For those of you that don’t know, Rachel Watson is the heroine of Paula Hawkins’ 2015 book, The Girl on the Train. Set in suburban London, the book follows Rachel – a depressed alcoholic and recent divorcee – as she struggles to cope with her obsession over her ex-husband and his new wife and child, and gets involved with a young woman’s disappearance. The book exploded onto the literary scene last year, winning several awards and dominating the bestseller lists, and is set to be made into a movie just next year. Rachel herself has been at the centre of this publicity storm, with critics and readers alike praising her as a refreshingly honest depiction of an unreliable narrator.
But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
The question of whether or not Rachel shapes her own destiny is an interesting one. Rachel is an alcoholic, having originally started drinking when she found out she couldn’t conceive a child. She has regular blackouts caused by her drinking, and much of the novel is simply her trying to piece together what she might have done the night before. There’s an interesting current running through the novel about whether Rachel is truly responsible for her current state, or whether the blame can be firmly placed on her alcoholism.
The result of all this is that it’s often up to the reader whether Rachel is truly responsible for her quality of life – it depends on your own personal view of alcoholism, as the novel doesn’t really offer a concrete solution. However, it’s worth noting that several times in the book, Rachel actively makes the decision to stop drinking and to find out more about the disappearance of a young woman she’s come to recognise from her morning commute. By throwing herself into the investigation around the young woman’s disappearance, she finds a new outlet for her time and energy. She has several relapses, but ultimately does kick her drinking habit as she becomes more involved. I’ll be generous and give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
Rachel doesn’t really have many hobbies. She’s an alcoholic and becomes obsessed with the investigation into the disappearance of a young woman (Megan), as well as her ex-husband’s new wife and child. But I’m not going to count any of these, as alcoholism is a serious medical condition and all three are a product of her post-divorce misery. The only thing she really seems to enjoy is imagining what Megan’s life is like when she passes by her house on her way to work – but even that is tinged with a little bit of envy, and as she finds out more about Megan’s real life and personality this starts to fade too.
Her goals and beliefs are a bit easier to pin down. Sober Rachel wants to find out more about Megan’s disappearance, which is eventually revealed to be a murder, and to piece together the gaps in her memory. Drunk Rachel wants to get back together with her ex-husband, or just to harass his new wife and child. Her beliefs are similarly split: Sober Rachel feels responsible for her actions, wants to make amends, doesn’t think well of herself but would like to get back on track; Drunk Rachel is almost the exact opposite. I’ll allow it.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
Rachel is a reasonably consistent character, but still acts very differently when she’s had a bit to drink. When she’s sober, she’s listless, self-pitying, has a tendency to torture herself with her own imagination but also a certain kind of determination that propels her forward. When she’s drunk she’s belligerent, irrational, irresponsible and borderline dangerous – she’s taken to harassing her ex-husband and his new wife, who was originally his mistress when he was still married to Rachel. Rachel’s behaviour when drunk is consistent, but very different to her behaviour when sober, and both sides of her personality are marked with a wide streak of loneliness and impulsive behaviour. Given that it’s already been proven how much alcohol can affect someone’s personality, I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
A lonely, depressed alcoholic starts fixating on the disappearance of a woman she recognises from her commute, in an effort to distract herself from her own problems.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Rachel is not over her ex-husband. Her inability to have children with him – compounded by his infidelity, the divorce and his subsequent happy family with his new wife – has completely destroyed her. These are the events that sent Rachel into the downward spiral that dominates most of the book, and if they hadn’t happened it’s highly likely that she wouldn’t be an alcoholic.
As such, Rachel’s love life – or former love life – is a huge feature of her character. She obsesses over Tom’s perfect new life, is jealous of his new wife and even tries to break into their house and take their child. She calls them constantly, leaves them notes, and stares at their house every day on her morning commute. She’s not a healthy woman, and this behaviour is a regular feature of the book – albeit more so when she’s drunk.
However, this isn’t the only focus in her story. When Megan disappears, Rachel throws herself into the investigation, convinced that Megan’s boyfriend Scott could not have harmed her, having seen snatches of their relationship in her view from the train. What’s motivating her here is her need to find the truth – and, thanks to her frequent blackouts, a need to make sure that she might not have done something to harm Megan on the night she disappeared.
But this is all linked in with Rachel’s ex-husband, and that’s what makes things complicated. She started fixating on Megan and Scott’s relationship to distract herself from her own misery, imagining all the details of their perfect relationship before she met either of them and naming them in the privacy of her own head. When she starts looking into Megan’s disappearance, it’s after another episode with her ex-husband – who just happens to live on the same street as Scott and Megan – and her investigation frequently happens to take her into his orbit, as it were. As she gets more involved, it becomes something she looks into for her own reasons; it gives her something else to focus on, helps her distract herself from drinking, and as time moves on it becomes more about her need to establish her own innocence and find out the truth. I’ll give her half a point.
SCORE SO FAR: 4.5
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Rachel does develop over the course of the story. She does it shakily, but as the novel progresses she stops drinking, starts re-examining her own behaviour and tries to put her life back on track. She faces up to uncomfortable truths, tries to get a hold on her memory lapses and starts looking at the past – and her own actions – in a new way. That’s some solid development on all counts, so I’ll give her the full point.
SCORE SO FAR: 5.5
- Does she have a weakness?
Rachel has plenty of weaknesses. She’s obsessive, impulsive, belligerent, shies away from her own responsibility and has a tendency to take the easy way out when stuff gets too much for her. She mooches off her friend and her mother, gets blackout drunk on a regular basis and frequently does some dangerous things when she does so. Take your pick.
SCORE SO FAR: 6.5
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Rachel uncovers the plot more than she influences it. She doesn’t necessarily make things happen – it’s more that she tries to find out what’s happened, which is often the case for mystery stories. However, her actions still have an impact. Whether she’s harassing her ex or looking for suspects, her decisions and choices have consequences that ripple right through the book. I’ll give her the full point.
SCORE SO FAR: 7.5
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
When it comes to gender stereotypes, Rachel has a few of them up her sleeve. At first glance it’s easy to see her as the bitter alcoholic ex-wife, who resents her husband for moving on but can’t bring herself to do the same. However, what stops this from being caricature is the detail that’s put into it.
In fiction, alcoholics are rarely female. If you imagine the standard drunk as portrayed in the majority of stories, chances are you’ll probably imagine a dishevelled-looking man swaying on the spot with a bottle in his hand. This is largely due to a long-standing cultural bias that drinking to excess is ‘unladylike’, which probably goes back as far as alcohol itself. When you do see female alcoholics in fiction, they’re still slumped over the table by a mountain of empty glasses, but they’re usually still pretty – often made up, sometimes quite glamourous, and rarely on a park bench drinking out of a can in a paper bag.
Rachel isn’t like this at all. Her alcoholism has no frills; we see it all in a brutally honest light. She forgets everything, wets herself, throws up everywhere, comes home with mysterious injuries, swears at people and sleeps with strangers. We see her the morning after, surrounded by the mess of mistakes she’s made, and watch her get back into bed, too depressed and hungover to clean them up. Rachel’s alcoholism isn’t a neat little detail that gives her character a sassy edge; it’s a disease which has sent her life spiralling downwards over the course of several years.
What’s also interesting about her character is her relationship with her ex, Tom – and this paragraph is going to be chock-a-block with spoilers so watch out. She still misses Tom, and for most of the book we’re lead to believe that Tom was a pretty decent guy who tried his best, but ultimately couldn’t take her drinking. But soon, the cracks start to appear – we find out about his infidelity, and all the lies he told, and all the lies he’s started telling his new wife – and we find out that Tom used Rachel’s drinking to manipulate her, telling her she’d been violent during a blackout when she’d never done anything of the sort. This kind of abuse is called gaslighting, which is when one partner lies to the other about their behaviour so often that they start to doubt themselves, and in Rachel’s case, doesn’t know what to believe any more. This puts their relationship into a completely different light, Tom’s manipulative behaviour is finally revealed, and Rachel starts to trust her own judgement again.
All in all, the level of detail devoted to Rachel’s behaviour and relationships produces a very complex character – one who can be guilty of many things, yet still the victim of many other things too. She has many layers to her, all of which are portrayed with an unflinching honesty, and which all fit together to make up a unique and compelling character.
SCORE SO FAR: 8.5
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Rachel has plenty of relationships with other female characters. She’s jealous of Anna, Tom’s new wife, but eventually realises that she’s in danger and tries to warn her. She dislikes the female police officer assigned to Megan’s disappearance, as she feels dismissed whenever she speaks to her. She takes advantage of her housemate, and frequently borrows money from her mother, lying to them both about still having a job and the full extent of her alcoholism. Her most interesting relationship is probably with Megan – but the two of them never met in real life; Rachel imagined a perfect life for her, and then this picture is slowly broken down as more details about Megan’s life emerge during the investigation. That’s a nice mix of relationships with a range of different characters, so I’ll give her the point.
FINAL SCORE: 9.5/10
Rachel is a well-developed character with a range of strengths and weaknesses. She’s still focused on her love life but she impacts the plot, takes control of her own life and is consistent in both her sober and drunk behaviour – and that’s saying nothing of the way she’s subverted gender stereotypes. She’s certainly passed my test!
Next week, I’ll be looking at another one of the classics – The Little Princess. Sara, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.