Critical analysis of Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones”
Alice Sebold’s number one national bestselling novel The Lovely Bones depicts the horrendous rape and murder of a small-town girl named Suzie Salmon. Suzie must then watch–from her own personal heaven—her family and friends struggle to cope and move on with their lives. The novel is set in the suburbs of Norristown, Pennsylvania, 1973. Published in 2002, The Lovely Bones became an instant bestseller, and in 2010 it was released into theaters around the world. Alice Sebold’s early years helped set the stage for her literary career. When Alice Sebold was a freshman at Syracuse University, she survived a brush with death herself.
On May 8, 1981, she was raped while walking home through a park off campus. Her attacker dragged her into a tunnel and brutally sodomized her. Sebold reported the crime to the police, but at the time they could not identify any suspects (“Alice Sebold” 108). Sebold returned to Syracuse after spending the summer with her parents.
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On October 5, 1981, Sebold was walking down a street near campus, and she recognized her rapist. Eventually, with the help of her family, she found the courage to help police identify her assailant and even took to the witness stand during his trial where he was convicted (“Alice Sebold” 108).
He received the maximum sentence. Several years after Sebold graduated from Syracuse, she moved to Manhattan, where she held several waitressing jobs. Sebold wanted to write her story through poetry, but neither poetry nor her attempts at writing a novel became reality. Sebold began writing the book that would become Lucky in New York. In its first drafts, the book was a fictionalized version of her rape and its aftermath. Sebold later turned the book into a memoir. After successfully finishing her memoir, Sebold continued to write The Lovely Bones, which was released in 2002.
In an interview conducted by Ann Darby of Publishers Weekly, Sebold said of The Lovely Bones: “I was motivated to write about violence because I believe it’s not unusual. I see it as just a part of life, and I think we get in trouble when we separate people who’ve experienced it from those who haven’t. Though it’s a horrible experience, it’s not as if violence hasn’t affected many of us” (Darby, Ann, and Jeff Zaleski 41). Sebold’s own life tragedy helped turn her into a number one national bestselling author. After finishing up Lucky and The Lovely Bones, Sebold turned her attention into writing her second novel.
Released in 2007 by Little, Brown and Company, The Almost Moon followed the same path as her first two literary works. The Almost Moon is about a young woman who murders her mother, and in the following hours recalls the memories that led to her decision. Alice Sebold now lives with her husband, Glen David Gold, in San Francisco. Sebold now looks upon The Lovely Bones as the novel that paved the way for her efficacious literary career. Many critical reviews have been published on The Lovely Bones, a few of which are written below. Paula L.
Woods, from the Los Angeles Times has only positive comments about Sebold’s work: “Sebold teaches us much about living and dying, holding on and letting go, as messy and imperfect and beautiful as the processes can be—and has created a novel that is painfully fine and accomplished, one which readers will have their own difficulties relinquishing, long after the last page is turned” (“What Readers and…” i). Woods is correct when she speaks of life and death; however, another major concept that Sebold teaches us is the “between”. The “between” is a huge part of The Lovely Bones.
The “between” is where Suzie spends most of the novel, and it is where she finds courage and the ability to accept the tragedy that she endured. Woods’s statement; overall, is short, sweet and to the point. However, it lacks real emotion and nearly gives the reader a summary of The Lovely Bones. Michiko Kakutani from the New York Times gives his own review of The Lovely Bones. He says it is: A keenly observed portrait of familial love and how it endures and changes over time…. A deeply affecting meditation on ways in which terrible pain and loss can be redeemed—slowly, grudgingly, and in fragments—through love and acceptance….
Ms. Sebold’s achievements: her ability to capture both the ordinary and the extraordinary, that banal and the horrific, in lyrical, unsentimental prose; her instinctive understanding of the mathematics of love between parents and children; her gift for making palpable the dreams, regrets and unstilled hopes of one girl and one family. (“What Readers and… ” ii) To put Kakutani’s review in one word would be spot-on correct. Kakutani somehow takes all of the messages, symbols and themes in The Lovely Bones and crams them into a short paragraph. Overall, Kakutani’s review was heartfelt and a
magnificent interpretation of The Lovely Bones. Karen Sandstrom from the Cleveland Plain Dealer speaks ignorantly of The Lovely Bones: She says, “Here is a writer who honors fiction’s primary gift—the infinity of possibilities—by following her imagination to wondrous and terrifying places” (“What Readers and…” ii). Had Ms. Karen Sandstrom done some background work on Alice Sebold, she would have discovered that Sebold was a rape victim. This knowledge would have pointed her in a new direction. This direction would have changed Sandstrom’s original review.
Considering that Sebold was a rape victim herself, she would not have had to “imagine” the tragedy and heartache that Suzie went through, since she experienced the horror for herself. In conclusion, Sandstrom’s review is weak, and it is obvious that she lacked proper knowledge of the author. After reviewing Alice Sebold’s life and the many critical commentaries on the literary worth of The Lovely Bones, the reader can clearly see that although it is premature in the world of literature, it will one day be thought of as a great work of art.
While a reader is analyzing The Lovely Bones he/she should pay careful attention to the major changes Susie goes through, the major themes represented in the novel, the uniquely represented literary techniques, and the authors style and structure of writing. All of the characters in The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold help create the overall message that the novel portrays. Throughout the novel Susie Salmon faces many difficult challenges that help her grow as a person and that ultimately lead to her to heaven. Alice Sebold opens up The Lovely Bones with Susie saying “My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie” (Sebold 5).
This statement is not only foreshadowing the death of Susie, it also helps the reader understand Susie’s frame of mind at the beginning of her journey. In the beginning of Sebold’s novel, Susie is stuck reminiscing on her past life she has an immense desire to be a part of the living world. While Susie is talking to Franny, her intake counselor, she says; “People grow up by living. I want to live” (Sebold 19). Susie continually has the desire to be among the living, but as the years slide by and Susie watches her family grow, grieve and live she slowly starts to accept the fact that she will never be among the living again.
Susie grows mentally throughout the novel; however, her emotional growth lay dormant until Susie hits a turning point. The major turning point for Susie’s character is the moment of her temporary resurrection. Ruth allows Susie to use her body. Susie then does the one thing she has been reminiscing about in heaven, loving Ray Singh. After Susie has made love to Ray she says; “I had taken this time to love instead—in love with the sort of helplessness I had not felt in death—the helplessness of being alive, the dark bright pity of being human” (Sebold 309).
Here, Susie has been able to feel what she has so long been yearning; she has the chance to feel what it’s like to live again. Susie is then pulled back into the non-physical world, and for once she is happy. As the novel comes to an end Susie is sitting in her heaven looking down onto earth, she sees everything she has left behind, and happiness and love fill her heart. She ends the novel with this wishful phrase; “I wish you all a long and happy life” (Sebold 328). From this point on, although the novel has ended, the reader can postulate that Susie is with her grandmother in the deeper part of heaven.
Overall, Susie’s character embarks on a major change, at the beginning of the novel Susie is a young girl afraid of death and petrified of her murderer; however, by the end of the novel, the reader will be able to see a much more mature and brave Susie. The theme in a novel is used to help the reader understand the overall message of the novel. The Lovely Bones is filled with many themes that help shape the dreary yet sad novel. The major theme represented is grief. Grief is apparent from the very beginning of the novel and becomes even more apparent as the novel progresses.
For every character in The Lovely Bones the grieving process differs. Jack, Susie’s father wants to revenge Susie death by finding her murderer. He becomes so obsessed with loving Susie that he often has to remind himself to give his love to the living. Susie’s mother, Abigail does not want to face Susie’s death and instead pulls away from her family and retreats into herself. Buckley, Susie’s younger brother wants to be let in on the secret of Susie’s death, and when he is, he allows himself to miss her and to honor her. Susie’s younger sister, Lindsey wants to live away from the shadow of Susie.
Susie’s family is torn apart in their own separate grieving, but they are able to come back together in the end as a whole. Susie observes her family throughout their grieving processes; ““I watched my beautiful sister running . . . and I knew she was not running away from me or toward me. Like someone who has survived a gut-shot, the wound had been closing, closing – braiding into a scar for eight long years” (Sebold 242). In this excerpt, Susie watches as her sister finally reaches a point where her pain will soon be healed.
In the end of the novel, Susie notes the formation of new connections. She refers to them as “… 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” (Sebold 320). These connections allowed her family and friends to survive the grief of losing her. Interestingly, Susie is also able to “survive” her grief at being taken out of the human world and missing her family. By leaving her family in the end, Susie leaves them to live their lives and to move on from her death.
Altogether, the major theme of grief in The Lovely Bones is represented thoroughly throughout the three-hundred-and-twenty page novel. Literary techniques play an important part in the overall shaping of a novel. The most uniquely represented literary technique in The Lovely Bones is embodied in the symbols of Susie’s photographs. There are many different photographs in the novel, but each picture carries a deeper meaning. The most iconic photograph in the novel is the photo that Susie took of Abigail one morning.
In the photograph that Susie takes of Abigail as she looks out over the lawn, before the family is awake, Susie sees her mother as the true Abigail, who she thinks of as the mother-stranger. The camera has the ability to capture the moment when Abigail is her true self. For each person who sees the picture of Abigail, they have a different reaction. After Susie’s death, Jack Salmon develops some of the other rolls of film and finds photographs of Abigail “putting on her mask” as he comes home from work. The mask of motherhood and marriage disguises the real Abigail, and is most visible in the photographs Susie took of her.
Another iconic photograph is Susie’s school picture. Len Fenerman keeps a copy of the photo in his wallet as an unsolved case; Abigail keeps a copy in her wallet that she rarely looks at; and Ray keeps a copy that he buries in a volume of Indian poetry, only to discover it again when he goes to college. The photograph has a different meaning for every character. To Len the photo represents his failure at discovering Susie’s killer, and in the end he writes “gone” (Sebold 258) on the back indicating his acceptance that the dead are no longer with them.
For Abigail, Susie is her first daughter and the one who originally made her a mother; the picture makes her feel as though she was punished for not wanting Susie. In the end Abigail leaves the portrait at the airport, symbolizing her transition out of the trauma of Susie’s death. For Ray, Susie’s picture is an image of the girl that he first loved. As the novel progresses forward, the characters that possess the portrait change their reading of it, signifying their ability to move on from the trauma and grief of Susie’s death. Another unique literary technique used in The Lovely Bones is the novel’s point-of-view.
The entire novel is seen through Susie’s eyes, thus the novel is told from a first person point-of-view. This is a useful plot device because there are never any questions for Susie about what is going on in the world of the living. Since Susie is dead and watching from the between, the reader has access to all of the other character thoughts and actions. The difference between Susie’s narration and the narration of the usual third person narrator is that Susie plays a key role in the plot; her murder is the main conflict of the novel, and the way the living characters come to terms with her loss is the primary theme of the novel.
This point-of-view is exceptionally helpful in showing the theme of grief in the novel. If The Lovely Bones had been told from a different point-of-view the theme would be less obvious, and the reader would lose the novel’s dreary and traumatic sensory details. Overall, The Lovely Bones is filled with many literary techniques that help the reader understand how Susie see’s the world around her. An author’s style of writing is what sets his or her writing apart and makes it unique. Alice Sebold shows her easy-to-follow style and structure of writing throughout The Lovely Bones.
Sebold’s writing style is very strong. She makes great use of descriptive energy. The way Sebold paints portraits with her words is truly mesmerizing. The following is an example: “I loved the way the burned-out flashcubes of the Kodak Instamatic marked a moment that had massed, one that would now be gone forever except for a picture. When they were spent, I took the cubed four-corner flashbulbs and passed them from hand to hand until they cooled. The broken filaments of the flash would turn a molten marble blue or sometimes smoke the thin glass black. I had rescued the moment by using my
camera and in that way had found a way to stop time and hold it. No one could take that image away from me because I owned it” (Sebold 163). Sebold uses many sensory details in The Lovely Bones, not just sight, but also smell, taste, sound, and touch. She uses these details to give the reader the sense that he/she is “there” when the story or poem takes place. Sebold’s vivid use of imagery is especially helpful in portraying the tone of the other characters. With such descriptive imagery, the reader is forced to focus in on the different personalities of the characters.
In turn, this helps the reader when comparing how the different characters cope with Susie’s tragic death. The order in which a novel is told is vastly important. The novel begins on December 6, 1963 and ends around the early nineteen-eighties. The Lovely Bones is written in chronological order with flashbacks in between. However, these flashbacks do not give the reader headaches like most novels do. These trips back in time are insightful, necessary, and valuable to the reader. They help to keep Sebold’s novel in- check. Abigail did not have an affair with Detective Len Fenerman because she felt like it.
A flashback shows that Jack and Abigail had once been in a flourishing marriage. Flashbacks like these give information that would otherwise be lost and enable the reader to understand plot elements in the present. In total, the imagery used and the order in which the story is told are both factors that help make The Lovely Bones a great piece of literature. In whole, The Lovely Bones is filled with many literary devices. The Lovely Bones is “destined to be a classic along the lines of To Kill a Mockingbird, and it’s one of the best books I’ve read in years—The New York Times” (“What Readers and…” ii).
The ups-and-downs Susie faces are what make the novel inspiring to people of all sorts, the theme of grief is universal among all of the characters, the literary techniques presented are truly Sebold original, and the author’s style and structure of writing are what make The Lovely Bones easy to follow. All of these different literary devices contribute greatly to the masterpiece that is The Lovely Bones. The novel will forever live on and be remembered among the works of the great.