Books Fiction

Overlook Abbey: Whispers of the Female Gothic in Stephen King’s The Shining

Stephen King’s The Shining is a modern gothic masterpiece, containing many of the core aspects which constitute gothic literature’s skeleton. The Overlook hotel is the monolithic, ruined castle riddled with malicious spirits; Jack Torrance succumbs to madness, ultimately becoming a doppelgänger of himself; monstrosity overtakes the mundane, particularly to Danny Torrance; Jack holds a quasi-religious reverence for historical items and locations, and also feels a sense of fallen society. While these attributes have been discussed at length, there is less discussion about its Female Gothic qualities.

The Shining, written by a man in the 1970s, is not a text which can be fully categorised as Female Gothic fiction, but it does thrust women’s issues to the forefront via Wendy Torrance, and thus open analysis through that lens.

The Female Gothic is a term first coined by Ellen Moers in her essay Female Gothic: The Monster’s Mother, as “the work that women writers have done in the literary mode that, since the eighteenth century, we have called the Gothic” and “a novel in which the central figure is a young woman who is simultaneously persecuted victim and courageous heroine”.

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Born from downtrodden and oppressed women, Female Gothic fiction served as a vehicle of empowerment in a time when freedom from societal roles and pressures were not commonplace. Authors such as Anne Radcliffe, Emily Bronte, and Clara Reeve used their literary ability to empower women against a hostile environment and society, their heroines often young, virginal, and oppressed. Ellen Ledoux further defines the genre’s qualities in her article, “Was There Ever a Female Gothic?”, as she states: “women’s domestic incarceration, sexual violence, economic disenfranchisement and spectral maternity are central to the Gothic mode”. Oppression is the rule in this fiction, discussed by the authors via “…distressed heroine(s), domestic incarceration, threats of sexual violence, anxiety about monstrous or absent mothers…[crafting] a much more aesthetically, politically, thematically, and generically diverse [canon]…”. Despite the criticism the term may face, the literary works which can be classified as Female Gothic using the definitions above were immensely important to women readers and writers, and it is valuable to analyse modern texts in this context.

Female Gothic literature often challenges societal gender norms and relationship dynamics. King seems aware of the different experiences of men and women and takes care to craft a modern American nightmare from two perspectives of gender, where each is preyed upon by the literary elements in respect to their societal status. Gothic fiction typically emphasises the male gaze, whereas the Female Gothic uses emphasis on the female gaze to alter the perception of the same tropes. For example: monstrous characters – physically or in personality traits – present different threats to men and women. Monstrous traits are decidedly male, and when exerted upon another male, carry solely the weight of personal injury. When these traits are exerted upon women, there is always an underlying threat of sexual violation in addition to bodily harm, should she be overpowered. In these works, female disenfranchisement is the fount of their strength as they grapple with femininity and their place in the world. Wendy Torrance finds herself at odds with the same prejudices in The Shining, providing an invaluable female insight in the novel, as we are shown the world through her view as a downtrodden wife, belittled mother, and victim of domestic abuse. It is through Wendy and her circumstance that allows the text to be read in Female Gothic context.

One of the most important themes in Female Gothic fiction is the freedom granted to women, as Moers states “[Women] can scuttle miles along castle corridors, descend into dungeons, and explore secret chambers without a chaperone, because the Gothic castle, however ruined, is an indoor and therefore freely female space”. Wendy is at leisure to explore the Overlook, often uncovering disturbing indications of Jack’s madness and the hotel’s malicious influence.

This leisure is not immediately realised, however, as hotel manager Mr Ullman, an authoritative male figure, defines the scope of what Wendy would want to explore because of her gender: “I thought I would take a few extra minutes and show you [Wendy] through the hotel…I’m sure your husband will get to know the ins and outs of the Overlook quite well, Mrs Torrance, but you and your son will doubtless keep more to the lobby level and the first floor, where your quarters are”. The lower quarters of the hotel contain a small apartment in which the family stays, the kitchen, the dining room, a parlour, and laundry room. Here, Mr Ullman creates a presumption of what Wendy would have the fortitude to do, as this comment, rife with condescension and with judgment based upon Wendy’s gender, places social constraints upon her freedom, as she is “doubtless” not interested in any aspect of the hotel except the overtly feminine spaces. And yet, these feminine spaces become her advantage, as, having spent an enormity of her time in them, Wendy is able to use them to combat Jack in the final act, when he becomes unhinged and embraces monstrousness and madness. Wendy first locks him in the pantry for a time (who is then freed by the spirits of the Overlook) and then hides in the bathroom form Jack’s murderous assault with the roque mallet.

These bastions of the domestic become the very things which not only abate the male power but allow Wendy to fight back – while in the bathroom, Wendy finds the strength to cut Jack’s hand. This is not to say that Wendy Torrance is completely meek or submissive, however, as she is fiercely independent and resists Jack as often as she can in the context of 1970s society and gender norms, but the fact it took Jack trying to take a mallet to the door with the sole intent to kill for Wendy to retaliate physically against her husband shows the depth of her love for her family, which, ironically, becomes her strength and allows her to retaliate in a violent way, as her sole concern is the wellbeing of her son. Feminine spaces – the kitchen, the bedroom, the bathroom – become a place of strength which thwarts the aggressive and brash male power, despite being imprisoned there by the same power.

Another instance of this strength comes in a more direct sense. By novel’s end, Jack has, as most readers are familiar, become a bloody, monstrous doppelgänger of his former self, and Wendy doesn’t make it to the bathroom without confronting this monstrousness directly. “The [Roque] mallet head struck her directly between the shoulder blades and for a moment the agony was so great that she could only writhe…”. Wendy crawls along the floor after being struck, her only desire being to ensure her son’s safety despite the great physical pain she finds herself in.

It is also interesting that, at this point in the novel, hotel chef Dick Hallorann is bludgeoned by Jack with the mallet in a violent display. Being a chef, Hallorann commands the feminine space of the kitchen and hospitality, which, to be bested by such a powerful male force plays into this gender dynamic, placing he and Wendy into similar roles. Hallorann, in typical male fashion, fights Jack until bested, whereas Wendy flees, seeking to avoid violence. Even when confronted by the violent male power, Wendy retaliates solely to escape rather than pursue further conflict. If destruction is male, then preservation is female.

Clearly, Wendy’s femininity is what grants her the required strength to survive. This strength is not without vulnerability, however, as another facet of the Female Gothic is anxiety about motherhood, both as daughter and mother. Wendy’s mother is as tyrannical as they come, openly chastising Wendy’s parenting and her role as a wife directly to her face, often in front of others. This anxiety creates a duality of emotion within Wendy, as she not only loathes herself because of her parenting skills:

“her mother always remade Danny’s diapers, frowned over his formula, could always spot the accusatory first signs of a rash on the baby’s bottoms or privates. Her mother had never said anything overtly, but the message had come through anyway: the price she had begun to pay [for reuniting after estrangement] was the feeling that she was an inadequate mother”

but also abhors the idea that she may become her mother:

“She felt strong exasperation mixed with an even stronger love: 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…Well, they wouldn’t be able to exclude her this winter, her two exasperating males; quarters were going to be a little too close for that. She suddenly felt that she was being jealous of the closeness between her husband and her son and felt ashamed. That was too close to the way her mother might have felt…too close for comfort.”

These thoughts plague Wendy throughout the novel, as Wendy is quite lonely. Her social framework is practically nonexistent, so when she is belittled by her toxic mother, her words vastly affect Wendy’s self-esteem. Danny, being such an abnormal boy, adds new stress to the mix, because his uniqueness puts Wendy in the position of social outcast, as she can find no place to ground herself or connect with other mothers to judge her maternal ability. This limited social framework is challenged even further by Danny’s gravitation toward his father, despite Jack drunkenly breaking Danny’s arm in anger. These all fester within Wendy feeding the inadequacy and shame she feels. It is here that the novel fully eclipses into the Female Gothic, as focus is brought to Wendy and her discontent with herself and with what life has given her. It’s heartbreaking suffering, plain and simple. Wendy is a very competent mother, but these constant abrasions against her societal armour send her adrift, at times, only to be consoled when Danny or Jack need comfort, times when she is able to show the prowess of her ability as a woman and embrace femininity, which simultaneously reassures yet distresses her.

All of Wendy’s anxieties, being trapped physically in the Overlook to feeling societally trapped with her alcoholic husband, facing and opposing a male-dominated power structure and the overtly male power of the Overlook’s spirits, are central to the Female Gothic. Wendy is not afraid to oppose the forces trying to control her and often subverts them, but still falls victim to societal constraints. Stephen King, in this way, has created a compelling exploration of the Female Gothic, incorporating elements from Gothic literature and portraying them in respect to the character’s gender and societal experience. The Shining takes care when portraying Wendy’s place in society and gives her the power to resist forces which literally break Jack, an overtly male figure, and in this way opens itself up to discussion in the context of the Female Gothic. King crafts something more than a pulp ghost story; The Shining is a nuanced tale of gender disparity which still resonates, somewhat uncomfortably, with societal norms from nearly three centuries prior.

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