The Woman on the Train

I’m arriving a little bit late to this party, I know, and maybe I’ve missed the proverbial boat (or train, in this case) but having been given The Girl on the Train as a birthday present, I’ve only just caught up with the hype surrounding it this week.

After a few pages, I knew that this was not a book I was going to love; its sheer lack of linguistic development alone had me disappointed from the beginning. I did excuse the simplicity of the language when I learnt that the writer was a journalist, someone used to churning out facts without focusing on the humanity that lies beneath the story and whose assumption that the reader is not in any way intelligent enough to draw their own conclusions leaves for very on-the-surface writing. However, overlooking this means that we are relying on plot to triumph, rendering the writing second place and redeeming a piece of literature that makes me wince to think it is a number one best-seller.

The Girl on the Train not only makes me question what exactly it takes to get published these days, but what it says about us as readers and viewers, in short, as literary consumers.

“I can’t do this, I can’t just be a wife. I don’t understand how anyone does it—there is literally nothing to do but wait. Wait for a man to come home and love you. Either that or look around for something to distract you.” – Anna (The Girl on the Train)

Before beginning to write today, I did a quick Google and Google Scholar search of “The Girl on the Train feminism” and was shocked and dismayed to read articles commending the novel as feminist fiction, about female protagonists who achieve subordination from a patriarchal society through journeys of self-discovery, and how the novel serves as a realm for women to act out their rage ag
ainst men. What I read was something entirely different.

The novel explores the lives of three women in a completely unnecessary narrative that seems to serve only the purpose of justifying the treatment they receive by two equally one dimensional characters. Rachel, who can be read as the primary narrator, hailed on the cover as “the unreliable narrator of the year,” is an alcoholic, and her unreliability arises from her drunken black-outs. In my opinion, her alcoholism is the character’s only redeeming quality; it is the only aspect to her that seems believable and the only thing that allows this character to step out-side of her neat little middle-class bubble where she can afford to pretend to have a job for a month and live off hand-outs from her mother (or her husband’s alimony in the film). It was the alcohol that caused her release from an abusive marriage, that saw her in Whitby on the night Megan was killed and thus made her the only witness. Paula Hawkins uses alcoholism, a serious mental and physical illness, as her story’s catalyst. Now, as I said, this was Rachel’s only redeeming quality for me, the fact that this nauseatingly normal woman could fall victim to this illness shows that it really can happen to anyone (although I doubt many would be as frustratingly self-aware). However, Hawkins’ exploration of alcoholism is entirely superficial and suggests that all alcoholics need is a “distraction.”

The novel was also praised for its exploration of three different women’s lives. Three white, young, pretty middle class women who perfectly embody historical representation of women. First, we have Anna, the adoring stay-at-home mother and dedicated wife who also plays the part of the evil other woman. Then, we have the depressed scorned woman out for revenge, the perfect embodiment of female hysteria caused, of course, by her inability to be a mother and her rejection by her Mr. Perfect. And third, we have the sexually deviant child-killer who is herself killed as a result of her failure to conform to her role as a wife. All three women are defined by their ability to be a mother and in relation to their husbands. Hawkins would have done more for feminism by refusing to give Anna opaper-dolls-14611_640r Megan a voice or back story, rather than justifying the treatment they receive. I see no other reason to give Megan a dark past (where her own mental illness is defined by the loss of two men in her teenage years, her brother and Mac) than to justify her brutal murder and denying her the possibility of atoning for her past. In the background we have Pantomime Princess Cathy, Evil Detective Riley, and two baby girls- one born to an unmarried mother and thus killed, and one born in the middle class suburbs who is constantly held, protected and fought over.

Despite three female narrators, the action of the plot is driven undoubtedly by the male characters. However, the men are equally stereotypical representations of an out-dated perception of gender roles. Scott and Dr Abdic are of course murder suspects before a mentally unstable woman with a motive who was spotted at the crime scene and dismissed as a crazy harmless drunk. Scott and Tom are abusive towards women and Abdic, in a care-giving role, is born out of war-torn Bosnia, a refugee, a foreigner and perpetually ‘other.’ Hawkins plays a game of parallels, where Megan and Tom must be punished for their sins, both of them having cheated on their partner and killed a child, and Scott and Anna, while both equally as flawed, are saved by their subscription to their gender roles and support of the nuclear family.

Rachel, with her inability to conceive and her alcoholism cannot be a woman, and instead retains her infantile position as “The Girl on the Train.”

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One thought on “The Woman on the Train

  1. Interesting critique! Not what I took from the novel myself but I can see where you’re coming from and it was great to read an alternative viewpoint 😊 Some of my thoughts in response are below. Hope you don’t mind but your blog got me thinking about it!

    Your initial question as to what the book says about the literary consumers is probably key to our different viewpoints. You read it over a year after it was published, having heard about the hype surrounding the novel and success of the subsequent movie adaptation so therefore you probably had high expectations about the story and/or writing. I read it as the advertised ‘This year’s Gone Girl’ page-turner, looking for an exciting thriller to take over my Kindle for a while, and it didn’t disappoint – it was a captivating storyline from a unique perspective with an unexpected plot twist – exactly what I was looking for. Admittedly, it wasn’t a piece of literature that I think deserves to be remembered for its writing but that wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for. I didn’t choose a classic, just an entertaining read for my spare time and I think that was Hawkins’ target audience. Very much like other modern successes such as The Da Vinci Code, Gone Girl, 50 Shades of Gray etc. it’s the captivating storyline that sells the books, with consumers looking for something interesting to read on their commute to work or in their spare time and they quickly become best-sellers due to the enthusiasm that is passed on from reader to reader. Unfortunately good quality writing doesn’t necessarily go hand-in-hand with this and while I did find the style of writing off-putting in some of the titles above, I seemed to be able to overlook it in Girl on the Train, perhaps because I didn’t have the same expectations as you from the beginning.

    Interestingly, my whole interpretation of the story is in relation to my expectations of the book as a new Gone Girl. For me that was why the writer’s choice of title had even been ‘Girl’ rather than ‘Woman’; I thought she was probably trying to play on the success of its genre and make it sound similar to the former title. However, it also establishes the character as an innocent observer from afar before revealing her true nature and intentions as the novel develops. In journalistic terms ‘Girl’ is often used in place of ‘Woman’ to suggest innocence or to win the readers over to a particular viewpoint so perhaps this is Hawkins’ background coming into play too.
    The portrayal of Tom as the psychotic husband/lover is in direct contrast to the protagonist in Gone Girl who tried to frame her husband for murder and later resolved him from blame only to entrap him in marriage and force him to father her child. So it was striking to me that Rachel emerges at the end as a free woman (despite the potential threat of prison and her previous marriage to an abusive husband), childless and having undergone a transformation (now a recovering alcoholic rather than a spiraling one). Not the most inspiring feminist persona but arguably moreso than that of Gone Girl where I felt the conclusion was that she had just become a crazy lady!

    Liked by 1 person

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