Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train is an intricate and suspenseful modern-day mystery in which none of the main characters—not even the protagonist, Rachel Watson—is particularly reliable. In the world of the novel, truth is constantly obscured, and any information that comes to light is immediately subject to suspicion and uncertainty. Through the creation of this environment, Hawkins ultimately suggests that a relationship, a community, or indeed a society rooted in secrets and lies only breed more secrets and lies, creating a world in which nothing—and no one—can be trusted.
There are several major instances in which information is obscured from the characters in order to suggest that secrets, lies, and falsehoods create an unstable, uncertain world. Early on in the book, Hawkins creates an environment full of secrets and lies, which mirrors the intricate deceptions (small and large) that define real life. The book features several unreliable narrators—Rachel, Megan, and Anna—who are too busy focusing on the lies they tell themselves to get at the heart of the secrets and lies all around them. With this, Hawkins suggests that failing to confront the secrets in day-to-day life contributes to a larger and deeper network of secrets and lies in wider society. The novel is full of characters who can’t be trusted. For instance, Rachel is reluctant to discuss her infertility or unemployment with her roommate, Cathy. Megan fails to divulge the truth about the infant daughter, Libby, whom she unwittingly killed years ago. And Tom pathologically deceives and abuses the women in his life. By creating an environment in which her readers must question every piece of information a character divulges—or seems to divulge—Hawkins argues that the world as her readers know it is structured around complex webs of secrets, lies, and half-truths. Society, Hawkins suggests, cannot function any other way—and yet a society built on untruths and secrecy is a dangerous place which may very well consume itself.
Through Rachel’s character, Hawkins delves deeper into the secrets which have ruled the world of the novel—and which, she suggests, rule the real world as well. “I feel so horribly vulnerable now that I’ve seen what he is; now that there are no secrets between us,” Rachel says after uncovering the terrible truth about the role of her ex-husband Tom in the murder of Megan Hipwell. Achieving a state in a relationship in which there are “no secrets” is a state in which vulnerability, repulsion, danger, and fear flourish. Knowing the whole truth about a person, Hawkins suggests, is a liability. This, she argues, contributes to the ongoing web of secrets, lies, false narratives, and half-truths which govern the world. By creating a narrative in which the climactic energy of the story comes from a series of startling, disturbing revelations Rachel makes about the private lives of those around her—those closest to her, even—Hawkins suggests that an economy of secrets and lies is, in many ways, integral not just to a suspenseful narrative but indeed to a functioning society. Knowing the truth, Hawkins suggests, isn’t easy or pleasant—and sometimes, it could even be dangerous.
Toward the end of the novel, as Rachel reckons with all that has happened to her, she describes sending an email to Megan’s husband Scott apologizing for “all the lies.” She wonders if she will ever be able to know “peace” given the web of lies that have come to define not only her life but the lives of those around her. In this short yet revealing passage, Hawkins dissects how secrets and lies spread through a community and poison everything they touch—even as unwitting individuals continue to spread and proliferate them. Rachel didn’t know the whole truth about Tom’s deceptions and deviances—and thus, she feels that she became complicit in allowing them to continue. Hawkins uses Rachel’s profound guilt to suggest that just as Rachel wonders how many lies she’s been a part of, people tend to live according to what they can see and what they know. One might not realize how many profoundly deep-seated lies make up the fabric of their everyday lives—and this, Hawkins suggests, perpetuates a pervasive atmosphere of secrets, lies, and false narratives.
Throughout The Girl on the Train, Hawkins uses a plot constructed around a dense web of secrets and lies in order to mirror the convoluted, unreliable structure of the world itself. As the characters in the novel struggle to uncover one another’s secrets and get to the root of the lies and deceptions all around them, Hawkins suggests that relationships and connections based in secrecy and dishonesty will only create a wider societal environment predicated on the constant, poisonous spread of lies and uncertainty. By creating a narrative in which no one can be trusted, Hawkins shows just how frustrating, confusing, and hopeless it feels to live in a world based on secrets and lies.
Secrets and Lies ThemeTracker
Secrets and Lies Quotes in The Girl on the Train
I know that on warm summer evenings, the occupants of this house, Jason and Jess, sometimes climb out of the large sash window to sit on the makeshift terrace on top of the kitchen-extension roof. They are a perfect, golden couple. […] While we're stuck at the red signal, I look for them. Jess is often out there in the mornings, especially in the summer, drinking her coffee. Sometimes, when I see her there, I feel as though she sees me, too, I feel as though she looks right back at me, and I want to wave.
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.
I don't have words to describe what I felt that day, but now, sitting on the train, I am furious, nails digging into my palms, tears stinging my eyes. I feel a flash of intense anger. I feel as though something has been taken away from me. How could she? How could Jess do this? What is wrong with her? Look at the life they have, look at how beautiful it is!
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.
On the train on the way home, as I dissect all the ways that today went wrong, I'm surprised by the fact that I don't feel as awful as I might. Thinking about it, I know why that is: I didn't have a drink last night, and I have no desire to have one now. I am interested, for the first time in ages, in something other than my own misery. I have purpose. Or at least, I have a distraction.
Who's to say that once I run, I'll find that isn't enough? Who's to say I won't end up feeling exactly the way I do right now—not safe, but stifled? Maybe I'll want to run again, and again, and eventually I'll end up back by those old tracks, because there's nowhere left to go.
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.
"Honestly, Rachel, I don't understand how you could have kept this up for so long."
I shrug. "ln the morning, I take the 8:04, and in the evening, I come back on the 5:55. That's my train. It's the one I take. That's the way it is."
"I fell asleep," I say, and then I can't say any more, because I can feel her again, no longer on my chest, her body wedged between my arm and the edge of the tub, her face in the water. We were both so cold.
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.
She held up a newspaper with the headline WAS MEGAN A CHILD KILLER? I was speechless. I just stared at it and, ridiculously, burst into tears. […] Diane glanced slyly up at me and asked, "Are you all right, sweetie?" She was enjoying it, I could tell.
I had to leave then, I couldn't stay. They were all being terribly concerned, saying how awful it must be for me, but I could see it on their faces: thinly disguised disapproval. How could you entrust your child to that monster? You must be the worst mother in the world.
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."
I'm doing the things she did: drinking alone and snooping on him. The things she did and he hated. But recently—as recently as this morning—things have shifted. If he's going to lie, then I'm going to check up on him. That's a fair deal, isn't it?
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.
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.