Imagined Trauma: Ideology and Motherhood in Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train

17 October 2016 | Chantal Bertalanffy

It was not the crime story which kept me awake until late at night and had me turning page after page; I was under the spell of the women in Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train (2015). I urgently needed to know if Rachel, Meagan and Anna would redeem themselves at the end of the novel, or if Hawkins herself was just as lost as her characters in a narrative which was not her own, this narrative being patriarchy. Without spoiling the ending, Hawkins did not disappoint me. She depicts women whose weaknesses stem from their unconscious compliance with patriarchal ideology, women who see themselves through the eyes of men and never question their positioning – until something happens, and they do start asking questions.


Effectively, what fascinated me the most in The Girl on the Train was Hawkins’s portrayal of women and motherhood. Although there are many discourses regarding motherhood which contest “the mother in her socially constructed, institutional role” (Kaplan 6), in the eyes of feminist scholars, the dominant motherhood ideology is still very much a patriarchal construct: “Culture tells us what it means to be a mother, what behaviors and attitudes are appropriate for mothers, and how motherhood should shape relationships and self-identity” (Johnston and Swanson 21). In this sense, Hawkins offers a reading of ‘mother’ from the “inside”, as we get to read about Rachel, Meagan and Anna’s very private thoughts about motherhood (they are all first-person narrators).

I would like to argue that all these often contradicting motherhood discourses have created a form of female trauma, which is definitely evident in The Girl on the Train. Consequently, the women in Hawkins’s world behave like typical traumatized individuals in accordance to trauma theory, their symptoms being memory loss, depression, hysteria, repeating the traumatizing moment in their heads, having flashbacks, telling lies to the people around them, etc. The plot of the book, in fact, revolves around Rachel’s lack of memory on the night Meagan disappears.

As a matter of fact, it should be distinguished that Anna and Meagan’s trauma is different from Rachel’s. Anna and Meagan find it difficult to submit themselves to the “good” mother stereotype, as the image of ‘mother’ does not match their realities, though they very much yearn to fulfil this image. Meagan says:

“I thought of … all the things I’d been: child, rebellious teenager, runaway, whore, lover, bad mother, bad wife. I’m not sure if I can remake myself as a good wife, but a good mother—that I have to try” (Hawkins 365).

It is no spoiler to say she dies in the book and I would argue that her death has something to do with her failure to keep up all these different roles. Similarly, Anna struggles with being reduced to only being a mother and gradually becomes mentally unstable.

Rachel, then, is the most traumatized one, though her trauma is imagined. If trauma, in fact, is generally an unexpected event which is emotionally difficult to come to terms with, in her case, this event never took place. It is the unfulfilled wish, an empty space (womb), which traumatizes her: “it’s possible to miss what you’ve never had, to mourn for it” (Hawkins 112). Indeed, Rachel states the cause for her alcoholism and subsequent psychological derailment in her inability to become a mother, ‘motherhood’, therefore, being an imagined event. If arguably, “a patriarchal ideology of mothering locks women into biological reproduction, and denies them identities and selfhood outside of motherhood” (Glenn 9), then Rachel’s childlessness also determines her social positioning. She becomes unemployed, an alcoholic, a social outcast. Thus, Rachel not only suffers from her imagined trauma, she also suffers from having an identity denied to her, an identity she obsessively wants to call her own.

To sum up, how can a novel, which portrays such screwed up women, be dealt with as a progressive text for positive motherhood discourses? In my opinion, Hawkins provides “a moment … [where] the unconscious is becoming conscious, and that a ‘female’, as against a (patriarchal) ‘feminine’ discourse is beginning to develop” (Kaplan 16). Indeed, Rachel literally creates her own narrative by piecing together bits of memories. By doing so, she starts to see the cracks of patriarchal ideology around her and is able to step away from it. Ultimately, will Rachel be able to dissolve her trauma? She thinks

“…there is hope. If I straighten myself out and sober up, there’s a possibility that I could adopt” (Hawkins 113).

Indeed, healing can only take place when trauma is acknowledged and dealt with accordingly. Though Hawkins does not offer a solution to the healing process as such, she nonetheless inspires her readers to reflect on the dominant ideological representations and stereotypes of motherhood that are deeply problematic and possibly harmful.

About Chantal

Chantal is in her first year for a PhD in Japanese Studies. Chantal’s research investigates how post 3.11-cinema (referring to the date of the triple catastrophe of the earthquake, tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in Tōhoku in 2011) tries to explain, negotiate and reconcile the complexities of collective national trauma and its aftermath.

Article edited by Amadeus Chen and Ian Anderson.


Glenn, Evelyn Nakano. „Social Constructions of Mothering: A Thematic Overview“. Mothering: Ideology, Experience, and Agency. Eds. Glenn, Evelyn Nakano, Grance Chang and Linda Rennie Forcey. New York: Routledge, 1994. 1-29. Print.

Hawkins, Paula. The Girl on the Train. London: Penguin Random House, 2015. Print.

Johnston, Deirdre, and Debra Swanson. “Invisible Mothers: A Content Analysis of Motherhood Ideologies and Myths in Magazines.” Sex Roles 49.1 (2003): 21-33. Print.

Kaplan, E. Ann. Motherhood and Representation : The Mother in Popular Culture and Melodrama. London; New York: Routledge, 1992. Print.

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