Susie Salmon’s unjust and tragic death sends a shockwave through her quaint and quiet hometown of Norristown, PA. In its wake, divisions rip through the community, and the Salmon family in particular becomes isolated from their friends and neighbors as the investigation into Susie’s murder drags on. As Sebold examines the alienating effects of grief and loss, she argues that suffering a tragedy is deeply isolating. The tragedy Susie endures tears her away from the earth and her loved ones, forcing her to inhabit a lonely and imperfect heaven and watch as her family suffers, grieves, and ultimately alienates themselves not just from their community, but also from one another. Sebold argues that tragedy and alienation are a kind of vicious cycle, as isolation begets tragedy, and tragedy in turn engenders further alienation. Through examining the motivations behind her characters’ often-deliberate attempts to seclude themselves from one another, Sebold shows how this cycle feeds on itself and spins on endlessly through the years—and how perhaps nothing but time can inspire the distance needed to break the cycle.
Mr. Harvey, Susie’s rapist and murderer, is a solitary and strange figure in the neighborhood. He explains away his solitude—both physical and emotional—by telling his neighbors that he is a childless widower. In fact, he has been alone all his life, moving from place to place and killing girls and women everywhere he goes. Mr. Harvey is also a dollhouse maker—an odd hobby, but a harmless one. The houses Harvey builds are ornate and beautiful, but empty. He sells his dollhouses to local stores, and never sees them full of dolls or furniture, or used as instruments of play and joy. The dollhouses represent Harvey’s ever-spiraling inward isolation.
Abigail and Jack, Susie’s parents, are of course the ones most devastated by their daughter’s death. The different ways in which they deal with their grief create a distance between them, which grows until it has become unbridgeable. After embarking upon a doomed affair with Len Fenerman—the detective in charge of Susie’s murder investigation—Abigail absconds to California, where she purposefully isolates herself, taking an anonymous job in a winery, severing nearly all contact with her family, and writing only occasional postcards to the children. Her betrayal is especially felt by Lindsey—whom Abigail had promised she would never leave.
When Susie is on her way up to heaven, she “passes by” her high school classmate Ruth Connors. Ruth feels Susie’s presence, and though she attempts to explain it to her parents, they think she is just being dramatic. The isolation Ruth feels in the wake of having borne witness to Susie’s departure from Earth is profound, and it changes the course of Ruth’s entire life—event though Ruth had very little emotional connection with Susie while Susie was alive. Ruth had already been a loner, but the alienation that Susie’s tragedy adds to her life forces her onto a new trajectory. Ruth, who has a supernatural sensitivity to places charged with the energy of the dead, begins using her gift to compile a list of murdered women, primarily in New York City, where she moves after graduating high school and leaving Norristown. Ruth is yet another accidental but serious casualty of the tragedy of Susie’s death.
Susie, too, is isolated in her “perfect world” of heaven. Her physical isolation in her own section of heaven is a metaphor for the emotional isolation and alienation which her rape and murder forced upon her. Susie has been through something tragic and terrible—something that no one on earth can understand. In heaven, Susie is understood and is ostensibly free—but this freedom comes at the price of her ability to connect with those still on Earth.
Through her complicated and flawed characters, Sebold demonstrates the harmful cycle of tragedy, grief, alienation, and isolation, which prevents many of the characters from connecting, healing, and growing for many years of their lives. By the end of the novel, however, Susie, having watched her friends, family, and community struggle to come to terms with her murder—and the emotional repercussions it has had back on Earth—seems to feel less alienated; her family, too, has reluctantly and painstakingly managed to move on. Susie accepts the fact that she now exists only in her family’s memories, and though this seems as if it would isolate her even further, she seems to have gained a wider understanding of the inescapable cycle of tragedy and isolation that can grab hold of families and communities and refuse to let go. Rather than look for ways in which this cycle can be perpetuated, Susie chooses to accept the fact of her death and move on, just as her family has—she ends the novel by wishing her reader a “long and happy life,” thus closing the loop.
Tragedy, Grief, Alienation, and Isolation ThemeTracker
Tragedy, Grief, Alienation, and Isolation 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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 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.