The Lovely Bones: Persephone’s Journey



For those of us that have become familiar with the story of Persephone’s abduction and rape at the hands of Hades, it’s difficult not to hear echoes of the same journey in The Lovely Bones. For both tales provide an unflinching account of what happens when a young maiden is taken against her will, forced to confront the terror of her own extinction. For like Persephone, Susie is lured away from her family, secreted away to the depths of the earth. And like her counterpart in the myth of old, she will find herself condemned to live with her abductor, unable to escape the hell that is his kingdom.

For what is the In-Between in which Susie finds herself if not the netherworld brought about by the Murderer’s hand? Like Persephone, Susie will find herself "wedded" to the Prince of Darkness, unable to leave his side. Trapped in his subterranean domain without access to the means that bring release, seemingly doomed to an eternity without the possibility of a life, either in Heaven or on Earth.


While her anguished cries went unheeded on that awful night, there was at least one who was witness to Susie’s fate. In the Greek tale, she’s known by a different name (Hecate) but there’s no mistaking the fact that they are the same. For Ruth, like the other, is a solitary figure with an affinity for the night – and the souls of the dead – which allows her to "see" what remains invisible to others. Not incidentally, she is also associated with crossroads and transitions, making her an important ally for anyone who might find themselves trapped in a darkness that has no end.

It is her gift of sight that helps Susie, just as it did Persephone. Unexpected as it may be, it is this familiarity with the forces of darkness that allows her to return the Abducted One to her grieving mother, setting the stage for the replenishment of the life that had withered in her absence.


Like any of us who might find ourselves in Susie’s predicament, such assistance is vital. For she finds herself swallowed by the unthinkable, the result of a crime against Nature and a violation of innocence. For in that defining  moment, her fate was sealed and a host of possible futures were stolen from her young hands. No longer able to write the story of her life as she might have liked, for another had chosen to inflict his misery upon a child, insisting that his needs trumped those belonging to one weaker and less knowing than he. And so, like the trinket tossed into the reservoir at the edge of town, Susie is forced to fight against her disposal, an ugly reminder of how her body came to used to to satisfy an appetite so animal it could barely be controlled, much less understood.

Because of the Murderer’s deed, life as she had known it comes to an end. That single night, apparently no different than any other, will forever mark the moment in which everything changed. When time itself cleaved in two. Her life no longer a place to which she can return; the afterlife, a place from which she cannot escape.


She will spend aeons trying to understand her Murderer: How could he bring himself to do this to a child? How could he so boldly and unabashedly impose himself upon one who knew no better than to offer her trust, believing in his humanity, too young to recognize he was nothing other than a demon in disguise?

But because the answers do not come, Susie will be left on her own to grapple with the unknowable and the unknown. And so, the questions will only multiply. Why does he live alone, without a wife or family? Why is he consumed by the need to build tiny dollhouses and, when no one else is looking, why does he sit in the basement staring at an old and rusty vault? And why is his life organized like a robot, using alarms to measure the passage of time, dictating when his barely controlled passions can finally be released?

But as we know, such questions can never be answered, at least to her satisfaction, since, behind them, one much larger looms. The one that keeps her trapped below.

"Why was this done to me?"


Which is not to say that the questions are worthless or should be avoided. For they already contain answers, however unrecognized they may be. Perhaps not the kind that she might have wanted, but answers nonetheless. After all, questions possess a subject and object like any other grammatical construction, and it is precisely in their formulation that certain "answers" can be found, even if they ultimately fail to satisfy the one who does the asking. Take away the "why" and questions turn into statements of face. The removal of a question mark reveals a reality already apprehended, even if too difficult to accept or understand.

So, yes, the Murderer was a man who imposed his needs upon a defenseless child. (Hence, his name.) His actions were, indeed, bold and unabashed, for it’s only in the absence of shame that it’s possible to act as he did. (Which is why people of his ilk are called psychopaths.) And yes, Susie trusted him, at least long enough to walk into his elaborate trap. (But how could she have known any better? For her Murderer counted upon that trust, precisely so that he could abuse it.) Only later would she come to recognize the contours of his life, a carefully orchestrated – but ultimately empty – existence conducted behind closed curtains and doors. Only later would she come to recognize his mechanical routines as pathological, a cover for what lay beneath. Only later … after it was already too late.

Even so, he will remain a blank slate. For there is a limit to how well one can know another – let alone a murderer – and Susie will be unable to delve any more deeply into the psyche that came to dominate her own. For however much one may be able to plumb the mind of another, there’s always the "black box" within which crucial decisions are made. That hidden place in which a soul decides to act, where one is confronted by a choice to follow the very purpose for which we are put on this earth.

Or not.


Is it any wonder, then, that Susie’s afterlife is suffused by a yearning for something better and brighter than the hand she had been dealt? That she would turn her eyes elsewhere for comfort, even if it lay across a massive and unbridgeable divide? The brutality she suffered at the Murderer’s hand did not only take her life. Neither was it merely an assault on her body, however awful the experience might have been. No, the Murderer robbed Susie of her access to the truth of herself and the life of "normality" that was seemingly meant to be. By virtue of that single act, she came to inherit demons that would continue to haunt her long after the moment of her extinction. Her world changed overnight and forever colored by absence and loss:
of faith in the just, her ability to trust, and her belief that she could find – much less deserve – a secure place among the world of the living.

Instead, Susie comes to be caught between Body and Spirit, a consequence of the violence that whisked her away to an underground prison. Her yearning to reach back to her previous life, whether for her father or the boy who stands alone, is a measure of this, as is her almost frantic efforts to wrench a semblance of joy with her newfound playmate in the In-Between. Both give voice to a desire both natural and sacred that seeks reunion with what has been lost to her. For, Susie’s imprisonment is no different from the descent of another (Sophia) who finds herself enveloped in a world vacated of meaning and spirit. And it is these grapplings for the divine that mark – and anticipate – her return to the place that was ordained as belonging to her and her alone.


Which is where Ruth-Hecate comes in. For she is a healer. She has already helped the forlorn boy contend with his own battles, including learning how to overcome the death of his one and only love. This restorative relation to dis-ease and fractured existence, not so subtly marked by the insignia that she bears, is the frequently unrecognized consequence of her ability to "see" the ghosts in her midst, an ability she later comes to use on Susie’s behalf. For even while Susie is caught-up in her struggles against the imperatives of loss, Ruth works both quietly and diligently, examining the fate of the dead. It begins unconsciously, with her need to understand what happened to her other but, later, it becomes more self-conscious, deliberate, and confident, expanding her investigations to the lives of others similarly killed at the hands of murderers, those who have shared in Susie’s fate.

According to the Greeks, one of Hecate’s animal familiars was a three-headed dog, howling with her approach, which speaks directly to her role as guardian of transitions and crossroads. For, among other things, the "three" signals her ability to see past, present, and future, the ability to move beyond the immediacy of life’s passing and divine the connections between what has gone before and what has yet to come. But such a task is only possible when the powers of death have been exhausted, for only then can she turn her attention to the work of redemption, to discern the role of a death in the fulfillment of her destiny.

Hécate-Mallarmé          The Return of Persephone

Aided by the two flaming torches she carries in her hands, it is by virtue of this ability to "see" that Hecate becomes minister and companion to the one caught in the bowels of the earth. Later, when Susie is ready to rise, those same skills – honed at the edge of night – will help lead her charge out through the gates of hell.

In this task, Hecate is assisted by Hermes as well, both working one behalf of the abducted one and her ascent out the pit of despair and the blackness of night. For like the three-headed one, he is a messenger of the gods, crosser of boundaries, and guide through the underworld.

Susie's Ascent 1

In fact, it is precisely this scene that we witness at the tail end of The Lovely Bones – except this time, in a reverse shot – as Susie finally finds her way out of the cavernous pit back to the girl she had once seen watching over its edge so long ago. The sinkhole had become a favored haunt of the Guardian of the Depths and her consort, the boy who, earlier, had also struggled against the pull of the subterranean, his extrication as much the work of the dark-haired one as his own.

Together, they had become friends of the margin, frequenting those places where the spirits of the dead – and those yet to come – could be found. Keeping watch for signs both without and within. Listening for what had yet to be heard.

Susie's Ascent 2

The two scenes at the sinkhole are but different sides of the same story of Susie’s ascent, each predicated upon the other. For without the ministering of Hecate, the abducted one would never have found her way past the gates of death. And were it not for Hermes’ promise of love, that task might have been too difficult to bear.

So, it’s when these two join forces that Persephone’s journey finds its completion, finally overcoming the despair that had kept her imprisoned for so long. For it’s Hecate-Ruth alone who had heard Susie’s cries, the only one to have glimpsed what had happened that awful night. And it’s Hermes-Ray she recruited to help rescue the child. Precisely because of his declaration of undying devotion, captured for eternity in the poem she had found at her feet.


But there is at least one more chapter to this story, less an incidental epilogue than the culmination of Persephone’s travails. For her mother – the Goddess of the Earth, Demeter – has been stricken with grief following her daughter’s rape and abduction, after which Life itself came to a halt, leaving all who depended upon her bounty to crumble and starve. But because of the struggles that so consumed her daughter, it will not have registered that she actually missed her mother.

When my mother came to my room
I realized that – all this time – I had been waiting for her.
I had been waiting so long, I was afraid she wouldn’t come.

For the "reunion" spoken of here is the greatest of all, the goal of Persephone’s long and arduous journey, just as it is the culmination of Sophia’s ascent to the place from whence she came. So, what may come across as a narrative sleight of hand -turning a story of love and loss into one that ends with the Mother – actually mirrors the confused yearnings of those who, at some point, find themselves alienated from the very source of their Being. So, even though, as a little girl, Susie may have felt a special kinship with the penguin trapped in his glassy prison, it will take a lifetime to realize that she was never really alone. That all her yearnings were but a measure of this (unrecognized) absence. For the One who gave her life was there all along. Patiently waiting.

For, in the end, She will come, just as she did to the one borne from the depths by the two committed to her salvation. And it is during that fated moment that the abducted will find long-awaited release from the clutches of death.


~ by mistified on July 31, 2010.

One Response to “The Lovely Bones: Persephone’s Journey”

  1. lol

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