Unpacking Gone Girl’s Hidden Layer Of Reality

When I talk about Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl with others who have read it, and I start theorizing about what really happened, I get a lot of confused looks. I don’t explain myself well when I say that the ending we read (and the ending in the movie) is not what actually happened, and the novel needs to be deciphered based on who is in control of the narrative. So this is an attempt to clarify. SPOILERS HEREAFTER.

Gone Girl plays with unreliable narration. Starting in part one, Nick admits to withholding information. From the beginning, readers see him elide over details, and it amps up the suspicion and drama.

“I’m a big fan of the lie of omission” (Four Days Gone)

Nick is aware of the effects of these omissions on the reader.

“Now is the part where I have to tell you I have a mistress and you stop liking me. If you liked me to begin with.”

And then, in part two, we learn that all of Amy’s narration in part one was a work of fiction.

“…I’d like you to know me first. Not Diary Amy, who is a work of fiction (and Nick said I wasn’t really a writer, and why did I ever listen to him?), but me, Actual Amy.” (The Day Of)

She, too, is aware of the effects her false narration have on the reader.

“I hope you liked Diary Amy. She was meant to be likable. Meant for someone like you to like her.” (The Day Of)

The two point-of-view characters in Gone Girl are talking to us, as readers. They’re manipulating us, even warning us that they are not to be trusted.

It helps to talk about “truth” in this novel by separating the storytellers and the stories into layers. There are three layers of reality in this novel, and the middle one can be gleaned only by reader inference and speculation.

  • Layer 1: A real-life writer named Gillian Flynn wrote a novel of a fictional husband and wife named Nick and Amy, whose lives play out in Level 2.
  • (Hidden) Layer 2: Nick and Amy have a difficult marriage. They also have a baby boy, and put a good face on their marriage in public. At least one of them wrote an account of their relationshiip, that we see in Layer 3.
  • Layer 3: Amy is secretly an ultra-manipulative Psycho Bitch who frames her husband for her own murder in retaliation for him having an affair, has a change of heart, and then ruthlessly manipulates/intimidates him into playing the role of a model husband for the rest of his life.

The movie adaptation depicts Layer 3 as the “true” (fictional) story that Gillian Flynn wrote. This is a disservice to the novel. If the first two acts of the book leave us doubting the reliability of both narrators, why should we trust that their account of events in the third act has any (fictional) validity? There’s plenty of reason we shouldn’t.  When Amy’s ridiculously intricate plotting and implausibly crazy character traits come to light, we as readers ought to be suspicious. And Flynn drops clues about what’s going on, first with Tanner Bolt’s defense, and then with Nick’s trial-by-media: the winner of this struggle would be the one who could control their narrative.

“Take control of the story, Nick. For both the capital-P public and the capital-C wife. … I am a man who loves his wife, and I am the good guy. I am the one to root for.” (Eight Days Gone)

In the third act, there is a literal struggle to control the story in written form.

[Amy] “I have a book deal: I am officially in control of our story. It feels wonderfully symbolic. Isn’t that what every marriage is, anyway? Just a lengthy game of he-said, she-said?”

[Nick] “The next morning, as Amy was in her study clicking away at the keys, telling the world her Amazing story, I took my laptop downstairs and stared at the glowing white screen. I started on the opening page of my own book. … My legs were weak when I went to tell Amy: I was no longer part of her story. I showed her the manuscript, displayed the glaring title: Psycho Bitch. A little inside joke.”

The third act concludes with Amy trumping Nick’s book with the announcement of her pregnancy. She forces him to delete his manuscript, and Nick concedes that Amy is the winner of the battle for control of their story. But is this true? Was Amy’s account, Amazing, the surviving narrative? The novel we read was crafted clearly to portray Amy as the insane villain and Nick as the victim. The story in Gone Girl sounds more like Nick’s manuscript, Psycho Bitch. It’s no happenstance that Nick is a professional writer. He crafted both sides of the Layer 3 narrative, from beginning to end, to his own benefit.

So what really happened in Layer 2, the “unfiltered reality” of the two characters? Was there an infidelity? Did Amy disappear? Did she really kill a man? We have no way of knowing. Layer 2 Nick does think his wife is a psycho bitch, but as he himself notes, “It’s every asshole’s mantra: I married a psycho bitch.” He certainly feels trapped in his marriage, and he justifies staying in it because of his new son.

“I was a prisoner after all. Amy had me forever, or as long as she wanted, because I needed to save my son, to try to unhook, unlatch, debarb, undo everything that Amy did. I would literally lay down my life for my child, and do it happily. I would raise my son to be a good man.”

But how many unhappy husbands have made that rationalization? We cannot know Amy’s side because hers is the lost narrative. For all we know, the Layer 2 Nick, the writer, is indulging in a literary hate-vent to illustrate his feelings of loathing and powerlessness in his marriage. And in Layer 1, Gillian Flynn has used a whodunit novel as a vehicle to explore relationships, perspective, artifice, and the slippery concept of truth.