A woman’s worst nightmare? That’s pretty easy. Novelist Margaret Atwood writes that when she asked a male friend why men feel threatened by women, he answered, “They are afraid women will laugh at them.” When she asked a group of women why they feel threatened by men, they said, “We’re afraid of being killed.” (source)
Being both women and feminists and having interest in such things, Amy and I wanted to write posts discussing the women’s themes that come up again and again in King’s work. Anybody who has read a significant amount of his work couldn’t miss that King has a soft spot for women who have dickheads for husbands, and I personally find it fascinated–I can’t think of another male author who is so haunted by the oppressed woman. Earlier today, Amy wrote about a run of books that King wrote in the 90′s featuring women who were battered or otherwise abused by their husbands; I wanted to write about a single book that touched its cold finger to my spine, but that I hadn’t ever associated with abusive husbands or women until I re-read it this year: The Shining.
My history with The Shining
The Shining was first published in 1977; I, not having been born until 1983, didn’t read it for the first time until round-about 1995 or 1996, well into the Clinton administration. Looking back, for living in a town that was one mall away from being completely podunk, my upbringing was rather progressive. My father was a proud liberal until Billy got a bee-jay in the Oval Office; in middle school, our home economics classes were integrated, as were our technology labs. Boys were expected to learn to sew; girls got to play computer games. Not bad for mid-90′s Kentucky.
I was twelve or thirteen and I’d never experienced any sort of troubling sexism or misogyny in my life. The future looked bright and shiny, all space-age in plastic and chrome; maybe women weren’t making the same salary as men yet, but surely by the time I entered the workforce, they would have all of that stuff worked out. There would be a female president one day. You couldn’t beat your wife anymore, that was against the law. As far as I was concerned, we had the vote, we could own property, we didn’t have to get married to have sex–women had arrived.
Yeah, I know. I was young and foolish.
Foolish enough that, when I read The Shining, I didn’t pay much attention to Wendy. To me, the story was about Jack, Danny, and The Overlook; in truth, I found the idea of a haunted hotel a bit silly, despite being irrationally afraid of ghosts (I still am, I admit it.. but the Overlook’s ghosts aren’t the scary kind to me). This time, when I re-read the book, I paid attention to Wendy; I didn’t dismiss her, even though much of the rest of the cast of the novel did. Reading as an adult, with fresh eyes, gave me the goosebumps that had been missing in my previous reads. Initially disregarding Wendy’s story had meant that I missed what I now find the scariest thing in the whole book: the terror of Wendy Torrance.
Wendy and the Boys’ Club: No girls allowed.
From the beginning of the novel, even before the snow starts falling in Colorado, Wendy feels isolated. King highlights Wendy’s sense of isolation in chapter 12:
… the love was helpless, the exasperation came from a feeling that she was deliberately being excluded. With the two of them around she sometimes felt like an outsider, a bit player who had accidentally wandered back onstage while the main action was taking place.
and almost immediately connects it to her femininity and role as mother:
She suddenly realized she was feeling jealous of the closeness between her husband and her son, and felt ashamed. That was too close to the way her own mother might have felt . . . too close for comfort.
Danny and Jack maintain a special bond that exists beyond Wendy. “He loved his mother,” wrote King, “but he was his father’s boy.” Danny is even quick to bond with Dick Hallorann, The Overlook’s chef and resident expert on the “shining.” King sets the men against the women nearly immediately, and it’s through Wendy’s point of view that we see this. We see Wendy’s disturbance at not quite being able to belong in this world of men, feeling that she’s an outsider despite loving her men fiercely. Most of the characters in the book (living or dead) are men, and Wendy sticks out as the aberration.
The theme of men vs. women runs throughout The Shining. King establishes the theme early; when the Torrance family arrives at The Overlook, Danny tries not to grunt with effort when helping Hallorann to the car with his bags, in order to be more masculine and please/emulate his father (approx. page 78, according to my Kindle). Even for Danny, as young as he is, as progressive as his parents are, being manly is the best possible outcome. Conversely, King portrays Stuart Ullman, the hotel manager who strikes Jack as an “officious little prick,” as feminine, prissy and fastidious. Ullman is even small (although plump); at 5’5″, he’s shorter than I am. Quite womanly, really, and many of the characters dislike him for these qualities–even Wendy. These chauvinistic portrayals (not that King is a chauvinist–more on this in a bit) and her disconnection from her menfolk foreshadow the growing conflict between Jack and Wendy; before, they caused me to overlook (no pun intended) her story, paying far more attention to the men. This time, they made sure that I paid attention. I felt nervous for her.
Divide and conquer.
The Overlook couldn’t have found a better candidate for the job: a demon-plagued man with a son who has incredible psychic powers would be quite the feather in the proverbial cap. Jack’s troubles began before he arrived at the hotel; in fact, he only became the winter caretaker as a result of being released from his job as a teacher–not laid off, but fired after beating a student half to death. His newfound sobriety had been pushed to its limits during the ordeal, but going back to the drink was out of the question. To do so would be to ensure that he would lose his family. So, he arrives at the hotel as a man out of options, with no outlet to release the slowly building self-loathing and frustration in his psyche.
The hotel stirs up Jack’s inner primordial soup in subtle but effective ways. We watch Jack struggle to assign blame for the failures that led him to that point. At first, he seems perfectly willing to admit that he was the fuck-up; then, we see a subtle shift in attitudes. He isn’t the fuck-up. Other people fucked up and put him into a bad situation. When Wendy questions the safety of staying at the hotel for a long winter, Jack initially responds to her reason; gradually, though, The Overlook seeds other ideas in his mind. The hotel is a good idea. Working at the hotel is something he needs, as a man. He needs to take care of his family. He needs to get the job done. She is trying to make him fail; she doesn’t understand his needs. She is trying to emasculate him.
The hotel appeals to his desires as well as his pride. Jack wants to be a successful writer, and wouldn’t you know–inspiration drops into his lap, in the form of a scrapbook. The Overlook has a rich and meaty history, and Jack decides to write a book about it. The book would be a success; he would blow the lid off of every scandal and dirty deal that ever transpired in the hotel. When Wendy interferes with her “nagging” and her “whining,” Jack blames her for sinking his chances at success. The hotel drives a wedge between them.
There are no AA meetings at The Overlook Hotel.
When he arrived at the hotel, Jack hadn’t been on the wagon very long. The time between his last drink and their move to Boulder had been short enough that the breached trust between Wendy and Jack still felt raw and unsettled. Short enough that Wendy couldn’t help but give her husband a shrewd look when the old drunk-Jack mannerisms started to pop back up: compulsively wiping his lips with a handkerchief, chewing Excedrin without water. Can I blame her if she leaned in once or twice to try to catch the scent of whiskey or gin? Nope–and to be fair, I can’t blame Jack, either, for being angry if she did. After all, he wasn’t drinking–but at The Overlook, he didn’t need to be.
And don’t we see this again in again, in our lives or our loved ones’? (Or on television or in books, if you’re lucky enough to know people who are all well-adjusted?) The failed reformation, the broken promise of change. Wendy gave Jack another chance because she loved him and she, to some extent, still trusted him–but she also distrusted him, and maybe hated him a little, in a place she wouldn’t readily acknowledge. The phantom drunkenness rakes up that distrust and gives the hotel enough distance between Jack and Wendy to start working on a far more disturbed facet of his psyche.
The Overlook makes a man outta Jack.
Jack’s father abused his mother quite badly. Once, he beat her with a heavy cane at the dinner table while Jack and his siblings watched, landing her in the hospital. This scene is revealed to the reader in a dream-memory, and in the dream, Jack recalls the incident with fear. The glitter in the father’s eyes is described as a “stupid, evil petulance.” After remembering the beating, Jack hears his father speaking to him through the CB radio, telling Jack to kill Wendy and Danny. Jack doesn’t react well–and really, what sane person would?
“No!” he screamed back. “You’re dead, you’re in your grave, you’re not in me at all!” Because he had cut all the father out of him and it was not right that he should come back, creeping through this hotel two thousand miles from the New England town where his father lived and died.
As the hotel worms into Jack, though, his feelings for his father begin to change. His father wasn’t stupid or evil, Jack realized–he was canny, crafty. He hadn’t been in a drunken stupor when he beat his mother, he had just been pretending, on the lookout for the kind of insolence that would undermine him, no doubt. Bedeviled by the hotel, Jack comes not only to sympathize with his father but to blame his mother for making his father act crazy and violent. Jack’s revelations cause him to “man up” in a way that would make Daddy proud; where Wendy and Jack had always had more of an equal-partner relationship, Jack assumes a dictatorial role under the guidance of the hotel. And if Wendy doesn’t like that? She can goddamn well take her medicine, because Daddy knows best.
Sometimes, as the ghost of murderous ex-caretaker Grady points out, a family needs a good talking-to. Sometimes, they need to be “corrected.”
Once they’re snowed in, Wendy has few resources available to rescue Danny and escape from her increasingly deranged husband; what legs she does have to stand on are systematically knocked out from under her, one by one. Jack breaks the CB. Jack sabotages the snowmobile. Jack tries to kill Dick Hallorann, who shows up after Danny sends a psychic SOS to Florida. We can draw a parallel here from Wendy’s predicament to an abusive marriage on extreme fast-forward. An abusive spouse often cuts off all means of support; family and friend time is reduced or even eliminated, death threats against the abused spouse, or the children, keep the victim from reporting the abuse to authorities or to the hospital. The victim is isolated as much as possible, both to prevent discovery (bruises, black eyes, what have you) and to prevent the victim reaching out for help. The reader feels the same constricting force on Wendy.
I don’t think it’s an accident that King structured the events of The Shining to mirror an abusive marriage. He has a history writing about abused women, and in the 90′s he had a run of novels that featured battered and abused women as the protagonists (see Amy’s essay for more detail). What I find more horrifying than any vicious topiary could be is the all-too-realistic situation that Wendy finds herself in simply because she loved and trusted her husband. That love and trust causes her to second-guess herself until it’s too late. How many times do we relent as married or committed people, even in the face of doubt? “Well, okay honey–if you feel that strongly about it . . . .” Of course, most of us aren’t married to monsters.
Then again, neither was Wendy. Or so she thought.
“This inhuman place makes human monsters.”
We circle back to her isolation, which is now complete. Her husband has become a dangerous stranger. He’s murderous–it’s only a matter of time, she knows, before he kills both her and Danny. His promises to change his ways seem to be shattered. He blames her for everything, unable any longer to contain his temper. He feels it is his duty as a man to keep her in line, and he admires his father for having the cojones to do so with his own mother. The Overlook may be evil, but Jack has become the monster.
The part that terrifies me about Jack’s “conversion” is that . . . really, it’s not that supernatural. In Jack’s case, yes, there were supernatural forces working on him–but the chilling thing is that all of the material was already there. The Overlook may have been pushing his buttons, but those buttons were already lit up and waiting: Jack had an anger problem. Jack had an abusive father; Jack also had a complicated love/fear relationship with that father. Jack had a substance abuse problem. Jack was at a low point of his life and blamed everyone and everything but himself. While the hotel sped up the process considerably to condense his evolution into the winter season, it’s entirely feasible that Jack would have turned down that dark path all by himself . . .
. . . and that’s truly frightening. It reminds us that there’s a stranger inside even the people that we love. It reminds us that many people who end up in a spouse-abuse situation started with partners who were perfectly normal. Perfectly pleasant, perfectly loving, and perfectly hiding the monster within. What kind of monsters lurk inside our family’s hearts? Our own?
Will they ever come out to play?