LITERARY CRITICISM: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Amy Elliott Dunne:
A Stranger to Herself?

Several times during my reading of Gone Girl, I was struck by the fragility of Amy Dunne’s identity. I’m sure you are questioning the validity of this statement. Nick Dunne is seemingly much more unstable than Amy. He very openly battles with his identity, questioning what makes a good man. So why focus on Amy? (“Amy is such a strong character!” “She is a villainess,” a “mastermind”.) While these observations seem true on the surface, I decided to dig deeper; questioning the formulation of Amy’s identity, or arguably identities. This reflection will seek answers to the following questions:

What are the causes of Amy’s competitive tendencies?
What is the purpose of Amy’s alternating personas?

Gillian Flynn writes brilliantly, tying the Nick and Amy together through alternating chapters and several examples of foreshadowing. Questions about identity and personality first flooded my mind when on the sixth day after Amy’s disappearance; Nick is bombarded by the press. He is disturbed by their ability to research his personality traits as well as the “resurrection” of his full name, which he detests. “Now it was all over the news, the dreaded three-name judgment reserved for serial killers and assassins -Lance Nicholas Dunne- and there was no one I could interrupt” (Flynn, 190). Through using his full name, media has threatened Nick’s perception of his identity.
This scene brought be back to theories of psychoanalysis and psychology-more specifically, the post-Freudian strands of object relations and neo-Freudianism. The former suggests, “…the relations between the child and its objects, especially with the mother, during the pre Oedipal period shape its personality.” The latter suggests “instinctual drives and the unconscious are more essential to psychoanalytic work than the ego” (Rivkin, 392). Nick’s experience with identity crisis prepared me to consider the state of Amy’s character. Once the diary entries cease and I began reading the thoughts of “Real Amy,” I was introduced to the real relationship she had with her parents.
Through neo-Freudianism, Jacques Lacan theorizes that when we are born, “…we are all constitutively split from ourselves and that we can never possibly attain wholeness in a world of objects” (Rivkin, 394). Amy begins her true story with the confession, “I should have never been born” (Flynn, 220). My initial thought was, Amy feels guilty for surviving, while the 7 sisters before her did not. Perhaps that was too humanistic of me to assume, because rather than guilt, Amy proved her competitiveness. Amy was the only daughter who was split from the full “self,” when she left her mother’s womb. On page 222, she admits:

I’ve always been better than the Hopes, I was the only one who made it. But I’ve always been jealous too, always-seven dead dancing princesses. They get to be perfect without even trying…while I am stuck here on earth, and every day I must try, and every day is a chance to be less than perfect.

In an attempt to feel “whole,” Amy felt the need to compete with the perfect image that her parents (especially her mother, Marybeth) had constructed of the Hopes. The Hopes were perfect because they never had the chance to not be so.
Marybeth reinforced the perceived perfection of the Hopes by her behavior on the days of the Hopes’ “birth-deaths.” Amy remembers Marybeth on those days “she would get pensive, she would remove herself, and I would have none of it, needful thing I was. I would clamber onto my mother’s lap…I wouldn’t give my mother those few minutes” (Flynn, 221). This is where object relations theory comes into play. At a first glance, I thought what a selfish child, but then I thought about the wording Flynn used for this memory, “needful thing I was.” Real, live daughter Amy was making an attempt to reach out to a mother who could not connect to her. She needed to develop a personality with parental guidance, not the Hopes. However, the Elliotts continued to fictionalize Amy through their book series, furthering Amy’s needs to achieve perfection and accuracy to an unnatural persona.
Amy’s childhood years now explain her difficulty in maintaining a single persona. What puzzles me still is why she seemed to enjoy being different characters. Perhaps she was committed to the idea that her existence was exactly that; an idea. From the moment she was born, Amy’s parents were perplexed as to how to deal with a “real baby.”
Amy writes,

When I remained alive, they named me Amy, because it was a regular girl’s name, a popular girl’s name, a name a thousand other baby girls were given that year, so maybe the gods wouldn’t notice this little baby nestled among the others. Marybeth said if she were to do it again, she’d name me Lydia.

There is something to be said about this naming process. A name is a very large part of identity. Amy’s parents chose a name that would “hide” her initial success of survival from the world. (She was born, but she wasn’t a “Hope.”) Later, when Marybeth admits she would have liked to name her daughter Lydia I wondered why this was. The name “Lydia” relates to strong faith as well as wealth and royalty. Why is this detail important? It seems that Marybeth rethought hiding her daughter and decide to instead put her on display as a kind of royal.
This theory aligns nicely with the Amazing Amy series, and their effects of Real Amy, which brings me back to the development of her personas. Because the books created the character Amazing Amy, that is the version of Amy that people expected to meet. According to her, she was expected to behave perfectly and rationally in every situation. When Amy could not always live up to her “Amazing” expectations, something tells me she began to separate more permanently from her parents. To connect this back to object relations theory, the Elliott family dynamic obviously did not allow a healthy separation of Amy from her parents.
According to Rivkin and Ryan “the contours of self-identity are given or shaped by that primary relationship [pre-Oedipal stage], by whether or not it is distant and frustrating, for example, or overwhelming and engulfing” (Rivkin, 392). While Amy’s parents did not physically neglect her, it seems they had done so emotionally; thus, her inability to create a solid identity for herself. She admits to trying on different personalities as a natural occurrence, “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” (Flynn, 222). My theory is when she met Nick, Amy assumed the “cool girl” personality because she believed men are attracted to those types of girls. (“That night at the Brooklyn party, I was playing the girl who was in style, the girl a man like Nick wants: the Cool Girl [Flynn 222]). Amy was happy with this persona, because she had chosen it for herself. In a way, she was more whole, because of her happiness. She says, “Until Nick I’d never really felt like a person, because I was always a product” (Flynn, 224). This makes sense; she was a product of unrealistic expectations based on the books her parents wrote about “her.”
According to object relations, much of what happens between parent and child during the pre-Oedipal stage can determine how the child will deal with relationships. Rivkin and Ryan explain further,
The child’s ability to separate successfully from its primary unity with the mother…will determine what kind of personality he or she will possess- be it one yearning for fusion with objects that never fully satisfy its yearning or one dominated by a feeling of being compelled to flee from relationships that threaten to overwhelm its fragile boundaries.

Amy seems to struggle connecting to anyone she meets (so much so that I suggest she has sociopath tendencies). Her relationships are either short-lived, or protected through lies. Based on her behavioral patterns, I see Amy’s comfort with Nick as a warning sign. She met him under an unnatural persona, grew to love him and became comfortable enough to start being herself. Once she realized what she was doing, she also realized she was vulnerable and fragile. Being Amy, she couldn’t live with that, because she still had to be perfect in order to live up to the expectation she was born under. Due to her inherent expectations, I deem it virtually impossible for Amy to end her identity crisis.
I’ll close this reflection with the final paragraph to Amy Elliott Dunne’s chapter, “The Day Of” (Flynn, 225). Her thoughts seem like a revelation, until you reach the final phrase.

Committing to Nick, feeling safe with Nick, being happy with Nick, made me realize that there was a real Amy in there, and she was so much better, more interesting and complicated and challenging, than Cool Amy. Nick wanted Cool Amy anyway. Can you imagine, finally showing your true self to your spouse, your soul mate, and having him not like you? So that’s how the hating first began. I’ve thought about this a lot, and that’s where it started, I think.


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