Dolores Claiborne

by Stephen King

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Literary Techniques

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The narrative technique of Dolores Claiborne is very postmodern. The entire novel is an unbroken monologue in Dolores's voice as if it were transcribed from an audio tape that recorded only her. There are no switches into third person, no chapter divisions, and no dialogue in the text or other characters, except as she talks of them. While the police presumably ask questions and request clarification, King's readers must reconstruct them solely from Dolores's unbroken talking. Unlike the stream-of-consciousness novel or interior monologue, this is an exterior monologue through which the character literally speaks herself into being, albeit on a printed page. It is this entirely remarkable voice that creates the historical causes and effects, her dilemmas, actions and suffering. It is her voice which stages the presence of others and through which King indirectly accomplishes his social critique.

The narrative logic of this double tale is that to avoid being tried for Vera's death, Dolores confesses to her husband's death. While this seems illogical at first glance, these tightly woven events are two parts of one whole story. Dolores summarizes at Vera's passing that her narrative is about "how sometimes bad men have accidents [both Joe and Michael Donovan] and good women turn into bitches [both Dolores and Vera]." These two stories are parallel and intertwined. By confessing to Joe's murder and illuminating Vera's suffering, Dolores hopes to avert the ravages to her sanity from living a double life — a duplicity that destroyed Vera.

Dolores structures her story by starting in the middle, reminiscing, and then climaxing the narrative by describing the deaths of Joe, then Vera. While the description of Vera's death details the facts as and her emotional responses to Vera's last trick on her, the death of Joe is described in grand style, with horrific details and frightening flashbacks.

This novel is the shortest, least supernatural, and one of King's best works. The story is intelligently and originally plotted; the style reflects a colloquial Maine speech, with sudden bursts of passion contrasted with understatement and the unsaid, consistent with the inflections of a relatively provincial yet astute human voice. Dolores's honest recollection of the past mixed with self-revelation rings with pain, tranquility and resolution. The novel confirms that perhaps a male writer can compassionately stage a female psyche and her very own female voice.

Social Concerns

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While in Dolores Claiborne King does not dabble in direct social criticism and mainstream attacks on male power in society, he nevertheless deals succinctly with issues of feminism, child and spouse abuse, marital relations, and the crushing social restrictions of women in the early part of the century. His approach in this novel is as a storyteller who reveals his social agenda incidentally. Though not as explicit as in Gerald's Game, in its implicit social criticism, Dolores Claiborne has been compared to the Bachman books, in which the horrors depicted in them are psychosocial horrors rather than supernatural ones. Dolores's life, while having taken an ironic turn, has all the gothic fascination of a neighbor's family crises.

Dolores, a strong woman and a survivor of an abusive, alcoholic marriage, is found by the postman at the bottom of the stairs leaning over Vera Donovan's dying body with a rolling pin in her hand. From this moment on, this sixty-five-year old woman stands accused of killing her employer and lifelong friend. But no one can help her with her ensuing legal and personal complications; no romantic companion will ride to her rescue. Constant harassment by anonymous townspeople finally force Dolores into the local precinct for intensive questioning. However, while clearing herself in the...

(This entire section contains 748 words.)

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matter of Vera's death, she confesses to killing her husband, presumed drowned in a drunken stupor, some thirty years earlier.

Through Dolores's alone, King narrates the tale of her life and circumstances, in which the issues of child and spouse abuse are raised in a pointedly political fashion. This novel, spanning the 1930s to the 1990s, reflects King's clear historical vision. There is no denial of Dolores's brutal experiences with marital rape, physical abuse and child molestation of her own daughter by a conniving, manipulative father. No white-washing assertion that, "in those days," such things didn't happen to women and girls appears, nor does King soften the description of Dolores's anxiety about her daughter, Selena, her depression, nor her final confession to her mother about her father's sexual predations.

Dolores is unswerving in asking Selena the details of her father's abuse, and it is Dolores who details Joe's violent rage when she told him how she'd gotten back the money he'd stolen out of the kid's college funds.

Dolores's story also reveals the often violent bleakness in the marriages of working class women. As Dolores tries to remember why she loved and married Joe, all she can remember is her high-school daydreams of Joe's forehead: its smooth whiteness against his dark hair, its clear skin. She also recalls that she married Joe because she was pregnant. But the love has disappeared long ago. Dolores also recalls that her father administered "home correction;" in fact, she tends to excuse men generally, on the grounds that it's their job to police and control their wife and children. While her upbringing allows her to believe that while there may be some minimal justification for a husband beating his wife, there is no justification for a man sexually preying on his own daughter. Therefore, to illustrate the profound impact Dolores's loss of love, King creates a unique image—a contemptuous, staring eye in her forehead—representing her unwavering clarity of vision in her later years and the cold rage she manifests whenever she looks at Joe. Given Joe's treatment of Selena and of Dolores, his murder appears to be justifiable homicide or self-defense. Clearly the police believed her to be innocent, as they do not prosecute Dolores for either death.

Finally, King illustrates the crushing economic restrictions of the time for both working-class and well-heeled bourgeois women. Dolores describes her excruciatingly long hours at low wages for Vera Donovan, her raw, abiding pain while hanging wet sheets to dry in cold winter winds. She expressed fears that Selena's lifelong employment will be as a housekeeper at a hotel. The bitterest pill in Dolores's life is that, while Joe has contributed little to the children's college funds (what do his kids need with college?), his revenge against Dolores is to withdraw their savings without her knowledge and, with the aid of sexist bank policies of the 1960s, to close the children's accounts without the passbook. As Dolores points out, if she had tried to do that, the bank would have called Joe to verify the transaction. Adding insult to injury, the loss of the money into an inaccessible bank account financially traps her on Little Tall Island, ironically precipitating Joe's death.

Literary Precedents

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The plot of Dolores Claiborne itself is rather ordinary; Joe's murder is typical of mainstream fiction regarding marital violence, murder and justifiable homicide. And Vera's death by tumbling down the stairs is not uncommon. But the additional plot element of having the maid agree to finish her off with a rolling pin — and getting caught before she can do — is unusual. However, intertwining domestic violence, a household accident and attempted euthanasia is certainly unique.

King's narrative technique eliminates the "Dear Reader" authorial voice or an omniscient third-person narrator: the voice of the storyteller is primary — it is the story. Critic Roland Barthes describes "speakerly texts" and "writerly texts;" speakerly texts, like oral narratives, are based on the voice and persona of the story-teller. Speakerly texts also have an unusual relationship to the audience, in that the reader must complete the text by filling in the blanks; hence, they become a coauthor or active participant in shaping the meaning of the tale. Readers have to construct context from her words, filling in the sheriff's questions, creating other characters from Dolores's descriptions, and completing the action of the narrative implied in the closing newspaper articles.

Oral tale-telling is an ancient narrative form. Much contemporary postmodern fiction seeks to hide its writerliness, its print medium, by creating the illusion of a voice emanating from a barely-lit and barely-furnished stage — a situation in which there is nothing else but the utterly compelling and realistic sound of a human voice, the origin of all story. Yet Dolores Claiborne is also comparable to genres and writers that experiment with other narrative modes.

By comparison, many novels and short stories have significant passages of monologue or a series of monologists, including the short stories of Grace Paley's and Saul Bellow's and William Faulkner's novels. Whether the monologist is fictional or actual is not an issue with the approach to the text. This novel could also be compared to genres with a distinctive voice and a specific rhetorical purpose by the author, such as personal narrative, confessional literature, autobiography, slave narratives, holocaust survivor literature, or women's journals and letters. For example, in Elizabeth Dewberry Vaughn's Many Things Have Happened Since He Died, a woman tells her autobiography (not unlike Dolores's) on tape recorder, in the same mode of a confession or legal statement. This literary device also emphasizes the voiced quality of the novel.


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In 1995, Taylor Hackford directed a cinematic Dolores Claiborne, which was adapted from the novel by Tony Gilroy. While the movie has been compared to a gaslight melodrama of the nineteenth century, with a sneering police officer, played by Christopher Plummer, and a wicked villain of a husband, played by David Stathairn, and a troubled daughter, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. However, Kathy Bates's Dolores is no fainting/wailing victim tied to the railroad tracks. Her performance has been described in this movie as "sweet and fierce, hesitant and determined . . . brushing aside the calculations of the story with the sheer force of her humanity."


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