Follow TV Tropes


Literature / Eileen

Go To

Eileen is a 2015 novel by Otessa Moshfegh, the author's debut. Set in the small New England town of X-ville in the early sixties, the book is narrated by the titular character Eileen Dunlop, a 24-year-old spinster who hates her life.

Eileen splits her time between working at a juvenile prison and caring for her delusional alcoholic father, while dreaming of escaping to the big city. She keeps herself occupied by shoplifting, stalking her crush Randy, a guard at her workplace, and refusing to maintain her increasingly dilapidated house. Things change once Rebecca Saint James, a cheerful, classy woman, arrives the prison. Rebecca and Eileen become fast friends, but their relationship leads Eileen to complicity in an unexpected crime.


The book's 1960's setting and general air of creepiness have led to comparisons to Shirley Jackson, Alfred Hitchcock, and Vladimir Nabokov.


  • Abusive Parents:
    • Eileen's father sometimes flies into violent rages that don't involve physically abusing Eileen, but involve emotionally lashing out at her. Much of her insecurity and weird neuroses seem to stem from the constant belittlement she receives at his hands.
    • Leonard Polk was molested for years by his father, with his mother's knowledge and implicit support. Eventually he snapped and killed his father.
  • The Alcoholic:
    • Eileen's father has such a drinking problem that he is confined to the house due to being too belligerent and delusional to work as a police officer, drive a car, or even walk around the neighborhood. He drinks at least a bottle of gin a day and spends all his time hallucinating about mobsters and verbally abusing Eileen.
    • Advertisement:
    • Eileen herself, while much more functional than her father, still has problems with drinking that involve frequent drunk driving, drinking at work, and heavy drinking. In one incident, she drinks so much she passes out in her crashed car, and likely would have died if she hadn't been found.
  • Bad Cop/Incompetent Cop: The entire X-ville police force is far more focused with standing up for their own than promoting public safety. The police force kept Eileen's father on board for far too long after his alcoholism rendered him unfit for duty, crashing cars and behaving violently and erratically. They all also rally around Mr. Polk, another police officer who was sexually abusing his son. They even put his son in jail without bothering to find out why he killed his own father.
  • Black Comedy: The story focuses on Eileen's angst, misery, and personal grossness before eventually turning more disturbing at the end, but everything is presented in such a deadpan way it's rather humorous.
  • Advertisement:
  • Chekhov's Gun: Eileen's father's gun is mentioned early on in the story, disappears for a while, and then reappears towards the end when the police give it to Eileen for her father's well-being. Even though nobody has any set plans to use it, it ends up going off accidentally, as Rebecca shoots Mrs. Polk in the arm.
  • Did I Mention It's Christmas?: The whole story takes place over the Christmas holidays, but the subject matter is just about the opposite of the spirit of Christmas. Eileen never liked Christmas much, and she and her father stopped celebrating it once her mother died. The climax of the book takes place at a Christmas party held at Rebecca's house, but the "party" is more of a tense one-on-one conversation than any sort of celebration, and it culminates in a reveal that Rebecca broke into someone's home and tied the owner up in order to investigate a crime involving murder and child molestation. This quickly gets out of hand. Hardly heartwarming holiday material.
  • Frameup: After Rebecca shoots Mrs. Polk, Eileen comes up with a plan to finish her off and make it look like her father shot her. This would solve both the problem of Mrs. Polk being shot, as well as finally rid Eileen of the burden of her father.
  • Friendless Background: Eileen at the time of the events of the book had no friends, and had had none almost her entire life. This makes her very vulnerable to Rebecca's manipulation via overtures of friendship.
  • Good Bad Girl: Eileen's sister Joanie slept around with men as a teenager, and ended up shacking up with a man who was open about his lust for her. Although Eileen judges and hates her, everyone else seems to prefer Joanie to Eileen, and she doesn't face any negative social consequences for her loose ways.
  • Grass Is Greener: Eileen has a dull, miserable life in X-ville, and dreams that everything will be better once she leaves and goes to New York City. Based on hints from the narrator, it sounds like things largely did improve once she left, though it was hardly perfect.
  • I Just Shot Marvin in the Face: Rebecca kidnaps Mrs. Polk in order to extort a confession out of her and free the Polk by for prison, or something... She intimidates her into a confession, but then accidentally shoots her, completely ruining her plans and forcing her and Eileen to improvise a new plot.
  • Lovecraft Country: The story is set in the small, run-down New England town of X-ville. Downplayed in that the town isn't actually supernatural, but there's a creepy, disturbing feeling to everything there. The town, and particularly the police force, is full of corrupt hicks who are apathetic to actual crime and only care about protecting their own, and disturbing secrets lurk everywhere. The general landscape is one of abandoned buildings and empty snowdrifts that give everything an eerie vibe.
  • Mirror Character: At first, Eileen loathes Mrs. Polk on sight, first for being fat and then once she finds out about her complicity in her son's molestation. But the end of the book reveals an increasing number of parallels. Like Eileen, she lives in a filthy house and submitted herself to a violent man who was in the police. And Mrs. Polk's first oblivion, then complicity with her husband's repeated rape of their son as well as her complacent manner towards the same closely parallel's Eileen's self-described complete ignorance and apathy to the treatment of the imprisoned boys she saw every day, as well as her surprising willingness to cover up a murder.
  • Nostalgic Narrator: The story is told from the perspective of Eileen as an old woman fifty years after the events of the story, contemporaneous with when the book was written. Unlike most examples, older Eileen is hardly nostalgic for her youth, which was generally miserable, but the age gives her some distance and perspective on what she was like back then.
  • Only a Flesh Wound: Zig-zagged. Rebecca shoots Mrs. Polk in the arm, a wound that both of them assume won't kill her, and they being planning on ways to kill her for real, and give her painkillers to keep her quiet. However, after Eileen drives off with Mrs. Polk, it becomes clear that she is close to death, and she ends up not following through with the plan to kill her. Ultimately, Mrs. Polk dies, though it's not clear if this is due to the wound, due to an overdose of painkillers, or simply because of exposure due to being left out in the cold.
  • Patricide: 14-year-old Leonard Polk cut his own father's throat. Many characters in the story are very curious as to why; Rebecca Saint James goes to extreme lengths to find out. As it turns out, it was a crime of revenge/self-protection as the boy had been molested by his father for many years.
  • Plain Jane: Eileen describes herself repeatedly as plain, though not extraordinarily ugly. However, she deliberately tries to make herself look as unappealing and asexual as possible, dressing in baggy and unappealing clothes. After she left X-ville and started dressing better, she was still not a great beauty but much more attractive than before.
  • The Pig-Pen: In order to deny her femininity and as a pointless antisocial gesture of rebellion, Eileen tries to bathe as little as possible and discusses wallowing in her own filth, not washing her hands after using the bathroom, etc.
  • The Reveal: Eileen goes over to Rebecca's house for a Christmas party, where things seem awkward and off in a difficult to place way. This is suddenly explained, and indeed the plot finally kicks off, once Rebecca reveals that the place isn't her house at all, it's actually the home of the Polks— and Rebecca has Mrs. Polk tied up in the basement.
  • Sex Is Evil, and I Am Horny: Eileen describes herself as a prude. She harshly judges women who she deems too slutty, and is disgusted by and tries to deny anything sexual about herself, to the point of starving herself and wearing very baggy clothes to avoid looking feminine. Yet she is constantly thinking about sex and always disgusted by her own arousal - at one point she shoves snow down her pants in response to some sexy thoughts.
  • Soul-Crushing Desk Job: Eileen works as a secretary at a prison. She hates all her coworkers, and her job consists of pointless bureaucracy and filing and wasting the time of visiting mothers in order to distract them from the misery of long waits for short times with their children. Eileen seems to hate it, and has to drink on the job to get her through the day.
  • Spell My Name with a Blank: A variant with the town of X-ville, where the X obscures the real name of the town.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Eileen has a crush on Randy, and she knows where he lives and spends hours at a time watching him in his house trying to glean info about his personal life.
  • The Stoic: Eileen cultivates her "death mask", a facial expression that conveys absolute indifference. Although she is deeply miserable, she externally expresses almost no emotion at all except in fights with her father, to the point where she has trouble expressing anything about herself to Rebecca, who she desperately wants to impress.
  • The Unfavorite: Eileen's father doted on her sister Joanie, but had nothing but contempt for Eileen, even though Joanie was the "bad" girl who ran around with boys while Eileen stayed at home caring for him.
  • Weapon for Intimidation: Rebecca aims Eileen's gun at Mrs. Polk in order to threaten her into talking. It works, but after they get the story, Rebecca accidentally shoots her.
  • Wham Line: "This isn't my house, Eileen. This is the Polk house. I have Rita Polk tied up downstairs."