The Lovely Bones Themes

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

''The Lovely Bones'' is a contemporary novel with a young protagonist whose life is cut short by a horrific experience. What follows is an insightful view of the connection between life and death, one of the themes found in the story. Updated: 05/30/2020

The Lovely Bones

Almost everyone wonders about what happens after someone dies. Is there life after death? Will you remember how you died? Will you be able to see the people you left behind?

Alice Sebold's 2002 novel The Lovely Bones provides one possible view of what might happen. The protagonist and narrator of Sebold's chilling tale is fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon, who begins her account by telling us the date and manner of her death. While walking home from school through a cornfield near her suburban neighborhood, she is lured into a hideaway built beneath the field by her neighbor, George Harvey. There she is raped and murdered, followed by the dismemberment and disposal of her body.

The rest of the story follows two sets of events. We see how Susie experiences existence on the ''other side'' of the curtain separating life from death. We also watch events on Earth happening among Susie's family and friends as life goes on without her. Relationships, troubles, and happiness come in varying degrees for those Susie left behind as she learns how to advance in the afterlife.

Themes in This Novel

This narrative is full of complicated concepts and happenings that can be hard to understand. Finding themes in the novel can help us to make sense of what we have read and provide a framework for organizing thoughts and impressions.

A theme is a general idea or overall message found throughout works of fiction, including poems, plays, short stories, and novels. Because a novel is longer and more complex than other formats, we need to read the entire novel carefully before looking for themes. As we will see with The Lovely Bones, some themes are not truly revealed until the story is complete.


The simpler theme we will talk about in this lesson is justice, the idea that people deserve fair treatment and bad deeds should not go unpunished, a common theme in crime novels of all types. As readers, we want the criminal to be brought to justice, especially when the crime is a horrific one and the victim is young and innocent. Why did Susie have to meet such a fate? Why does George Harvey seem to escape justice after perpetrating such a crime on his young neighbor?

Unfortunately, there is no penalty suffered by Harvey in this lifetime. Near the end of the book, we discover, along with Susie, that he eventually dies as a result of an odd accident in which an icicle drops on him from a doorway. Surprised, he falls over and tumbles down some steps into a ravine to his death. So what is the message here? Perhaps it is that justice is not guaranteed just because a person seems to deserve it. Susie moved on in Heaven and her family moved on, too, in spite of not getting justice here on Earth. Maybe we are being reminded to trust in the wisdom of the universe that we seldom actually see.

Holistic View of Human Existence

Here comes one of those complex ideas I mentioned earlier in the lesson. What does this rather abstract phrase mean? In terms of The Lovely Bones, it means that maybe the novelist is using this story to say that life and death might not be as separate as we think they are. Perhaps this tale about a terrible crime and the aftermath points to a view of human existence that connects the living and the dead more intimately than we realize.

There is a connection between life and death that lies at the center of the plot. A single word for this connection we could use for the theme is synthesis, the combination of multiple elements to form a unified whole. In the novel, life and death are parts of the same whole, and to understand either, we need to see the synthesis that this story illustrates.

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