(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Stephen King’s talent for horror and suspense has made him one of the most popular authors of all time, and his books regularly top the best-seller lists. Much of his work is tinged with elements of the supernatural, although his novels never fall within the realm of science fiction. His most fanciful tales instead bear all the hallmarks of that time-honored tradition, the ghost story.

Yet King is also a writer drawn to strong characters, and the majority of his books contain memorable portraits of people who find themselves caught in terrifying situations. The suspense in Carrie (1974) hinges on the reader’s sympathy for its unhappy central figure, a lonely, socially backward girl with destructive psychic powers, while The Shining (1977) offers a chilling picture of a man whose sanity is disintegrating as he falls prey to the evil forces that surround him. With Misery, King has taken the human factor in his work a step further, creating a story which is actually an extended, two-character drama.

The task which King has set himself with this format is not an easy one, relying as it does on the interplay between the characters to create an atmosphere of tension; indeed, for much of its story, the book is less frightening than many of King’s earlier efforts. Only in its final quarter, during the novel’s tautly paced climax, does Misery generate the sustained terror which has characterized his work. In its first three-quarters, which revolve completely around Paul Sheldon’s long imprisonment on Annie Wilkes’ farm, the book might be better characterized as disturbing or horrifying as Paul is alternately nursed and tormented by his captor.

What King does accomplish in this segment is a fully realized portrait of both Annie and Paul. The story is clearly a writer’s nightmare, and it is not difficult to imagine King arriving at the premise for this book by exploring the worst-case scenario of his own fears. Like King himself, Paul Sheldon is a best-selling writer, although his field is that of historical romance. Prior to the car accident on a deserted mountain highway which leaves his legs and pelvis shattered, Paul has written a book in which he kills off his popular heroine, Misery Chastain, and embarked on a new phase of his career, as a writer of serious fiction. When he finds himself at the mercy of Annie, who sees his car by the side of the road and recognizes its driver as her favorite author, however, he discovers just how seriously his “Misery” books have already been taken by at least one unbalanced fan.

As the story unfolds, tracing Paul’s slow recovery and his frequent, agonizing abuse at Annie’s hands, King skillfully delineates both Paul and Annie through the twisted relationship which develops between them. The book is told in the third person, from Paul’s point of view, and the reader comes to know him through his thoughts and emotions during the course of his long ordeal. Annie, however, is revealed only through her behavior and what Paul is able to learn through a surreptitious examination of her belongings.

Paul Sheldon emerges as an intelligent, resourceful man who possesses a biting, ironic wit. Twice divorced and fond of drinking and night life, his world alters dramatically as his single focus becomes staying alive in the face of Annie’s irrational rages. Crippled by his accident, addicted to painkillers during the course of his recovery, and later horribly maimed by Annie, his sole resource against his captor is his mind. Realizing early that his only hope for survival lies in his ability to outwit Annie, he observes her closely and attempts to understand her erratic mood swings, gradually learning to manipulate her in small ways. His talents as a writer also become a crucial part of his survival as he finds himself cast in the role of a modern-day Scheherazade, spinning the story of his latest “Misery” novel chapter by chapter, always with the knowledge that if he fails to entertain her, Annie will kill him before the book is finished.

Paul’s storytelling ability becomes the key to his own emotional survival as well, as he is pushed closer and closer to the brink of collapse by the strain of constant terror and pain. His novel—large portions of which are included in the text of Misery—becomes his one escape as he loses himself in the fantasy world he is...

(The entire section is 1808 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Misery, an engaging, detailed novel, creates some of its greatest effects through its structure. This psychological thriller is also...

(The entire section is 252 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In a unique instance of truth being stranger than fiction, early one morning in 1991, Eric Keene of San Antonio, Texas, broke into the King's...

(The entire section is 367 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Stephen King calls Misery a love letter to his fans. After reading the novel, however, the term "fan" takes on a very dark meaning...

(The entire section is 234 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Stephen King's most interesting technique in Misery combines the horror genre with the romance. Misery's Child and Misery's...

(The entire section is 140 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

King likes to connect his books with overt references to events in other novels and stories. In Misery, Annie Wilks picks up a...

(The entire section is 139 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In December 1990 Columbia Pictures released a film adaptation of Misery, a riveting mixture of humor and horror. The film stars James...

(The entire section is 56 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Beahm, George. The Stephen King Story: A Literary Profile. Kansas City, Mo.: Andrews and McMeel, 1991. A good factual biography, including quotations and material about the writing of Misery, musings by King and his wife about the connection between authors and readers, and the newspaper report of a lawsuit by fan Anne Hiltner claiming that King stole the manuscript of Misery from her home.

Bosky, Bernadette Lynn. “Playing the Heavy: Weight, Appetite, and Embodiment in Three Novels by Stephen King.” In The Dark Descent: Essays Defining Stephen King’s Horrorscape, edited by Tony Magistrale. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992. Explores themes of fat, appetite, and mothering in Misery, with context regarding those issues in The Stand and It.

Gottschalk, Katherine G. “Stephen King’s Dark and Terrible Mother, Annie Wilkes.” In The Anna Book, edited by Mickey Pearlman. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992. This archetypal/mythological approach may seem overinterpretive, but Paul Sheldon does think of Annie as a goddess, and Gottschalk does highlight interesting elements of the novel.

Magistrale, Tony. Stephen King: The Second Decade, “Danse Macabre” to “The Dark Half.” New York: Twayne, 1992. Chapter 6 contains excellent analysis of the thematics of art and madness in Misery and It, while other chapters provide context from King’s other works of the 1980’s.

Schopp, Andrew. “Writing (with) the Body: Stephen King’s Misery.” LIT 5 (1994): 29-43. Based in heavy contemporary critical theory but clear to the noninitiated, this piece explores themes of gender and power in the novel.