Book Summary and Analysis |

Fiction | Mystery and Crime



Summary and Critique of

Paula Hawkins’s
The Girl on the Train

by J.B. Feliciton

Copyright©2015 J.B. Feliciton. All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or retransmitted in any form or by any means without the written permission of the author.

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1. Settings for the Story

The Girl on the Train takes place outside of London. A commuter train that carries Rachel into and out of London every day becomes a second home for Rachel where she can hide away from the world. It is a safe place where she is surrounded by strangers who cannot make her responsible for her misguided life choices. The train also makes her feel to a certain degree connected with her ex-husband as she can see his home through the train’s window. There is something masochistic about Rachel watching her ex-husband’s house every day. Moreover, as the daily train passes another house, it allows Rachel to see “Jess” and “Jason” living in that house, keeping her fascinated with their relationship.

The train that Rachel rides every day represents different things to different characters in the book. For Rachel, it symbolizes a sense of security, stability and direction—something that she does not have in her own life. It makes her feel like she is going somewhere. However, in reality, Rachel does not get anywhere even though she spends so much time on the train. For Megan, the train symbolizes an escape to some unknown destination where she can finally be happy. Megan constantly thinks about running away and starting a new life. The train re-enforces her dreams, helping her believe that one day she will escape from her boring suburban life. For Anna, the train symbolizes a threat to her privacy. Moreover, Anna dislikes the train because she is aware that living alongside the tracks was something that Rachel wanted. It reminds Anna that her home used to be Rachel’s home.

The town of Witney with its cookie-cutter houses is the quintessence of modern suburbia. Witney reminds Rachel about the life that she used to have when she was married, employed and sober. On the other hand, Megan finds her predictable suburban life in Witney to be suffocating. But in the end, it turns out that life in Witney is not as predictable and safe as people think when Megan suddenly disappears.


2. List of Characters


Rachel Watson – a divorced alcoholic and the main narrator of Paula Hawkins’s novel

Tom Watson – Rachel’s ex-husband

Anna Watson – Tom’s new wife

Megan Hipwell – a person who goes missing

Scott Hipwell – Megan’s husband

Dr. Kamal Abdic – Megan’s therapist

Detective Inspector Gaskill – the lead investigator in the disappearance of Megan Hipwell

Detective Sergeant Riley – the second investigator in the disappearance of Megan Hipwell

Andy – a man from the train

Cathy – Rachel’s college friend and roommate

Damien – Cathy’s boyfriend

Evie Watson – Tom and Anna’s baby daughter

Elizabeth “Libby” – Megan’s deceased baby daughter

Tara – Megan’s friend

Craig “Mac” McKenzie – Megan’s ex-boyfriend

Martin Miles – Rachel’s former boss


3. Analysis of the Leading Characters

Rachel Watson

Rachel, the main narrator of Paula Hawkins’s novel, shares a flat with Kathy who was her friend from university. Rachel spends her evenings drinking heavily. Only her memories of the past and her fantasies about people she does not know are able to sustain her now. Her obsession with her ex-husband, Tom, relies on her belief that she and Tom used to have a perfect relationship and that she still has feelings for him.

Rachel rides the train to and from London every day so her roommate will not find out that she has been fired from her job. Every trip hurts her emotionally when the train passes the house where she lived with her ex-husband, Tom. When she sees Megan and Scott through the windows of the train, she tells herself, “They’re what I used to be, they’re Tom and me five years ago. They’re what I lost, they’re everything I want to be.”

Rachel’s inability to move on with her own life prompts her to harass her ex-husband and his second wife with aggressive, drunken phone calls that she can barely remember.

Rachel is a living disaster. She becomes an alcoholic after she is unable to conceive a child via in vitro fertilization. Now she seeks comfort in gin and wine. Rachel is overweight and the reader is reminded many times about how much other characters dislike Rachel for her looks.

Rachel often demonstrates her inclination to feel an immediate strong attraction to any person who seems to be kind toward her. Later, Tom describes her desire to be accepted and loved by other people when he tells Rachel, “You’re like one of those dogs, the unwanted ones that have been mistreated all their lives. You can kick them and kick them, but they’ll still come back to you, cringing and wagging their tails.”

Rachel is unreliable with other people. Moreover, she is unreliable with herself as her memory lets her down and her addiction rules her behavior. She remains drunk throughout most of the novel. The readers follows the story of her life watching how it becomes filled with more lies. She has been fired for drinking, but she continues to ride the commuter train, making her roommate believe that she is still working.

Rachel gets drunk and phones her ex-husband, and then the next day she cannot remember what she did. Her obsession with her ex-husband Tom shows that she does not have any self-respect left. Tom has taken it all away from her. To escape from that sad reality, Rachel chooses to live in a fantasy world that involves Megan and Scott. She has to say good-bye to her fantasies when one day she sees Megan kissing another man.

Rachel feels that Jess’ infidelity betrayed and destroyed her fantasies of Jess and Jason’s happy life. This also reminds Rachel of the day when she discovered that her husband Tom was having an affair with Anna. Hawkins masterfully depicts how Rachel mixes her feelings about Tom’s betrayal with her feelings about Megan and Scott’s relationship.

On the night that Megan goes missing, Rachel gets very drunk. It becomes obvious just how unreliable her memory is when she learns from her ex-husband that she was harassing his new family on that night and has no recollection of the event.

After Megan’s disappearance, Rachel feels that she has to tell the police everything that she has observed about Megan from the train. However, the police find it difficult to believe a drunken witness whose memories are foggy and unreliable. As the story develops, Rachel makes serious efforts to recover her memories, but her blackouts allow the reader to view all the men in the story as potential murderers.

Because of Rachel’s drunken blackout, she has to rely on Tom’s words about her phone calls to him on the night of Megan’s disappearance. Instead of clarifying the events that took place on that night, the plot becomes more twisted as the holes in Rachel’s memory are filled with Tom’s stories.

Rachel becomes more and more involved in the investigation of the disappearance of Megan. Rachel finds that her involvement in the police investigation makes her life more meaningful. She also realizes that doing something important takes her mind off of her own problems and helps her stay sober.

But she finds that her fantasies keep catching up with her when she becomes involved intimately with Scott. She realizes that she wants to spend a night not with Scott, but with Jason, the man that she imagined in her fantasies. Meanwhile, the more Rachel discovers about the missing Megan, the less she likes her.

Megan Hipwell

Megan Hipwell is a suburban housewife. Her life with her husband Scott seems happy, but it is very far from perfect. Megan does not feel that she belongs to suburban life. She feels aimless after losing her job at an art gallery. Moreover, she is bored, restless and unhappy in her marriage to Scott.

When Megan was a teenager, she and her brother frequently talked about traveling together to distant places. She felt overcome with a grief when her brother died in an accident. Megan ran away from home after her brother’s death.  She worked as a prostitute, used drugs, got pregnant. Her baby daughter died because of her own negligence, and her boyfriend left her after the death of their child.

After Megan gets married, the dark secrets from her past keep haunting her, preventing her from living a normal life. The memories of her baby’s death make Megan feel reluctant to have children with her husband Scott. She doesn’t believe that she can be a good mother. Megan continues to follow the same pattern—trying to run away from difficult situations with the hope that a fresh start in her life will somehow make everything OK.

Megan feels burdened by her empty days and her emotionally controlling husband. Megan does not work for a living. She lives on the resources of her husband and seeks excitement and empowerment in love affairs with other men.

Megan is a compulsive adulterer. She manipulates men, trying to control them. She also hopes that one of these man can solve her emotional issues by taking her away from the suburban life that makes her feel suffocated. When they leave her, she feels disillusioned, insulted and lost.

As Megan feels more and more distressed in the face of her empty life and controlling husband, she recalls her brother Ben and wonders if the loss of her brother is contributing to her own sadness and insomnia. Feeling trapped and exhausted, she begins seeking professional help. When she becomes intimately involved with her therapist, Kamal, it becomes obvious that her affair is not just a way of escaping the issues she has with her married life. The affair makes her feel empowered, demonstrating how strongly she feels about being in control of her relationships.

When Megan finds out that she is pregnant again and that Scott may not be the father of her baby, she confesses her affair to Scott and tells him about her pregnancy with the hope that he will be willing to raise the baby with her. But Scott becomes enraged by the news. He attacks Megan and nearly kills her. Megan turns to Tom. She believes that he is the father of the baby and expects to get his support. Her meeting leads to her confrontation with Tom, who does not wish to be burdened with Megan and her child.

Anna Watson

Anna is Tom’s new wife. Anna comes across as a striking contrast to Rachel and Megan. She is self-assured and confident about what she wants from life when she goes after Tom. However, she misses her affair with Tom—the one that they had when Tom was married to Rachel. Over time, Anna also begins to suspect that her looks may not be enough to keep her happy marriage. Her love for her child and her fear of erratic Rachel brings some depth to her otherwise superficial character.

Although Rachel and Anna are very different, they finally come to the same realization that they do not know anything about Tom’s relatives and acquaintances. This brings up an interesting question: How can two women with completely different personalities be willing to live in denial, dismissing obvious signs that something is not quite right with their husbands? How far can they go for the sake of keeping up the appearance of a happy marriage?

Tom Watson

When Rachel was married to Tom, she wanted to get a treatment that would help her become pregnant. Yet, Tom to a certain degree disregarded Rachel’s desire to become a mother by claiming that an in vitro fertilization treatment was too expensive. Later, he blames his financial situation when he declines Anna’s request to move out of the neighborhood. This time he ignores the fact that Anna is deeply worried about what is going on in the neighborhood.

When Tom realizes that he cannot deceive his wife and his ex-wife anymore, he blames them for his wrongdoing.

Scott Hipwell

Scott Hipwell is Megan’s husband. He has difficulty trusting other people and he easily becomes violent when he feels betrayed. Even though Scott loves Megan and thinks about having a child with her, he is also obsessive and emotionally abusive towards Megan. Scott even reads her emails. After all, he mistrust of her is justified as Megan frequently deceits him and asks her friend to lie for her.

Dr. Kamal Abdic

Dr. Kamal Abdic is a psychotherapist. He counsels Megan. Megan and Kamal have an affair in spite of the fact that he does not want to get involved with her. There is a power struggle in their relationship. Kamal has intimate relationship with Megan even though he insists that it is unethical.

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