Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train is a novel about how society’s expectations of women often push them to the breaking point, leading them to seek out (or fall victim to) dangerous situations. As Rachel Watson struggles to understand her role in the disappearance of a young and beautiful woman from an outer suburb of London, Megan Hipwell, Hawkins suggests that society is structured to overwhelm, overburden, and then ultimately abandon women in their greatest moments of need.
Hawkins uses the first of her three protagonists and narrators, Rachel, to demonstrate how society overburdens women with expectations of traditional femininity and maternal duty yet fails to support them at their most vulnerable. Rachel is a lonely, unemployed woman with a drinking problem and few attachments. Her former husband, Tom, left her a little over a year ago for another woman, and Rachel regularly overhears the people in her life describe her as a “desperate” and overweight alcoholic. Rachel does not conform to a traditional image of femininity: she is single, childless, and withdrawn. Her drinking problem—which often leaves her with gaps in her memory and contributes to her slovenly appearance—means that she’s unable to take care of herself. Although Rachel’s behavior concerns those around her, these people judge her rather than doing anything to help her. As Hawkins delves into Rachel’s backstory, she reveals that Rachel and her ex-husband Tom struggled for years to conceive a child. Unable to fulfill society’s expectation that she become a mother, Rachel drank to console herself—often to the point of blacking out. And unfortunately, these blackouts made her more vulnerable to her husband’s verbal and physical rages. Tom’s abuse speaks to the way that society shames rather than helps women who struggle with infertility, abuse, self-hatred, and addiction and who fail to live up to societal expectations.
Hawkins uses Megan, the second narrator and protagonist, to showcase how society fails to secure justice for women who cannot obtain it for themselves. Like Rachel, Megan Hipwell also doesn’t conform to society’s vision of maternity and femininity. At first glance, she seems like a confident, self-assured woman—but her past is riddled with trauma, loss, and dark secrets. She has had to fend for herself since she was only 16 years old, and society has never protected her. She doesn’t feel she fits in with the posh, athleisure-clad women who live in her small suburban town—and yet Megan works to keep up appearances. Because of the façade Megan creates, she slips through the cracks of society when she most needs help. The experiences and abuses she hides in order to conform complicate the investigation of her disappearance in unforeseen ways. As investigators look into Megan’s life and find more and more evidence of her departure from the feminine mainstream, they begin to actively demonize her for her choices. As Megan’s dark past comes to light over the course of the investigation into her disappearance, the detectives working the case ultimately fail to prioritize Megan and suggest that her murder may have been her own fault—that is, her rebellious, promiscuous choices in life brought about her tragic end. With this, Hawkins shows how society fails to give Megan justice, both in life and in death.
Anna, Tom’s new wife and the novel’s third narrator, demonstrates how society pits women against one another, forcing them to value male approval and companionship over female friendships. Such a situation can put women in danger and leave them with little support. Anna recalls how being “the other woman” felt exciting in the early days of her affair with Tom. Even though she knew he was married, she found his attention thrilling and came to see Rachel as an enemy. Indeed, when Tom left Rachel for Anna, Anna felt like she had won—and this feeling of victory blinded her to his pattern of emotional abuse. When Rachel confronts Tom about Megan’s disappearance, Rachel is uncertain if Anna will defend her against Tom’s increasingly dangerous blows or remain complicit in his cruelty and violence. The women of the novel are conditioned to prioritize men’s approval—and Rachel thus believes that Anna will side with Tom, in order to retain his love and confidence, rather than challenging his violent behavior. It’s at this point that Anna witnesses Tom’s abuse toward Rachel and discovers his affair with Megan, but she finds herself unable to accept the truth about her husband. She continues to see Rachel and Megan as promiscuous, threatening, or insane. This further isolates Anna with Tom, a dangerous man who has committed at least one murder. Anna’s character shows how women often internalize a hatred and distrust of other women whom they view as competitors or rivals, and how this phenomenon can further women’s isolation, vulnerability, and proximity to danger. Because society so often pits women against one another, women become even more vulnerable. They often fail to ask for help—even when they desperately need it—out of a desire to hide from their perceived “competitors” the very vulnerabilities that the world around them has created.
Throughout The Girl on the Train, Hawkins shows how society fails its most vulnerable women by constraining them into visions of femininity defined by propriety and benevolence only to disenfranchise them when they do not conform to such stifling standards. Rachel, Megan, and Anna each struggle with the societal expectations that have been placed upon them—even as their personal lives grow increasingly unstable and dangerous.
Women and Society ThemeTracker
Women and Society 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.
The thing about being barren is that you're not allowed to get away from it. […] My friends were having children, friends of friends were having children, pregnancy and birth and first birthday parties were everywhere. I was asked about it all the time. […] When was it going to be my turn? […] I was still young, there was still plenty of time, but failure cloaked me like a mantle, it overwhelmed me, dragged me under, and I gave up hope. […] I was wrong to suggest that we should share the blame; it was all down to me.
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.
When I wake again, Tom's not at my side, but I can hear his footfalls on the stairs. He's singing, low and tuneless, "Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you. . ." I hadn't even thought about it earlier, I'd completely forgotten; I didn't think of anything but fetching my little girl and getting back to bed.
"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.
I'm just turning to walk to the station when a man comes running along the pavement, earphones on, head down. He's heading straight for me, and as I step back, trying to get out of the way, I slip off the edge of the pavement and fall.
The man doesn't apologize, he doesn't even look back at me, and I'm too shocked to cry out. I get to my feet and stand there, leaning against a car, trying to catch my breath.
“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.
"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.