomena of molecules that are attracted to other molecules like themselves. So it could be my own fault, for loving people who are so complicated. It’s nice though, to have people who can look into the darkest parts of your soul and not run screaming. Before I had that, I needed the Lisbons and Ophelia. In some twisted way, they made me feel as if it was okay to not be a waking embodiment of poetic perfection. They were the first step I took towards realizing that I was what I was, whoever that may be. That is what the Lisbons’ neighbors and Hamlet failed to understand. These girls were their pain, their darkness, their madness. Is that all they were? Of course not. But if you removed that part of them, they would be different people entirely. That is what the ones who said they loved them were unable to understand and what I understood all too well. I loved them as they were, because of what they were. Once I accepted that, I could admit that this wasn’t a momentary obsession. No matter how old I become, there will always be dead girls running through my dreams.
Her baby girl is born early in the morning. Late at night. The middle of the day. Before bedtime, she pops a pill into her mouth and swallows it dry. She can’t even remember what it is now. Lexapro? Zoloft? Prozac? As she rocks her daughter to sleep, she looks at her peaceful face and thinks Dear God, don’t let her end up like me. Let the world be kind to her. She knows it’s a wasted prayer, filled with false hope, but she says it anyway. On the wall of the nursery, there is a framed photo of five girls in white dresses walking at the edge of a river.
(1) Jana, Rosalind. “Dead Woman in the Bathtub: Why Are We So Fascinated by Ophelia’s Suicide?” VICE, Nov. 2015, www.vice.com/en/article/d7abgj/dead-woman-in-the-bathtub-why-are-we-so-fascinated-by-ophelias-suicide.
(2) Leaves, Sarah. “The Sacrificial Virgin Whore in The Virgin Suicides .” www.medium.com, May 2016, medium.com/@caliginositie/essay-the-sacrificial-virgin-whore-in-the-virgin-suicides-c9f7d28e2748.
(3) Meessen , Valerie. “Post-Mortems: Representations of Female Suicide by Drowning in Victorian Culture .” Radboud University Nijmegen, 2017.
Emma is a lifelong reader and writer. Her main areas of interest include young adult fiction and narrative medicine. She lives in Boston and can be found spending time with friends, family, and her Labrador retriever, Leo.