Critical Context

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Although King is famous for large novels with sprawling plots such as The Stand and It, Misery focuses stringently on two main characters in one location. In Gerald’s Game (1992) and Dolores Claiborne (1993), King tightens the focus further, each book concentrating on the voice and experience of one female protagonist. Also, like those two novels (excluding one shared moment of telepathy), Misery is realistic horror-suspense, with no supernatural or psychic elements.

The author’s use of writers as protagonists precedes Misery, including Ben Mears in, ’Salem’s Lot (1975) and failed writer Jack Torrance in The Shining. However, with Misery, King began a more extensive use of authors as characters, often including interesting insights into life as a fictioneer and as a popular phenomenon, as in The Dark Half (1989) and Bag of Bones (1998). King has always mined his personal experience—his years of poverty and as a teacher, for example, show up in Carrie (1974) and The Shining—and this development seems natural, as writing more and more became his life.

Structurally, Misery is comparable to King’s novella “Apt Pupil” (in Different Seasons, 1982), in which an all-American teenager blackmails a neighbor into retelling his experiences as a Nazi concentration camp commandant. “Apt Pupil,” like Misery, explores the changing balance of power between two enmeshed individuals, with storytelling as one medium of exchange. Annie’s scrapbook fills a purpose similar to that of the scrapbook that reveals the history of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining (Misery refers briefly to that hotel’s burned-out ruins nearby).

The single strongest context for Misery other than King’s own work is provided by John Fowles’s The Collector (1963), to which Misery subtly refers (“Paul found himself wondering dourly if she had John Fowles’s first novel on her shelves and decided it might be better not to ask”). The Collector is also the story of a deranged individual holding captive a creative and sane individual, though in Fowles’s novel, the victim is female and the oppressor male.

Misery strongly exemplifies King’s three great strengths: compelling storytelling, including horror and suspense; unique and emotionally effective characterization; and insight into both human nature and the mystery of creative writing. While the scenes of murder and amputation may be too strong for some readers, King’s craft, thematics, and imagery in the novel make the novel worth reading and studying.

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