Strong Female Characters: Amy Elliott Dunne

For those of you that don’t know, Amy Elliott Dunne is one of the main characters in Gillian Flynn’s breakthrough novel, Gone Girl. The book begins when Amy disappears, and her husband becomes suspected of her murder. But as the novel progresses, the reader finds out that Amy was the architect of her own disappearance – she framed her husband for murder to punish him for his infidelity. The book was a phenomenal success, selling millions of copies and being made into a film just two years after it was published. Amy herself has been hailed as both a brilliant criminal mastermind and as a bastion of modern feminism – but despite what some MRAs would have you believe, the two aren’t related.

But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!

 

  1. Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?

Amy is very much in control of her own destiny, and a few other people’s, too. When she discovers that her husband has been unfaithful to her, she wants vengeance. Leaving him isn’t enough, because she thinks she won’t be respected by her friends and family if they found out she’d been cheated on. Of course, the only solution is to put together an elaborate plot over the course of several years, building up a mountain of fabricated evidence in order to expose her husband as a terrible person and eventually frame him for murder.

...that seems reasonable. (image: giphy.com)
…that seems reasonable. (image: giphy.com)

Later, when she decides she wants to get away from her possessive ex and get back with her husband, Nick, she sets up another long con. She puts together an elaborate scenario that essentially allows her to murder her ex and get both her and Nick completely off the hook. And when she’s finally back with Nick, she effectively holds him to ransom for the rest of his life because she knows he can’t prove anything. There are certain aspects of her life that she can’t change (such as losing her job) but ultimately, she doesn’t let that stop her from living the life she wants – no matter who gets in her way.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

  1. Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?

We don’t really see much of Amy’s hobbies, although we know she used to be a writer. However, we see plenty of her goals and beliefs. One of Amy’s main motivations is the desire to be seen as successful. She wants everyone to think well of her, give her everything she wants and do exactly as she says – and if anyone prevents her from fulfilling this goal, she will destroy them. She also firmly believes in her own superiority. She’s utterly convinced that no-one will ever be able to get the better of her and tends to view other people as less intelligent than she is. These goals and beliefs factor into almost everything she does in the novel, so I’ll give her the full point.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

  1. Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?

The question of consistency is very interesting when discussing Amy’s character. The first half of the novel is narrated by Nick, interspersed with entries from her old diary. Nick says that she’s very manipulative, aggressive and calculating, but her diary entries reveal someone who’s much more vulnerable, quiet and self-deprecating. By the end of the first part, the reader isn’t left with a clear sense of Amy’s character.

That’s all cleared up in the second half, which is narrated by present-day Amy. She reveals that she fabricated her entire journal over the course of several years in order to implicate Nick when she faked her own death. Suddenly all her past interactions are thrown into a completely different light, and she is revealed to be an incredibly self-centred, manipulative, cold-hearted woman who possesses absolutely no sympathy for the feelings of others. What’s really masterful about how this is done is that it makes all the discrepancies between different characters’ accounts of her become instantly clear – this reveal answers more questions than it raises, and the reader realises that Amy has duped us too, just as she did for everyone else. It’s brilliantly done.

Pictured: Amy as a child, ruthlessly plotting the murder of her teddy bear. (image: giphy.com)
Pictured: Amy as a child, ruthlessly plotting the murder of her teddy bear. (image: giphy.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

  1. Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?

It’s actually pretty hard to describe Amy’s trajectory through the story without referencing her marriage. Her status as a ‘wronged wife’ is really what drives her character through both the book and the film. Ultimately, her role in the story revolves around her husband, albeit not in the traditional manner. You can certainly describe her personality, but it’s impossible to describe her goals, her motivation or her overall progression through the story without mentioning how much she wants to murder her husband. I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

  1. Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?

Amy’s love life is a really interesting aspect of her character. She’s a psychopath and doesn’t really seem capable of feeling real love – everything she does is fundamentally self-serving. But her love life is really what motivates her through the story: she starts off determined to punish Nick for pushing her aside, and then changes her mind and decides she wants him back. This creates an interesting quandary because although her love life is what motivates her, it’s made quite clear that what she feels isn’t real love.

Amy is certainly attached to Nick, but her feelings for him are much more complex than just love. She wants to possess him, to punish him, to make him her puppet. She uses him as a way of projecting an image of herself – that of the perfect wife in an enviably happy marriage. She does all this without considering Nick’s feelings in the slightest, and acts purely out of selfishness. This desire to get the things she wants and be well-respected by everyone is what really drives her towards Nick in the first place, not love. This is also what drives her to frame him for her murder, and eventually, to get him back.

Yeeeaaaahhhhh... (image: giphy.com)
Yeeeaaaahhhhh… (image: giphy.com)

All of this actually makes it a difficult question to answer for Amy’s character. On the one hand, her disintegrating marriage is what drives her through the plot – and there’s no other way of looking at it apart from as a part of her love life. However, it’s also pretty easy to make the case that it isn’t love that’s driving her at all, but rather a deep-seated desire to be socially respected and a more sociopathic desire to have ‘the perfect life’ at any cost. The line between the two is so blurred that it’s actually very difficult to say for certain which one is the case, so I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

  1. Does she develop over the course of the story?

We don’t actually see Amy develop much over the course of the story. It’s implied through Nick’s interactions with people from her past (such as her former friend and ex-boyfriends) that she’s always been stone cold nasty, and has a history of manipulating people to look like they’ve abused her. It’s therefore not too much of a shock to watch her escalate this behaviour, as it fits with what we’ve already seen.

The most development we see from her character is after she’s come back home to Nick and is pregnant with their child. At this point in the novel she’s blackmailing Nick into being the perfect husband by holding their unborn child over his head – if he puts a toe out of line, she’ll punish him through their baby. Nick goes along with this, even though he knows Amy is a psychopath, as he knows he has no choice. All this good behaviour actually lulls Amy into thinking that he really does love her, and she starts to soften to the point where Nick can dispose of some of her back-up evidence that could be used to frame him again. This is some character development, but not a lot, so she’ll only get a half point.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

One of Amy’s major weaknesses is her tendency to underestimate people. She is so self-involved that she never really imagines anyone who can successfully put one over on her, so a lot of her plans backfire when the people she’s manipulating don’t act in the way she expects them to act. This really sets her back – when she finds out that Nick has been cheating on her, when she’s robbed at the trailer park she’s hiding in, and when she gets Desi to ‘rescue’ her without realising the consequences of calling him in. That’s a believable weakness which seriously hinders her progress, so I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

 

  1. Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?

Amy pretty much is the plot, whether she’s on-screen or not. In the first half of the book – when she’s ‘disappeared’ – Nick is still following on behind her, picking up the pieces of the trail she left behind. In the second half of the book, it’s made very clear that the entire story has been of her own making. She’s a real force on the plot in every sense of the word.

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Amy relates to gender stereotypes in a really interesting way. On the surface, she’s a kind, sweet, loving young wife who also happens to be really attractive, but underneath, she’s a complete psychopath with an utter lack of empathy for anyone who isn’t Amy. This gives a really interesting duality to her character that Amy herself is very much aware of: like Black Widow, she uses other people’s view of gender stereotypes in order to suit her own ends.

That casserole's probably poisoned. (image: twimg.com)
That casserole’s probably poisoned. (image: twimg.com)

Throughout the novel, Amy plays a series of different ‘characters’ in her interactions with other people. She’s the devoted daughter around her parents, even though their expectations of her drive her mad. She’s the abused princess for her ex, Desi, constructing an elaborate fiction that entices him to come and ‘rescue’ her. And for Nick, she becomes the ‘Cool Girl’ – the ultimate male fantasy. In this way, she’s directly acknowledging all the varied expectations that women have to meet in their daily lives and subverting them.

However, in some ways she’s a much more traditional character. Amy fits neatly into the ‘crazy girlfriend’ box – she obsesses over her relationship and goes to extreme lengths whether she’s preserving it or punishing him. In some ways her character exemplifies all the beliefs that women will go to insane lengths in their relationships, which in turn is tied up with centuries-old beliefs about women being much more ‘emotional’ beings. This is turned up to eleven when we consider her role as the ‘woman scorned’ – another centuries-old trope.

This isn’t necessarily new, but the utterly cold-hearted, clinical way she goes about it softens the blow. Amy doesn’t seem like a stereotypical ‘crazy girlfriend’ because she’s so methodical about everything – she plans her revenge for years in advance and nobody suspects a thing. She both subverts and conforms to gender stereotypes in a way that both raises and addresses different questions. This is a hallmark of a complex character, and her sheer impact on the literary landscape can be seen in the articles that still pop up years after the book was first published. I’ll be addressing both sides of the question and giving her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 7

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Amy relates to a good number of female characters, and her relationships with them vary depending on what she wants from them. She put on a front depending on who she’s talking to, but underneath, she thrives on making other women jealous of her, and out-doing them in every aspect of their lives. She will go out of her way to make friends with women in order to further her own ends, and uses them in order to spread the fabricated story of Nick’s abuse. She befriends a pregnant woman in order to steal her urine and fake a pregnancy, all the while concealing her utter contempt for her. She’s never truly close with any other female character, but she adapts her relationships with other women depending on who she needs to be to get what she wants from them. And then, of course, there’s her relationship with her mother, who wrote a series of successful children’s books about a character based on Amy. This set such high standards for Amy that it became almost suffocating – even though her parents were relatively normal – and to some extent, gives her a relationship with her fictional self: she’s constantly comparing herself to her parents’ idealised version of the perfect daughter. That’s a level of depth that’s not always seen in female characters, so I’ll give her the point.

FINAL SCORE: 8/10

 

Amy is a complete and utter psychopath. But she’s also firmly in control of her own destiny, has flaws that hold her back, and remains consistent throughout most of the book. Her relationships with other women – and her romantic relationships – raise some interesting questions about stereotypes and manipulation, and while she hasn’t completely aced my test, she’s certainly passed!

Now please don't stab me. (image: media.bookhub.com)
Now please don’t stab me. (image: media.bookhub.com)

 

Next week, I’ll be going back to one of my favourites and looking at Avatar: the Last Airbender. Azula, I’m coming for you.

 

 

And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.

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