The characters in The Lovely Bones are defined by their desires: Susie, from heaven, longs for her family and friends back on earth, while Susie’s family longs for their beloved daughter and sister; Abigail longs for Len, while Jack longs for Abigail; even Mr. Harvey is filled with a dark, evil, insatiable longing for connection and for dominance. In her exploration of the different kinds of desire and longing—for truth, for home, and for other people—Sebold ultimately suggests that desire can drive people to act on their worst and darkest impulses. Meanwhile, she shows how pursuing these impulses often leaves desire unfulfilled, as raw and needful as ever. Longing and desire in this novel are occasionally destructive forces—but more than anything, they are merely disruptive, serving to lead characters who allow themselves to be controlled by their own desire down unlikely, unpredictable paths.
In the wake of Susie’s disappearance, everyone around her wants to know the truth—however horrible it may be—of what has happened to her. By the time it becomes clear that Susie is never coming home (that is, after a neighbor’s dog finds a piece of Susie’s elbow in a nearby field) the longing for truth has reached a fever pitch. As the investigation of Susie’s disappearance morphs into an investigation of her murder, some characters experience an intensification of their longing for truth—a longing which carries them through the years—while others experience a diminishment of that longing, and resign themselves to the fact that Susie’s death may never be solved, and her killer may never be brought to justice. Jack Salmon, Susie’s father, and Lindsey Salmon, Susie’s younger sister, both become convinced—rightly so, though no one believes them—that George Harvey is responsible for Susie’s murder. Their desire to bring him to justice puts both of them in danger. Jack lands in the hospital after his suspicion leads him one night into the cornfield where Susie was murdered, and, later, Lindsey breaks into George Harvey’s house, where he spots her jumping from a second-story window to escape with the evidence she has found: a sketch of the underground structure Harvey built in the cornfield. Thus, characters are led into danger by their desire to uncover the truth.
Longing for connection with another is also a major thematic preoccupation of the novel. The barrier separating heaven and earth mirrors the barriers between human hearts, minds, and souls, which often prevent connection and intimacy. As Susie strains to peer down through the barrier between her new life and her old one, she observes, in miniature, the everyday straining for love, affection, and connection between the people she has left behind on earth—especially that which occurs in the wake of the tragedy of her very own death. Ruth Connors longs for connection to the world beyond earth. Gifted with a kind of clairvoyance, or an extreme sensitivity to the presence of departed souls, she longs to dwell in their world rather than her own, having faced rejection and judgment for being different all her life. Ruth moves to New York City, where she knows no one and lives in a walk-in closet that she rents from an older woman. She spends her days walking the streets of the city, waiting to experience a connection with a lost soul, and recording the stories of murdered women in poem form in a notebook that she never lets out of her sight. Mr. Harvey is motivated by a dark and twisted desire for connection through possession of his mostly pre-pubescent female victims. He is an example of the darkest possible side of desire at work. As Harvey claims victim after victim, he surrenders again and again to the longing that has haunted him all his life, and which drives him to commit heinous and strikingly violent yet carefully planned acts of rape and murder. Abigail’s longing for connection—which is tied to her longing to soothe the pain of her daughter’s loss—motivates her to pursue an affair with Len Fenerman, despite knowing the disastrous effects it might have on her and her family. Desire leads the novel’s characters into the murky, dangerous, and in some cases, deeply immoral territory of trespassing, adultery, and violence. By showing her characters acting carelessly or dangerously in the name of their desires, Sebold reinforces her argument about the disruptive—and often destructive--power of longing.
Susie’s own longing is of a different sort from the rest of the characters in the novel, since in heaven anything she desires is brought to her promptly. The one thing that cannot be granted to her, however, is passage back to earth, or the ability to will her family up to heaven to live alongside her. Though Susie’s more banal longings are fulfilled by the mysterious laws of heaven, her deeper, more emotional longings remain unfulfilled. When her father is hospitalized with a heart attack, Susie’s desire to have her father with her again leads her to hope ardently for his death, though she knows it will end his time on earth and separate him from the rest of the Salmon family—including Abigail, who has returned to Norristown at the news of his illness. Towards the end of the novel, in a moment of fate, chance, and intense longing, Susie is able to switch places with Ruth, whose body she inhabits while Ruth travels up to heaven to receive recognition for her tireless work on behalf of murdered women and children. This moment seems to support the idea that, contrary to the broader pattern of the novel, risky actions taken in the fulfilment of one’s desire can work out for the best. However, it is worth noting that, after returning to heaven from her visit to earth, Susie continues to longingly watch the lives of Ray, Ruth, and her family. Her longing to be with them has not been fulfilled by just one encounter.
As the characters in The Lovely Bones navigate the landscapes of their longing, they are driven to actions that are dark and devious more often than they are driven to act in ways that are pure and rooted in goodwill. Longing and desire are powerful, and can be disruptive and destructive motivating forces, and as Sebold’s characters are driven forward by the engine of their desire, they stumble into their basest selves and make decisions which put them at odds with their former selves and the world around them. Through this theme, Sebold shows how desire has the power to alter the course of one’s life completely and irrevocably, and suggests that though they are unavoidable parts of life, longing and desire are more often than not destructive forces rather than redemptive ones.
Desire and Longing ThemeTracker
Desire and Longing Quotes in The Lovely Bones
Inside the snow globe on my father’s desk, there was a penguin wearing a red-and-white-striped scarf. When I was little my father would pull me into his lap and reach for the snow globe. He would turn it over, letting all the snow collect on the top, then quickly invert it. The two of us watched the snow fall gently around the penguin. The penguin was alone in there, I thought, and I worried for him. When I told my father this, he said, "Don't worry Susie; he has a nice life. He's trapped in a perfect world."
Eventually I began to desire more. What I found strange was how much I desired to know what I had not known on Earth. I wanted to be allowed to grow up.
"People grow up by living," I said to Franny. "I want to live."
"That's out," she said.
"Can we at least watch the living?" asked Holly.
"You already do," she said.
"I think she means whole lives," I said, "from beginning to end, to see how they did it. To know the secrets. Then we can pretend better."
"You won't experience it," Franny clarified.
"Thank you, Brain Central," I said, but our heavens began to grow.
When the roll came back from the Kodak plant in a special heavy envelope, I could see the difference immediately. There was only one picture in which my mother was Abigail. It was that first one, the one taken of her unawares, the one captured before the click startled her into the mother of the birthday girl, owner of the happy dog, wife to the loving man, and mother again to another girl and a cherished boy. Homemaker. Gardener. Sunny neighbor. My mother's eyes were oceans, and inside them there was loss. I thought I had my whole life to understand them, but that was the only day I had. Once upon Earth I saw her as Abigail, and then I let it slip effortlessly back, my fascination held in check by wanting her to be that mother and envelop me as that mother.
The bottles, all of them, lay broken on the floor, the sails and boat bodies strewn among them. He stood in the wreckage. It was then that, without knowing how, I revealed myself. In every piece of glass, in every shard and sliver, I cast my face. My father glanced down and around him, his eyes roving across the room. Wild. It was just for a second, and then I was gone. He was quiet for a moment, and then he laughed—a howl coming up from the bottom of his stomach. He laughed so loud and deep, I shook with it in my heaven.
I did begin to wonder what the word heaven meant. I thought, if this were heaven, truly heaven, it would be where my grandparents lived. Where my father's father, my favorite of them all, would lift me up and dance with me. I would feel only joy and have no memory, no cornfield and no grave.
"You can have that," Franny said to me. "Plenty of people do."
"How do you make the switch?" I asked.
"It's not as easy as you might think," she said. "You have to stop desiring certain answers."
"I don't get it."
"If you stop asking why you were killed instead of someone else, stop investigating the vacuum left by your loss, stop wondering what everyone left on Earth is feeling," she said, "you can be free. Simply put, you have to give up on Earth."
This seemed impossible to me.
Under a rowboat that was too old and worn to float, Lindsey lay down on the earth with Samuel Heckler, and he held her. Samuel's back was flush against the ground, and he brought my sister close in to his body to protect her from the dampness of the quick summer rain. Their breath began to heat the small space beneath the boat, and he could not stop it—his penis stiffened inside his jeans.
Lindsey reached her hand over.
"I'm sorry…” He began.
"I'm ready," my sister said.
At fourteen, my sister sailed away from me into a place I'd never been. In the walls of my sex there was horror and blood, in the walls of hers there were windows.
And I watched that flat red mouth move across an invisible line that separated her from the rest of the world. She pulled Len in and kissed him on the mouth. He seemed to hesitate at first. His body tensed, telling him NO, but that NO became vague and cloudy, became air sucked into the intake fan of the humming hydrant beside them. She reached up and unbuttoned her raincoat. He placed his hand against the thin gauzy material of her summer gown… I knew what was happening. Her rage, her loss, her despair. The whole life lost tumbling out in an arc on that roof, clogging up her being. She needed Len to drive the dead daughter out. He pushed her back into the stucco surface of the wall as they kissed, and my mother held on to him as if on the other side of his kiss there could be a new life.
[Ruth] had become convinced that she had a second sight that no one else had. She didn’t know what she would do with it, save taking copious notes for the future, but she had grown unafraid. The world she saw of dead women and children had become as real to her as the world in which she lived.
Years passed. The trees in our yard grew taller. I watched my family and my friends and neighbors, the teachers whom I'd had or imagined having, the high school I had dreamed about. As I sat in the gazebo I would pretend instead that I was sitting on the topmost branch of the maple under which my brother had swallowed a stick and still played hide-and-seek with Nate, or I would perch on the railing of a stairwell in New York and wait for Ruth to pass near. I would study with Ray. Drive the Pacific Coast Highway on a warm afternoon of salty air with my mother. But I would end each day with my father in his den. I would lay these photographs down in my mind, those gathered from my constant watching, and I could trace how one thing—my death—connected these images to a single source. No one could have predicted how my loss would change small moments on Earth. But I held on to those moments, hoarded them. None of them were lost as long as I was there watching.
At twenty-one Lindsey was many things I would never become, but I barely grieved this list anymore. Still, I roved where she roved. I collected my college diploma and rode on the back of Samuel's bike, clinging on to him with my arms wrapped around his waist, pressing into his back for warmth . . .
Okay, it was Lindsey. I realized that. But in watching her I found I could get lost more than with anyone else.
Above his bed the clock ticked off the minutes and I thought of the game Lindsey and I had played in the yard together: "he loves me/he loves me not" picked out on a daisy's petals. I could hear the clock casting my own two greatest wishes back to me in this same rhythm: "Die for me/don't die for me, die for me/don't die for me." I could not help myself, it seemed, as I tore at his weakening heart. If he died, I would have him forever. Was this so wrong to want?
On the flight to Philadelphia, she sat alone in the middle of a row of three seats. She could not help but think of how, if she were a mother traveling, there would be two seats filled beside her. One for Lindsey. One for Buckley. But though she was, by definition, a mother, she had at some point ceased to be one too. She couldn't claim that right and privilege after missing more than half a decade of their lives. She now knew that being a mother was a calling, something plenty of young girls dreamed of being. But my mother had never had that dream, and she had been punished in the most horrible and unimaginable way for never having wanted me. I watched her on the plane, and I sent a wish into the clouds for her release. Her body grew heavy with the dread of what would come but in this heaviness was at least relief. The stewardess handed her a small blue pillow and for a little while she fell asleep.
While he scanned the windows of my old house and wondered where the other members of my family were—whether my father's leg still made him hobble—I saw the final vestiges of the animals and the women taking leave of Mr. Harvey’s house. They struggled forward together. He knew he could not outrace them. He sat in his car and prepared the last vestiges of the face he had been giving authorities for decades—the face of a bland man they might pity or despise but never blame. As the officer pulled alongside him, the women slipped in the [car] windows and the cats curled around his ankles.
As I watched my family sip champagne, I thought about how their lives trailed backward and forward from my death and then, I saw, as Samuel took the daring step of kissing Lindsey in a room full of family, became borne aloft away from it. These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence: the connections—sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent—that happened after I was gone. And I began to see things in a way that let me hold the world without me in it. The events that my death wrought were merely the bones of a body that would become whole at some unpredictable time in the future. The price of what I came to see as this miraculous body had been my life.
And in a small house five miles away was a man who held my mud-encrusted charm bracelet out to his wife.
"Look what I found at the old industrial park," he said. "A construction guy said they were bulldozing the whole lot. They're afraid of more sinkholes like that one that swallowed the cars."
His wife poured him some water from the sink as he fingered the tiny bike and the ballet shoe, the flower basket and the thimble. He held out the muddy bracelet as she set down his glass.
"This little girl's grown up by now," she said.
I wish you all a long and happy life.