The Lovely Bones

Major Themes

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Loss / Physical and Psychological Absence

When Susie is killed her body is almost completely disposed of, save one elbow. Her family feels the physical loss of her body and the uncertainty of her death, making it difficult for them to mourn her loss. Her family members try to hold on to Susie's belongings to keep her physically with them, but in the end they realize that Susie lives in their memories rather than in objects. In the wake of Susie’s death, her mother grows farther away from the family and is psychologically distant from her children and husband. She eventually chooses to also physically remove herself from the home. She is the absent mother and the absent wife, and both Buckley and Jack feel this force tremendously. While Buckley steels himself against missing his mother, Jack falls in love with Abigail again while she is away.

Other characters that experience loss: George Harvey’s mother leaves his family when he is very young, and this has a lasting effect on him. Len Fenerman feels the absence of his wife, who committed suicide soon after they were married. Ruana Singh feels the physical and psychological absence of her husband, who has absorbed himself so deeply in his work that he is no longer available to her as a husband. As a counter to the absences felt throughout the novel, Ruth feels the presence of the dead all around her and seeks places where women and girls have been murdered—she feels a spiritual presence in their absence.

Isolation

Many of the characters in the novel are isolated from the rest of society. Susie is trapped in the “perfect world” of her heaven and is thus isolated from her living family and friends. Because she has the desire to watch her loved ones as they change and grow, she also is not able to be with her dead grandfather, who has moved on from watching the living. Susie tries to escape her isolation from Earth by continuously pushing on what she calls the “Inbetween” so she can still influence the world of the living. Susie’s immediate family members all isolate themselves in their grieving instead of discussing the loss of Susie openly; for example, each surviving family member goes into Susie’s old room alone to grieve her absence. Abigail in particular is portrayed as being alone because she has buried the true Abigail beneath the façade of motherhood. George Harvey is so peculiar that he purposely isolates himself from society, and people find him so strange that they do not usually take the time to associate with him; this allows him to lead a reclusive and secretive lifestyle. Ruth is also isolated, and is described as “haunted” because of her experience with Susie’s soul as she left the earth. For many of the characters, this isolation does not allow them room to grow or to recover from their grief. Ruth at first is haunted not by choice, but later chooses to continue her haunted lifestyle when she moves to New York. There she spends her free time seeking out places in the city where violence was committed against girls and women and she takes solace in her isolation. Mr. Harvey is unable to grow out of his isolation as well, but unlike Ruth, he is in a more stagnant place: he is stuck in a traumatic period in his childhood and does not take responsibility for the crimes he committed.

Guilt and Responsibility

When Susie goes missing, her parents feel tremendous guilt. Susie’s father bears the brunt of this guilt, because he feels he was not able to be there for his daughter when she needed him. Thus he feels responsible for finding her killer and avenging her death. Len Fenerman also feels guilt over the unsolved cases, including Susie’s case and his wife’s suicide. Len’s guilt escalates when he realizes he let Susie’s killer escape because was preoccupied with Abigail. Susie’s mother feels a different sort of guilt—she feels guilty for not wanting to be a mother and for wanting to forget about the murder rather than face it. Because Lindsey’s parents are locked into their own private grief and guilt, Lindsey feels she must take on the responsibility of parenting. She plays the roll of parent to both Buckley and to her father, who she treats as fragile. Ruth also feels the responsibility of ownership over Susie’s story, and to know about her life and her death.

This responsibility then extends to other victims of violence; Ruth feels she has the responsibility to acknowledge the places in New York where violence has been committed. In heaven, Susie also feels the responsibility to take care of her family by pushing past the Inbetween and giving them signs that she is watching them. When Susie sleeps with Ray via Ruth’s body, Susie passes on an awareness of the dead to Ray; she instills in him the belief that the dead are all around him and that not everything can be explained by science.

The Power of Photographs

Photographs pause time and capture one moment, and the truth of the image captured is not questioned. Throughout the novel, photographic images are a focus—particularly the pictures that Susie took of Abigail, and Susie’s school picture taken before her death. Susie's photos of Abigail serve to liberate her from her roles as mother and wife. 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. These photographs also have the power to elicit strong emotional responses from the character that views the photograph. There are other pictures that play some role in the story as well. However, there are no full family pictures, indicating a lack of cohesion in the Salmon family.

The other picture that plays an important role is Susie’s school portrait. 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. For Len, the photo represents his failure to deliver justice, and in the end he writes “gone” 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, and the first lips that he kissed. The photograph represents Susie’s absence from Ray and Abigail’s lives, and the absence of her body. As the novel goes on, the characters that possess the portrait change their reading of it, symbolizing their ability to move on from the trauma of Susie’s death.

Memory

Memory is vital to Susie and to the people she watches. They are important for Susie because her memories are all she has left of her own time on earth. The memories of others are also significant to Susie because in heaven she can see what the people on earth are thinking. For example, watching George Harvey’s memories of his mother gives her insight into his disrupted childhood and into the reasons he is a killer. She can also see that he makes an effort not to kill children by killing smaller animals. Susie knows she lives in the memories of the people who knew her. In heaven, she watches for the moments when people think of her and when they speak of her. After a while she realizes that she belongs in their memories and does not always need to be spoken about.

Construction and Destruction

There are a number of places that are constructed in the novel. The first is the underground room that George Harvey builds to kill Susie. In addition, Mr. Harvey makes dollhouses for a living. He also constructs a tent with Jack Salmon. Although Mr. Harvey enjoys construction, he also enjoys the act of destruction: he kills and destroys the bodies of small animals and of girls and women. The sinkhole where Mr. Harvey deposits Susie’s body is a physical manifestation of this theme; it is the “mouth” and “throat” of the earth and can swallow and destroy items. Even when developers fill the sinkhole, it is later said to swallow cars whole. The construction of surrounding neighborhoods and industrial lots are in the background of the story, and allow the author to represent the changing environment of the characters as they cope with Susie’s death and build anew. Both destructing and constructing are representative of surviving grief and loss for all of the characters. In the end, Lindsey and Samuel find an old house and restore it, literally and figuratively building a new life after Susie is gone.

Surviving Grief

Each character has a different way of recovering from Susie’s death. Susie watches her family as they live through the painful experience of losing a daughter/sister, and how it affects each person. Jack wants to avenge Susie’s death by finding her killer. Jack also finds himself so absorbed in loving Susie that he has to remind himself to give his love to the living. Lindsey wants to live away from the shadow of Susie. Buckley 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. Abigail does not want to face Susie’s death and instead pulls away from her family and retreats into herself. 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, albeit somewhat damaged and in need of healing. Susie also watches Ruth and Ray as they learn how to cope with Susie’s loss and form a friendship.

In the end of the novel, Susie notes the formation of new connections, which she refers to as the lovely bones that grew in her absence. 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.