In The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins follows three women who are abused by the men in their lives in the form of what’s called gaslighting: manipulation through questioning or invalidating a person’s sanity. The novel’s antagonist-in-disguise, Tom Watson, is an expert at this kind of phycological abuse—yet Hawkins also shows how women at times gaslight themselves by internalizing their struggles—societal pressures, abuse they’ve suffered, or self-hatred—to the point of self-destruction. Hawkins ultimately argues that gaslighting degrades a person’s sense of self by targeting and destroying the victim’s memories.
Rachel is the character whose memory—and, consequently, whose sense of self—is most profoundly under attack throughout the narrative. As an alcoholic, Rachel suffers frequent blackouts: episodes in which she is unable to remember her actions, whereabouts, or thoughts because she was so drunk. All Rachel retains of these lost patches of time are the feelings associated with them—but remembering that she felt fear, regret, or shame doesn’t help her pin down what actually happened. While Tom is still married to Rachel, he takes advantage of these blackouts as opportunities to physically and psychologically abuse her. He convinces her the following day that she was the one who became angry, violent, loud, and embarrassing—when unbeknownst to her, he was the one harming her. In warping Rachel’s memories like this, Tom is undermining Rachel’s sense of self. This becomes especially clear after the pair separates, and Rachel continues to drink heavily and gaslight herself as Tom used to. By losing swaths of time and struggling to convince herself that horrible, shameful things happened in the interim, Rachel’s core sense of self degrades further and further. Just as Tom would try to convince Rachel, during her drunken blackouts, that she was the unstable or abusive one in their partnership, Rachel now tries to convince herself that she is a worse and more destructive person than she actually is. She erases her core sense of self by distrusting her mind, believing that even her own memories must be faulty or unreliable. Rachel’s journey illustrates how integral memory is to one’s sense of self. Her manufactured “memories” of assaulting or embarrassing her husband have imbued her with low self-esteem, which contributes to her worsening self-hatred and drinking problem. In other words, in poisoning Rachel’s memories, Tom also poisons her sense of self.
Megan’s character also demonstrates how gaslighting targets a person’s memory—and therefore destabilizes their sense of self—but, for the most part, Hawkins shows how Megan actually gaslights herself. Megan pushes aside painful memories of her past in order to play the role of happy wife to her husband, Scott, and later, of alluring mistress to her lover, Tom. As Megan tries to make herself fit in with her current circumstances, she battles against terrible nightmares, which are tied to a traumatic incident from her past in which her infant daughter, Libby (to whom she gave birth at just 19), drowned while Megan was taking a bath with her. Megan’s attempt to essentially gaslight herself out of experiencing the full force of her grief shows that as one’s memories—no matter how painful—begin to degrade, so too does one’s sense of self. Megan wants nothing more than to forget her painful past (memories of Libby, her deceased brother Ben, and her chaotic home life as a teen), but she doesn’t realize until it is too late that these memories are the foundation of who she is. As Megan remakes herself into the woman Scott and Tom each want, she erodes her past, her memories, and her sense of self.
Anna, too, finds that as her memories and sense of direction erode at the hands of her abusive, gaslighting husband, Tom, her sense of self also begins to fade. As Anna becomes more and more wrapped up in Tom—and his lies—she forgets about her own needs and those of her daughter, Evie. For instance, when Anna senses that Megan,(the nanny she and Tom have hired) is less than enthusiastic about childcare, she complains to Tom. Yet when Tom assures Anna that everything is fine, Anna decides to quiet her suspicions. Later on in the novel, after Anna discovers the truth about Megan’s past—and learns that Megan may have intentionally (or accidentally) killed a child many years ago—she feels vindicated. Furthermore, Anna, disturbed by Megan’s disappearance and Rachel’s frequent drunken visits to their house, insists upon moving—but then she easily lets Tom talk her out of leaving Witney in order to keep him happy and avoid conflict. Anna routinely and willfully forgets about or squashes down her instincts, hopes, and desires, convincing herself that her feelings are false out of fealty to her husband. And in the process, Anna degrades her sense of self. She is so disconnected from herself toward that the end of the novel that she seems to momentarily consider aiding Tom in murdering Rachel. Anna wants to erase all reminders of how Tom deceived Rachel—memories that also remind Anna that Tom has deceived her, too, by cheating on her with Megan. Anna has been so transformed by Tom’s gaslighting that she is now, in a way, gaslighting herself: she believes if she can erase evidence of Tom’s cruelty, she can live with the false, idealized version of him she holds in her mind. Ultimately, Anna must make the decisive choice not to forget who she is—or who her husband is—in order to save her own life.
The gaslighting that Rachel, Megan, and Anna endure is directly tied to each woman’s sense of self. As psychological abuse at the hands of various partners and self-erasure of traumatic memories slowly degrade each woman’s grasp on who she is, Hawkins demonstrates how tenuous yet precious trust in oneself is.
Gaslighting, Memory, Repression, and the Self ThemeTracker
Gaslighting, Memory, Repression, and the Self Quotes in The Girl on the Train
Sometimes I don't even watch the trains go past, I just listen. Sitting here in the morning, eyes closed and the hot sun orange on my eyelids, I could be anywhere.
Something happened, I know it did. I can't picture it, but I can feel it. The inside of my mouth hurts, as though I've bitten my cheek, there's a metallic tang of blood on my tongue. I feel nauseated, dizzy. I run my hands through my hair, over my scalp. I flinch. There's a lump, painful and tender, on the right side of my head. My hair is matted with blood.
Maybe it was then. Maybe that was the moment when things started to go wrong, the moment when I imagined us no longer a couple, but a family; and after that, once I had that picture in my head, just the two of us could never be enough. Was it then that Tom started to look at me differently, his disappointment mirroring my own? After all he gave up for me, for the two of us to be together, I let him think that he wasn't enough.
I'm walking in the woods. I've been out since before it got light, it's barely dawn now, deathly quiet except for the occasional outburst of chatter from the magpies in the trees above my head. I can feel them watching me, beady-eyed, calculating. A tiding of magpies. One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret never to be told.
I've got a few of those.
I'm thinking about her now. I have to convince Scott that I knew her—a little, not a lot. That way, he'll believe me when I tell him that I saw her with another man. If I admit to lying right away, he'll never trust me. So I try to imagine what it would have been like to drop by the gallery, chat with her over a coffee. Does she drink coffee? We would talk about art, perhaps, or yoga, or our husbands. I don't know anything about art, I've never done yoga. I don't have a husband. And she betrayed hers.
It's different, the nightmare I wake from this morning. In it, I've done something wrong, but I don't know what it is, all I know is that it cannot be put right. All I know is that Tom hates me now, he won't talk to me any longer, and he has told everyone I know about the terrible thing I've done, and everyone has turned against me: old colleagues, my friends, even my mother. They look at me with disgust, contempt, and no one will listen to me, no one will let me tell them how sorry I am. I feel awful, desperately guilty, I just can't think what it is that I've done.
Megan isn't what I thought she was anyway. She wasn't that beautiful, carefree girl out on the terrace. She wasn't a loving wife. She wasn't even a good person. She was a liar, a cheat.
She was a killer.
“Every time I passed that hole in the wall I thought about it. Tom said he was going to patch it up, but he didn't, and I didn't want to pester him about it. One day I was standing there […] and I […] remembered. I was on the floor, my back to the wall, sobbing and sobbing, Tom standing over me, begging me to calm down, the golf club on the carpet next to my feet, and I felt it, I felt it. I was terrified. The memory doesn't fit with the reality, because I don't remember anger, raging fury. I remember fear."
Everything is a lie. I didn't imagine him hitting me. I didn't imagine him walking away from me quickly, his fists clenched. I saw him turn, shout. I saw him walking down the road with a woman, I saw him getting into the car with her. I didn't imagine it. And I realize then that it's all very simple, so very simple.
"Did you hear what I just said?” he snaps, turning his back on me and striding back up the path towards the car. "You'd be a terrible mother, Megan. Just get rid of it."
I go after him… […] I’m yelling at him, screaming, trying to scratch his fucking smug face, and he’s laughing… […] It’s not even rejection, it's dismissal. […]
He's not laughing anymore.
He's coming towards me. He has something in his hand.
I've fallen. I must have slipped. Hit my head on something. I think I'm going to be sick. Everything is red. I can’t get up. […] Someone is speaking to me. Now look. Now look what you made me do.
Tom's lips are moving, he's saying something to me, but I can't hear him. I watch him come, I watch him, and I don't move until he's almost upon me, and then I swing. I jam the vicious twist of the corkscrew into his neck.
His eyes widen as he falls without a sound. He raises his hands to his throat, his eyes on mine. He looks as though he's crying. I watch until I can't look any longer, then I turn my back on him. As the train goes past I can see faces in brightly lit windows, heads bent over books and phones, travellers warm and safe on their way home.