Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 862
King’s first published novel, Carrie, is also one of his most unusual efforts in its style. Only about half the story is written in traditional narrative form: The remainder uses what is called the epistolary style, meaning that the action is carried forward through the use of fictional letters, newspaper pieces, academic journal articles, and selections from books written by witnesses to the events long after their occurrence.
The novel’s main character is Carrie White, a high school senior trapped between two equally horrible kinds of existence. At home, Carrie is smothered by a mother who is a fanatical religious fundamentalist and has cut the girl off from all normal social life. To Margaret White, all women are, like Eve, egregiously sinful. Carrie is God’s punishment for her own sin of once allowing her now-dead husband to touch her. The daughter has spent her whole home life praying, asking forgiveness for her sins, or being locked up in a closet as punishment for unholy thoughts.
The other half of Carrie’s life is perhaps even worse: At school, she is a social pariah. Her quiet religious demeanor, modest clothing, clumsiness, and dull appearance have made her the perpetual target of teasing, crude practical jokes, and all the meanness that children can inflict upon one another. The novel begins, in fact, with an incident that illustrates Carrie’s terrible predicament. While showering after gym class, Carrie experiences her first menstruation. She has no idea what is happening because her mother, believing that periods are the evidence of sin, has never mentioned them. Quite logically, Carrie believes she is bleeding to death. Her classmates, however, unaware of Carrie’s ignorance, begin contemptuously laughing, chanting “PER-iod!” and throwing tampons at her. Carrie’s screams bring in her gym teacher, who begins to understand the situation and helps Carrie to recover and go home.
With the onset of her womanhood, Carrie for the first time becomes fully conscious that she possesses a tremendous telekinetic power (“telekinesis” is the purported ability to move or affect physical objects using only the power of the mind). In the locker room, in agony, Carrie had unconsciously blown out light bulbs and knocked things over. Now, in her long-pent-up resentment toward both her classmates and her mother, she will begin to take control of the power and learn to use it for an ultimate, terrible, vengeance.
The leader of the “in” group of girls at school is Chris Hargensen, the epitome of the spoiled brat. Typically, she had led the hazing of Carrie in the shower. When the gym teacher punishes all the girls, Chris refuses to accept the punishment; the principal then bans her from attendance at the senior prom. Seeing Carrie as her nemesis, Chris determines that she will get revenge. She is given her opportunity when Sue Snell, another of the “in” group, experiences so much guilt after the shower incident that, as a kind of atonement, she persuades her boyfriend to ask Carrie to the prom. When Chris learns this, she helps to ensure that Carrie and her date are elected queen and king so that they will be onstage for the ultimate humiliation that Chris and her thug boyfriend have planned: They arrange for large buckets of pig’s blood to drop on Carrie and her date just as they are being crowned.
After being drenched, Carrie’s shame and anger explode, and she unleashes her tremendous power to burn down the school and destroy much of the surrounding town. She also confronts her mother, whom she had defied to attend the prom. In a religious frenzy, Margaret White stabs her daughter, wounding her fatally, but Carrie strikes back with her mind, killing her mother. She then finds Chris and her boyfriend and kills them, too, before dying herself, in the arms of Sue Snell.
Carrie is an excellent example of King’s talent for characterization. Though by the end of the novel, Carrie has become an insane engine of destruction, the reader cannot help but sympathize with a young girl whose spirit barely escapes annihilation by forces which have sought constantly to humiliate her and make her conform. Chris and her boyfriend are portrayed as so believably evil that Carrie’s retribution, trapping them in a mangled and burning car, seems appropriate.
Like most of King’s novels, Carrie examines the nature and power of evil, which is represented by Carrie’s two tormentors, her mother’s religious mania, and teenage society’s demands that everyone conform to preconceived notions of beauty and success. As he was later to make more explicit in The Stand, King sees evil as an inevitable part of both nature and civilization. Carrie is a victim, and her telekinetic power is a curse which begins to manifest itself without her bidding. Her eventual use of it for wantonly destructive ends is simply a defensive reflex against the humiliation she has suffered. Thus, though Carrie seems on the surface to be simply a novel about a terrible supernatural power, it is also a social commentary on the consequences of religious fanaticism and the intolerance of adolescent peer groups.
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