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SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh.
Eileen is a 2015 literary thriller by American author Ottessa Moshfegh. The novel’s narrator—Eileen Dunlop—is a seventy-four-four-year-old woman, looking back on the events of her twenty-fourth year, when her life changed forever. The twenty-four-year-old Eileen works at a correctional institution for boys and cares for her abusive, alcoholic father. When she becomes platonically infatuated with a new co-worker, Rebecca Saint John, Eileen is drawn into the commission of a sadistic crime.
The novel opens with the seventy-four-year-old Eileen introducing herself, and explaining that she will disguise the names in her story.
At twenty-four, Eileen lives in a town she chooses to call “X-Ville,” on the Massachusetts coast. After a year and a half at college, Eileen is summoned home to care for her dying mother. She takes a job at a juvenile prison for boys, and now she is the sole support to her father, an alcoholic former police officer: “He was fearful and crazy the way old drunks get.” As well as aggressive and paranoid, Eileen’s father is sexually abusive: when he is drunk, he gropes Eileen, apparently confusing her for her sister.
Eileen fantasizes constantly about her father’s death, sometimes quite elaborately (for example, she imagines him getting impaled by a fallen icicle). She does not keep house for him, refusing to do laundry, cook, or clean. Instead, she steadily supplies him with the gin he needs to say stupefied: “Here was the crux of my dilemma,” she explains. “I felt like killing my father, but I didn’t want him to die.”
Eileen’s work-life is as bad as her home-life. At Moorehead, the juvenile prison, sadistic guards led by a particularly cruel warden abuse the boys in their charge. Eileen loathes her colleagues, except for the silent and mysterious Randy, on whom she develops a powerful crush—even stalking him on lonely nights.
The strictures and the cruelty of Eileen’s life have shaped her. She is obsessive about her bodily functions, following up each of her sparse meals with a heavy dose of laxatives and luxuriating in her bowel movements. She rarely bathes, and cannot bear the smell of chemical scents. At the same time, she is extremely self-conscious about her body: “I truly felt that the inside of my mouth was such a private area, caverns and folds of wet parting flesh, that letting anyone see into it was just as bad as spreading my legs.” At work, she wears an expression modeled on her own death mask. She keeps the corpse of a mouse in her car for luck.
Eileen also dreams of running away and starting again, in New York City.
The first half of the book introduces the reader to each aspect of Eileen’s life in turn. Throughout, she hints constantly that this life is about to be upturned: “In a week, I would run away from home and never go back. This is the story of how I disappeared.”
Eileen’s transformation begins when Rebecca Saint John is hired as the Director of Education at the prison. Rebecca is a beautiful and apparently wealthy “tall redheaded woman” who smokes “as though she owned the place.” Eileen, who has never had a friend, is smitten by Rebecca, and immediately tries to befriend her. This, the older Eileen informs us, “marked the beginning of the dark bond which now paves the way for the rest of my story.”
Rebecca seems to return Eileen’s almost-romantic infatuation: “You remind me of a Dutch painting,” she tells Eileen. “You have a strange face. Uncommon. Plain, but fascinating. It has a beautiful turbulence hidden in it.”
Eileen and Rebecca go out for a drink to seal their friendship. Rebecca invites Eileen to stay with her on Christmas Eve. Eileen gets very drunk. At home, she is abused by her father.
A new inmate, Leonard Polk, arrives at the prison. Leonard killed his father in his sleep. Rebecca’s job is to rehabilitate him so that he can see his mother again. She learns that Leonard was sexually abused by his father.
When Eileen arrives at Rebecca’s house on Christmas Eve, she is surprised to see how run-down and old-fashioned it is. Disturbed, Eileen tries to leave several times, until Rebecca finally admits that the house belongs to Leonard’s mother.
Rebecca explains to Eileen that Leonard’s mother knew that her husband was abusing Leonard: she chose not to stop it because it was improving her own relationship with her husband. Rebecca tried to provoke Mrs. Polk into admitting her guilt during a visit with Leonard, but she refused. Now Rebecca has Mrs. Polk tied up in her own basement. She wants Eileen to fetch her father’s gun and help Rebecca extract a confession from Mrs. Polk.
Under the threat of torture, Mrs. Polk confesses, but Rebecca accidentally shoots Mrs. Polk, wounding her in the arm. Rebecca is distressed, and Eileen takes control of the situation. She tells Rebecca she will kill Mrs. Polk and put the gun in her drunken father’s hands.
However, when she leaves the house, Eileen instead drives Mrs. Polk out of town and then hitchhikes alone to New York.
The novel ends with the elderly Eileen confirming that she is satisfied with the decision she made that night.
Moshfegh’s first novel, Eileen was hailed as a major achievement and shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize.