The Watcher and the Watched

By Kim KankiewiczJanuary 19, 2015

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

WHEN I FIRST saw Rear Window, I was a bookish fifth grader who walked down back alleys to the library because I dreaded being seen. Hitchcock’s film mesmerized me. Through the eyes of protagonist L.B. Jefferies, I became an unobserved observer of the residents of a Greenwich Village apartment complex. My memory of the film’s climactic scene is visceral: Jefferies, and we along with him, peer through a telephoto lens at murderer Lars Thorwald. Realizing he is being watched, Thorwald stares directly into the camera. I still feel exposed when I recall Thorwald’s gaze 30 years later. The psychological thrill of that scene hooked me on Hitchcock. I’m still a sucker for anything Hitchcockian, but nothing replicated my response to Rear Window until I read Paula Hawkins’ debut novel, The Girl on the Train.

Comparisons of The Girl on the Train to Rear Window will be inevitable. Like L.B. Jefferies, Hawkins’ protagonist, Rachel, becomes immersed in the lives of strangers viewed through a window. Riding the train to and from London each day, Rachel watches a couple in a house beside the tracks. She assigns them names, imagining them in a state of domestic bliss that contrasts with her own condition: divorced, unemployed, and alcoholic. One morning, however, she witnesses a scene that shatters her illusions about the couple. The next day, the woman in the couple she has been watching disappears.

As the story hurtles forward, Hawkins maintains suspense through the very last page. She withholds and reveals information through multiple female narrators: Rachel; the missing woman, Megan; and Rachel’s ex’s new wife, Anna. Hawkins’ plotting is masterful, but there’s something else that makes this book so hard to put down: her manipulation and ultimate subversion of the male gaze.

Film critic Laura Mulvey famously introduced the concept of the male gaze in her 1975 essay on "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Riffing on Freud and Lacan, Mulvey discussed how women in mainstream film are “simultaneously looked at and displayed” for the “determining male gaze.” The male protagonist, she wrote, is the “bearer of the look of the spectator.” He is our eyes; we see what he sees. Considering Hitchcock’s exploitation of this dynamic, it’s not surprising that Mulvey referred to Rear Window to illustrate her point.

Theories of gendered gaze are not exclusive to the field of film studies. Mulvey’s essay emerged shortly after art critic John Berger maintained, in the 1972 documentary Ways of Seeing, “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” Beyond the visual arts, literary critic Hélène Cixous revisited the Medusa myth in 1975 to describe how a masculine gaze has defined women for nearly “the entire history of writing.” By 1990, feminist literary scholars were routinely applying gaze theory to their work.

When I read “Visual Pleasure” as a college student in the mid-1990s, colloquial references to the male gaze were common. Meanwhile, Mulvey had incited strenuous debate within the feminist community. Numerous critics had challenged or rejected her essay for ignoring the possibility of a female gaze and overlooking racial differences among viewers.

It’s true that Mulvey populated her theoretical cinema seats with white men and the duped white women sharing their popcorn. Yet her argument rang true when I first encountered it, and it resonated as I read The Girl on the Train.

Consider what happens when a female witness replaces a male witness. In Rear Window, L.B. Jefferies’ suspicions may be easily dismissed, initially, as ghoulish conjectures, but the film never calls his veracity as a witness into question. To some degree, his profession as a photographer legitimizes his voyeurism and validates his interpretation of things seen. The Girl on the Train’s Rachel, on the other hand, is repeatedly declared unreliable. She even says of herself, “I’m an unreliable witness.” Because she blacks out while drinking, she distrusts her memories. But it’s not only her perceptions that are called into doubt; her motives are interrogated as well. Since Rachel’s ex-husband and his new wife were acquainted with the missing woman, the police interpret Rachel’s involvement in the case as an attempt to reclaim a role in her ex’s life.

Time and again, female witnesses are deemed unreliable, in fiction and in real life. In Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery and Agatha Christie’s 4:50 from Paddington — works that bear similarities to Rear Window and The Girl on the Train — Diane Keaton’s character and the elderly Mrs. McGillicuddy, respectively, are not treated as credible observers. Likewise in the real world, numerous studies have found that judges and juries consider female witnesses less trustworthy than their male counterparts.

It’s not just Rachel’s reliability that’s contested in The Girl on the Train; it’s her right to witness in the first place, and to take satisfaction in doing so. Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure” is concerned with scopophilia — pleasure derived from looking — and how this pleasure is experienced “in a world ordered by sexual imbalance.” For the voyeur in film noir and related genres, Mulvey argues, “pleasure lies in ascertaining guilt.” Film audiences, like mystery readers, share this pleasure with male protagonists. But as traditional objects of the masculine gaze, female protagonists like Rachel are denied uncomplicated scopophilia.

While L.B. Jefferies is allowed to take pleasure in watching his neighbors (notwithstanding his friends’ sardonic commentary), Rachel’s behavior is treated as pathology — maybe rightly so. She is so caught up in the fantasy of another couple’s perfect marriage that she feels betrayed when she witnesses an infidelity. Over time, though, voyeurism becomes a viable means of self-actualization. Rachel finds herself drinking less as she investigates the woman’s disappearance, musing, “I feel like I’m part of this mystery, I’m connected. I am no longer just a girl on the train, going back and forth without point or purpose.”

To embrace her identity as a witness, Rachel must overcome scopophilia’s opposing impulse: scopophobia, the fear of being seen. The awareness of being seen constitutes a climactic moment for L.B. Jefferies; he escapes the gaze until that chilling scene near the end of Rear Window when Lars Thorwald casts his eyes toward the camera. By contrast, Rachel is constantly aware of watching eyes. She interprets glances from fellow passengers as disapproval. She describes memories of being looked at and a nightmare in which other characters stare at her in disgust. She feels people looking at her and confides, “The sense of shame I feel about an incident is proportionate […] to the number of people who witnessed it.”

To some degree, the other narrators in The Girl on the Train inhabit similar gazed-upon perspectives. Both Megan and Anna are acutely aware of their own beauty and its effect upon men. When these women look outward, it’s generally to measure themselves against other women. This explains why Anna can confess both a longing to be looked at and a fear of being watched. Anna puts so much stock in her physical appearance that she can’t fathom her husband returning to Rachel because, “if you look at the two of us, side by side, there isn’t a man on earth who would pick her over me.”

Anna’s comment supports Mulvey’s contention that “women look at themselves through the male gaze.” As the female narrators in Hawkins’ novel take turns viewing one another through this lens, they become jealous and possessive. Instead of examining how men in the novel cause problems, they empathize with the men and blame themselves and other women. Ironically, though the female characters are constantly attentive to the male perspective, we know little of the men’s subjective reality because they are never afforded their own narrative. Some might critique the men in Hawkins’ novel as caricatures — jealous and unfaithful husbands, brooding lovers, mysterious strangers. But these portrayals strike me as deliberate commentary on traditional crime fiction, in which women are femmes fatales or damsels in distress rather than fully developed characters.

Scopophobia is a diagnosable condition, but as a metaphor it might represent constrained subjectivity. The Girl on the Train suggests a collective scopophobia that binds women in patriarchal society. The novel’s exploration of this theme feels at once familiar — because I, like Rachel and like other women I know, have felt “as if people can see the damage written all over me” — and groundbreaking — because Hawkins allows her protagonist to escape the bind. As readers and writers of our own lives, we gain agency when we see and bear witness. Growth finally occurs when we see ourselves clearly. When Rachel stops assessing herself through another’s gaze and sees herself as a reliable witness, she is able to become that witness: sober, aware, “a different person.”

Thus in a twist on the traditional detective story, Rachel becomes a detective of her own experience. During pauses in the narrative, we are invited to enter Rachel’s mind as she pieces together her memories. When we know what she saw, the central mystery is solved.

Arriving at this solution requires Rachel to revise her view of other characters as well. When she announces to the killer, “I saw you,” it is a victory; she feels “euphoria, fleeting but unmistakable” as she speaks the words aloud. No longer inhibited by others’ scrutiny, she is professing her own vision. The impact of this moment relies as much on our identification with Rachel as on the revelation of whodunit. We may have surmised the killer’s identity several pages before Rachel confronts the truth, but the physical and emotional stakes keep us in suspense.

Hawkins writes as an astute reader of her own genre. She anticipates us as we anticipate her. She confirms our suspicions gradually, and our pleasure in the ending is heightened by what we saw coming. Just as she describes a character’s gaze to increase tension — as when a shady character catches Rachel watching him on the train — Hawkins manipulates the reader’s gaze by, for example, showing us the same scene through the eyes of multiple narrators.

Writers, and by proxy their narrators, influence how we view the world. The Girl on the Train is about many things. It’s about attraction and loyalty. It’s about the fluidity of memory and the precariousness of domestic life. It’s about loneliness and the longing to be loved. But finally, it’s about seeing and being seen, particularly as women. The Girl on the Train dares us to resist a confining gaze and to claim our own vision.


Kim Kankiewicz lives in the Seattle area, where she co-founded the literary arts organization Eastside Writes.

LARB Contributor

Kim Kankiewcz has written for McSweeneys, Pacific Standard, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and other publications. She lives in the Seattle area, where she co-founded the literary arts organization Eastside Writes.


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