As a film adaption of Eileen hits cinemas, here’s our guide to the book, the author, her influences and accolades
Published in 2015, Eileen is Ottessa Moshfegh’s debut full-length novel. It saw her shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2016, as well as being nominated for other awards, and went on to win the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for Debut Fiction. Upon release, Moshfegh was hailed as a ‘crucial’ voice in American literature by the LA Times.
A taut psychological noir in which a young woman’s obsession with a glamorous work colleague takes a sinister turn when she is implicated in a chilling crime, Eileen is a macabre read that is, at times, unbearably tense. It’s a novel that revels in the uncomfortable spaces; examining child abuse, alcoholism, violence, obsession, classism, and sexism, among other issues.
A film adaption, directed by William Oldroyd and starring Thomasin McKenzie and Anne Hathaway, hits cinemas in the U.S. on December 1, 2023, before being released globally on December 8.
Trapped between caring for her verbally abusive alcoholic father and her dead-end job as a secretary at a juvenile correctional facility for teenage boys, 24-year-old Eileen Dunlop dreams of escape. It’s December 1964, in the sleepy suburbs of wintery New England – a town which Eileen aptly names ‘X-ville’. ‘I looked like nothing special,’ she says of herself, while filling her spare time shoplifting and surreptitiously observing a co-worker and former inmate named Randy from afar.
Haunted by her neglectful upbringing, Eileen is consumed by a profound sense of self-hatred. As a result, her father offers a continued source of resentment and Eileen tries to contain him while he drinks until he blacks out, and suffers from disturbing paranoia as a consequence of his crippling addiction.
Eileen is a loner, and a nihilistic one at that, but when glamorous new counsellor, Rebecca Saint John, arrives at the prison, Eileen is beguiled and desperately seeks a connection with her. Quickly, their budding friendship turns into a parasitic obsession – one that comes with a price, as Rebecca draws Eileen into a shocking act of violence.
Moshfegh’s novel is narrated in the first person by an older Eileen, looking back on the fateful acts of that Christmastime, 50 years earlier. ’There’s no better way to say it,’ Eileen muses, the passing of time affording reflection. ‘I was not myself back then. I was someone else. I was Eileen.’
Moshfegh has spoken extensively about where her inspiration for her work comes from. ‘Whatever I’m fascinated-slash-horrified-by-slash-suffering because of, I become obsessed with it and it goes into my fiction, and in using it as material,’ she told Hazzlit.net, back in 2015.
When writing Eileen, Moshfegh drew on her own childhood and upbringing. Like Eileen, she was raised in Massachusetts. ‘There was nothing creepier than driving through a small town in New England covered in snow,’ she told Penguin.co.uk, when interviewed at the time of the novel’s UK publication in 2016. ‘There was something inherently twisted to me about living such a confined existence with your family.’ It’s this gnawing claustrophobia she imbued within the novel’s setting, the town of X-ville.
Moshfegh admits she had a shoplifting habit as a teenager, a skill she admitted to being ‘usually very good at’ in an interview with Harper’s Bazaar. This surfaced in Eileen’s narrative alongside her own experience of eating disorders and body dysmorphia, with which Moshfegh has had a ‘long history’. ‘That sacred territory. It shows up in my writing all the time.’
A precocious child, Moshfegh was reading from an early age. By nine, she had read a wide range of adult fiction, including The Catcher in the Rye, The Color Purple and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. She cites James Baldwin, Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut, and Cormac McCarthy as foundational authors in her life, with Charles Bukowski making a huge impact on her writing. ‘I saw what he was doing narratively in his novels and how out there he was, and it was the first time I thought that writing could be funny,’ she told British Vogue.
Moshfegh crafted the character of counsellor Rebecca Saint John by drawing from Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological thriller Rebecca – the film adaption of Daphne De Mauier’s Gothic novel of the same name. ‘It’s one of my favorite movies,’ she told Harper’s Bazaar. ‘When I was writing Eileen I was thinking of her, of Rebecca, and the power that she has as this untouchable beautiful woman.’
Amidst these more personal experiences and inspirations, Moshfegh is deeply unapologetic about confronting broader societal issues. She articulates the bodily shame teenage girls are taught (‘Having to breathe was an embarrassment in itself’), entirely unafraid to venture into the grotesque when needed. ‘Everything I write is feminist,’ Moshfegh told Electric Lit, stating she finds it ‘impossible’ to ignore what she describes as living in a ‘really violent culture’, which underscores her work. ‘If we go by the mores and values that we see around us, any woman living in this world should hate herself.’
The novel was a calculated step into the mainstream for Moshfegh, whose previous work of experimental short fiction had been celebrated, but in decidedly smaller literary circles. Eileen was her attempt to make writing a financially sustainable practice. ‘I wanted to attract the reader who might reach for something commercial to read on an airplane. Something that looked like it would transport the reader to another place, but maybe not teach them anything or challenge them…I thought, if I could get the reader to come with me to this place, and then startle them with some frank realities, then maybe consciousness could shift a little bit.’
Throughout her body of work, Moshfegh’s characters are usually transgressive and amoral. She uses her series of misanthropes to subvert societal notions of beauty and desire, leaving the reader to pause and question.
Eileen, the novel’s protagonist, is – and always has been – an outcast. One whom Patrick Anderson at the Washington Post described as ‘one of the strangest, most messed-up, most pathetic – and yet, in her own inimitable way, endearing – misfits I’ve encountered in fiction.’
Eileen is a mass of contradictions. She’s a young woman who has no qualms about wearing her dead mother’s dowdy clothes, while filled with her own relentless self-loathing. She has a difficult relationship with her body, pinching any sign of excess flesh she can locate on her scrawny frame, and disgusted at the sight of her genitalia. Her addiction to laxatives leaves her revelling in her own functions and secretions. Beyond this Eileen wants nothing more than to pack up and run away to New York City, away from the banality of X-ville, to begin life anew.
Rebecca, on the other hand, is the antithesis of Eileen. ‘Rebecca was a dream to me, she was magic, she was powerful and everything I wanted to be.’ Beautiful, glamorous, confident and commanding, Rebecca’s appearance at the boys’ prison sends Eileen into a tailspin. And when Rebecca invites Eileen to a local dive bar, her fascination descends into infatuation. Yet Rebecca is not what she seems, and is all too aware of the power that she holds, using it to lure Eileen into taking part in a life-changing crime.
Ottessa Moshfegh was born in Boston, Massachusetts. She is an American author and novelist. Moshfegh received the 2013 Plimpton Prize for Fiction from the Paris Review, she was a recipient of a 2014 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and completed Stanford’s Stegner Fellowship. Her work includes the novella McGlue (2014); Eileen (2015); Homesick for Another World (2017); My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018), Death in Her Hands (2020) and Lapnova (2022). My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Death in Her Hands were New York Times bestsellers. Moshfegh’s short stories have been published in literary magazines such as the Paris Review and the New Yorker.
Eileen was widely acclaimed, with Kirkus Reviews naming it one of their best books of 2015 while readers were captivated by Moshfegh’s unusual style. Booker Prize judge Jon Day, writer, critic and lecturer, called it a ‘dazzling, original novel with noirish flourishes voiced by a wickedly sardonic narrator’.
In the Guardian, Lydia Kiesing wrote how the novel reminded her of The Bell Jar. ‘In some respects Eileen is the odd double of Plath’s Esther Greenwood. Both New England women of the 1960s, both poor, both at the mercy of a single parent who pushes them to live a life they don’t necessarily want to live. Both are placid without and turbulent within.’
Jean Zimmerman at NPR drew comparisons to the greats. ‘Eileen could have stepped out of Flannery O’Connor or Shirley Jackson. Wonderfully horrible Humbert Humbert also comes to mind. Eileen may be “unfit for the world,” but I was pulling for her. I wanted her to escape the prison of life with father, wished that her dreams of fleeing to New York might come true.’
Writing for the LA Times, Porochista Khakpou referenced Moshfegh’s knack for creating a ‘strange, savage universe’. ‘Her fiction offers a sense that is of our world but also altogether hostile to clear distillation of it,’ they wrote. ‘Here is art that manages to reject artifice and yet be something wholly new and itself in sheer artistry.’
In the Washington Post, Patrick Anderson said ‘the attention that is greeting Moshfegh’s first novel is not undeserved. Eileen is a remarkable piece of writing, always dark and surprising, sometimes ugly and occasionally hilarious.’
The Telegraph gave Eileen a five-star review, where Anthony Cummins said: ‘This expertly paced novel – the first British outing for a rising star from the United States – spends so much time hinting at the past crimes of its outsider heroine that I felt sure the eventual “reveal” would be an anticlimax. And that’s exactly where Ottessa Moshfegh wants you: softened up and ready to be knocked flat by a narrative left turn of gut-curdling horror.’
Lily King of The New York Times Book Review praised Moshfegh’s literary prowess. ‘Moshfegh writes beautiful sentences. One after the other they unwind – playful, shocking, wise, morbid, witty, searingly sharp. The beginning of this novel is so impressive, so controlled yet whimsical, fresh and thrilling, you feel she can do anything.’
While at Flavorwire, Judy Berman wrote ‘Moshfegh’s debut novel mixes the setup of midcentury domestic suspense tales with the psychological richness of gothic literature, resulting in an unputdownable story where very little actually happens… Eileen is an addictive psychological thriller, but it’s also a fascinating character study, from an author whose ascension to household-name status seems inevitable.’