This discussion contains spoilers for both the book and the film Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.
I can’t think of any novel that features the concept of life story more prominently than Gone Girl. Author Gillian Flynn deftly uses variations on the life story theme as elements of both plot and character development.
In Part One we meet Nick Dunne as a first-person narrator. Soon we learn, along with Nick, about the apparent disappearance of his wife, Amy Elliott Dunne, on that day, their fifth anniversary.
As this section unfolds, we learn that Nick is less than perfect. He lies to the police about his alibi because, we eventually find out, he doesn’t want to reveal his affair with one of his students at the local college. Like the police, we begin to suspect Nick. Some of the most damning evidence against Nick is Amy’s diary entries that reveal a woman afraid that her husband is planning to kill her. In this opening section Flynn uses Amy’s diary, the record of her life story, as a plot element to arouse suspicion and doubt and thereby to create suspense.
Then in Part Two we meet Amy in person. She, too, is a first-person narrator, and she begins by giving us her checklist of 33 items of how she “did everything”:
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.
To start: I should never have been born.
Amy introduces herself to us by telling her life story. Her mother had had five miscarriages and two stillbirths before, unexpectedly and seemingly miraculously, giving birth to Amy, who lived. Although Amy always felt superior to the seven babies who died, she also felt jealous:
They get to be perfect without even trying, without even facing one moment of existence, while I am stuck here on earth, and every day I must try, and every day is a chance to be less than perfect.
Amy’s parents even commandeered her life story to produce the Amazing Amy series of books, which made them rich. But those books didn’t rejoice in the real Amy they had. Instead, the books portrayed a child nearly perfect in every way, an amazing child that they were immensely proud of.
Constantly trying to be perfect, Amy admits, is “an exhausting way to live. I lived that way until I was thirty-one.” But her life changed when she met Nick:
Nick loved me… . But he didn’t love me, me. Nick loved a girl who doesn’t exist. 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.
When she met Nick, she was trying out the persona of the Cool Girl. But eventually that persona became too much for her to maintain. She dropped it and showed Nick “a Real Amy in there, and she was so much better, more interesting and complicated and challenging than Cool Amy.” But Nick did not like Real Amy. “So that’s how the hating first began.”
As this section continues, we learn that Amy has been planning her disappearance, her way to punish Nick, for a year. The key element in her plan is the fake diary she wrote, backdated to build the picture of a woman gradually coming to fear that her husband planned to kill her.
Once we learn that Amy’s diary, which we had relied on as evidence in Part One, is fake, Flynn’s use of life story changes from a plot element to an element of character development. Through Amy’s different stories we have met Narrator Amy, Diary Amy, and Cool Girl Amy. When we finally meet the real Amy … . But you’ll have to see her for yourself.
Gothic literature features characteristics such as magic, mystery, chivalry, horror, clanking chains, ghosts, and dark castles to create a spooky atmosphere rife with foreboding and possibility. Over time Gothic emphasis changed from reliance on these external trappings for their own sake to a focus on the inner workings of the human psyche that the Gothic atmosphere represents. Shirley Jackson’s deliciously creepy 1962 novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle demonstrates the power of the Gothic in the hands of a master craftsman.
Brief History of Gothic Literature
The first Gothic novel was Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764), set in a medieval castle featuring dark stairways, mysterious rooms, trap doors, and underground passages. Between 1789 and 1797 Anne Radcliffe wrote five romances, the most famous being The Mysteries of Udolpho, that helped make the form popular. Radcliffe emphasized setting and story over character.
As the Gothic novel spread across Europe, it became the backdrop against which authors examined the relationship between humans and the supernatural, with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) perhaps the best known example. Gothicism also influenced other literary forms, particularly poetry of the romantic period in works by Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, and Keats. In the United States Charles Brockden Brown took up the form of the Gothic novel with Wieland (1798) and five subsequent romances.
Early Gothic novels focused on creating a spooky setting appropriate for a story of suspense, dread, foreboding, and, finally, terror. As Gothicism developed, it incorporated elements of the psychological that allowed a focus on character as well as on setting, as evident in the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. Still later works such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938) employ literary devices that developed from the Gothic novel.
Beginning with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, Gothic literature challenged the moral certainties of the 18th century. By exploring the dark romance of the medieval past with its castles and abbeys, its wild landscapes and fascination with the supernatural, Gothic writers placed imagination firmly at the heart of their work – and our culture.
Lead curator of the exhibition, Tim Pye, says: “Gothic is one the most popular and influential modes of literature and I’m delighted that Terror and Wonder is celebrating its rich 250 year history. The exhibition features an amazingly wide range of material, from stunningly beautiful medieval artefacts to vinyl records from the early Goth music scene, so there is truly something for everyone”.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Jackson, Shirley. We Have Always Lived in the Castle Penguin Books, 1962
Mary Katherine, known as Merricat, Blackwood is the first-person narrator of the story. In the opening paragraph she tells us that she is 18 years old and that she lives with her sister Constance: “I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the deathcup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead” (p. 1).
This final sentence of the opening paragraph signals the story’s Gothic emphasis. Although Richard Plantagenet could be any one of several English noblemen, context suggests that Merricat is referring to England’s King Richard III (1452–1485), who is famously believed to have ordered the murder of his two young nephews in the Tower of London. The themes of murder and a family power struggle emerge from this reference. These themes and Merricat’s admitted fondness for a deadly mushroom sharpen our expectations and foreshadow the rest of the story.
Gradually the backstory emerges: Six years earlier the rest of the Blackwood family had died of arsenic poisoning during a family dinner. The dead included Mr. and Mrs. Blackwood (Constance and Merricat’s parents), the girls’ 10-year-old younger brother, and their aunt, whose husband, Uncle Julian, their father’s brother, became very ill but recovered. Uncle Julian was damaged both physically and mentally by his brush with death. Now wheelchair-bound, he lives with Merricat and Constance and is completely dependent on Constance, who takes care of him while her sister largely watches.
Merricat was not at the dinner table that fateful night because she was being punished by having to spend the night in her room without any dinner. That dinner included berries, on which the diners sprinkled sugar that had been laced with arsenic. Suspicion fell on Constance, who did not eat berries and therefore didn’t get sick. She was tried and acquitted of the murders.
This brief outline of the backstory illustrates Jackson’s use of Gothic elements. In addition to the emphasis on death and the sense of foreboding and further impending doom, there are also Gothic overtones in the characterization of Merricat. She goes into the village twice a week for supplies, mostly food and library books, because Constance is agoraphobic. But Merricat must make a game of the trip, with rules about where she should walk and how she should act: “I forced my hands to be still and made a rule for myself: Whenever I saw a tiny scrap of paper I was to remember to be kinder to Uncle Julian” (p. 16). In addition to all her rules for herself, Merricat also buries things around the family property for good luck and even tacks a book up on a tree as a protective talisman. Such actions are examples of magical thinking, the belief that thinking is the same as doing. Magical thinking is normal in young children, who believe that their thoughts and desires cause events that happen around them. But the persistence of magical thinking in the 18-year-old Merricat suggests a deranged mind, another common Gothic element.
Merricat also continues the belief, apparently learned from her parents, that the Blackwoods are better than the villagers and should maintain their distance to avoid contamination from the less worthy:
All of the village was of a piece, a time, and a style; it was as though the people needed the ugliness of the village, and fed on it… . whatever planned to be colorful lost its heart quickly in the village. The blight on the village never came from the Blackwoods; the villages belonged here and the village was the only proper place for them. (p. 8)
Mr. Blackwood put up a fence all around the property and fastened it with a padlock. Merricat makes a ritual out of unlocking and relocating the gate when she leaves the house and when she returns from the village. The Blackwoods’ geographical isolation reflects their feelings of superiority and their fear of the masses:
I always stood perfectly straight and stiff when the children came close, because I was afraid of them. I was afraid that they might touch me and the mothers would come at me like a flock of taloned hawks; that was always the picture I had in my mind—birds descending, striking, gashing with razor claws. (p. 10)
Merricat’s narration of her family’s isolation from the villages bleeds into another Gothic element of the story, its setting. The isolation of the large Blackwood house, fenced off from the everyday world and fortified by Merricat’s magic, fits right into the Gothic picture. Jackson also uses setting to call up another work of late Gothic literature:
The Rochester house was the loveliest in town and had once had a walnut-panelled library and a second-floor ballroom and a profusion of roses along the veranda; our mother had been born there and by rights it should have belonged to Constance. (p. 4)
The Rochester house alludes to Mr. Rochester’s huge house, with his deranged wife hidden upstairs, in Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre.
Gothic features continue as the plot of We Have Always Lived in the Castle unfolds. The precipitating crisis of the book occurs when Constance and Merricat’s cousin, Charles Blackwood, their father’s brother’s son, arrives to disturb the status quo of their existence. As the only remaining male heir, he intends to take over the family mansion and the family fortune. Merricat ratchets up her magic to protect her existence. When a fire breaks out at the house, the volunteer firefighters arrive to try to put it out. That is, after all, their job, even if they don’t like the Blackwoods, the fire chief insists. A truly macabre scene, suggestive of a Satanic ritual, develops as the townspeople implore the firefighters to let the house burn, then set to smashing and looting whatever the flames don’t destroy.
The fire obliterates the top floor of the house. Afterwards, Constance and Merricat continue to live in the small kitchen area while vines overgrow the top. Whereas Merricat had earlier spoken of their home as the house, now she describes it this way: “Our house was a castle, turreted and open to the sky” (p. 177). Finally, the story comes full circle as the house turns into the isolated, creepy castle characteristic of Gothic literature and all the foreboding of impending doom foreshadowed at the beginning comes to fruition.
It’s 250 years since the publication of The Castle of Otranto, an anniversary prompting both a British Library exhibition (Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination) and a linked BBC Gothic season. It is Horace Walpole’s only novel that you see on entering the exhibition, and with which Andrew Graham-Dixon’s BBC4 series, The Art of Gothic: Britain’s Midnight Hour (which ends on3 November), began.
Another 250th anniversary, of Ann Radcliffe’s birth, goes unmentioned, an omission reflecting her curious marginalisation in both celebrations – “the great enchantress”, as Thomas De Quincey called her, does figure, but mainly as the hapless novelist (vapid and trashy, you infer) sent up in Northanger Abbey. For the British Library display, the problem looks to be the absence of a visual legacy, of Radcliffe manuscripts and film adaptations; for Graham-Dixon, it may be the absence of a penis. His blokeish version of early literary gothic consists of chaps like Walpole, William Bedford, Thomas Chatterton, Blake and De Quincey, with the equally colourful Mary Shelley as token woman, and their manly wrestlings with political and industrial revolution, masculine identity and urbanisation in turn influence the Victorians.
Although we tend to think of mysteries and thrillers together, there is a difference:
In a mystery, the reader sees the clues and, near the end, discovers the culprit along with the fictional detective.
In a thriller, the reader learns early on who the villain is and watches as the hero and the villain try to outwit each other.
Despite this technical difference, we tend to think of mysteries and thrillers together because they employ similar literary strategies: The author has to dispense information we need while at the same time building suspense. The best writers dispense information bit by bit in a way that ratchets up the suspense while at the same time giving us the clues we need to follow the action. And along the way the best mystery and thriller writers also probe areas of the human psyche that we usually avoid looking into.
Here, listed in no particular order, are 12 mysteries and thrillers that effectively do all that.
I liked the pace and powerful sense of place in crime fiction. I also liked the strong structure–the beginning, middle and end–the crime, the investigation and the resolution. It all made sense to me. I discovered that everything I wanted to say about the world could be said in a crime novel. So, why would I want to write anything else?—Novelist Ian Rankin
The World Within: Fiction Illuminating Neuroses of Our Time
Edited by Mary Louise Aswell Notes and Introduction by Frederic Wertham, M.D. New York: Whittlesey House, 1947
The World Within was one of the first literary collections assembled to spotlight a psychological approach to literature. It couples a literary editor’s introductory remarks with analysis by a psychiatrist.
The literary editor was Mary Louise Aswell (1902-1984), a novelist and editor for Atlantic Monthly, Reader’s Digest, and Harper’s Bazaar. In her foreword to The World Within, which she titled “The Wing of Madness,” Aswell wrote that writer Sherwood Anderson had written in his notebook, ”When I had been working well, there was a kind of insanity of consciousness.” Aswell continued, “Anderson was one of the first generation of writers to be profoundly influenced by the great explorer of man’s consciousness, Sigmund Freud. But the source of his genius, like that of the far greater writers who precede and follow him, was his intuitive insight, as Freud would have been the first to acknowledge” (p. viii). About a writer working at the time when The World Within was published, she said, “As part of his cultural heritage he has the work of Kafka, Joyce, Proust; of D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Mann and the writers of their generation who first interpreted Freud’s revolutionary concepts in the universal, human terms of art” (p.viii).
Frederic Wertham, M.D., (1895-1981) provided the psychiatric analysis for The World Within. He was born in Nuremberg, Germany, then studied medicine and literature at King’s College, London University, before and during the first world war. In England he became interested in Charles Dickens’s writings on social reform. After the war he received his medical degree from the University of Wurzburg in 1921 and conducted postgraduate study in Paris, Vienna, and Munich. In 1922 Wertham left Germany to work with Alfred Meyer at the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. He became an expert in forensic psychiatry and believed that the environment shapes individual human responses. In 1932 he moved to New York City, where he studied the effects of segregation on the lives of African American children.
Wertham studied psychiatry during the period when Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), a medical doctor, was developing the theories and method of psychoanalysis for the treatment of psychopathology. This same time period saw the beginning of the development of psychiatry as a scientific medical discipline. Freud’s theories came to dominate the field, and for Wertham psychoanalysis was synonymous with psychiatry. In his introduction to The World Within Werthem wrote that after World War I “Freud’s psychoanalysis gained a foothold with a wider audience both inside and outside the psychiatric profession. Freud’s knowledge of literature was prodigious. He explored not only the meanings hidden in the acts of persons but also those in the printed pages of books from the Greek classics to Dostoevsky. He was like an archaeologist who discovers the intact relics of an old bridge, a bridge built of myths and dreams. For the content of every neurosis is an individual myth. No wonder that this kind of psychiatry had in turn the greatest influence on literature” (p. xv). For this reason Wertham’s terminology seems strange to readers of today, for whom psychiatry usually means the use of drugs to treat mental illness.
Wertham also wrote in his introduction “Since ancient times the relationships between psychiatry and literature have been intimate and manifold, although up to the present they have remained largely unformulated” (p. xii). For him, historical myths and legends, such as ancient Greek mythology, represented timeless psychological truths that contemporary psychiatry was particularly suited to formulate: “What brings the science of psychiatry in the psychoanalytic era into such close and fruitful relationship with the art of literature is that psychoanalysis is analysis of a special kind. It does not delve into the mind to isolate disparate elements. Psychoanalysis always aims to relate the detail, the symbol, to the living organism as a whole. It is here that the research of the scientist and the search of the artist find a common ground. Great writers know how to give a unified picture of a whole personality through minute observation of a meaningful expression, a characteristic mannerism, or an unconscious habit” (p. xvi).
The World Within reflects the cultural world view of the time when it was published, a philosophical belief in the absurdity and meaninglessness of the world that had been nurtured by two world wars. Aswell called the time “this age of freedom from certainty” (p. vii). Americans know this attitude best from Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye. The literary works of Søren Kierkegaard, Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Eugène Ionesco, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus reflect a similar philosophy. Wertham referred to this time period in psychoanalytic terms: “The social crisis of our time has a close similarity to the emotional state in a neurosis: it is a want in the face of plenty. False ideals are instilled in people: for men, to produce and sell; for women, to reproduce and buy. Against this propaganda promoted by all the mass methods of modern communication, psychiatry and literature uphold the dignity of the individual in a changing world” (p. xxiv). His reference to changing gender roles as “false ideals” foreshadows The Second Sex (published in French in 1949 and in English translation in 1953) by French woman Simone de Beauvoir.
Wertham looked to literature for expressions of societal ills that needed treatment: “Literature is always—directly or indirectly, positively or negatively—a reflection of the deepest conflicts in the real life of the period” (p. xx). But he also looked to literature as a means of treating those ills, since it is in “the struggle on the frontiers of imagination where the progress of society takes place” (p. xxiv).
The World Within includes the following works:
“The Story of Serapion,” E.T.A. Hoffman
Notes from Underground (excerpt), Feodor Dostoevsky
“The Beast in the Jungle,” Henry James
“The Orchid and the Bee” (from Cities of the Plain), Marcel Proust