Gerald’s Game

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Stephen King has proven himself to be the preeminent horror writer in contemporary America. In GERALD’S GAME, he has created one of his most powerful and uncomfortable novels to date. Jessie and her husband Gerald have gotten away to their summer house in Maine to relax and engage in “Gerald’s game,” which involves Jessie being handcuffed to their bed before they make love. On this particular occasion, Jessie becomes irritated at Gerald’s unwillingness to listen to her needs and gives him a couple of swift kicks out of anger and frustration. Unfortunately, Gerald has a heart condition and the kicks cause him to have a massive, fatal coronary. Jessie, therefore, finds herself handcuffed to the bed with a dead husband unable to release her. For the next twenty-eight hours, she must painfully struggle to free herself. King describes the ordeal in brutal detail.

A hungry dog wanders into the house and makes a meal of Gerald’s body. Voices within Jessie’s head vie for control of her every thought and move. What is real and what is not become very blurred. Jessie relives a terrible moment of her childhood. When she was a young girl, her father sexually molested her. King paints a very dark picture of how men treat women. Jessie is also convinced that during her confinement a male monster appears in the bedroom and threatens her life. Through great effort and an excruciatingly painful process, Jessie finally extricates herself from the handcuffs. She is eventually found and given the proper medical care for a complete physical recovery. Her psychological recovery seemingly will take a great deal longer, but King makes it clear that Jessie is finally on the road to becoming her own person.

Literary Techniques

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This novel is excruciatingly tight in its focused claustrophobic effects. The narrative focuses on the predicament of a single individual, with telling details of her experience, from the wild hope inspired by a bottle of cream within reach, to the ecstasy of being able to get a drink of cold water—all without bringing her handcuffed hand to her mouth. Few novels, even those devoted to an interior monologue, get within the skin of a character as well as King's depiction of Jessie's captivity.

The only sense of movement or action, except for Jessie's escape, occurs as Jessie remembers the events of her life: childhood summers, college, marriage, an eclipse, and her molestation: a curiously static plot technique. But the weaving together of memory and circumstance, of action in the past and reaction in the present reinforce the full complexity of the text. King represents this textually wit long passages of italics to represent the many voices. The novel ends with long passages of san serif text as the freed Jessie writes a letter to the real Ruth, thanking her for her tough talk, both during their college days and, more recently, in her head.

King's sophisticated management of time in the novel is also noteworthy. Captive Jessie is very aware of the passage of time. Yet this awareness is radically distorted as she suddenly falls asleep, or gets lost in her memories. This tense countdown unites the 40 small chapters that compose the novel and adds a sense of desperate motion to the text. This powerful technique both heightens the reader's anxiety and precipitates the climax of the novel when Jessie realizes she has little time to escape before Joubert returns at nightfall.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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King confessed that his characterization of women in his novels has been less than three-dimensional. However, Gerald's Game initiates a series of books about women, violence...

(This entire section contains 211 words.)

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and survival, includingDolores Claiborne and Rose Madder. Critics have complained that this novel is too politically didactic, as Jessie's voices sound like radical (meaning bitchy) feminists. Yet few have pointed out the variety and scope of King's examination of the psychological, social and emotional interior landscape of women. Others dislike the details of Jessie's molestation by her father or King's explanation of Joubert's hideous history. Clearly, this uneven and complex novel provides many avenues for discussion.

1. What metaphors and principles of feminism does King explore and elaborate? How does this "date" the novel?

2. How do the characters of Joubert, Gerald and Tom Mahout represent the liabilities of traditional definitions of masculinity?

3. In this novel of entrapment on a bed, the main action lies within the body and mind of Jessie. What sensory and psychological details does King use to dramatize Jessie's plight?

4. King often uses the term "New Age." What does it seem to represent to him? How does this term date the novel? Is it limiting or effective?

5. What, according to Jessica, is Gerald's game? What are its implication for husband/wife relationships?

Social Concerns

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Stephen King's novels have often been dismissed as mere works of fantasy. Only his Bachman novels have been perceived as socially relevant because they do not rely on monsters or the supernatural for their depictions of evil. However, contemporary commentators assert that King has always been a storyteller who reveals contemporary social issues through a variety of genres. In Gerald's Game, King deliberately subordinates the story to a political/social agenda, and is even ostensibly didactic. But by his own admission, feminist social issues and strong women characters sometimes elude him.

In an interview with Eric Norden (Playboy 1983), King acknowledged that, in addition to his difficulty with describing sex scenes in his novels, he also has a problem with women. His women often are not carefully-crafted, multi-dimensional characters, but stereotypes who merely function as foils or accessories to his male protagonists. In contrast, Gerald's Game is dedicated "with love and admiration to six good women," his wife, her four sisters, and her mother. Through women personally familiar to him, King experiments with feminist social critique.

In the novel he confronts issues of child and spouse abuse, marital pathologies, and crushing social restrictions against women—all through the character of Jessie. He insists that abusive relationships develop when girls and women experience incest, marital rape and other forms of abuse against women, becoming pawns in men's games of domination and competition. In Jessie's life, her abusive childhood experience with her father has made her vulnerable to Gerald's sexual games, and to Joubert's predations. Jessie's task, then, is not only to slip out of the literal handcuffs which tie her to her marital bed, but also to recognize these predatory men, both past and present.

Literary Precedents

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Explicit antecedents of King's story of captivity, love, and madness are Edgar Allan Poe's short stories and poems. Jessie remembers the narrator of "The Tell-tale Heart" (1843) commenting to his interviewers, that he is not mad, only nervousness. She also tries to persuade herself that she is also not mad, only nervous. However, like that famous unreliable narrator, she does not fully convince readers.

Jessie also often quotes Poe's "The Raven" (1845) to ironic effect, as she realizes that its romanticism of lost love does not fit her feelings for Gerald. Indeed, she realizes that her romanticism has protected and excused the behavior of the abusive men in her life. Yet the phrase "Only that and nothing more" rings true for her, as it memorializes a moment of infinite loss and change. Like the eclipse, Jessie's entrapment and subsequent realizations are a monumental event, altering all perception.

This story begins with a premise common to science fiction/fantasy anthologies or series such as The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. The main character, a contemporary of the audience, discovers that something has happened, something indefinable and unknown is coming, threatening disintegration. Thus, fantasy, horror or other speculative fiction begins with a reasonable, recognizable world— which has a new twist. Real ghouls like Jeffrey Dahmer, then, find their place in King's fiction.

This novel has been described as a variation on slasher fiction like Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street. However, King has decried these stories as exploitative; in slasher fiction "you don't come to see people get away; you come to see people die. And at that point, to me, you've crossed the line into immoral territory. I have always wanted my characters to be alive and I've always wanted my readers to like the characters and to find them good and hopeful . . . and to want them to live."