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I am a big fan of Ottessa Moshfegh’s writing. I have also reviewed her novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation which you can check out by clicking on the title. Moshfegh has an amazing way of writing perfectly awful characters in such a nuanced and special way. I feel like you love to hate her characters because she captures the true essence of what is at the core of all human nature. Life is messy, people rarely make good choices, and people stay or get trapped in relationships that they should leave but don’t know how to.
Eileen, the namesake of Moshfegh’s novel, is trapped by circumstance. She lives at home with her alcoholic father. They share, what can only be described as a completely dysfunctional relationship. She is stuck in what some people might call a state of victimhood. That is not to say that her traumas are not valid or terrible, but more that she is unable to help herself out of her negative situation. I always err on the side of caution when using this phrase as it can be used to dismiss people’s real and valid experiences. However, I do believe that Eileen’s inertia is also what makes her a difficult character. It is not just that she can’t help herself, but also that she doesn’t want to help herself. As readers, it feels so easily identifiable in Eileen. The irony being, that we often cannot see it for ourselves.
Eileen’s plight is further compounded by the relationship she has with her father. As people who have experienced alcoholism and mental health issues with close family members can attest, it is a complex line to walk. On the one hand, you love this person. They are, in Eileen’s case, a father, a parent, and supposedly a protector. On the other hand, they are also the source of a lot of pain, sorrow, and disappointments.
In the bleak world that is Eileen’s life, there is of course a catalyst. Namely, that of a new co-worker Rebecca. Eileen works at a correctional facility for young men (It felt very reminiscent of the recent Netflix show, Ratched) and this is where she meets Rebecca. Rebecca is well-dressed, charming, and beautiful enigma to Eileen. She soon becomes infatuated with Rebecca and we never quite work out if Eileen’s affections are solely platonic. The homoerotic nature of Eileen’s and Rebecca’s relationship also speaks to the time the novel is set, in which the repression of women’s desires are still prevalent. It is also interesting that Eileen pivots away from the previous somewhat immature male crushes she had at the correctional facility and into something that seems deeper and more meaningful with Rebecca. Eileen wants to escape and she uses Rebecca as a way to navigate to freedom.
The circumstances that bring Eileen and Rebecca together relate to one of the young inmates, Lee Polk. Without giving too much away, Rebecca and Eileen commit a crime in the name of true justice. It is after this that Eileen flees and starts her new life. But again, it is the relationship that Eileen has with Rebecca that I found the most fascinating in the novel and I could not help but think of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel Rebecca.
Now you might be thinking, is this a stretch? But hear me out. Just like the protagonist in Du Maurier’s novel, Eileen too is beguiled by her Rebecca. She is pushed beyond her limits, thrown into compromising situations, and is ultimately drawn to and haunted by Rebecca. Eileen’s Rebecca is ‘real’ and alive but Eileen is still overcome by her. Eileen fantasizes about her interactions with Rebecca and dreams up ways to casually run into Rebecca at work. Her infatuation grows until the climax of the novel. Much like Du Maurier’s protagonist, Eileen eventually escapes and breaks free from the magical pull that Rebecca has over her and once this facade is shattered she is able to live her life, a new.
The parallel’s between these two Rebeccas begs the question of what kind of literary trope might a Rebecca-woman be? Indeed, one could argue that being haunted and beguiled by a sexually promiscuous, confident, and powerful woman alludes to the struggles all women in face in becoming what their hearts truly desire. Furthermore, the Rebecca character despite appearing to be liberated seems trapped by the very conventions that are supposed to free her. In both novels, the Rebeccas are catalysts of change. The two novels also share a similar storytelling style in that both novels are recounts told by the main protagonists. Moshfegh, however, has given her protagonist a name, Eileen, and therefore, I would argue, more agency in the novel.
The connection between these two texts enriches them both. I love seeing the ways in which literary texts speak to one another. If you have read both novels, I would love to hear your take on it. As always, share the reading love.