Spiritual Truths in “The Girl on the Train”

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I am not an avid fiction reader. If I’m lucky I make my way through one or two novels a year. More often than not my nose can be found in theological texts, most likely Mariological in nature. My reading of novels might make an increase as I recently discovered the wonders of Audible and audio books. I do a lot of driving, usually an hour each way, which provides ample time to make my way through an audio book. Bishop Barron helped me in this discovery with his recent reflection on re-acquainting himself with C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce during his Santa Barbara commute along with Brandon Vogt’s “Read More Books” video series.

I might be a late comer to the bandwagon for one of the 2015 NY Times Bestselling book, turned movie in 2016, The Girl on the Train. Or maybe I’m an early arrival to reviewing the film as the subject matter takes on a second life in 2016. As a person who enjoys riding trains for transportation, the book intrigued me. I once thought about writing a short story based upon a train experience.

With the help of Audible, I recently listened to the novel The Girl on the Train and saw the film during its weekend debut in theatres. What struck me was the implicit spiritual truths underlying the story itself. I agree with Bishop Barron, who reflected in his book Seeds of the Word and in many of his YouTube clips, on how we can find God in the culture. The Girl on a Train afforded me an opportunity to reflect on contemporary society in light of faith.

Oversexualized Culture

I hesitated sharing with people that I was reading (or listening to) The Girl on the Train. I thought some people might be scandalized and offer a caveat: for those who might take offense or find themselves weak or tempted toward sexual sins, then exercise caution with the book or film. The movie has a handful of fleeting scenes of sexual explicity, scenes that add nothing to the book or film, but Hollywood and authors know (unfortunately) that sex sells. This is a sad commentary on our culture and reminds us of the need to constantly pray for the virtues of chastity and purity.


There are two running themes throughout The Girl on the Train. One of those themes is the notion of adultery. Rachel, the book’s protagonist, was once married to Tom, who during their marriage had an affair with another woman, Anna, whom he eventually married. Divorce is rampant in society, and so is adultery. It is no surprise that this theme emerges in most books, movies, and television shows. In a sense, our society highlights it, and with certain websites or apps, encourages it.

Infidelity always hurts the other person. A reader clearly knows how much Tom’s adulterous relationship affected Rachel. A spiritual theme I find that emerges underneath Tom’s adulterous relationship is: why do we expect a relationship based on a lie (the affair) which leads to marriage, to last? Past behavior is always a predictor of future behavior. People in adulterous relationships have a romantic notion that all will work out and never consider the longevity of their relationship, before the other person begins to sneak around again, and telling lie after lie to all involved.


The other running theme throughout the book is Rachel’s dependence on alcohol. The movie portrays her drunken stupor quite well. Since the book/movie brings this to the forefront, it provides an opportunity to reflect on addiction and liberation from addiction. The author provides a glimpse into addiction, bringing to the light the deliberations of Rachel, the temptations to drink, and the feelings she experienced.

Why does a person drink or fall into another addiction? Because he or she wants to escape from reality or medicate a problem away, never sorting through it. For Rachel it was the infertility she experienced and desire to have a child. Her problem with alcohol was one contributing factor to her divorce. Unable to accept the divorce, Rachel turned time and again to alcohol as a means of self-medication. She did not want to deal with the past and the stupid things she did. Whenever Rachel drank to excess, nothing good ever happened. She regretted actions and sometimes had no idea what she had done the night before.

Rachel’s struggle provides insight into the internal struggle of addiction and temptation. At one point as she tried to convince herself not to drink, eventually acquiescing because she built up to it all day, anticipating the drink and adrenaline rush.

Throughout the book and movie, it was apparent Rachel knew she needed to stop drinking. Her landlord suggested as much. How does a person overcome addiction? The movie showed Rachel at an AA meeting. Highlighting this positive program is laudable. It tells us we can overcome our problems if we have someone to help us along the way. Another way to overcome addiction is to do something. Rachel knew she wanted a drink. Instead of turning to the bottle, she went for a walk in order to distract herself from the fleeting temptation. When faced with her desire to drink, she also acknowledged it would only make her feel better for an hour, but in six or seven hours, she knew she would regret it. Lastly, if a person struggles with addiction, be it alcohol, pornography, nicotine, whatever it is, get rid of it. Rachel thought about dumping her bottle in the sink, but didn’t because she dreaded what the morning offered. Get rid of anything that is causing you to fall into bad habits.

In the final moments of the book the reader learns Rachel was sober for 21 days, the longest she could remember. In the same chapter, the author presents Rachel in a certain location, and as she looked off into the distance, she saw a priest. Why did the author include the priest? I’m not entirely sure, but the priest is an eschatological icon of Heaven. The priest, who wears black, symbolizes death to self. The white collar, signifies the resurrection. In her brief independence from alcohol, Rachel found liberation and freedom. She found her resurrection, and I think the priest’s presence makes this connection.

The Need for Confession

Characters in the book often enter into conversation with others—significant others, friends, and even psychologists or counselors. In these conversations there is a confessional nature. In fact, one character, referring to visiting their therapist, reflects that it must be fun to be Catholic, to go to the confessional and unburden yourself, to have your sins taken away. At another point, a character spoke of his brokenness and how there is nothing you can do to fix it, that the holes in one’s life are permanent and you simply grow around them. In the spiritual life we often talk about woundedness. We know Christ is the Divine Physician, a great healer, and so he has the power to heal wounds. Confession does precisely that, the admission of our woundedness, asking the Lord to heal us. Finally, one character noted that she felt she was receiving a confession. The author employs the image of the person confessing being on one side of the confessional, and the person receiving the confession on the other side. Such references to the sacrament of Penance show the powerful nature of the sacrament even by secular authors. Catholics have a great gift in Confession.


The popular book and recently released film The Girl on the Train captures the imaginations of many. While many read the book or watch the movie only for leisure, they never take time to critically think about what happens, unless they belong to a book club. As people of faith, immersed in our culture, we can try to find God even in our secular culture. The next time you take in a novel or a movie, I encourage you to find sentiments of God and faith. Perhaps it will open up a discussion with friends who have not thought about God in a while.

Fr. Edward Lee Looney

Fr. Edward Lee Looney

Fr. Edward L. Looney was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Green Bay on June 6, 2015. Fr. Looney has a deep devotion to the Blessed Mother, is a member of the Mariological Society of America, and has researched and written extensively on the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help, recognized as the first and only approved Marian apparition in the United States. His most recent work is A Rosary Litany. To learn more visit: arosarylitany.com. Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author are his alone, and do not reflect those of his diocese. He seeks to always remain faithful to the Magisterium.

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2 Responses

  1. Thank you, Father, for an interesting perspective in your review. My tastes tend to be towards “great” books (I teach the classics) so let me recommend a Nobel Prize winning work of fiction, written by a devout Catholic: “Kristen Lavransdatter.” Your commutes will become times when you are transported back to medieval Norway, and learn “the story of a soul.” (Yes, I just compared it to St. Therese!) The trilogy of Kristen Lavransdatter is a tale of disobedience, charity, and final acceptance of one’s choices in the redeeming Light of Christ. Also sacraments, adventure, war, romance, and holy friars. Enjoy!

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