Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1066
Misery is the darkest of Stephen King’s novels. Not only is it frightening, it is also depressing. Part of the explanation lies in the fact that, unlike most of King’s works, it contains nothing of the supernatural but is a story of psychological terror. The villain in Misery is all too human and all too believable. She is Annie Wilkes, a very hefty and very insane former nurse who had murdered scores of patients but always managed, cleverly, to escape being caught. Finally, though, she came under sufficient suspicion to be tried for killing several infants. The prosecution failed to get a conviction, but Annie found it prudent to retire to a farm in the remote mountains of Colorado.
Into her life comes Paul Sheldon, a writer of historical romances. In a blinding snowstorm, his car has careened off the road, and his legs are crushed in the ensuing crash. Wilkes finds him, pulls him out, and takes him home. She goes through his wallet, only to discover that she has rescued her favorite writer. She is Sheldon’s “number one fan” and has read all of his books. Unfortunately, Sheldon had tired of the main character of these romances, Misery Chastain, and, at the end of the latest one, Misery’s Child, he contrived her death. Wilkes is outraged at Misery’s death, and she now insists that Sheldon write a new book and bring Misery back. To be sure he does so, she keeps him locked in a back room, supplying him with a wheelchair, paper, a typewriter, and a painkilling drug to which he becomes addicted.
A frightening battle of wits ensues as Sheldon desperately seeks a way of escape while working on the new novel, Misery’s Return. Each time he tries to leave or to fool Wilkes in some way, he is foiled by her paranoiac cleverness. Each time, too, she punishes him horribly. At first, in the power of this immense, crazy woman, he is angered and tries to resist, but, as she terrorizes him, his will begins to break down. Finally, when she slices off one of his feet and a thumb, his spirit is nearly crushed.
In the meantime, under such immense pressure, Sheldon has been writing the greatest novel of his career. His missing car is finally discovered, and a state patrolman visits to question Wilkes. Sheldon throws an ashtray out the window and begins shouting, but Wilkes attacks and disables the trooper; she then runs over his head with her riding lawnmower. Despite carefully concealing the evidence, she realizes that the police will return and suspect her—after all, she has a history of scandal. She indicates to Sheldon that Misery’s Return must be finished very soon. Sheldon infers, correctly, that she plans to murder him and commit suicide as soon as she reads it.
Though by this time he has often hoped simply to die, Sheldon now conceives a plan for revenge: As soon as he finishes the novel, he will burn it in front of Wilkes. He manages to find a can of lighter fluid and hide it. When the completion is announced, he soaks the manuscript in lighter fluid and ignites it before her. She explodes in rage and agony and tries to grab the burning pages, catching fire herself. Sheldon throws the typewriter, an ancient and very heavy office model, at her, and she collapses. In a dramatic struggle with the writer, Wilkes finally expires.
Sheldon is rescued by the police, who have returned to investigate the disappearance of the state trooper. He rescues much of Misery’s Return, and it is immediately a best seller. Despite this success and much physical recovery, however, Sheldon cannot seem to shake almost constant terrifying nightmares and a sense that he somehow lost his manhood during the terrible humiliations of his captivity. He is drinking heavily and believes that he will never write again. Then, as he limps down a New York street, he sees a little boy leading what at first appears to be a cat, but on closer examination is obviously a skunk. Struck by this image, he returns to his apartment, and an idea begins to coalesce. He begins, once more, to write.
The growing terror and suspense of Misery make it one of King’s most effective page-turners, but it is also an interesting discussion of mental illness, the vicissitudes of the novelist’s creative process, and the way in which personality and dignity can break down under tremendous stress and threats. Wilkes is frightening but also fascinating in her manic depression and paranoia, and she exhibits a bewildering variety of moods, amounting almost to multiple personalities. In his initial responses to her, Sheldon mistakenly assumes that he can outsmart her, but he is constantly amazed and beaten by her craftiness. Throughout Misery, King also gives the reader an inside look at some of the pains and pressures a novelist endures by sharing portions of the novel-within-a-novel Sheldon is writing and discussing, through Sheldon, many of the techniques of the novelist’s craft.
The most depressing aspect of Misery is the graphically illustrated disintegration of Sheldon’s will and personality under Wilkes’s awful terrorism. His nightmares of captivity merge with the terrible pain of his injuries as he becomes both addicted to and shamefully aware of his dependence on the drugs she brings him. He cajoles, flatters, lies, and totally humbles himself to gain her good will, only to learn later that she has seen through him. He grimly watches himself become accustomed to, then almost comfortable with, his confinement. In the moments before she mutilates his body, he begs incoherently, screaming for mercy, promising her anything she wants if only she will stop, but she is inexorable, and his pleas turn into howls of pain.
In King’s depiction of Sheldon’s deterioration and the almost symbiotic relationship that develops between himself and Wilkes, the reader begins to share Sheldon’s desperate belief that he will never escape and that even if he does survive, he will always be haunted by his humiliation. In the end, Sheldon can only release his pent-up shame in tears as he begins to write again. Though for the reader this is a kind of catharsis, the reader is nevertheless left depressed and is relieved only that Misery has finally ended.