28 pages 56 minutes read

Ottessa Moshfegh


Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2015

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Summary and Study Guide


Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh was published in 2015 and won the PEN/Hemingway award for debut fiction. The novel is set in 1964. It follows the story of Eileen, a woman planning to escape her life in the New England town of X-ville. Eileen is characterized by self-loathing, depression, and body dysmorphia, all of which developed due to her abusive and neglectful childhood. Before she leaves X-ville forever, Eileen must come to terms with her own identity and ability to claim an independent life from her family and connections. This guide was written using the Penguin paperback version published in 2016. Note that Eileen’s text merits content warnings on suicide and child rape.

Plot Summary

Eileen takes place in December of 1964, a week before Christmas and the protagonist Eileen’s escape to New York City. The narrator is a much older Eileen, recounting her past from fifty years in the future. The events of the novel take place when Eileen is 24 years old. Eileen is the narrator’s name for her former self. She gives herself this name to distinguish who she was in the past from who she is now.

The narrator describes her younger self’s plan to disappear from her life in X-ville and start over in New York City. Eileen has no friends or connections in X-ville other than her father, who has an alcohol addiction and who she feels resentment toward. Eileen works as a secretary at Moorehead, a juvenile penitentiary, and devotes the rest of her time to keeping her increasingly delusional father in their home.

The narrator describes her usual routine of fantasizing and following her crush, Randy, drinking with her father, and shoplifting small items from boutiques in X-ville. Eileen tries to drive to Boston to test her car’s ability to make it to New York. The car has a broken exhaust pipe and does not reach Boston. At work that Monday, Eileen is introduced to a new member of the staff, Rebecca Saint John, who will be responsible for the inmates’ education. Eileen immediately becomes enamored with Rebecca’s confidence, independence, and beauty. She aims to make Rebecca her friend. The inmates put on a Christmas pageant, which angers Rebecca as a form of unjust punishment. Eileen walks through Moorehead and notices Leonard Polk in the solitary confinement room. She pulls his file and reads that he is imprisoned for patricide. Rebecca notices the file and asks to read it herself.

The next day, Eileen oversees visiting hours. Mrs. Polk, Leonard’s mother, attends for the first time, but Leonard refuses to speak to her. Rebecca takes Leonard into her office to speak privately, instigating Eileen’s jealousy. Eileen makes an excuse to knock on Rebecca’s door, but Rebecca distracts her by inviting her out to drinks that evening. Eileen leaves work exhilarated to have a friend in Rebecca. They meet for drinks at X-ville's dive bar, O’Hara’s, where Rebecca flatters Eileen continually. When Rebecca leaves, Eileen continues drinking, too happy with her new friendship to return home. She wakes up the next morning parked outside her home, having driven home drunk from the bar.

Eileen hurries to get ready for work when a police officer knocks on the door. Her father was seen waving his gun out the window at schoolchildren; the officer has Eileen’s father formally hand over his gun to her, which she then carries around in her purse. At Moorehead, Rebecca invites her over for Christmas Eve the following day. Eileen and her father go to the liquor store in the morning. They stock up on her father’s gin. Eileen buys wine to bring to Rebecca’s.

Eileen drives to Rebecca’s. She is surprised to find her in a rundown home, dressed poorly, and behaving erratically. Rebecca confesses that it is not her home, but the Polk’s, and that she has Mrs. Polk tied up in the basement. While talking with Leonard two days prior, Rebecca discovered that Leonard killed his father after years of sexual abuse and that his mother perpetuated the abuse and hid it from law enforcement. Rebecca plans to make Mrs. Polk provide a written confession.

They go to the basement and Eileen uses her father’s gun to threaten Mrs. Polk. When Rebecca returns upstairs to find a paper and pen, Mrs. Polk confesses everything to Eileen. Rebecca is upset upon returning and takes the gun, accidentally dropping it and shooting Mrs. Polk in the arm. Rebecca becomes frightened, but Eileen sees this as the opportunity she has been waiting for to escape from X-ville.

They give Mrs. Polk sleeping pills. Eileen drives with Mrs. Polk to her house, collects the money she has saved up, then heads to the interstate. She abandons Mrs. Polk on the side of the interstate with the engine still running and the broken exhaust directing carbon monoxide into the car. Eileen hitchhikes to New York, where she starts a new life.