Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 726

While Carrie is the sixth novel Stephen King wrote, it is his first to be published. King had wanted to write a story using telekinesis as a premise ever since high school, when he read an article that speculated that poltergeist phenomena were really caused by the unconscious telekinetic powers of children. Telekinesis places Carrie into the science fiction branch of horror fiction, especially since the novel is several years in the future.

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King also had wanted to write stories about two girls he knew in elementary and high school. The first girl was overweight and quiet, and wore the same clothes to school every day. After wearing a new set of clothes one day, she was hazed by other students so fiercely that she was driven to tears. As an adult, she committed suicide by hanging herself. The other girl King knew had lived alone with her mother, like Carrie in the novel. This girl had suffered from epilepsy and wore modest, old-fashioned clothes. She also died after graduating from high school, although by an epileptic seizure, not suicide. As a youth, King had been hired by this second girl’s family to move some furniture. He observed a giant crucifix hanging over the couch, large enough to kill someone if it ever fell down. In Carrie, King places a similar crucifix in Carrie’s home. King combined the girls’ stories in developing Carrie.

To give the story an air of authenticity and to lengthen what was originally a twenty-five-thousand-word novella to the size of a novel, King had inserted a series of newspaper and magazine articles, book excerpts, official documents, and eyewitness testimonies into the narrative so that the plot device of telekinesis could be presented matter-of-factly and with a pseudoscientific justification. King even gives away the novel’s ending in the first fifty pages. If readers ignore the telekinesis premise, they could read Carrie as a conventional young adult novel about teenage anxieties.

Although marketed by its publisher as a horror novel, Carrie also works as a story about a dysfunctional family, a common theme in King’s fiction. King’s father had deserted his family when King was a boy, and the father was never heard from again. Other King novels featuring dysfunctional families include The Shining (1977) and ’Salem’s Lot (1975).

King was overweight as a teenager, and he remembers his high school years as unhappy ones, full of misery and resentment. Although he worked on the school newspaper and played on the football team, he identified more with the high school outsiders than with the jocks, cheerleaders, and other popular types. The summer after graduating, he wrote the novel that was later published under his Richard Bachman pseudonym, Rage (1977). In that novel, the main character is a male high school student who brings a gun to school one day, shoots two teachers, and takes his classmates hostage. By the time King wrote Carrie, he had graduated from college and worked as a high school teacher for a few years, so he had gained both perspective and distance. Although he shows that a rigid caste system with the likes of Tommy, Susan, and Chris at the top and Carrie at the bottom exists in high school, he treats Tommy and Susan quite sympathetically; even Chris, the daughter of an attorney, is treated as other than a stereotype. King continued to use the concept of the high school outsider in The Stand (1978) and Christine (1983).

Carrie can also be interpreted as a modern version of the Cinderella story, with Carrie in the title role, her mother as the wicked stepmother, Sue as the fairy godmother, Chris and her clique as the cruel stepsisters, and Tommy as Prince Charming. The prom doubles as the ball at which Cinderella/Carrie’s beauty is acknowledged. Carrie’s full name, Carietta, starts with the same letter and has the same number of syllables as “Cinderella.” Unfortunately for Carrie, Tommy, and the others, King’s story has an unhappy ending.

King learned from H. P. Lovecraft that fantastic literature does not have to be set in faraway places, but that New England, for example, where King was born and raised, can provide a more than adequate setting. Not normally considered a regional writer, King nevertheless set Carrie and many of his other novels and short stories in small-town Maine.

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Critical Context