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The Girl on the Train received a lot of attention when it was published back in 2015; it rose fairly quickly on the bestsellers list, and at the library I worked at, we could barely keep it on the shelf. With the release of the movie a few weeks ago, I rediscovered the story and what the portrayal of the women in the story means for the larger trends of feminism in literature.
The way women are portrayed within literature is an important indication of what is happening in the greater society. Take the Victorian Era, for example. Much of the literature at the beginning of the Victorian Era focuses on the idea of “the Angel in the House,” or the idea that women should be submissive to their husbands. They should be meek, graceful, self-sacrificing, and pure. Women were expected to fit into these roles, to submit to the men around them.
This trend was challenged by writers like Charlotte Brontë, who published books like Jane Eyre which openly defied the “Angel in the House” ideal. This lead to the notion of the “New Woman,” which focused on texts that feature women who go against the social norms and challenging the way society thinks about women.
In this vein, literature has often been a way to go against societal norms, a way to critique social constructions. This is evident in the recent trend of thrillers that are being published, like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train.
The majority of books that are published within this genre tend to be written by male writers and focus on male protagonists, as Claire Fallon points out in her article here. Books like The Girl on the Train focus on the trauma and pain that many women find in their everyday lives, bypassing the traditional spy or detective stories found within this genre.
Take Rachel from The Girl on the Train for example. A lonely, recently-divorced alcoholic, she rides the train back and forth from London every day, going past her ex-husband’s house. To distract herself, Rachel focuses on the house a few houses down from her ex-husband, fantasizing about the lives of the perfect couple that she sees there. But one day, her fantasy is shattered when something shocking happens at the house—and later that night, the wife disappears. Rachel soon finds out that she is key to finding out what happened to the wife, but her alcoholism makes her an unreliable witness in the investigation.
This narration is intermingled with two other women within the text—Megan, the vanished wife, and Anna, Rachel’s ex-husband’s new wife. Now, none of these women are particularly likable; they all make immoral choices; lying, cheating, etc. But this is what makes them important to the portrayal of women in popular literature.
Where Gone Girl defiantly made a stand about the way that many women are portrayed in the media and in literature (the whole “Cool Girl” angle), The Girl on the Train does so in a more subtle way. Paula Hawkins constructs the narrative in such a way that emphasizes the trauma and abuse that Rachel is dealing with—trauma and abuse that Rachel doesn’t immediately realize has been inflicted on her. This is key. Rachel’s narrative highlights the fact that many women who are in these particular situations don’t realize that they are being abused, and Hawkins portrays this in her text in a very real way.
While this trend in literature is progressive in what it is doing for the portrayal of women, there is one problematic element that we see time and time again with literature: the lack of intersectionality. The majority of women featured in these novels are white, upper class, privileged women. The lack of intersectionality within these texts erases a large portion of identities who also deal with issues of abuse and trauma.
In addition to challenging the way we think about survivors of abuse, feminist literature can challenge the way we think about race and the way that race and feminism intersects. It is important when thinking about feminist literature to think about the way that it includes all women, and not just the women being portrayed.
As we move forward in a country where women and minorities feel very real threats from the presidency, it is important that literature continues to unmask their struggles, from all angles. The Girl on the Train illuminates ingrained viewpoints about how society views and deals with women who have experienced abuse and exposes internalized misogyny.
Though a lot of progress has been made in terms of gender and inclusion recently, it is clear that many women still want to explore these dramatic representations of these deeply ingrained ideologies, and many women are still left out of the equation.