When the dust settles what does Gone Girl tell us about men, women and relationships*?
I’m still on the fence about Gone Girl. While I admire the clever plot and the exceptional interrogation of human nature, I find myself a little angry at the negative depiction of marriage and gender that such a contradictory book delivers. Whatever your opinion, one thing is certain: the book is incredibly influential. Creative influence is a responsibility, and not one to be taken lightly. As with any book carrying significant cultural weight, it’s important to consider the themes raised in the book and the impact they may have on gender issues and relationships.
The story is clever and the themes are unsettling. Both elements make the narrative particularly engrossing, but when all is said and done we are left with some confusing messages. It’s a mistake to write off the portrayal of Nick and Amy’s marriage as complete fiction, as the story raises many significant issues about how men and women see themselves and each other. I think it’s equally dangerous to take it at face value, as some have done, and use it as proof that all men are dicks and all women are evil and the world is screwed.
This is where I get concerned. Considering the impact such a widely popular story will have on people, I wonder exactly what Flynn had in mind besides making a pretty dollar off the sensationalism.
Nothing is sacred in the novel. Love, marriage, family, neighbours, men, women, city life, country life, the media, the economy, the police, the judicial system, the masses, parenthood, childhood, fame, destitution, old writers, new writers, cultural legacy, pop culture, rich people, poor people, the educated, the ignorant, the young, the old, sanity, mental illness, you name it. The only safe element is the cat, Bleecker. It’s hard not to leave the story frustrated by the utterly desolate portrayal of everything that makes up our modern way of life. Sometimes you can’t help but feel that Flynn has created a story that shits on everything just for the sake of it.
Many people hated the book and the movie for this reason, mainly because they expected some kind of justified resolution. They wanted someone to win: a righteous ending so justice could be served, or utter tragedy so the audience could write it off as black fiction. The exact awfulness of the ending is just unresolved enough to leave us perpetually uncomfortable because we can’t just tuck it all away in a convenient genre. We actually have to think about it, and we don’t like that because it cuts too close to home. I think a lot of the people who have denigrated the novel entirely are people who ultimately don’t want to admit that there was a lot of truth to the characters.
Perhaps that’s what Flynn is ultimately trying to say: that we deceive each other and ourselves because reality is too damn hard. Yet the truth about marriage is much more nuanced and positive than Flynn would have us believe. The fact is that men and women do have different expectations of each other when entering a relationship, and rarely are those misunderstandings fully solved. But the final ‘comment’ of Flynn’s story is that you can never be yourself in a partnership; that the only way things work is for both to continue in self-deception. While I don’t agree that this is the only possible outcome for all relationships, I do think it bears some consideration.
Here’s a quick look at some ideas raised in the book.
The novel explores many contemporary issues about marriage that are disturbingly relevant. Foremost are the tensions created by external factors, such as job redundancies, financial constraints, cultural tensions between the city girl and the country boy, the stress of relocating, the influence of in-laws, and dealing with family sickness and death. These are all highly powerful influences on the health of a marriage, and Flynn depicts both positive and negative reactions to these issues in Amy and Nick’s relationship.
Just as relevant are the internal factors, such as whether or not to have kids, where to invest money, deciding to relocate, how to handle dwindling romantic energy, how to balance gender roles, how much to expect of each other, how to be attentive, how to communicate effectively with each other, how to consider one another’s needs and desires.
In reality, most marriages have successfully overcome or compromised on these issues, but many have also sputtered and failed as a result. Flynn’s depiction of the slowly building tensions and the lack of effective communication between Nick and Amy is frighteningly realistic, more detailed and accurate than the normal reader expects from a thriller. The way the novel’s characters respond to relational fallout has a lot to do with their upbringing, their personalities, and their mental health. As Amy is clearly a sociopath (or technically, suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder), her response is not ‘usual’ so we can (hopefully) assume that not all relationships will end in someone trying to frame the other for murder. However, as we all have a little bit of crazy, and mental health is a very present factor in a lot of marriages, it can also be expected that most of us won’t necessarily respond well to all of these issues.
So where does reality sit? The bottom line is that relationships are tough, but we can’t exist without them. They require some effort, but inevitably they make your life worth the living. You can’t expect any relationship to be perfect, but you can expect it to be great. The key, really, is to know when and how to compromise and when and how to stand your ground. Be ready for the crap when it comes (because it inevitably will) and be determined to overcome it together and move on.
This is where Nick and Amy really fail each other, long before the affair and the set-up. It’s too easy to say they were screwed from the start because she was a psycho and he was a spineless mummy’s boy. The cracks came through in the false expectations they had of each other and of marriage. Perceived failure, resentment and guilt, incubated by a lack of authentic communication, ultimately drove them apart, resulting in the vengeful actions (on both their parts) that lead to the events of the novel.
The portrayal of Nick Dunne is complex and exceptional, and it’s unclear at the end of the novel if he should be regarded as the hero of the book, or an equal and willing partner to the horrors he’s endured. When it comes to male gender identity the important thing is not deciding if his behaviour is right or wrong, but in filtering through the sensationalism to find the truth in his character.
Nick starts out genuinely wanting to make things work with Amy but gradually stops trying, ultimately starting an affair and wanting a divorce. The hinted reasons for this change include his hurt pride at being made redundant, his dependence on Amy’s finance, his constant guilt about moving them to Missouri, further guilt about not living up to her (treasure-hunt) expectations, his inability to effectively communicate his feelings, and a deep-seated resentment toward strong women (a feeling which he suppresses and denies, but still surfaces).
Is this a true representation of all men’s response to marriage? No, but it would definitely ring true for some. The grey area here is that all these reasons can both be valid and invalid in their own way, and so it becomes far too easy (and incorrect) to place blame wholly on him or wholly on her.
For example many would argue that the difficulty of relying on your wife for financial support is a result of deep-seated ‘provider’ psychology in males and is therefore justified. While this may be true, is it not fair then to say that sometimes we need to get over our pride in order to make a relationship work?
Another example is his perceived guilt for not living up to Amy’s expectations. Again, this is valid on some level, but is it ok to live in resentment without trying to communicate how you feel? Is it not valid for Amy to have some expectation for how she wants the marriage to work out? Was his guilt a result of knowing he had deliberately failed to consider her in some decisions?
At one point he complains that he is sick of being surrounded by nagging women, but earlier in the book Amy points out that there are behaviors he reverts to that force her into a nagging role. Both valid. Yet he often genuinely wants to help people and do the right thing, and frequently acts out of love for the women in his life: moving home to help his sick mother and maintaining a consistently positive relationship with Margo.
All of this simply serves to illustrate that Nick is human. He fails and is likewise failed by others, ultimately playing an equal hand in the disintegration of his marriage. Unfortunately, in the wake of the revelation about Amy’s deception, the novel leaves us with a conflicted portrayal of male identity in marriage and in society.
Nick’s insecurities about turning out just like his own father haunt his every step, and it’s ultimately this fear that makes him decide to stay with Amy: he wants, above all, to be the great father he never had.
Making his determination all the more poignant are the behaviors and attitudes that surface throughout the book that show him to be exactly like his father. While we are left with a somewhat positive impression of Nick’s commitment to his unborn son, Flynn has created just enough grey area so there’s no guarantee that he won’t gradually succumb to the emotional pressure of living with a murderous sociopath and become the same father he resented.
Nick’s upbringing has far-reaching effects on his emotional life and reflects a very relevant issue in modern families. At the core we have the negative male role model in Nick’s life: the emotionally abusive, woman-hating father. The de-masculinising of men is a real problem in society and one that must be addressed, but does it excuse weak and abusive behavior in men? Of course not.
How, then, are men expected to behave? And are the expectations society generates actually valid? And what prevents some men from being present in the family as strong parental role models? It’s a cop-out to say that bitchy women or spineless men are to blame for this modern gender identity crisis, but unfortunately that’s one way Flynn’s narrative could be interpreted. The greyness and complexity of this issue is subverted by the fact that Amy is a sociopath. It then becomes too easy to blame all his selfish actions on her craziness, or to blame her breakdown on his selfishness.
Nick is portrayed as sympathetic but also flawed. He does try to be a good guy but he also deliberately distances himself from Amy instead of trying to work out their issues, ultimately choosing to have an affair. The point is not that Nick was or wasn’t valid in his feelings and actions, as his insecurities are borne of real struggles that many men face. The point, again, is that he and Amy failed to communicate effectively about them, resulting in destructive responses from both.
Leaving aside the fact that Amy is a sociopath, her reflections on what it means to be a woman in a relationship are often accurate and insightful.
Her rant about the ‘Cool Girl’ syndrome is particularly true, and bears some serious consideration. Cool Girl is described, basically, as being effortlessly and consistently gorgeous, sexy and brilliant, having flawless confidence and easy-goingness, and unfailingly loving all the things men love. As Amy rightly says, Cool Girl doesn’t exist. She is a myth perpetuated by women pretending to be what men want, and men lazily expecting their women to be exactly what they want. Flynn’s discussion of Cool Girl lasts over four pages in the novel and is itself an essay in contemporary gender dilemmas. And that’s the problem. It’s not something that sociopathic women like Amy invented in order to hate on men; it’s a real and present issue in modern society.
So, why, Flynn? Why write such an insightful and concerning gender essay and then make the character an unhinged murderess?
Amy’s desire to constantly be the perfect partner is an accurate depiction of most women, the extent of which depends on individual personalities but nevertheless rings true. How many women spend their lives adapting to perceived expectations, only to end up exhausted and frustrated? Too many. Again, this is a two-sided issue of women perceiving expectations from their partners that are not necessarily true, but also of partners not observing that their wives are making such an effort.
As discussed above, a lot of Amy’s problems with Nick come down to her miscommunicated expectations and the resultant feelings of guilt in Nick. The point about the treasure-hunts is disconcerting, because of course everyone wants to know that their partner ‘understands’ them and cares enough to notice what they’re like. At the same time, everyone is human and you can never know everything there is to know about another person. To avoid this becoming a huge issue in their marriage, Nick and Amy clearly needed to make some effort: Amy to mitigate her expectations, and Nick to make a concerted effort to be more attentive.
Though it’s impossible to know exactly how much Diary Amy is Real Amy, it’s clear that most entries are an accurate reflection of her feelings and actions. If I put myself in her place, I can’t help but sympathise with her feelings of desolation and her desire to make things right (though I wouldn’t go about it quite like she did).
If I faced two job losses in the household and my parents’ financial ruin, and then my husband up and moved me away from my hometown without consulting me, I would be more than momentarily upset. I would start to question the health of our marriage. Having similarly relocated to my husband’s hometown (though voluntarily; my husband would never force that on me), I completely sympathise with Amy’s feelings of isolation and the difficulty of trying to fit in with a family and a community culture that is vastly different to your own. If my husband then continued to distance himself from me, used our remaining finance to set up a ‘hobby’ job, and cared so little for me that he didn’t even know what I did with my time, I would start to freak out emotionally too. If I then caught him cheating on me with a ‘perfect’ young girl after I had tried so hard to be the perfect wife? Well, that would be a tipper. Would it induce me to commit murder by framing him? No. But then again, I’m not a sociopath.
And this is where I get annoyed at Flynn. She sets up sympathetic and complex male and female identities, creates a compelling case for marital disharmony, and then screws over any truth to their relationship by making Amy a murdering sociopath. This then gives every dissatisfied and ignorant man an excuse to blame any valid female behavior that they don’t like on the misguided premise that all women are psychos. Of course, the book wouldn’t have worked if Amy had been sane, but the true concerns raised by Flynn combined with Amy’s extreme behaviours create a disturbing message about female identity, one that can confuse both men and women.
In a way we should thank Flynn for creating such an impeccable female villain. It’s about time, really. But instead of the one-dimensional, totally crazy villains we expect from this kind of story (Norman Bates) Amy is a real woman. Which sadly makes it seem that any remotely intelligent woman with expectations and standards in life must be a sociopath.
I hope that modern audiences are open-minded enough to both accept the truth of this novel and also to see beyond the final curtain to a balanced view on the nature of relationships. Unfortunately a quick scan of recent forums demonstrates this is not the case; it’s too tempting for modern readers to let the novel validate their malcontents instead of challenge them. Try to put your knee-jerk irritations aside and examine these issues in an honest way. Interrogate the truth to Flynn’s characters while also seeing them for what they are: a simple exercise, albeit a highly successful one, in mass-sensationalist controversy.
What are your thoughts?
*Note: The discussion in this essay stems from heterosexual marriage and gender identities due to the subject matter of the novel.