Spoiler Alert, obviously. I’m going to talking about the plot and details of this book. I might spoil other things too.
I went to see The Crucible, put on by Toronto’s Soulpepper theatre, last week and was struck by how much I hated Abigail. She’s the young servant girl who’s had an affair with the man of the house, John Proctor, been subsequently fired, dances naked in the woods to summon the devil, repents to save herself, and then goes on to accuse half the town of witchcraft – including, most importantly, Goody Proctor, John’s very perfect wife. While it’s not unreasonable to hate a character who’s sending innocent people to their death (or should we hate the justice system that allows this to happen?), but it occurred to me that the ease with which we grow to hate Abigail is not just because her character is so un-likeable, but because we are so familiar with the character of the vengeful woman that we immediately know how to react.
Which brings us to Gone Girl. I came to read this book on the recommendation of Grumpy Librarian on Twitter. I had put out the call for an easy to read book. Not dumb, but easy to read (a fine and important distinction). Something with vacation potential, but also to keep my attention since I seem to have so little of it. Gone girl is just that. It’s clever and captivating and lots of fun to read. It made me a bit queasy at times, and angry. Occasionally it made me want to fist-pump (mostly the discussion of the “cool girl” and the take down of both men and women who buy into it). And it had a twist. A really well executed twist.
It becomes increasingly clear as the book progresses that two narratives don’t match. Someone is lying. Or someone is crazy. Or both. But since Amy Elliott Dunne’s story was presented as diary entries, written in the years leading up to her disappearance, it didn’t occur to me that half of what I’d been reading was a complete lie. Amy wasn’t dead at all. Her diary entries were written to create two characters: The Amy she wanted the police and public to know and care about, and the damaged and abused Amy with a callous, angry, and mean husband.
We were being willfully misled. Done wrong, this is an infuriating move. The reader shouldn’t feel lied to so much as just led down a path full of twists and turns, that inevitably leads to a dead end. The information was presented to the readers, and it is up to them to figure out what is true. For example, Amy’s parents introduced the idea of Amy’s stalkers – Hillary and Desi – and Amy’s diary entries supported those stories. But we hadn’t actually been given any reason to believe either party was credible. When it turns out that Amy actually set-up fake stalkings and assaults, then manipulated everyone else, it’s surprising. But it also let’s us reflect on how easily we had been manipulated by “Amy” as well. I think I liked being misled – even if I’m not sold on the direction the story had to take as a result.
I thought of Amy while watching Abigail sentence her enemies to death in The Crucible. This is essentially what Amy does too. She ruins the lives of those who scorn her — with more precision than Abigail, for sure, but with similar motivations. And despite the actions of the men in their lives (adultery, lechery, lies, emotional abandonment, general douchery), the men quickly become victims and the women transform into villains. That’s not to say that adultery is more deplorable than witch hunts and framing your husband for murder, but I think the dynamic (between the characters, and between the characters and the reader) is interesting.
What I struggled with the most in Gone Girl is Amy’s rape accusations, and I have to ask: What place does rape have in fiction? It seems to me that rape in fiction is so often used to either set the tone for the story (a violent, patriotic land, where men’s lives mean little, and women’s even less), or to give a female character a reason to grow stronger/change emotional shape. (Then there are other cases when a rape seems to serve no purpose at all. It is an act of violence, and then the story moves on, the act never to be confronted or spoken of again.) When I encounter rape in fiction, I wonder could this story have existed without this piece? Does this add anything to the story or character that couldn’t have been achieved in another way? And does it do more harm than good — harm in that in potentially numbs an audience to seriousness of rape, and can also serve to perpetuate myths about rape and the people it happens to?
Amy makes two false rape claims. One is used as a means of revenge to let a boyfriend know that cheating on her/leaving her is not acceptable. The other is a bit more complex. Amy needs someone to pin her abduction on once she decides it shouldn’t be her husband. Desi, who is “helping her” by keeping her in his lake house, is the victim in her scheme mostly because he’s an easy target. But Amy also wants to punish Desi for thinking he could control her, that he deserved her, and that he had the power in their relationship. There’s no doubt that Amy is seriously mentally disturbed (her husband, and others in the know, accuse her of being a sociopath, but that’s not an accurate description of her), but I found fake rape claims to be more jarring than a fake murder, perhaps because it raises these questions for me:
- Do female characters in fiction who lie about rape damage real women’s chances of being taken seriously?
- Does the vengeful, lying, manipulative female character contaminate our minds and influence the way we treat women in society and the justice system in ways that unstable male characters can’t?
- And on the other side: Does refusing to acknowledge a dark side of the female psyche also hurt women? After all, it doesn’t make sense to pretend that women aren’t capable of heinous things.
I don’t know the answer to any of the questions, but I think it’s an interesting discussion to have. Did anyone else feel this way?