Amy Elliot Dunne, from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, directly critiques constructed ideals of femininity at the point of the narrative revelation where she has staged her own abduction and falsified her diary entries. Dissecting the image of the ‘Cool Girl’, Amy writes that when Nick fell in love with her, he was falling for an ‘image’:
I was pretending, the way I often did, pretending to have a personality. I can’t help it,
it’s what I’ve always done: The way some women change fashion regularly, I change
personalities. What persona feels good, what’s coveted, what’s au courant? I think
most people do this, they just don’t admit it, or else they settle on one persona because
they’re too lazy or stupid to pull of a switch. [i]
The depersonalisation inherent within the media’s bombardment of the self with potential other ‘selves’ results in Amy being dislocated from her own identity and dehumanised. Instead of having her own personality, she attempts to find control through garmenting herself in alternative personalities. This is driven more by society’s construction of what is ‘ au courant’, or ‘coveted’, than by any sense of her own agency. Female identities become something to be consumed, something that can be as easily trialled, worn, and discarded as an item of clothing. Gender has become, as Butler suggests, ‘a stylised repetition of acts’. [ii] Fashion is often considered as a ‘mode of gender performativity […] imagined as feminine’. [iii] Catherine Mintler argues that ‘clothing can function as a signifier that helps to facilitate the performance that Butler refers to’. [iv] The convergence of an acted gender identity, materiality, and consumption encapsulate the repressive alienation of a power-driven patriarchal society.
The patriarchal society promotes buying, selling, and ownership, yet one that denies these things to many. When attempting to frame Nick, Amy plays on the notion of patriarchal society as she attempts to entrap him within the dominant power of hegemonic masculinity over women; when Gilpin shows Nick the pornography that Amy bought with Nick’s falsified credit card, Flynn describes how ‘Most of the titles implied violence: Brutal Anal, Brutal Blowjobs, Humiliated Whores, Sadistic Slut Fucking, Gang-raped Sluts, and a series called Hurt the Bitch, volumes 1-18, each featuring photos of women writhing in pain while leering, laughing men inserted objects into them’ (Flynn 375). This creates an image of patriarchal society that both objectifies women and validates sexual violence against them. Of course, these DVDs do not actually belong to Nick, but they still convey an image of a society where patriarchal power is transmuted into a consumable and media-driven form. Amy laments her lack of control and the de-individualisation that she is subjected within a society that demands adherence to such an image. She sees through the nature of socially-constructed ideas of identity, personality, and sexuality, identifying that such things have become like clothing, ultimately leaving her disconnected from her own self.
Amy subscribes to the notion that writing will permit her agency within the limited, patriarchally enforced world. Historically, this idea has been suggested in relation to nineteenth-century women writers, the contemporary restatement of such an idea validating Elaine Showalter’s suggestion that ‘In trying to deal with this recognition of an ongoing struggle for personal and artistic autonomy, contemporary women writers have reasserted their continuity with the women of the past […] They use all the resources of the modern novel, including exploded chronology, dreams, myth and stream-of-consciousness’. [v] This is particularly true of Gone Girl’s Amy, who uses acts of writing that play with chronology and the very idea of stream of consciousness writing, in order to be recognised for her own autonomy within the extremely patriarchal society that she perceives around her.
Amy has been ‘written’ since she was born; her parents created the successful book series ‘Amazing Amy’, Nick Dunne remarking late in the novel: ‘Marybeth and Rand had raised Amy. She was literally their work product. They had created her’ (Flynn 307). Amy, her parents’ only child, after a succession of seven failed pregnancies, had already been forecasted into a role of limited autonomy. She spent her childhood as a product, constantly aiming to exist at the same standard as her parents’ semi-fictional literary daughter. Amy, writing in her fabricated Diary regarding the twentieth ‘Amazing Amy’ book’s launch party states that:
They’ve given their daughter’s namesake what they can’t give their daughter: a
husband! Yes, for book twenty, Amazing Amy is getting married! Wheeeeee. No one
cares. No one wanted Amazing Amy to grow up, least of all me. Leave her in
kneesocks and hair ribbons and let me grow up, unencumbered by my literary alter
ego, my paper-bound better half, the me I was supposed to be (Flynn 29).
Amy’s sense of self is displaced by her fictional doppelgänger; the opportunity to control her own identity is dissolved through the presence of ‘Amazing Amy’. ‘Real’ Amy becomes passive within this relationship, potentially due to her fortune and legacy being funded by these books, yet she still claims to understand that ‘my parents, two child psychologists, chose this particular public form of passive-aggressiveness towards their child was not just fucked up but also stupid and weird and kind of hilarious. So be it’ (Flynn 30). It is this, the limitation of identity through already being written, and the idea that, as Amy states, ‘[Amazing] Amy oversimplifies the male-female dynamic’ (Flynn 31) that drives Amy towards writing in an attempt to wrestle control of her own narrative back from these external forces.
The meticulous process of creating a false diary, with years of entries designed to incriminate her husband, and create an image of Amy that would be celebrated, exposes the depth at which Amy feels repressed by the capitalist, patriarchal society she feels herself to be a part of. The way she envisions the world is encapsulated in her discussion of the strip club that Nick visits:
I picture them at one of the pricier strip clubs, the posh ones that make men believe
they are still designed to rule, that women are meant to serve them, the deliberately
bad acoustics and thwumping music so no one has to talk, a stretch-titted woman
straddling my husband (who swears its all in fun), her hair trailing down her neck, her
lips wet with gloss, but I’m not supposed to be threatened, no it’s just boyish hijinks, I
am supposed to laugh about it, I am supposed to be a good sport (Flynn 77).
She describes the strip club as one designed to ‘make men believe they are still designed to rule’. It is a place that offers men the illusion of being in control, where women collude and support the patriarchy. Again, there is an intimate link between patriarchal society and financial expenditure as the idea of men being in control is associated with the ‘pricier’ strip clubs, insinuating that power may be bought and manipulated within capitalist systems.
Upon the reveal that she is not actually dead, Amy writes – in a way that addresses the reader directly – that ‘I can tell you more about how I did everything, but I’d like you to know me first. Not Diary Amy, who is a work of fiction (and Nick said I wasn’t really a writer, and why did I ever listen to him?), but me, Actual Amy. What kind of woman would do such a thing? Let me tell you a story, a true story, so you can begin to understand’ (Flynn 248-49). Amy feels enormous pressure to be ‘perfect’ as a result of the triumvirate of the ‘seven dead dancing princesses’ that are her stillborn siblings, the ‘Amazing Amy’ books, and society’s demands on her feminine identity. She envisions the ‘image’ of femininity within this society as one that emphasises women’s role to me not much more than consumers. While watching TV as the ‘real’ Amy, hiding as Nancy in the ‘Hide-Away Cabins’, she surmises that the media is inherently patriarchal as she states: ‘Tampon commercial, detergent commercial, maxipad commercial, Windex commercial. You’d think all women do is clean and bleed’ (Flynn 275). In her eyes, feminine selfness is promoted as an ideal manipulated by masculine-enforced essentialisms. It encourages the promotion of media-led images of the housewife, and the consumption that must accompany such a role, as well as the biological necessity of menstruation, and the capitalisation on its associated hygiene products.
Amy’s ruminations on her own self-hood consistently reinforces the idea that character and personality is something performed – something that by extension is designed to be viewed and consumed. Textual and real identities become layered in a way that emphasises Amy’s dislocation from her self and her actions. She states:
I’m not sure, exactly, how to be Dead Amy. I’m trying to figure out what that means
for me, what I become for the next few months. Anyone, I suppose, except people I’ve
already been: Amazing Amy. Preppy ‘80s Girl. Ultimate-Frisbee Granola and
Blushing Ingénue and Witty Hepburnian Sophisticate. Brainy Ironic Girl and Boho
Babe (the latest version of Frisbee Granola). Cool Girl and Loved Wife and Unloved
Wife and Vengeful Scorned Wife. Diary Amy (Flynn 266).
Amy loses her identity through the multiple personas she tries on – she becomes an array of different people, all informed by others’ expectations of her, and loses her own individual self within the layers of identity. ‘Diary Amy’, which interestingly stands apart from the rest of this list in its own sentence, acts as an opportunity for the already textual Amy to gather a sense of control and agency through her own actions, as she begins to structure an independent narrative.
She envisions her life as a ‘story’, which becomes materialised in the form of her diary. Her self in turn becomes metafictional and intertextual, the many different textual Amys all vying to be the dominant perception of her. It is something that she intends will give herself a sense of identity and a more solid grasp on reality, but the immersion in textual ideas results in her becoming yet more dislodged from reality. Reflecting on her decision not to shoot herself, due to it being a ‘little too macho even for me’, she then admits ‘But I still liked the idea of a gun. It made for a nice MacGuffin. Not Amy was shot but Amy was scared’ (Flynn 314). The term MacGuffin, meaning ‘an object or device in a film or a book which serves merely as a trigger for the plot’, [vi] indicates how much Amy is lost within her intertextual self. She is consistently creating MacGuffins, material physicalisations of her need for validation, in the form of her diary, the treasure hunt, the Punch and Judy Dolls, and most of the clues and writing designed to incriminate Nick. In many ways, Amy herself is a MacGuffin. Her disappearance objectifies her body in a way that makes her corporeality the motivation for the plot of the first half of the novel. While she intends that this act will give her purpose, and allow her to take control of her own life, it has the reverse effect as she ends up becoming trapped in her semi-fictionalised life.
However, the subsequent search for a new self, after she erases herself in death, never results in anything more than the textual self Amy has been striving to be rid of. Her disappearance results in the sales of the Amazing Amy series skyrocketing, prompting her to speculate that ‘three generations of readers have remembered how much they love me’ (Flynn 394). After spending so long trying to distance herself from ‘Amazing Amy’ through her own acts of writing, she surrenders herself to the performed identity she despised due to it providing renewed interest in the ‘real’ Amy. She is trapped in her many fictitious personas, restricted by her belief in the necessity of stories to be read. She acknowledges how her parents are again ‘squatting on my psyche, earning money for themselves’ after agreeing to write a new ‘Amazing Amy’ book, yet she still finds a sense of identity in the offers she receives to tell ‘ my story. My story: mine, mine mine’ (Flynn 446-47). She has finally gained authority, or authorship, over her own narrative. Yet it is still not a true self, but one that is still being performed. She simply takes on another layer, which makes the true Amy difficult to discern. She claims to be ‘officially in control of our story’ (Flynn 453), but the title of her book suggests she has not quite found the solace she yearned to achieve through her writing: ‘I’m calling the book simply: Amazing. Causing great wonder or surprise; astounding. That sums up my story, I think. (Flynn 453). She is no longer a person, no longer a noun. Instead she is an adjective, a quality. Amy has been erased from ‘Amazing Amy’. She no longer wants, and potentially is not capable of having, an identity – instead she is just a story to be read and consumed.
Dr. Richard Leahy currently teaches as a visiting lecturer at the University of Chester, England, where he completed his PhD in May 2016 for a thesis entitled 'The Evolution of Artificial Light in Nineteenth Century Literature: Light, Dark, and the Spaces In Between.' His current research interests include literature of the fin-de-siecle, nineteenth century consumerism, gender studies, and contemporary American Literature. Follow him on twitter: @richardleahylit
[i] Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl. London: Orion, 2014. 250.
[ii] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble. New York and London: Routledge, 1999. 179.
[iii] Susan B. Kaiser, Fashion and Cultural Studies. London: Berg, 2012. 125.
[iv] Catherine R. Mintler, Fashioning Identity: Consumption, Performativity, and Passing in the Modernist Novel. Doctoral Thesis: University of Illinois at Chicago, 2008. 7.
[v] Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own: British Woman Novelists from Brontë to Lessing. London: Virago, 2009. 302.
[vi] MacGuffin definition from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/mcguffin [accessed 21/7/16]
Flynn, Gillian, Gone Girl. London: Orion, 2014.
Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble. New York and London: Routledge, 1999.
Kaiser, Susan B., Fashion and Cultural Studies. London: Berg, 2012.
Mintler, Catherine R., Fashioning Identity: Consumption, Performativity, and Passing in the Modernist Novel. Doctoral Thesis: University of Illinois at Chicago, 2008.
Showalter, Elaine, A Literature of Their Own: British Woman Novelists from Brontë to Lessing. London: Virago, 2009.
The novel begins on the morning of Nick Dunne’s wedding anniversary. On that same day his wife Amy Elliott Dunne disappears from their home in North Carthage, Missouri. A few years before, Nick and Amy moved from New York to Missouri, because Nick’s mother, Maureen, was diagnosed with stage four cancer. Amy, a native New Yorker, was not thrilled about the decision her husband made without even consulting her, and the move exacerbated the stress created by both Amy and Nick recently losing their jobs. Nick now works at a bar he jointly owns with his twin sister Margo, and also teaches at the local community college. Amy has never found work or made friends within their new community. Their marriage was in crisis at the point that Amy disappeared.
Nick receives a call from his neighbor about suspicious signs at his house and hurries home to find that his wife has vanished. Alarmed by possible signs of her having been abducted, he immediately calls the police. By nighttime his house is filled with cops and news reporters. The widespread media attention comes in part from Amy's fame as the inspiration for the fictional character in the Amazing Amy book series. The series was written by her parents Rand and Marybeth Elliott, who are child psychologists. Rand and Marybeth are called to assist in the search for their daughter. Questions about who might have hurt or abducted Amy raise a number of suspects from her past: Hillary Handy, an obsessed fan of the Amazing Amy books; Desi Collings, her prep school boyfriend who had been obsessed with her for years; and Tommy O’Hara, Amy’s ex- boyfriend who she accused of rape. While initially people are kind and supportive to Nick, he quickly notices that the detectives question him closely and have suspicions. Nick knows that in cases where a woman vanishes, her husband or boyfriend is often the prime suspect. As a result, he tries not to reveal that his marriage was troubled, or any other details that might implicate him, which results in him telling a series of lies to the police and detectives.
The narration of the events surrounding the disappearance, told from Nick's perspective, alternates with a series of diary entries written by Amy, detailing the period from the moment she met Nick to the day before her disappearance. The diary shows Amy as an optimistic, loving, and supportive wife. While she and Nick initially have a picture perfect romance, the stress of job loss and the move takes a toll on their relationship. The diary describes Nick gradually becoming distant, possessive, violent, and demanding to Amy, which causes Amy to become frightened of him. She even buys a gun in order to protect herself if necessary. The last entry in the diary, from the day before Amy's disappearance, ends with her making a dark joke about possibly being killed by Nick.
While looking for clues in the Dunne house, detectives find an envelope with the clues Amy has written for a treasure hunt, a ritual she observes every year for their anniversary. As Nick follows the clues, he becomes increasingly concerned and suspicious that Amy knew more about some of his secrets than she let on. As he reflects on his wife's personality as a strong-willed, obsessive, and power-hungry woman (an idea that does not align with Amy's personality as it is presented in the diary), he begins to wonder if Amy has somehow staged the disappearance herself in order to frame him and punish him. As days pass, detectives uncover more and more evidence which cause Nick to look more and more suspicious: there are signs of blood loss on the kitchen floor, evidence of marital problems, and expensive credit card transactions in Nick's name, which he swears he didn't make. Several of Nick's initial lies get exposed, and he also makes negative impressions in the media. Nick is also very afraid of his biggest secret being exposed: he has been having an affair with one of his students, a young woman named Andie.
The situation grows worse and worse for Nick, until during a candle light vigil honoring Amy, Noelle Hawthorne, Amy’s best friend, interrupts his speech to accuse him of murdering his wife, and also reveals that Amy was pregnant. Nick finds this news shocking. A few years earlier, he and Amy had pursued fertility treatments in hopes of getting pregnant, but she then lost interest in the plan. However, Amy's medical records confirm that she was indeed pregnant, creating even more public sympathy and pressure to find her. Nick is increasingly convinced that he is the victim of an evil scheme on Amy's part. The last clue of Amy’s treasure hunt leads him to the woodshed that Margo has in her home, which contains the purchases charged to the credit card. This strongly gives the impression that Nick has been plotting his wife's death.
Part Two begins with Amy narrating the events surrounding her disappearance. She has created an elaborate plan, which she has been working on for over a year, in order to fake her own murder and frame Nick for it. Increasingly disappointed in and frustrated by her husband, when she discovers he is having an affair, that is the final straw. She has written the diary purposefully to fabricate an image of herself as sweet, sympathetic, and innocent, and to make Nick look capable of a violent crime. She also opened the credit cards and made all the purchases, and faked a pregnancy by using the urine of her pregnant friend Noelle and passing it off as her own. On the day of the disappearance, she cuts herself and sheds her blood to make it look like she has been attacked, also staging the house to suggest an intrusion and a struggle. Using a disguise and a car she has secretly purchased, she then drives to a cabin in the Ozarks to hide out. She plans to enjoy watching Nick be accused of her murder and go to prison for it. The final step will be for her to kill herself and allow her body to be found, apparently confirming his guilt, so that he will be executed for her murder.
The narration now alternates between Amy and Nick's perspectives. Nick, aware of how much suspicion surrounds him, hires Tanner Bolt, an attorney most famous for winning cases for men accused of murdering their wives. He confides to Tanner his belief that Amy has framed him, and Tanner helps to do some damage control to Nick's image. It seems like he might again become an object of sympathy, but the revelation of his affair with Andie is more damning news. The police also find the items hidden in the woodshed, and arrest Nick for the murder of his wife. Meanwhile, Nick has been conducting his own research into Amy's past and finds that many of the stories she has told don't seem to be true, and suggest that she is highly skilled at lying and manipulation. Nick knows that his only hope is to convince Amy to come back, and he tries to make himself as appealing to her as possible, while secretly planning to kill her once she returns.
Amy's plans go awry, first as she becomes less interested in the idea of suicide, and second after some people she meets in the Ozarks steal all the money she had saved to survive on. She now has to change her plan, and she reaches out to Desi Collins, her wealthy ex-boyfriend. She tells him that she has run away because Nick was abusing her. Because Desi is obsessively in love with her and wants her all to himself, he takes her to his lake house. Once there, Amy increasingly finds Desi oppressive and controlling. As Amy watches Nick's interactions with the media, she finds herself more attracted to him. She decides to escape from Desi and return to Nick. Knowing what Desi finds attractive, she seduces him and then, after they have sex, she drugs him with sleeping pills.
Nick is shocked, when forty days after disappearing, Amy shows up at his doorstep, bloody and bruised. The story she tells both Nick and the police at first is that she was abducted by Desi, who unexpectedly showed up at her house on the day of the anniversary. Since then, he has been holding her captive and raping her repeatedly. She was finally able to get her hands on a knife, which she attacked him with, killing him, and then returned in shock to her home. She also accounts for her pregnancy by saying that she had a miscarriage shortly after being abducted. Nick doesn't believe this story, and tells her so, but he plays along with the story in front of the elated media because it confirms his own innocence. Amy's medical examination corroborates her story and while some of the detectives see suspicious holes in her account, she is able to defuse further questioning by accusing them of being incompetent and having been fixated on pursuing the wrong suspect.
Alone with Nick, Amy admits to the whole story, including deliberately murdering Desi and faking her escape just as she faked her abduction. He is horrified and disgusted, and wants to reveal the story to the world. Amy, however, has been careful to ensure that there is no record of this confession, and she also still has fodder for blackmail. The diary was never revealed as fake, and in it Amy documents an instance that strongly suggests Nick poisoned her with antifreeze. To further corroborate it, she did in fact consume antifreeze and saved and froze some of her vomit. If this evidence is revealed and tested, she can accuse Nick of attempted murder. Supported by Margo, Tanner, and Detective Boney, all of whom by this point believe that Amy faked her disappearance, Nick decides to wait.
Amy and Nick continue in a stalemate, warily living together. Amy begins writing a memoir about the public story of her experiences, which she knows will make her a lot of money. She also alludes to a plan to absolutely ensure Nick will never betray her secret. Nick, still angry, begins writing his own memoir revealing the truth about her. He is shocked when Amy reveals that she is pregnant: she had herself inseminated with sperm frozen from the couple's fertility treatments. She makes it clear that if Nick ever betrays her, she will turn the child against him, and feeling protective of their future son, Nick gives up any hope of revealing Amy's deceit and accepts that the two of them are stuck with each other. He deletes his book. The two build a fragile relationship, and the novel ends with the impending birth of their child, who is due on their wedding anniversary, one year after Amy's disappearance. However, the ending makes it clear that Amy's sociopathic need for power, and Nick's disgust with her, will never go away.