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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,...

(This entire section contains 1808 words.)

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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 creating. The ultimate irony for Paul lies in the fact that the horror of his situation has forced him to put more effort than usual into the novel, resulting in perhaps the best of the “Misery Chastain” books.

In Annie Wilkes, King has created the “monster” of his story. Although he gives her no psychic or supernatural powers, she achieves near-mythic proportions through her terrifying capacity for cruelty. A strong, solidly built woman who alternates among violent outbursts, crafty paranoia, and a chillingly coy, almost childish manner, Annie is a manic/depressive who at times lapses into brief, catatonic states. King captures her prim dislike of profanity in her ludicrous, nursery school vocabulary as she labels those she hates “dirty birds” or substitutes “cockadoodie” for more explicit adjectives, and she is disgusted by the subject matter of Paul’s treasured attempt at serious fiction, the manuscript of which she forces him to burn by withholding his pain pills.

Yet Annie’s own actions are unspeakably brutal, beginning with forcing Paul to drink from her cleaning pail and withholding his pills and escalating to beating his injured legs and finally chopping off his foot and thumb. In each of these cases, she afterward points out to Paul with calmly perverted logic that he has caused his own suffering by forcing her to punish him, feeling no remorse herself for her actions. The unpredictability of Annie’s moods and the desperation with which Paul tries to read them keep the reader constantly off balance and force a strong identification with Paul’s nightmarish situation.

Paul errs frequently, however, by underestimating the degree of Annie’s intelligence and cunning, misled by her unsophisticated little-girl manner and disturbed mental state. In reality, Annie is far from stupid, and her powers of observation lead her to detect small details that Paul assumes will escape her notice. During one of her absences from the house, Paul manages to force his wheelchair through his narrow bedroom door and into the bathroom in search of pain pills. Only later does he learn that Annie has seen the marks his chair left on the door as well as other evidence of his arduous journey through the house. Underestimating Annie’s intelligence nearly costs Paul his life, and it is only through reevaluating her cunning that he is finally able to devise a plan to outwit her.

The dawning knowledge of Annie’s cunning is only one of the factors which add to the already monstrous proportions the woman has assumed in Paul’s—and the reader’s—mind. During his second tour of the house in Annie’s absence, Paul finds a scrapbook which reveals to him the full horror of his tormentor’s past, as the carefully preserved newspaper clippings of the “accidental” deaths of people close to Annie—beginning with her own father—form a pattern of systematic, undetected murder. Only in her last position as a maternity ward nurse had she fallen under suspicion when she was tried and acquitted following the deaths of several babies in her care. The discovery of the scrapbook leaves no doubt in Paul’s mind as to her plans for him when the “Misery” book is finished—or when the spring thaw uncovers his car by the highway.

As the weeks pass, Paul’s psychological state enters a dangerous decline in the face of Annie’s complete control over his existence. The gruesome amputation of his thumb and his foot—following an escape attempt—leaves him in such terror of her wrath that he begins to think of her as a vengeful goddess, omniscient and indestructible. When a police car arrives at the farm he is almost unable to call for help; the result of his cries only reinforces his fears as Annie quickly kills the state trooper at its wheel. Fearing that a similar fate will await any subsequent investigators, Paul at last realizes that he must break free of the paralyzing grip she has on his emotions and kill her himself—and that the only key to her destruction lies in her devotion to the novel he is writing. By tricking her into believing that he has set his “Misery” manuscript on fire, he is able to burn her to death, although she proves even then to be terrifyingly difficult to kill. Yet even after her death, it is clear that Paul may never be free of the memory of his “number one fan"—the image of Annie will haunt him for the rest of his life.

As he builds toward this frightening climax, King creates tension throughout his story with a series of suspenseful events. A passing car on the highway, Annie’s abrupt mood swings, Paul’s cautious, panicky explorations of the farmhouse, his discovery of the scrapbook—all these incidents lend a strong atmosphere of menace to the growing drama of Paul and Annie’s twisted relationship. King punctuates this gradual escalation with moments of stomach-churning horror, creating a tone that is almost sadistic in its brutality with his depiction of Paul’s physical abuse at Annie’s hands. Yet there are also flashes of humor throughout the book, in Paul’s private musings of his situation and in King’s own occasional inside jokes, which include a reference to the nearby Overlook Hotel—the setting for The Shining—and a dig directed at famous writers who appear in television credit-card commercials—as King himself has done.

King saves the story’s real terror, however, for its climax, which is sustained over the last eighty pages of the book. King has few equals at this type of narrative suspense, and the extended battle to the death between Annie and Paul begins with the fatal visit of the state trooper and continues into Paul’s life after his rescue from the farmhouse, as King holds out the chilling prospect that Annie may have survived—like the omnipotent goddess Paul has begun to believe she is. Through character development and carefully plotted escalation of tension, King has taken his initial premise of a two-character drama set in an isolated farmhouse and constructed a disturbing tale which finally erupts in the sort of horror that has long been his trademark. What began originally as an unsettling psychological thriller has become, by Misery’s final pages, a masterful example of terrifying story-telling.

Literary Techniques

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Misery, an engaging, detailed novel, creates some of its greatest effects through its structure. This psychological thriller is also about writing a romance novel. The paperback edition, for example, has a double front cover: the outer cover depicts a man in a wheelchair menaced by the shadow of an ax-wielding woman; the inner cover is Misery's Return, complete with a buxom beauty wrapped around a bare-chested man bearing a striking resemblance to Stephen King. The novel also contains chapters of Misery's Return, which appears in larger type or as handwritten manuscript. This structural intermixing of different fictions within the novel reflects Paul's own mixture. As Annie, the psychotic nurse, becomes a bitch-goddess, Misery Chastain, the proper romance heroine, becomes a Bourka bee goddess.

The first page of the novel, after the dedication, has two words on it, like an invocation: "goddess" and "Africa," words that carry both positive and negative connotations. Then the novel divides into four sections, each dedicated to the principal character or image, and followed by a citation that illuminates the conflict. Section One introduces Annie, her psychosis, and her plan to keep Paul; its choppiness reflects Paul's struggles to understand her. Section Two, "Misery," begins with Misery's Return, a clandestine reading of Annie's scrapbook of newspaper clippings and vivid descriptions of Paul's maiming. In Section Three, Paul realizes his inner strengths, potential madness, and his hopes for escape. The final section, "Goddess," shows Paul back in New York, rehabilitated and relearning to write under the shadow of Annie.

Social Concerns

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Stephen King calls Misery a love letter to his fans. After reading the novel, however, the term "fan" takes on a very dark meaning indeed. The novel could be described simply as a cautionary story of dangerous groupies who follow famous personalities—a problem which King has experienced. In this light, there is very little love in this "love letter."

Fortunately, King does more than merely depict the dangers of fandom; he also makes his most in-depth exploration of the kind of writing that makes his work so popular. To dissipate the godly atmosphere that accumulates around a writer, King demythologizes the writer's craft, showing the moment of inspiration, the time, the vain hopes, and the tremendous hard work that go into creating and sustaining a believable fictional world. Readers with vague ambitions of becoming a writer will find King's insights and images compelling and honest.

King's honesty also extends to the medical community, where he rattles a few professional skeletons. King depicts a former nurse who has a stash of misappropriated prescription drugs— painkillers and antibiotics—which are samples that have been given to doctors. Also, the nurse, Annie, lost her license after an investigation of mysterious deaths in a Denver hospital nursery. King acknowledges that he consulted several doctors about hospital practices and the mental functioning of the psychotic: their schizophrenic unconnectedness, memory lapses, denial of guilt and rationalization of dangerous behavior.

Literary Precedents

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Stephen King's most interesting technique in Misery combines the horror genre with the romance. Misery's Child and Misery's Return play upon conventions of gothic romance novels, such as adultery, mystery, and love.

Despite King's adventures in another genre, his main interest remains in fantasy and horror. The plot technique that bridges the dead Misery Chastain of Misery's Child and the living Misery of Misery's Return is the accidental burial of an unconscious person. One of the great literary explorers of gruesome demises was Edgar Allan Poe in "The Premature Burial." King also makes an overt reference to H. Rider Haggard's She, an archetypal novel set in primitive Africa that centers around a powerful, almost immortal woman who dominates the men around her—a theme that runs powerfully through Annie and Paul's relationship, and also colors Misery Chastain's adventures in Africa.


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In December 1990 Columbia Pictures released a film adaptation of Misery, a riveting mixture of humor and horror. The film stars James Caan as Paul Sheldon and Kathy Bates as Annie Wilks. Bates won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance. Rob Reiner directed and co-produced with Andrew Scheinman; the screenplay was by William Goldman.


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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.




Critical Essays