Themes

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Last Updated on February 4, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 855

Deception and Perception

The overarching theme of The Girl on the Train is that things are not always what they seem. In some respects, the novel is a conventional mystery, in which the characters and the reader try to find out what happened to Megan. In the course of answering this question, author Paula Hawkins seems to be following conventional narrative methods, such as inserting misleading clues or “red herrings.” For example, numerous hints lead toward the conclusion that Dr. Abdic was Megan’s lover. The author later reveals that many of the fundamental premises on which the characters and the reader based their understanding were not true. Furthermore, the hints were vague and supported only by individual characters’ impressions. The reader has allowed themself to be deceived. By having three first-person narrators, the author raises questions about the reliability of all three but later reveals that another character’s deliberate deception is the cause of others’ mistaken perceptions.

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The idea that appearances can be deceiving can be glossed as “don’t believe your eyes.” Literal vision is an important component. Rachel gazes at the house on Blenheim Road from the train windows, and the reader soon learns that she is mistaken about what she sees at the home of “Jason and Jess.” Although Rachel is devastated when she sees a strange man kiss “Jess,” later identified as Megan, she leaps to conclusions that are not supported by what she actually saw. Throughout the novel, these kinds of erroneous assumptions both advance the plot and lead the reader astray. The author places the reader in a position that parallels that of Rachel: a kind of voyeur who makes assumptions about her behavior. Hawkins thereby stresses the importance of seeing with the eyes versus with the mind’s eye. In this regard, she shows a strong allegiance to cinematic and fictional antecedents involving voyeurism, especially Rear Window, a film by Alfred Hitchcock based on Cornell Woolrich’s story “It Had to Be Murder,” and Blow-Up, a story by Julio Cortázar and film adaptation by Michelangelo Antonioni.

Within the overall theme of deception, the author also explores deliberate deception, or outright lies, and the repression of unpleasant truths. While the reader learns fairly early that Tom had deceived Rachel through his affair with Anna, the full extent of his lies—along with their harmful impact­—is only gradually revealed. Repression is an important component of all the female characters. Rachel and Megan try to push unpleasant truths out of their memories, while Anna deludes herself by ignoring warning signs. The plot can only be resolved by revealing numerous and often very unpleasant truths.

The Damage of Psychological Abuse

Throughout the novel, Rachel elicits both positive and negative reactions from the reader. While many readers can sympathize and empathize with her struggles with alcoholism, her behavior is generally off-putting. She stalks her ex-husband and his new wife and may have tried to harm their child. As the reader learns that Rachel’s struggles with infertility are involved in some of this self-destructive behavior, the author also generates suspicion that it was Rachel who harmed Megan. Further, Rachel deliberately lies to everyone—not just strangers, such as Scott and Dr. Abdic, but even her best friend, Cathy. While much of the plot hinges on Megan’s disappearance, she is a supporting character, so the reader learns less about her psychological problems and their implications.

In apparent homage to Gaslight, the Alfred Hitchcock film that lent its name to the more general term, the author later reveals that severe, long-term psychological abuse by a spouse is behind many of the problems that their partner endures. Because there is apparently little accompanying physical abuse during much of the novel, the idea that verbal abuse causes devastating damage is emphasized.

The Pain of Loss

Many of the characters are suffering because of losses in their lives. This pain is often suggested as the reason for the deceptions and repressions. These issues are most notable in Rachel because she is the protagonist, but they are motivating factors in several other characters’ behavior. One might even stretch the point and find an association between loss and Tom’s behavior.

For much of the novel, Rachel seems to be suffering the fallout of her break-up with Tom. It seems clear that her husband deceived her and rejected her, as he had an affair with another woman, divorced her, and married and had a baby with that woman. The reader may urge Rachel to “get over it” while she seems to be prolonging the agony—not just deliberately passing by her former house on the train, but actually going there and confronting Anna, as well as constantly telephoning Tom. She is also affected by losing her job.

Later, the author reveals that infertility was an underlying factor in Tom and Rachel’s divorce and that she both continues to suffer from her inability to conceive and blames herself for the associated problems. The concept of pain associated with losing a child is extended through Megan’s character. In a different way, it factors into her death as well.

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