How can limited character interaction create a lack of character development in a novel?

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Answered by: Sarah, An Expert in the Contemporary Literature - General Category
Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel The Virgin Suicides deals with themes that would seemingly thrive on character interaction, but instead works to prevent communication between characters, which has the effect of limiting the character development throughout the novel. While this creates an interesting and well-crafted tension, it may leave readers wanting more.

The novel is built upon the (non-)interaction of two major character groupings: the Lisbon sisters and the now-men that were and continue to be infatuated with them. However, Eugenides writes his novel in a sort of journalistic fashion; the story develops by way of factual (or not so factual) second-hand anecdotes supported by the objects and photos the narrators have collected. This form of story telling does not lend itself to character development, either of the boys or of the Lisbon girls. While Eugenides does use this tactic to expertly craft an uncomfortable tension in his novel, the lack of character development due to limited interaction with the characters was unsatisfying and made the novel less enjoyable for me as a reader.

As a writer, I understand what the author’s purpose was in writing his novel in this way. As an expression of the frustration that the boys feel into their adult lives at their unrequited infatuation with the sisters, this novel works well. However, I feel that if that was the author’s main focus that it could have been accomplished in a shorter piece. As an approximately 250-page novel, it could have benefited from some more concrete character interaction and development.

At the risk of sounding like a grad student teaching an intro class, my overriding impression of the writing in this piece is that there is a lot of “telling” and very little “showing,” which makes it boring in parts. So much of what we know about the girls is rattled off like facts: “The girls were thirteen . . . fourteen . . . fifteen . . . sixteen . . . and seventeen. They were short, round-buttocked in denim, with roundish cheeks” (p. 7). The most well-written part of the book came at the end when Lux unbuckles Chase Buell’s belt: “Her fingers saw their way and only once did something snag, at which point she shook her head like a musician missing an easy note. . . . and we heard the pants unsnap” (211 in my edition).

This whole section is beautiful, but what it accomplishes should have come earlier, and perhaps here we should have seen something new about Lux’s personality, not a confirmation of what we have already been told in the various second hand accounts of Lux’s promiscuity.

I suppose that what this part of the novel does for Lux’s character is to show the contrast between what she seems to be: the liveliest personality, the one least resigned to her fate, and what she really is: a helpless suicide with no intention of living on. In this case we do see some character development, or at least a development of the characters that the boys have created from these girls that they do not ever really know. However, as the reader, I already know from the beginning that Lux kills herself along with the rest of her sisters, so as the person reading the story, seeing this supposedly lively girl kill herself is more like witnessing the boys having a realization about a character, not having one myself.

The driving force behind The Virgin Suicides seems to be the tension created by the distance between the narrators and the subjects which makes me want to have a concrete interaction with one of these entities and to see them develop, but I did not feel like that happened in this novel. There are very few surprises; there was little growth of the characters, little that I found out that I did not already know from the beginning. If the book is about the Lisbon girls, it leaves me unsatisfied because I don’t get to see deeper into their characters or see them change.

If it is about the boys who tell the story, then it is equally unsatisfying because the entire point to their character is that they never get past their infatuation with the Lisbon sisters even into adulthood. They are reminded of imagined intimacies with the girls when they have actual intimacies with other women (p 166) and have created a shrine to the girls both symbolically in the telling of their story and literally in the collection of items relating to them in the boys’ tree house, in which they have gone to great measures to preserve and relive that year of their childhoods: “[they] still do not hear us, up here in the tree house, with our thinning hair and soft bellies, calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time” (249).

The fact that Eugenides ends his novel with these lines emphasizes what I perceive to be a lack of character development due to very little character interaction, and makes The Virgin Suicides read more like a long character sketch and less like a novel.

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