Discuss the role that photographs play in the novel.
There are two key photographs in the novel: Susie’s school picture, and the photograph that Susie took of Abigail. Both the subject of the photograph and the viewer are relevant to this discussion because the view of the photograph can change depending on the subject’s maturation, even if the photograph itself remains the same. As the novel progresses, the people who view these photographs see the images differently. Their changing view of the photographs reflects their recovery from the loss of Susie as well as their growth as characters.
Each character feels responsibility and/or guilt in the wake of Susie’s death. Choose two or three characters. How do these feelings evolve for these characters throughout the novel?
Often the theme of guilt and responsibility is connected to the theme of surviving grief. As each character recovers from his/her grief, their idea of personal responsibility evolves. Any character can be examined here, even Mr. Harvey—although he does not have grief over Susie’s death, he does feel a certain responsibility that grows greater as the novel continues.
How is Susie’s family able to survive their grief?
When Susie’s family first hears of her death, they each grieve in their own way and they do not grieve together. As a family, they become isolated from the neighborhood and the town. The theme of construction and destruction is closely related to surviving grief; first the family falls apart (destruction), but they are also able to build new relationships (construction) that help them to move on.
Why is the Inbetween a key component of the action in the novel? What role does it play?
The Inbetween is Susie’s only method of communicating with the people on earth. It is also the “thick blue line” that Buckley drew to separate heaven and Earth. The separation is important because the novel depicts two different worlds: Susie’s heaven, and life on Earth. Thus the Inbetween both connects and separates these worlds.
How could The Lovely Bones be framed as a coming of age story?
Although Susie dies at age fourteen, she is able to watch her peers as they grow up. She never gets a chance to grow up but she does change and mature in many ways. Her experience with Ray via Ruth’s body could be seen as her passage into maturity. Once she has this experience she is able to let go of watching the living world.
Both physical and psychological absence are important to the novel’s plot. Discuss how absence works as a theme in the novel.
Susie’s missing body is the first major absence in the novel. With the absence of her body came the feelings of loss experienced by her family and friends, and they dealt with this absence in different ways. Some of the characters, such as Buckley and Mr. Harvey, use an object to represent someone that is gone; others use a photograph as a way of reminding themselves of a person who is absent. Later in the novel, Abigail also distances herself from her family and leaves them. Both Susie’s death and Abigail’s absence cause the characters to form the relationships that Susie later refers to as lovely bones.
Discuss how the theme of construction and destruction works in the novel.
The physical construction and destruction in the novel act as a metaphor for the emotional loss and rebuilding that happen in the wake of Susie’s death and other losses. For example, the development of the neighborhood is representative of the growth that happens after Susie’s death. The construction of physical structures, such as Buckley’s fort and the house that Lindsey and Samuel repair, are symbolic of the characters’ emotional recovery from Susie’s death. Construction is also represented through the new relationships that form after Susie's death, such as Ruth and Ray's friendship.
How is memory used to further the plot of the story? How is it used as a tool of characterization?
Susie can see into the thoughts and the memories of the people she watches on earth. She uses these memories to form fuller pictures of the people she knows; through examining memories of others, Susie is able to better understand both her killer and her mother. Memory is also important to the story because Susie lives in the memories of the people who are alive, and the frequency that they think of her and talk of her is indicative of their recovery from grief. As people think and talk of Susie less, she remains in their memories, and she also is able to accept the fact that she is no longer part of the living world.
Many of the characters in the novel feel isolated, or they purposely isolate themselves. How does isolation function to connect the characters? How does it pull them apart?
When Susie’s family first hears of her death, they isolate from each other, and this pulls them apart, especially Jack and Abigail. At the end of the novel they realize that they both felt the pain of Susie’s death, and they no longer have to isolate—they can share their memories of Susie with each other. For Ruth and Ray, their isolation brings them together so they can grieve Susie. Susie is isolated in heaven, making her physically apart from her family. But her vantage point also draws her closer to them, as she is able to see what they do and experience as a result of her death. Thus, isolation works in many ways, and each character's isolation evolves throughout the novel.
Even though Susie is dead, she plays a main role in the story-world of the novel. Discuss how her character evolves, and how she affects people on Earth without being present.
Susie affects people on earth in two ways: she communicates with them from the Inbetween, or she does nothing except exist in their memories. Susie’s death and absence function to bring characters together and form connections that would not exist if not for her death. Also, even though Susie is in heaven she is able to grow to a place where she can leave the living. By being with them she had a reciprocal relationship with them in many ways, from across the Inbetween.
The Lovely Bones Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:
This detailed literature summary also contains Bibliography and a Free Quiz on The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.
In her first novel, The Lovely Bones (2002), Alice Sebold delves into the horror and trauma resulting from by the rape and murder of a young girl. The novel arose from Sebold's own experience with violence—her rape as an eighteen-year-old college freshman. Similar to her 1999 memoir, Lucky, which details her own rape, its psychological aftermath, and the arrest, trial, and conviction of the rapist, The Lovely Bones refuses to sanitize sexual violence. Yet the novel does not sensationalize violence either; instead, it offers the ordinariness of it. Both the setting in suburban Philadelphia, and the time period of the early 1970s, underscore Sebold's belief that no one is immune from violence; it touches everyone. More importantly, the story of Susie Salmon and her family exposes the way in which society marginalizes the victims of violence. The Lovely Bones becomes a study of the effects of violence, in this case rape and murder, not only on the victim, but on her family, friends, and community.
The Lovely Bones does not focus on evil; it does not attempt to make sense of bad people or bad acts. Instead the novel investigates issues of loss and grief, life and death, identity and self, remembrance and forgetting, womanhood and motherhood, coming of age and rites of passage, and heaven and earth. The readers watch with Susie as her father, mother, sister, brother, and grandmother, as well as her middle school friends, her killer, and the lead detective on the case, confront similar issues in their attempts to understand their grief. While the novel raises many questions, it does not, in fact, answer all of them. Sebold examines traditional views, such as those about heaven, sexuality, and the place of women in American society, while simultaneously challenging those views.
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