There was only one picture in which my mother was Abigail. It was the first one, the one taken of her unawares, the one captured before the click startled her into 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.
Susie’s mother is only her true self when she thinks no one is looking. The loss that Susie sees in her eyes is Abigail's grief over losing herself to the numerous roles listed; she has so many roles to fill in her family life that she does not have time for the real Abigail. Susie uses a metaphor to compare her mother’s eyes to “oceans”; like the ocean, her eyes seem deep and endless, and there is no knowing what is inside of them. Susie is not the only one who sees the oceans in her mother’s eyes; Jack and Len also see them, and that is part of the reason they both find her so appealing. Susie also finds the mysterious part of her mother appealing, hence the reason she took the picture, but she also does not completely understand it. As the novel goes on, the picture is seen by many characters; their interpretations, along with Susie’s new point-of-view in heaven, help Susie to understand the mystery of her mother.
Every day he got up. Before sleep wore off, he was who he used to be. Then, as his consciousness woke, it was as if poison seeped in. At first he couldn’t even get up. He lay there under a heavy weight, But then only movement could save him, and he moved and he moved and he moved, no movement being enough to make up for it. The guilt on him, the hand of God pressing down on him saying, You were not there when your daughter needed you.
Each morning Jack feels as though poison seeps in when he remembers what happened to his daughter. The poison is a metaphor for the grief and guilt Jack feels over Susie’s death. The poison also references an earlier use of the word, when Susie described how rabbits sometimes accidentally eat poison and then bring it back to their dens, poisoning the entire rabbit family. Similarly, the grief and guilt that result from Susie’s death is a sort of “poison” for all of the Salmons, as it has infected their entire family. When Jack wakes up in the morning he has a feeling that he is under a heavy weight; this feeling parallels Susie’s experience with Mr. Harvey—after he raped her she lies under his weight and realizes she is still alive. Jack also realizes that he is still alive, and it is movement that saves him, because movement is something only the living can do. Susie, on the other hand, was unable to move even after Mr. Harvey gets up. The hand of God pressing down on Jack indicates that Jack feels pressure to avenge Susie’s death to make up for the fact that he was not able to be there to prevent it.
Len Fenerman had been the first one who had asked my mother for my school picture when the police thought I might be found alive. In his wallet, my photo sat in a stack. Among these dead children and strangers was a picture of his wife. If a case had been solved he had written the date of its resolution on the back of the photo. If the case was still open—in his mind, not in the official files of the police—it was blank. There was nothing on the back of mine. There was nothing on the back of his wife’s.
Len is particularly affected by the loss of his wife when they had just gotten married. Her picture in his wallet is significant because it is among the pictures of the cases that he solves as a professional, yet his wife's case is personal. Thus, Len is not able to keep his personal and professional life separate, which is apparent in his later intimate interaction with Abigail. When he is not able to solve a case such as Susie’s, he feels personally responsible. For Len, a case is still open if it has not been solved, even if the police have closed the case. Also, the case of his wife is not a police case, as we later find out that she committed suicide, and thus Len will probably never be able to “solve” her case. His job is to survive the grief of losing her. Absence is represented by the blank in the back of the photos. However, solving the cases does not negate the fact that the people in the photographs are no longer living. The physical loss of them is recorded later when Len writes “gone” on the backs of all of the photos.
What did dead mean, Ray wondered. It meant lost, it meant frozen, it meant gone. He knew that no one ever really looked the way they did in photos. He knew he didn’t look as wild or as frightened as he did in his own. He came to realize something as he stared at my photo—that it was not me.
Ray Singh uses Susie’s photograph as a way of saying goodbye to her. Ray muses on the meaning of death, expanding on the theme of loss—Susie’s body is lost to her family, she will always be frozen in time at age fourteen, and she is gone from the world of the living. His realization that the photograph is not Susie is similar to a realization that Susie had as a child. When Susie went to see Mrs. Utemeyer’s body at the funeral, she saw that the corpse was Mrs. Utemeyer but it also was not. For Ray, the picture is the closest thing to a corpse; Susie does not exist in the picture, and she does not exist on Earth either. She is, as he put it, gone. Directly after this Ray figuratively buries the photograph. Thus his use of the photograph as a grave for Susie parallels Len’s and Abigail’s use of it (the two other characters who keep the same photograph with them).
“When the dead are done with the living,” Franny said to me, “the living can go on to other things.”
“What about the dead?” I asked. “Where do we go?”
She wouldn’t answer me.
This quote exemplifies the theme of surviving grief. Susie must accept that she is dead and that she is no longer part of the human world; she too is grieving the loss of her life. Susie’s grief parallels the grief of her family as they try to continue with their lives after her murder. Franny’s advice foreshadows Susie’s future in heaven, when she will no longer watch the living. However, Susie is not yet ready to do this, and the idea of leaving her family scares her because she does not know where she will go if she leaves them. She is still maturing towards a point where she can accept her death and let her family build a new life without her.
Each time I told my story, I lost a bit, the smallest drop of pain. It was that day that I knew I wanted to tell the story of my family. Because horror on earth is real and it is every day. It is like the flower or like the sun; it cannot be contained.
Throughout the novel, many of the characters feel trapped: Susie is trapped in heaven, Ruth feels trapped in a hell on earth, Abigail feels trapped in her life as a mother. But here, Susie exposes the fact that horror cannot be contained; she uses a simile to compare horror to a flower and to the sun. When the sun is out, there is no capturing or containing it. Within each of the places that the characters feel trapped, horror still infiltrates, much like the sun can filter through nooks and crannies. By meeting the other girls who were also Mr. Harvey’s victims, she can relieve some of her pain by telling the story of her family. The novel is the story of her family, and thus it is part of Susie’s way of “surviving” her grief and alleviating her pain.
Lindsey and Buckley had come to live their lives in direct proportion to what effect it would have on a fragile father.
Both Lindsey and Buckley feel the responsibility to protect their father; this responsibility parallels the feeling that Jack has that he is responsible for avenging Susie’s death. Here Jack is described as fragile because he is both physically and emotionally fragile. He is emotionally broken from Susie’s death and from Abigail’s absence. He is still physically handicapped from the knee replacement surgery, and he also now has slower reaction times. These factors combine to make him very sensitive to stress, hence the reason that Lindsey and Buckley feel the need to protect him. In some ways, they have become the parents, and Jack the child.
After eight years it was, even for my mother, like the ubiquitous photo of a celebrity. She had encountered it so many times that I had been neatly buried inside of it. My cheeks never redder, my eyes never bluer than they were in the photograph.
Just as Ray chose to figuratively bury Susie’s photograph in a book, Abigail feels that Susie is buried inside the photograph. By keeping her buried there, she does not have to look at her, or miss her. Sebold uses a simile to compare Susie’s photograph to that of a celebrity, implying that the photograph is seen so often that Abigail has become almost numbed to it, yet it is also something she is drawn toward. Comparing Susie to a celebrity also connotes the fact that Susie is not someone with whom Abigail has intimate contact. Instead, she must admire her from afar. The hyperbole that Susie’s cheeks and eyes are more vibrant in this picture than they ever were in life reminds the reader that photography is not always the most realistic depiction of a person; despite this, the photograph still holds some power for Abigail.
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.
Ruth is an outsider throughout the novel, and she continues to be one until the end. Although she does form a connection with Ray, she feels more connected to the dead than to the living. In high school Ruth did not choose to isolate - she was simply an outsider because of her habits - but as she grows up she chooses to isolate. Although Ruth’s character matures along with the rest of the characters, she still maintains a “haunted” quality. Susie now accepts that she cannot help Ruth, but that Ruth now has the ability to help her by telling Susie’s story on earth.
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 earth 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.
The lovely bones of the title are explained here; although we may have expected the title to be referring to Susie’s bones, it actually refers to the “bones” that have metaphorically grown up in Susie’s absence. Susie may not have a body on earth, but the connections made between the people she loves constitute a symbolic body. Without her death, these relationships would not exist. Seeing these lovely bones help Susie to recover from her own death and move on, leaving the human world. She is grateful for the “body” and she knows it could not have existed without her. This body has also helped her loved ones recover from the grief of losing her; it is a support system for them as they grow stronger in the wake of her death leave Susie to their memories.
The Lovely Bones Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Lovely Bones is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.