It’s pretty amazing to pull off. If you can pull it off. Make the POV character appear to be the protagonist so convincingly that the only way anyone would ever notice s/he is actually the antagonist is to re-read the story with a mental focus on someone else.
The quote is from The Generous Gambler by Charles Baudelaire: “The loveliest trick of the Devil is to persuade you that he does not exist!” If you’re a writer and you can disguise your antagonist as a protagonist, you can convince readers to look elsewhere for the story’s devilment. By doing so you’ve created an undercurrent of such angst that it keeps readers digging right through to the back of the story trying to figure out the source of their uneasiness.
But like anything that makes us feel that way, we just have to make it go away, to resolve it somehow. But even when you find out, you’re left with a permanent sense of self-doubt about who’s the real devil.
In my last Story Analyst post, The Second Glance, I discussed how Margaret Mitchell did such a thorough job convincing readers that Scarlett O’Hara is a proto-feminist survivor and hero of phoenix-like power who has been a role-model for millions of women, especially those who faced the Great Depression and WWII, that it isn’t until you look at the story through Rhett’s choices that you realize there’s something very different going on – and it’s so much darker and more sinister than readers realize.
This is playing with storytelling DNA. It’s the epigenetics that runs deep in the molecular matter of powerful, memorable narratives that no plot twist could ever equal. Plot twists merely change a story’s outcome. Great storytelling DNA allows writers to flip a switch through this epigenetic quality that changes what the story is depending on how you look at it. It’s not just the appearance of one thing until the end confirms the trick, like a Shyamalan movie. It’s simultaneously different stories.
In The Virgin Suicides [spoiler alert: plot points and ending will be discussed], when Jeffrey Eugenides introduces us to the collective voice of the neighbourhood boys who witness the tragedy of the Lisbon family, it’s very easy to get so caught up in the fact that we’re being told this story from their perspective that we assume their role is that of any ordinary narrator – the protagonists in a story about their efforts to understand what happened in the house across the street (I’ll refer to the narrators in plural, although it’s never entirely clear).
But Eugenides does something so clever – or intuitive – and subtle that it’s never even mentioned when you read reviews or critiques.
The narrators are not protagonists. The narrators are the antagonists.
They’re sexual predators.
While they’re busy asking themselves what was wrong with the Lisbon girls, we should be asking ourselves what’s wrong with these boys and, potentially, boys. Period.
After all, they are as a narrator a multi-headed beast, the collective “we”. A Chimera.
What we’re convinced by the narrators is fascination with a family of beautiful girls is actually a lurid and dehumanizing sexual obsession. It’s a prolonged, concentrated, group violation on the sisters during a period of their sexual formation that slowly chips away at their sense of security, privacy, integrity, selfhood, sexuality, and identity – as all violation does – until their damage is so irrevocable that suicide is the only way they can escape the torture that’s described to us in such passionate and delighted terms. And like all sexual violence, the community shares blame by doing nothing about what’s going on. Boys will be boys, right?
Check out the first scene. Cecilia the Stoic is floating in the bloody water of the tub after having slit her wrists, with a laminated “picture of the Virgin Mary … held against her budding chest.” Spirituality and sexuality together are an important cue for what we’re about to experience; they are not just dichotomies which, taken to extremes, are devastating, they are also inextricable binaries that bleed into one another. Repression and profligacy, denial and dogma. The boys and the Lisbon parents play out this drama in tandem, trapping the girls, squeezing the humanity and life out of them from both ends.
Every single detail matters symbolically to the story, even the fact that the picture is laminated.
By linking this imagery, Eugenides is already revealing the terrible source of the sisters’ pain, and by using the term Stoic (as opposed to stoic) right off the bat he’s instructing us to not look at the story based on what we are told, but by what we witness of the players’ behaviors. That’s what Stoicism is, and it’s an important revelation to place right there at the beginning.
The story is so richly written that there’s hardly a thing a reader dares ignore – even Mary in her bedroom window, captured in a real estate photo looking as if her hair were on fire like Lavinia standing at the sacrificial altar from the Aeneid.
(Oh dear fellow writers, this is why you must know your legends and mythologies and biblical accounts! Details like this make you want to snatch Eugenides by his soul patch and kiss him straight on the … forehead? Forehead. I wouldn’t take any liberties, after all.)
The boys’ focus on the girls is expressed with a robust enthusiasm that makes the reader lose sight of what’s actually happening.
Now, instead of teenage boys, let’s exchange the narrators for a group of neighbourhood men and see how it would make any woman feel.
They watch the house, look into the windows. They know intimately the Lisbons’ comings and goings. They watch them from their own homes. The girls are their masturbatory aids.
When one of the boys is invited to dinner, the entire experience is framed through the narrators’ sexualized interpretation. If the girls are kicking him under the table, it isn’t just youthful goofing around. It’s sexual. It’s arousing. When the boy goes upstairs to use the bathroom he violates their privacy and sanctity by making a creepily detailed inventory of their rooms (the bra hanging on the crucifix reinforces the spirituality/sexuality binary) and the contents of the bathroom, right down to the shade of lipstick they are able to match to its owner when they spy on her later. Which is disturbingly specific. He digs into the trash and finds a used tampon – something the narrators sickeningly find titillating, like the handkerchiefs dipped in blood after an execution and kept as a souvenir.
One of the boys crawls through the sewage system to break into the house with the intention of watching them shower and to spy on them in their most intimate moments. When he hears water running he enters the bathroom without hesitation . He’s on the hunt, that’s what he’s there for. There is no question of his entitlement in this act.
Imagine someone doing that to your home, your private, personal space invaded by someone who is willing to permanently cripple your sense of safety, privacy, and feelings, just so he can watch you shower. It’s so rapey it should send chills down the readers’ spines. But it doesn’t. Like all other aspects of rape culture, even in its infancy stage (which this novel perfectly illustrates) our only response has always been going blind, deaf, and mute in its presence.
So the boy walks in on the opening scene of the book – Cecilia naked in the bath, covered in blood from her slit wrists.
Now, by this time the boys have been watching and sexually abusing the girls for quite a long time. This is not a new development. There’s no way the family – or at least the girls – would be unaware of the lewd interest always directed at them.The boys have opened their pants and exposed themselves to Cecilia. They have looked up her dress. Transgression is their norm. It’s our norm.
After the funeral – of a thirteen year old girl – another boy admits he “would have copped a last feel … if only [the others] had been there to appreciate it.” They enlist a neighbourhood girl to take inventory of Cecilia’s bedroom post-suicide, even checking to see if the sheets have been cleaned, what’s in her underwear drawers.
Even in these moments of finality, the narrators’ prey is denied her own space, sanctity, dignity, and peace.
They further impinge on her right to respect by getting hold of her diary, stolen by a plumber’s assistant, and pass it around, fingering it like porn instead of returning it to the family. Even the sisters’ medical records are later breached as the boys grow up and research every aspect of their lives in their increasing fetishization.
The high school bad-boy, Trip Fontaine, later tells the boys he loved Lux like he’d never known love before or since, that it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Yet he pursues her relentlessly until she finally finds herself on the football field on prom night losing her virginity to him. She awakens there in the morning alone. Despite his claim that he never loved anyone the way he loved Lux, he abandons her after sex and discards her there on the field like a used condom, then never speaks to her again – or even sees her.
Stoic. We must look at the actions, not the words.
On and on it goes, a portrait of boys so secure in their romanticized depravity and their right to it that even we the readers grow too fascinated by the Lisbon girls to really notice much more than a faint cringiness as we’re reading.
Violation is the norm. The knife-sharpener delivers a fifteen minute demonstration just to leer at fourteen-year-old Lux sunbathing in a bikini. Fourteen.
Each of the girls is a casualty of these experiences. Set up against the increasing repression and break-down of their parents, they react in ways that any rape or sexual assault victim – or any therapist – will agree are credible: depersonalizing, disengaging, becoming hypersexual, disappearing into faith or mysticism.
With each progressive assault on their privacy, burgeoning identity, and sexuality, the girls go from being normal, healthy, vibrant young women to depressed, disconnected, and suicidal.
None of this happens until the boys begin to essentially violate them – sexually or otherwise – on a continuous basis. The girls are their sexual fantasies and little else, a living, breathing pornography that requires no consent, and no humanity.
Is it any wonder the girls invite the boys over to return the violation: they use the boys’ blind lust to lure them to the house where each girl one by one commits suicide right under their noses. It’s the only way the sisters can regain their power as women and as human beings.
This is a story about a group of boys’ sexual awakening at someone else’s expense. When, finally, they ask themselves if they contributed to what happened, the only conclusion is no, they didn’t.
Of course not.
Look at the way those girls acted. Look at the way they dressed.
They weren’t just asking for it. They were begging …
Bravo, Eugenides. That was truly the loveliest trick of all. Your readers thank you.
Writers, how about it? Could you pull it off?