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The Lovely Bones | Context

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The Lovely Bones was inspired by a horrific incident in Alice Sebold's life. In 1980, during her freshman year at college, Sebold was raped on campus. Though the perpetrator was ultimately caught and jailed, Sebold was traumatized by the event. For years after graduating, she worked on a novel about the rape. In 1999 Sebold published her book Lucky, an autobiography about the rape and its aftermath. Sebold then turned to writing a novel, which was originally titled Monsters but which was published as The Lovely Bones in 2002.

Growth of Suburbia

The Lovely Bones is set in the late 1960s and the early 1970s in a Pennsylvania suburb. Such suburban housing developments seemed to fulfill the American Dream for many in the economically affluent years following World War II (1939–45). These developments provided people with the opportunity to own land and homes, giving them the chance to build families with multiple children and pets. In fact, the well-known baby boom (large number of babies born between 1946 and 1964) that followed World War II was largely set in the suburbs. With the growth of the assembly line automobile industry, and the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act (1956), which provided for the construction of miles of new roads, people were provided with the means to leave the cities and live farther from the places where they worked. The immigrant experience is often defined in terms of push and pull factors, and this shift in American demographics was no different. A largely white population was pushed from the cities by racial fears and deteriorating conditions, and they were pulled to the suburbs by affordable housing.

However, affordable housing came with a social cost: conformity. Former government contractor William Levitt (1907–94), known to some as the father of suburbia (a term that refers collectively to suburban housing projects and the inhabitants), figured out a way to mass-produce housing. Using a 27-step process, Levitt erected a large, model community housing project in Long Island, New York in 1947. This process meant that all the homes featured largely the same two-bedroom, one-bathroom floor plan. The uniformity of the housing soon spread to the mentality of residents, who advocated neighborhood pledges regarding lawn maintenance, for example, and the exclusion of nonwhite home buyers.

While the original dwellers of suburbia often relished the opportunities of new home ownership, the suburban setting was less well-regarded by their children who grew up in the 1960s and '70s. In her autobiography, author Alice Sebold writes of the suburb where she grew up, "There was nothing for miles around." In high school, "it was, to my teenage mind, a wasteland." In The Lovely Bones, the protagonist, Susie Salmon, also dislikes the tract where her family lives. In Chapter 2 she says, "I hated our split-level on Earth ... and how our house looked out onto another house and another house and another."

Notably, Susie and Lindsey are both disturbed by the fact that Mr. Harvey's house has the same floor plan as theirs. These varied views of the setting work to create a tension within the novel. In the space where parents have built families in suburbs veiled by illusions of safety and happiness, and where the children are plagued by the boredom of conformity, a serial killer such as Mr. Harvey finds room to operate.

Birth of Criminal Profiling

In 1970 Robert K. Ressler (1937–2013) joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). A decorated former U.S. Army criminal investigator, Ressler hoped to forge new investigative ground by combining psychology with criminology. Ressler believed that if investigators could come to understand why killers kill, then they would be better equipped to identify them. Ressler and his partner John Douglas coined the term "serial killer" after conducting extensive research on repeat murderers, which included hours of personal interviews with killers such as John Wayne Gacy (1942–94), who assaulted and murdered at least 33 young men. Their work led to the establishment of the FBI Behavioral Science Unit at Quantico, Virginia, which is featured in the long-running and popular television series Criminal Minds.

However, one unintended effect of this work has been the birth of public popularity for serial killers. These "celebrity monsters," as criminology professor Dr. Scott A. Bonn calls them, reflect the dark side of human nature that is fed by intense media reporting. He posits that coverage of serial killers provides the public with desirable access to the rare and exotic, random danger, unquenchable appetites, incomprehensible behavior, and feelings such as excitement, fear, lust, and rage.

In some ways, The Lovely Bones provides a counterargument to this morbid fascination. In one sense, the text works to feed the profiler's interest by providing the sources of Mr. Harvey's dysfunction: his mother makes little George Harvey hide the items she shoplifts and scavenge for souvenirs from roadside graves; after a fight in the car, George's father pushes her out onto the roadside, and George never sees her again; and at one point in Chapter 15, George has a sudden insight "about how life should be lived: not as a child or a woman. They were the two worst things to be." However, the narrator ultimately rejects the story of Mr. Harvey to provide a voice for his victims—victims who are often forgotten in the public's desire for the next sensational news story.

Feminism

While the children of the suburbs focused on the boredom of conformity, they may have missed the changes that were taking place in their mothers. In 1963 activist Betty Friedan (1921–2006) published The Feminine Mystiquethe result of interviews with suburban housewives. Friedan chronicled what she called "the problem that has no name"—unhappiness, tiredness, and addictions that were plaguing women as a result of strict gender expectations, a lack of control over reproduction, and economic disparities. The work is largely credited with kicking off the second wave of American feminism.

While The Lovely Bones doesn't address feminism overtly, wife and mother Mrs. Salmon is a woman who feels oppressed by cultural expectations. Though she loves her three children, Mrs. Salmon has never felt completely comfortable in her familial roles, and she feels trapped by her life. When she abandons the family and moves to California, the winery job she takes isn't high status, but it helps Mrs. Salmon feel free: "She couldn't help thinking of the books she had read in college. The Awakening. And what had happened to one writer, Virginia Woolf." The Awakening by Kate Chopin (1850–1904) is an 1899 novel about one woman's conflict between social gender expectations and a desire for freedom and individuality. Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) wrote a great deal about feminism in novels such as Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, A Room of One's Own, Orlando, and The Waves; she also committed suicide, but even this act seems romantic to Mrs. Salmon at this stage in her life because suicide suggests escape.

Mrs. Salmon lives independently for several years after leaving her family. Notably, the act that propels Mrs. Salmon to take this step toward independence is the rape and murder of her daughter Susie—an act that is perpetrated by a predatory male against a female child who is both vulnerable and powerless. When Mrs. Salmon returns to her family, she makes the powerful and conscious choice to do so. She is no longer simply conforming to societal expectations, and she returns a stronger person than when she left—a strength that honors her inner self and the life of the daughter she lost.

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