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The Girl on the Train | Themes


Fractured Memory Equals Fractured Self

Rachel habitually blacks out when she's drunk, making her a questionable witness and narrator. Indeed, time and again, the novel stresses that the people involved do not trust her because she tells lies—to hide her alcoholism and the shame connected with its consequences, such as her unemployment—and because she has a terrible time remembering things correctly, if at all.

And yet the novel is not about alcoholism and its effect on people's memory or trustworthiness. Instead alcoholism becomes a vehicle to illustrate a general truth: people's memories are notoriously unreliable. Most people will at some point be faced with a situation in which they remember events differently than someone else, which is often cause for disagreements about who is telling the truth. Yet when two people remember things differently, this does not mean that one person is telling the truth and the other is lying. Memory is subjective, influenced by an individual's emotional and psychological circumstances. There is no "original" incident to remember. People see things differently to begin with and remember different things as time goes by.

An individual's sense of self is intricately connected to memory. The things people experience and do in the course of their lives make them who they are. Memory provides a sense of consistency, allowing an individual to look back on the past to search for behavior or thought patterns to repeat if successful or to avoid if not. A self-assured future depends on the past, and the past is only accessible in memory.

Unable to remember her behaviors, or unable to remember them correctly, Rachel's self-image is as fractured as her memory. She is unstable and unsure of herself, so much that she distrusts herself, making her suspect she may have had a role in Megan's disappearance.

While the novel illustrates that people's memories are flawed and fractured, this is not the same as saying that all memories are equally true. In fact, Rachel's distrust of herself turns out to be the result of false memories that Tom planted in the blanks of her blackouts. This exemplifies gaslighting—a form of emotional abuse by which one person attempts to make another question his or her experience and memory of reality, denies any wrongdoing, and instead blames the victim, thereby creating complete dependence on the abuser. Rachel believed Tom's stories of her erratic and sometimes even violent behavior when drunk and began to think of herself as an unworthy and unattractive person who was so difficult to live with that she herself was to blame for Tom's desire to be with other women.

Once she recovers not only her memory of what happened in the underpass, but also of what happened throughout her marriage, she realizes that she did not bungle a perfect marriage, but that she married a controlling and abusive man. She regains control of her past and thus her future.

Abandonment and Isolation

The novel begins with an image of abandoned clothes, immediately creating a sense of loneliness in a crowded environment. Rachel lives near London, a city buzzing with human activity, and rides on a crowded commuter train every morning and night, and yet barely interacts with anyone. She usually sits by herself, turned away from the other commuters, looking out the window, utterly isolated in the fantasy world she sees unfold as her train rolls by.

Rachel's isolation from the other commuters on the train is quite literal, given she has no job to commute to in the morning and no private life to return to in the evening. She lives with a college friend, yet the friendship is not close enough for her to admit that she has no job, isolating her further within her lies. Her drinking has cost her job and her marriage as well as her colleagues and friends, isolating her within a sense of guilt over a squandered life.

She longs for the happiness in which she believes these suburban couples are living, yet what she sees is twice removed, fractured by the window of the train and by the windows of the houses she rides past.

The real lives that unfold are characterized by the same sense of loneliness and isolation. Megan, abandoned by Mac after the accidental drowning of their child, suffers from an overwhelming sense of guilt that she cannot share with anyone. A string of superficial relationships dulls her sense of loss, resulting in isolation and loneliness because she cannot even connect with her husband, Scott. Tragically, at the very moment she tries to come clean, share her past, and admit to the death of her first child in order to build a family for her unborn baby, Scott pushes her away in a violent fit of jealousy, forcing her to leave the house for a walk, where she crosses paths with her ex-lover and murderer.

Anna, a stay-at-home mother, feels stuck in her house with a fussy baby, mourning the loss of her social and professional life. Although her complaints feel superficial by comparison, they touch upon the very real sense of isolation many stay-at-home mothers of young children feel. While fathers can maintain their regular lives and pursue professional success and the social life that goes with it, stay-at-home mothers spend much of their day home with only a child to talk to. This traditional setup creates a dependency on the husband that goes with a fear of abandonment. Without the father, mother and child have no one to protect and provide for them. Seen in this light, Anna's absurd desire to keep her family intact even though her husband is a murderer seems somewhat understandable.

The Role of Women

In Paula Hawkins's The Girl on the Train, women are defined by rather traditional roles: the sexy lover, the loyal and submissive wife, and the devoted mother. Rachel, Megan, and Anna define themselves not as independent women, but in relation to a husband or lover or as part of a family unit. In fact, although all three women are professionals, they either gave up working once they got married or longed to do so. Anna, a former real estate agent, is now a stay-at-home mother. Megan, who used to run an art gallery, stays at home because Scott does not want her to work. And Rachel, the only one who kept working in her marriage, only did so to facilitate the expensive infertility treatments that were supposed to make her the stay-at-home mother she longed to be.

The financial dependence that comes with being a stay-at-home wife or mother finds expression in emotional dependence. Megan feels inextricably bound to Mac, who in her mind rescued her after her brother's death, only to abandon her when she was most vulnerable. He left her alone to care for a newborn baby when she was just a teenager and deserted her after the baby accidentally drowned. Instead of realizing that Mac carries some of the responsibility for the tragic death of their child, Megan is drowning in guilt, not only over the baby's death but also over the breakup of their relationship.

Similarly, Rachel blames herself for her divorce. She can't have children and, as a result, cannot fulfill the role of the perfect wife and mother. Self-medicating the depression over her sense of loss with alcohol, she let herself go physically and emotionally, and in her mind became so unattractive to her husband that only she is to blame for the affair that broke up their relationship.

The idea of the perfect woman seems closely connected to physical appearance and sexual power. As much as Rachel chastises herself for having become unattractive to Tom, both Megan and Anna show pride in their looks and the sexual power they hold over men. Megan uses her sexuality to appease Scott whenever he seems jealous, and her sexual power over Tom keeps their affair alive although it threatens their respective marriages. Similarly, Anna mourns the time when she and Tom had a sexually fulfilling affair and complains that as a mother she has little time to care for her physical appearance.

At the same time, motherhood seems to supersede the notion of lover and wife. Rachel's desire to become a mother is so strong that her infertility destroys her self-image and makes her feel worthless. Megan's pregnancy empowers her to confront both Scott and Tom, accepting that she may end up caring for the baby on her own. And Anna's protective instinct first drives her to side with Tom even though she knows he is a murderer, yet when he takes the baby from her, thereby threatening it, her motherly instinct drives her to finish the job Rachel started and kill him.

In the end, all three women free themselves of their disastrous relationships. Megan confronts Scott and leaves him when his violent outburst threatens her and her baby, and she pushes Tom away when he discards her legitimate request to take responsibility for their affair. While this tragically leads to her death, she does not die as a submissive wife or lover, but as an independent woman willing to face the truth. Rachel and Anna kill the man who lied and cheated on them. While the ways Rachel, Megan, and Anna reclaim their freedom should not be emulated, their call for independence is loud and clear.

Deceit and Betrayal in Suburbia

Looking into the windows of the houses she passes by, Rachel believes that the strangers she sees live the perfect life she lost. The novel exposes that both the supposedly charmed life she lost and the charmed lives she watches are anything but.

The novel is full of lies: the characters don't tell the truth, not to each other and not to the reader. Rachel lies to her friend Cathy about commuting to work to keep up appearances and to avoid Cathy's well-meaning meddling. Rachel lies to Scott about her (nonexistent) friendship with Megan, so he will take her more seriously. For the same reason she keeps her drinking and unemployment from the police. But most of all, she lies to herself, hanging on to the idea that she lost the perfect life with the perfect man, when really she was in a disastrous relationship with an abusive man. Tom's utter disregard for Rachel's depression because of her infertility and his systematic lies aimed at destroying her self-image are expressions of his controlling personality.

In fact, all three women were in disastrous relationships with abusive men. Scott's fits of jealous rage are as dangerous to Megan and the baby as they are to Rachel. While Scott shows remorse over fighting with Megan the night she disappeared, he cannot control his fury, as is shown when he attacks Rachel and locks her in a bedroom. In fact, his cycle of physical violence and remorse is typical in abusive relationships.

Deceit and betrayal loom large in the relationships portrayed in the novel. Tom betrays Rachel with Anna and Anna with Megan, and Megan betrays Scott with Tom. While Megan shows remorse, Tom refuses to accept any responsibility for his wrongdoing, instead blaming Anna for his sleeping with Megan the way he blamed Rachel for his sleeping with Anna. His refusal to accept responsibility and his manipulative bending of the truth is typical of abusive relationships as well. When Anna realizes that her relationship with Tom is a mirror image of his relationship with Rachel in the making, she finally turns against him, and twists the corkscrew Rachel placed deeper to ensure her husband's death.

Using the different perspectives to expose that what we see on the outside does not at all coincide with what happens inside, the novel illustrates that you never know the people you think you know and that perhaps those you trust the most are those who will betray you the worst. Behind the drawn curtains and closed doors of suburban homes, where Rachel imagines the strangers safe at home, are husbands and wives lying and cheating and destroying each other.

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