[Contains spoilers for Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, a book I’d rather not spoil for anyone. Seriously, go read it. I promise you will not see it coming.]
During undergrad, I took a Short Fiction course from a professor who insisted that all characters’ motivations had to make sense. If they did not, one of only two things was true: either the writer was a hack, or the character was insane.
…Said professor would likely not have gotten along with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.
The urge to write off Gone Girl’s antagonist, Amy Elliott Dunne, as crazy is intense. This is, after all, a woman who frames her own husband for her murder on their fifth anniversary, then frames a murdered ex for her abduction so she can come back to her husband and continue playing the “Cool Girlfriend/Perfect Wife” stereotype over which she framed him for murder in the first place. The narrative is set up to force identification with the husband, Nick, even as it suggests that he’s every bit as much a monster – just in a more subtle, less “I totally just killed a dude and framed his corpse for violently raping me” sort of way.
Who wants to admit they “get” Amy, when “getting” Amy is tantamount to admitting you’d like to frame your spouse for your murder because he can’t read your mind? I don’t.
Except I do.
I don’t mean I want to frame my spouse for murder because he can’t read my mind. It’s too much work, and hell, *I* can’t read my mind half the time. But when it comes to the “Cool Girlfriend,” to the pressure to have a “perfect” picture-book marriage which includes the need never to admit that’s what you want or need because part of the “perfection” package is a spouse who understands and plays his role automatically, yeah. I do get that. I read magazines; I watch the occasional “woman’s interest” television. I understand the incredible pressure put on women – especially professional women in their mid-thirties with no career or children – to make every moment look like it came out of a spread in Martha Stewart Living, only without admitting, as Martha Stewart does, that these projects actually require time and effort. Nicole Hollander called this woman “The Woman Who Does Everything More Beautifully Than You”; left out of that statement is the idea that the woman who does everything more beautifully does it with no effort. It’s sprezzatura on steroids, only you’re not allowed to admit to the steroids.
Amy’s striving to be the “Cool Girlfriend” appears mostly in her diary entries, which describe things like pretending she’s not disappointed when Nick blows off a cocktail party with their (mostly her) friends, or admitting she is disappointed when he can’t remember the little romantic details of their courtship that she recalls so clearly. The diary chronicles Amy’s love/hate relationship with the “Cool Girlfriend” so intimately that it’s easy to identify with; any reader who strives similarly starts to see Amy as rightfully desperate and unhappy and Nick as, well, a bit of a jerk.
The catch is that this identification survives the big reveal: the diary is a fiction, a contrivance designed to implicate Nick further. Suddenly the episodes of domestic violence, Amy’s quest to buy a gun, are revealed as fakes: but there’s a sense that Amy’s hopelessness at perpetually falling short of the (unattainable) ideal is real. And it is. One more shot at that ideal is what brings her back to Nick; one more shot at that ideal is why the pair return to a life with a surface ideal leveraged by blackmail.
And that’s why Gone Girl works; because the insanity isn’t insane. We want the actions to be inexplicable, but they’re not. They’re eminently explicable via a struggle that hits very close to home for women. Framing our husbands for murder isn’t a solution most of us would contrive on our own or run with once presented; most women want a better way out than a web of deceit bordering on the absurd.
But the pressure to effortless perfection? Yeah. We get it.