The opening chapters of Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones depict a graphic and despicable act of violence. Mr. George Harvey, who lives across the street from the Salmon family, is a killer of girls and women, and he has selected fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon as his next victim. One evening, as Susie walks home from school through a cornfield, Mr. Harvey lures Susie into an underground structure he has built, describing it to her in alluring terms as a kind of hiding place or clubhouse for neighborhood kids. There, he rapes and murders her, and then dismembers her and locks the pieces of her body in a safe. He deposits the safe into a sinkhole on the edge of town, commonly used by the residents of Norristown to dispose of old appliances and pieces of furniture. The injustice of this horrible crime begins to seem impossible to remedy as the local police assigned to Susie’s case flounder in their investigation; it appears as if Susie’s murder will never be solved, and justice will never be served. As the novel progresses, Susie—narrating from beyond the grave—learns that she is not George Harvey’s only victim. He has killed many girls and women, and their murders too have gone unsolved for years. In the end, even though Susie’s sister Lindsey, her father Jack, and later the police force discover George Harvey’s guilt, Harvey evades capture by fleeing Norristown, leaving Susie’s family and Susie herself without any sense that justice has been served. Ultimately a kind of cosmic justice is indeed served when Harvey is killed by a falling icicle, but Susie’s family remains unaware of Harvey’s death, and is left to find a sense of closure in the absence of legal justice. Through her novel, Sebold—a victim of sexual violence herself—suggests that perhaps legal, procedural justice provides a false comfort, and that the only true balm against the humiliating injustice of such violent crimes is the healing that comes from within.
Jack Salmon is distraught after his daughter’s death, but despite strenuous efforts he is initially unable to uncover anything that might help the investigation bring her killer to justice. After an afternoon spent with Mr. Harvey, whom Jack saw constructing a strange edifice in the yard, Jack becomes convinced that Harvey knows something about Susie’s death. Indeed, the structure Jack saw Harvey building was, Harvey privately admits, a ceremonial bridal tent, but Harvey insists that Jack is simply mad with grief. Jack’s desire to bring Harvey to justice burns like an ember beneath the rest of Jack’s life, and it begins to overwhelm and consume him. Later, Jack visits the Singhs’ house in order to meet with Susie’s high school sweetheart Ray and apologize for the fact that Ray was considered a suspect in the early days of Susie’s disappearance. While talking with Ray’s mother, Ruana, Jack divulges his suspicions about Harvey after having had them dismissed by the detective in charge of Susie’s case, Len Fenerman. Ruana tells Jack that, if she were him, once she was “sure, [she] would find a quiet way and kill [Harvey.]” One night, while watching the street from his window, Jack sees a light moving towards the cornfield and believes it is Harvey, out on a walk. Jack takes a baseball bat from the hall closet and, with Ruana’s words echoing in his ears, follows the light out to the cornfield. When he encounters the person he believes to be Harvey, he threatens to “finish” him—only to realize that the person he has followed is Susie’s friend from school, Clarissa, who has come to the cornfield to meet her boyfriend, Brian Nelson. Believing, in a moment of madness, that Clarissa is actually Susie, Jack runs toward her, prompting Brian to tackle and beat Jack. Susie, watching the scene from heaven, turns away from the violence, wishing that her poor father would “go away and leave [her] be.” In this sequence of events, Sebold fuels her argument by coming at it from the other side—suggesting that sometimes the search for justice is both violent and futile, and only ends up creating more pain for those who seek relief.
George Harvey dies in a manner both unremarkable and seemingly fated. While on the run from Norristown, he attempts to cajole a woman he encounters at a bus station into a conversation, asking if she is “traveling alone.” The woman calls Harvey a “creep” and walks away, and shortly after she does, Harvey is struck by an icicle hanging overhead. He stumbles forward into a ravine in front of the station. According to Susie, it takes “weeks” before the snow melts and his body is found. Harvey’s death may appear to be a kind of justice brought down from on high—and Sebold purposefully leaves this open as one way of interpreting Harvey’s death. Although Susie does not make any mention of her direct involvement in the icicle incident, earlier in the book she admits to “always [choosing] the icicle” when she and her friends in heaven play a game called “How to Commit the Perfect Murder.” Thus, Susie’s death appears to have been avenged, but whether by chance or by divine intervention remains unknown. Susie does not linger on her description of Harvey’s death, and offers no emotional or analytical commentary: she simply moves on to talking lovingly of her sister, Lindsey. Justice has found Harvey, but this fact is delivered in way that makes it feel like almost a footnote to the action of the novel. By this point in the novel, justice is far from the minds of the characters, who have come to accept what happened to Susie and chosen to honor and remember her rather than languish in the injustice of her death.
Justice is a nebulous concept in The Lovely Bones. The pursuit of justice as a kind of revenge or punishment is shown to be dangerous and even self-destructive. Ultimately, fate intervenes on Susie’s behalf, suggesting that the universe takes its natural course and doles out its own kind of justice. Thus, all the strife and anger involved in seeking justice are shown to have been in vain. The book shows that while the justice system may give a feeling of closure, it cannot replace the necessary process of healing by coming to terms with injustice in one’s own time and on one’s own terms.
Justice and Injustice ThemeTracker
Justice and Injustice Quotes in The Lovely Bones
My murderer was a man from our neighborhood. My mother liked his border flowers, and my father talked to him once about fertilizer. My murderer believed in old-fashioned things like eggshells and coffee grounds, which he said his own mother had used. My father came home smiling, making jokes about how the man's garden might be beautiful but it would stink to high heaven once a heat wave hit.
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.
My neighbors and teachers, friends and family, circled an arbitrary spot not far from where I'd been killed. My father, sister and brother heard the singing again once they were outside. Everything in my father leaned and pitched toward the warmth and light. He wanted so badly to have me remembered in the minds and hearts of everyone. I knew something as I watched: almost everyone was saying goodbye to me. I was becoming one of many little-girl-losts. They would go back to their homes and put me to rest, a letter from the past never reopened or reread.
[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.
When her father mentioned the sinkhole on the phone, Ruth was in the walk-in closet that she rented on First Avenue. She twirled the phone's long black cord around her wrist and arm and gave short, clipped answers of acknowledgment. The old woman that rented her the closet liked to listen in, so Ruth tried not to talk much on the phone. Later, from the street, she would call home collect and plan a visit. She had known she would make a pilgrimage to see it before the developers closed it up. Her fascination with places like the sinkhole was a secret she kept, as was my murder and our meeting in the faculty parking lot.
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?
At some point, to counter the list of the dead, I had begun keeping my own list of the living. It was something I noticed Len Fenerman did too. When he was off duty he would note the young girls and elderly women and every other female in the rainbow in between and count them among the things that sustained him. That young girl in the mall whose pale legs had grown too long for her now-too-young dress and who had an aching vulnerability that went straight to both Len's and my own heart. Elderly women, wobbling with walkers, who insisted on dyeing their hair unnatural versions of the colors they had in youth. Middle-aged single mothers racing around in grocery stores while their children pulled bags of candy off the shelves. When I saw them, I took count. Living, breathing women. Sometimes I saw the wounded—those who had been beaten by husbands or raped by strangers, children raped by their fathers—and I would wish to intervene somehow.
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.
And there she was again, alone and walking out in the cornfield while everyone else I cared for sat together in one room. She would always feel me and think of me. I could see that, but there was no longer anything I could do. Ruth had been a girl haunted and now she would be a woman haunted. First by accident and now by choice. All of it, the story of my life and death, was hers if she chose to tell it, even to one person at a time.
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.