Reading bestsellers is something I find myself consistently behind on; this summer, I finally got around to purchasing 2012’s The Girl on the Train – Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. A psychological thriller that centres on the disappearance of Amy Dunne and the mounting suspicion faced by her husband, Gone Girl was met with both critical and commercial acclaim. Amy Dunne’s character is responsible for the various twists in the novel that make it such a gripping contribution to the mystery genre. Manipulating the reader and other characters alike, her husband begs the question on our behalf: what are you thinking, Amy?
In the novel, our feelings toward Amy are subject to change because her character is multi-faceted. The various perspectives we have on her include:
- Diary Amy, in the first part of the novel
- Real Amy, in the second part of the novel
- Accounts and memories of Amy (via Nick Dunne and other, minor characters)
Halfway through the novel, we discover that the sweet and amiable Amy we have come to know through her diary entries is actually a meticulous construction of real Amy – the diary being a key piece of evidence that she plans on using to frame her husband for murder. Meeting Real Amy is therefore a major twist by Flynn, not only because we no longer see her as a long-suffering victim, probably murdered by her spouse, but because she becomes an extremely fascinating character. For instance, we come to learn that Diary Amy is a construction based on the feminine ideal of the ‘Cool Girl’:
“Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means that I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap bear, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hotdogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.”
When Gone Girl was published in 2012, Flynn’s idea of the ‘Cool Girl’ became something of a cultural phenomenon among women. The ideal that the Cool Girl represents is something we are bombarded with by men, women, and media outlets. An example of this was the Jennifer Lawrence hysteria that had been building into a crescendo between the times the novel and film were released, something that was largely due to her self-confessed passion for pizza (not that it shows, of course). Popular characters such as Robin from How I Met Your Mother and Jamie from the film Friends with Benefits (played by Mila Kinus) also personify many of the Cool Girl characteristics.
The Cool Girl inspires desire among men because, in Amy’s words, she is the girl who “likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain”. The Cool Girl is easy for men to like because she is easy; they don’t need to put any effort into their relationship because her desires are a mere reflection of his desires. In a world where women are perceived as complicated, demanding and often borderline hysterical, the Cool Girl is effectively ‘one of the lads’ – but with breasts. She happily subscribes to the warped, male vision of sex that is a product of our porn-saturated society, with its violent undertones and expectations of female subservience.
A successful visual adaptation was produced by David Fincher in 2014, with Rosamund Pike giving a lauded performance as Amy. In the film, however, Diary Amy doesn’t really resemble a Cool Girl – she just comes across as a docile and devoted housewife, far from the cutthroat and calculating Amy we meet in the latter half of the film. In the book, on the other hand, Amy is plenty Cool Girl. In one chapter, Amy goes out with her friends and their husbands, sans Nick. Coolly, Amy goes on to justify his absence in her diary entry: “I don’t need pathetic dancing-monkey scenarios to repeat to my friends. I am content with letting him be himself.” Later, real-time Amy recalls “that was pure, dumb Cool Girl bullshit … If you let a man cancel plans or decline to do things for you, you lose.”
So why does Amy play the Cool Girl, but talk about them with such dripping derision? When we finally meet the real Amy, we learn early on that she is both competitive and a perfectionist, which together fuel her acting ability. Upon meeting her husband-to-be, she decides that in order for him to love her, she must play the Cool Girl:
“…it’s tempting to be Cool Girl. For someone like me, who likes to win, it’s tempting to want to be the girl every guy wants. When I met Nick, I knew immediately that was what he wanted, and for him, I guess I was willing to try.”
Interestingly, this implies that Amy doesn’t believe she would be loved if she were to be herself. Upon reading the first ‘real’ chapter from Amy’s perspective, it’s clear that this mind set is rooted in her upbringing. Amy explains that she was a miracle baby for her parents: her mother had had five miscarriages and two stillbirths before her, and was unable to have any subsequent children. Not only was she immediately under pressure to be the child her parents had always envisioned, but she was also under pressure to match the pace of her fictional counterpart – ‘Amazing Amy’. Her parents wrote a series of books which, she argued, plagiarised her childhood: “Until Nick, I never really felt like a person, because I was always a product. Amazing Amy has to be brilliant, creative, kind, thoughtful, witty, and happy.” Thus, a deep-seated sense of perfectionism was born, and Amy commodified herself in order to be the ‘perfect’ wife:
“Committing to Nick, feeling safe with Nick, being happy with Nick, made me realize that there was a Real Amy in there, and she was so much better, more interesting and complicated and challenging, than Cool Amy. Nick wanted Cool Amy anyway. Can you imagine, finally showing your true self to your spouse, your soul mate, and having him not like you? So that’s how the hating first began.”
We also glean information about Amy and her motives from the accounts that Nick collects in an attempt to save himself. Primarily, we learn that Amy has a warped sense of justice. For instance, Amy made it seem as if a childhood friend (who had scored better on a test, etc.) was obsessed with becoming ‘Amazing Amy’, and then threw herself down a set of stairs in order to frame her. She also made a false rape allegation in order to punish a man who had spurned her. These accounts serve to highlight Amy’s patience when it comes to exacting revenge: she cuts herself in order to create the blood needed to frame Nick for her murder, she creates seven years’ worth of meticulous diary entries in order to paint him as an abuser.
The critical reaction to Gone Girl is also noteworthy; it’s been debated whether Amy’s character is a stereotypically sexist portrayal of a madwoman, or whether the novel is actually a feminist manifesto. One of the more interesting arguments I came across focused on what the debate surrounding Gone Girl is missing – a discussion of privilege, written by Natalie Wilson for Magazine:
“If Amy’s accusations of rape against not one but three men were to be reported in real-world media, it’s likely she would have been blamed, interrogated and have her reputation besmirched, especially if she lacked many of the privileges Amy’s character has.”
Wilson argues that the fact Gone Girl does not address how Amy’s privilege (whiteness and wealth) “puts her in some ways above the law” makes the novel serve as a “crystallization of a thousand misogynistic myths and fears about female behaviour”.
All in all, Amy Elliott Dunne is undoubtedly an extremely interesting character; in her own words, she’s interesting, complicated and challenging. As Wilson notes, she’s also narcisstic, vain and shallow. Whatever your stance on the debate, Amy Dunne is certainly a character you can revisit time and time again in the attempt of unpicking her mind.
Words by Rose Wolfe-Emery