The Contemporary Gothic: Neoliberalism in Gone Girl
The Gothic genre has long been characterized by 18th and 19th century novels such as Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights, in which classic Gothic tropes breath suspense and horror into these stories and often fill them with real-life anxieties. Gone Girl, written by Gillian Flynn, employs the use of many of these classic Gothic tropes. From empty houses and dead girls to doubling and the uncanny, the Gothic is undeniably present in Gone Girl. This new use of the Gothic functions similarly to how it originally did when the genre was formed; the use of the Gothic presents a manner in which to convey very real anxieties that Americans were facing at the time of the novel’s creation. At the time of Gone Girl, Americans were facing the effects of the 2008 financial crisis and struggling with neoliberal ideals, which were brought into question due to the crisis. Neoliberalism, in the words of Michael Foucault, promotes the homo economicus: “an entrepreneur of himself, being for himself his own capital…his own producer…the source of his earnings,” (Foucault 226). The ideal neoliberal self sells oneself as a commodity and is successfully self-sufficient. By using classical Gothic tropes throughout a contemporary novel set in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis, Flynn effectively conveys the true horror of neoliberalism to her readers.
One of the most striking visuals that we are given in the early chapters of Gone Girl is that of the haunted house, a common trope that, in the words of Annie McClanahan, “has long served as a figure for class anxiety and…for more generalized ‘anxieties about ownership,’” (McClanahan 6). As Nick and Amy move into their new home in Missouri, Nick describes their neighborhood: “Driving into our development occasionally makes me shiver, the sheer number of gaping dark houses…voided, humanlesss…” (Flynn 30). The emptiness of these houses is haunting; they lack the humanity of true homes as nobody can afford to live in them. The few neighbors that Nick and Amy interact with discuss finances and the economy, overtly anxious about the temporality of their own living situations. Homes can function as a representation of those who live within, and in a neoliberal system one’s success – or lack thereof – can be seen by all who pass by. Indeed, Nick and Amy buy a large house and the only one with river access, as their neighbors point out. Economic crises thus become personal crises; not being able to provide for oneself reflects on that person’s worth in a neoliberal economic system. Nick watches as a single mother is forced to leave her house in the night with her three children, unable to pay her mortgage. “Her house has remained empty,” he comments (31). These abandoned, haunted houses reflect the very real horror of the financial crisis and the despair that it has wrought upon workers and their families.
Nick then sees “a man, bearded, bedraggled, staring out from behind the [glass], floating in the dark like some sad aquarium fish. He…flickered back into the depths of the house,” (Flynn 31). Many homeless men, known as the Blue Book Boys, wander throughout North Carthage jobless and homeless like the one Nick watches in the recently abandoned empty house. These men embody many Gothic tropes; as shown by the quote above, the homeless man almost seems spectral and ghostlike. He floats and flickers rather than walking and running. The supernatural is an important Gothic trope as is the uncanny; and this homeless man is quite uncanny. He unsettles Nick, he is human but seems inhuman.
Nick also likens him to a sad fish and in doing so further dehumanizes him. Nick views the rest of the homeless community similarly, describing how they wander in “packs,” a word which has a strong connotation with wolves and wild animals, and notes how they “run wild” (Flynn 126). Through the lens of neoliberalism, these men have clearly been unable to succeed or ‘win’ in the financialized economic system. With their failure comes their loss of humanity: they have been incapable of successfully selling themselves and attaining self-sufficiency and thus they have been reduced to hiding in abandoned houses or wandering aimlessly, homeless and penniless.
For Nick, these homeless men hold another layer of discomfort as they remind him of his own job loss. In a way, they act as Nick’s doubles – another popular Gothic trope – as they reflect the possibilities of what Nick himself could have easily become, especially if Amy had not been there to support him financially. Furthermore, they represent what Nick could still become – just like most Americans, he is not immune to the destruction that the financial crisis wrought upon the country. Although he refuses to admit this as he dehumanizes the homeless Blue Book Boys, the anxiety that the neoliberal mindset creates is overwhelmingly present in Nick’s character. Despite the fact that his job loss was not his fault, in a neoliberal economy he is supposedly the one who is to blame, and Nick clearly feels that it is his fault as he angrily tells Amy that “there’s not a fucking thing I know how to do instead [of writing]” (Flynn 93). He has no other way to sell himself or become the ideal flexible neoliberal subject, and thus he has failed.
Another classic Gothic trope that is used in Gone Girl is that of the beautiful dead or dying woman. In the words of Edgar Allen Poe himself, “…the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world…” (Poe). Amy is aware of the beauty and tragedy of such a death, and she decides to make death her own story. She laments becoming the “Average Dumb Woman” married to the “Average Shitty Man,” and her life becoming bland and boring (Flynn 315). With her recent job loss and Nick’s decision to move to North Carthage, Amy needs to find a new way to make herself relevant and exciting, and more specifically to stand out from the average, dull women that she so despises. The dead girl trope is not just a poetical topic in Gone Girl, but a way for Amy to commodify and sell herself. Just as Amy claims that she changes personalities like “some women change fashion regularly,” she simply decides that her next personality would be that of the dead girl (299). An ideal neoliberal subject, Amy is flexible and entrepreneurial as she adjusts her own being in order to get what she wants. To the reader, the idea of a woman staging a murder and framing her husband because she needs control and feels bored is clearly extreme. This points out one of the key flaws in neoliberalism: complete self-reliance and the idea of selling yourself can drive people who need jobs and money – or in Amy’s case, needing to break away from the “Average Dumb Woman” – to extremes.
Another trope that is used throughout Gone Girl is the idea of a descent into madness. Whether Amy is actually psychopathic or not is unimportant to the message that Flynn emphasizes. What is important, however, is what has caused Amy’s actions to become progressively more crazed and outrageous. “Diary Amy,” as Amy calls the made-up version of herself that she left for the police to find, is the initial level-headed and sane Amy that the reader encounters (Flynn 319). Although she is completely unreal, the impression that she leaves on the reader is important, especially when the reader encounters the real Amy. Although this may not be the typical descent into madness, as Diary Amy was fake, the characters that the reader recognizes as Amy are still connected and her character arc becomes ‘madder’ as the real Amy reveals herself.
Similarly to how the dead girl trope emphasizes the extremities that neoliberalism can push one to, Amy’s descent into madness functions in a similar way. Her final act is the most extreme: in order to regain power and control and to escape Desi, who has essentially trapped her in the role of a sick housewife, she murders and frames him. Although this is extreme, it is not unrealistic, and it represents how neoliberal ideology encourages its subjects to go to any lengths necessary in order to achieve their goals. Indeed, many real people have been pushed to real violence because of this ideology. Crucial services such as health clinics, police forces, and even public schools are often underfunded and even shut down in neoliberal governments, which can often drive those in poor communities to comparable violence in order to survive (Hayes).
Amy, who represents the true neoliberal mindset, essentially wins the battle that she and Nick have when she returns. She is loved by the press and is in control of both Nick and her life. She is a true entrepreneur who is willing to go to any length necessary in order to achieve her goals: just as Nick is about to win and expose her story to the world, she tells him that she got pregnant. Nick deletes his story and says that he is “a prisoner after all,” (Flynn 551). This is blatantly unjust: a woman who both frames her husband for murder and actually murders a man is allowed to walk free and enjoy a full life simply because she was flexible and innovative enough to commit these violent acts without being caught. Meanwhile Nick, though a deeply flawed character, is trapped by Amy – and in turn, neoliberalism – with no escape.
Flynn thus points out the injustice of neoliberalism itself. Those who deserve punishment for their actions often do not receive it if they can work the system in order to avoid it, while many others suffer the consequences of the powerful gaining more power. The gothic tropes that Flynn imbeds throughout Gone Girl function to emphasize the anxieties and horrors of neoliberalism as well as its failure as a political and economic system. The haunted houses and unemployed men create a sense of unease, anxiety, and discomfort while directly reminding the reader of the financial crisis and those who it affected. While Amy’s act as a dead girl and her descent into madness do not point out the economic effects of neoliberalism, they do point out the issues of the neoliberal mindset: Amy embodies the ideas of self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship that are so highly praised by neoliberalism. These Gothic tropes, which may seem extreme in a quasi-Realist novel, emphasize the very real horror and harm that neoliberalism causes for many of its subjects.
Flynn, Gillian. Gone Girl. Broadway Books, 2012.
Foucault, M., et al. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979. Springer, 2008.
Hayes, Kelly. “Chicago’s Violence Is Fueled by Neoliberalism.” Truthout, https://truthout.org/articles/chicagos-violence-is-fueled-by-neoliberalism/. Accessed 11 July 2019.
McClanahan, Annie. “Dead Pledges: Debt, Horror, and the Credit Crisis.” Post45, 7 May 2012, http://post45.research.yale.edu/2012/05/dead-pledges-debt-horror-and-the-credit-crisis/.
Poe, Edgar Allen. “The Raven and The Philosophy of Composition.” Project Gutenberg, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/55749/55749-h/55749-h.htm. Accessed 9 July 2019.