A number of my students are reading Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn right now. It was on my list; Barb had recommended it to me, and I’d liked Sharp Objects a lot, so the timing seemed perfect.
A lot of the reader reaction I’ve seen online about this book boils down to omg, omg, wow, this is so good, so well constructed but then that last page… whuh?
So, here’s my answer to whuh? Agree or disagree, as you please.
My take on the end is simply this: what we are looking at in Gone Girl is a story where an abused spouse goes back to a partner who will, inevitably, kill them.
This is murked up–in a good way, I think–by a couple things. First, there’s the gender switch. Amy’s the abuser, Nick the victim. This is statistically atypical and in this piece of writing it serves to muffle the usual dynamics of abusive relationships. That is to say, it makes it all a little less obvious, especially because the power imbalance between Nick and Amy isn’t as unequal as it would be if he was female. She has the money and everyone’s on her side, but he’s got male privilege: he is bigger and stronger than Amy. He could throttle her and–but for the inconvenience of prosecution–be free of her.
The other reason we don’t all go “Oh, yes, Nick’s a battered husband, it’s sooooo clear,” of course, is that the man is no prize. He is spectacularly un-self-aware, emotionally shut down (this itself is a result of growing up with abuse in his family of origin) an almost pathological liar, desperate for approval, a conflict avoider and, of course, an adulterer.
He’s kind of awful, right? But you know what? This rings true to me: it accords with what I learned back when I was working in a transition house for battered women. Having a violent spouse doesn’t grow you a halo. You might have had one anyway, and maybe you can hang onto it. But usually, the life horrific will amplify your pre-existing unlovely qualities. Stress and terror don’t always make you a better person.
Anyway. Nick starts working towards breaking up his marriage, in his icky passive-aggressive adulterer way. Amy takes it into her head to kill him. If I can’t have you, nobody can. She puts him through a completely awful experience… and then desperation and his clever, craven begging draw her home to him.
So why does he stay with her?
–First, there’s a journalist-amplified version of the What will the neighbors think? effect. Everything that has happened to Nick has happened in a shiny and unforgiving media spotlight, and he knows that if he makes the wrong move, the whole country will cast him as a villain.
–Then there’s the fact that Amy has smoothly and glibly explained all his accusations to the cops, negating what legitimacy he might otherwise lay claim to. I don’t know where the silly boy gets these ideas. I would never hurt him!
–For awhile, there’s more fake evidence against him in Amy’s arsenal–it’s the I can still hurt you, honey, and nobody can help you, thing.
–She also convinces him that he can’t really exist without her love. That somehow it’s she who defines him. You’re nobody without me, baby. That’s his big epiphany.
–Finally, of course, there’s the actual baby. Given that he doesn’t believe he can get away, let alone get away with custody of a child, is he really gonna leave a kid to his wife’s tender mercies?
So Nick capitulates. He tells his sister and the one sympathetic cop that he’s giving up the fight, and he sinks into trying to dance to Amy’s tune. To fulfill her every whim. The scene with his sister is heartbreaking and, again, very true to life. The cop is philosophical–she’s seen this before.
On page the last, what we see (or confirm) is that Nick’s days are numbered. He can’t humor Amy perfectly, forever–nobody could. So we see that he’s made a remark–“I feel sorry for you”–that is sticking in her craw. And she’s shutting down the story when she says “I have to have the last word,” because now she’s wrapping up what went before, and moving on to her next project. It seems to me that this is the inevitable beginning of and justification for Amy’s next attempt to take on the role of Punch, to find a new way to murder her cheating, flawed and lamentably unlikable Judy.