Herman Melville’s Moby Dick contains perhaps the most surprising sentence in the history of American literature. At one point the reader is told this, “So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world, that without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise, of the fishery, they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory.”
Here the reading may come to a screeching halt. What? Moby Dick is not an allegory? What is it then? A tale of adventure? Well, yes, it is that. But surely it’s also an allegory. Right?
Some readers may prefer to read another great American novel, Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, as an allegory, for to read it as a piece of realistic fiction is incredibly heart-wrenching.
The Lisbons are a Catholic family living in suburban Detroit. Mr. Lisbon is a meek math teacher, and the domineering Mrs. Lisbon is a housewife. The couple has five daughters who all die by their own hand, and what lingers after them is “the most trivial list of mundane facts.” As can be the case in the writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Shirley Jackson, and Stephen King, the mundane circumstances of the world depicted by Eugenides can be suffocating, and over time the Lisbon home increasingly turns into a house of quiet horror and oppression.
The novel is a collective investigation of the Lisbon girls’ short lives, the cloistered existence of most of them in a haunting and deteriorating home, their deaths, and the aftermath of the suicides. It is a search for explanations and answers, and many of the characters in the book understand the reasons for the suicides and the suicides themselves in different ways. In order to comprehend the tragedy, the people who discuss the matter come up with explanations that may confirm their own worldviews, but that may have little or nothing to do with the demise of the girls.
Perhaps the suicides are impossible to explain. Perhaps the suicides were inevitable. Perhaps the investigators – once boys who went to school with the girls, but now weary adults – simply know too little to be able to explain the extraordinary events that took place in their ordinary suburb. Or perhaps all the reader needs to know is right there in the text. Perhaps the reader can make sense of it all. Again and again, the author shares events and words that are filled with monumental meaning – or so it seems, anyway.
During their one and only date, one of the girls, Lux, spends the car ride to the homecoming dance dialing the radio for her favorite song. “‘It makes me crazy,’ she said. ‘You know they’re playing it somewhere, but you have to find it.’”