The Plot

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 427

The Shining was Stephen King’s third pub-lished novel, written as his rise to fame as a horror writer was beginning. The story centers on Jack Torrance, a struggling writer and recovering alcoholic with a history of violence. Jack obtains a job as winter caretaker of the magnificent Overlook Hotel in the Colorado mountains, hoping that the solitude will help him finish the play he is writing. The manager tells Jack about a former caretaker who went insane, murdered his family, and committed suicide. Later, in Boulder, Jack’s five-year-old son Danny has psychic visions of a bloody hand, a menacing figure swinging a mallet, and the word REDRUM.

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Jack arrives on closing day at the Overlook, bringing with him his wife, Wendy, and Danny. The hotel’s cook, Dick Hallorann, who has powers similar to Danny’s but weaker, makes psychic contact with the boy. They discuss the power Hallorann calls “the shining,” the ability to read people’s thoughts, send thoughts to others, and see visions of past and future events. Hallorann warns Danny that the Overlook might be a dangerous place for someone with his abilities and tells Danny to call him psychically if he ever needs help.

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Hallorann’s fears are soon justified as the hotel begins to exert a malevolent influence over the family. Danny is stung by wasps that spontaneously appear in a nest Jack had poisoned earlier. Jack grows obsessed with the Overlook’s history of violence, which is detailed in a mysterious scrapbook he finds in the basement. Wendy becomes increasingly concerned as Jack reverts to old habits from his drinking days, though the hotel contains no liquor. Later Danny is attacked and traumatized by a dead woman in one of the guest rooms.

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Suspicion, hostility, and fear grow among the family members until Jack, intoxicated by supernatural liquor and convinced that he must destroy his family, goes on a violent rampage. Danny realizes that REDRUM is MURDER spelled backward and mentally calls Hallorann for help. The hotel’s topiary, hedges trimmed into animal shapes, comes to life to attack Hallorann when he arrives.

Jack, possessed by the evil spirits of the hotel, becomes the shadowy figure of Danny’s visions, attacking Wendy and Hallorann with a croquet mallet, then seeking to murder his son, whom the hotel wants because of his extrasensory powers. Jack is distracted by the hotel’s dangerously pressurized boiler, neglected in the preceding mayhem, long enough to allow Danny, Wendy, and Hallorann to escape. Jack and the Overlook are destroyed when the boiler explodes.

Literary Techniques

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 232

King's basic plotting technique in The Shining is similar to that found in many of his novels: A long, leisurely buildup is used to inculcate in his readers the sense of a disarmingly normal human situation, during which time — with the exception of an occasional foreshadowing — little is done to suggest the nature of the horrors to come. Thus, when the strange events do begin to manifest themselves — frequently about one-third through the novel — they come with the shock of sudden reversal, and from that point onward accrue with ever greater intensity as the narrative accelerates toward its climax.

King frequently uses small towns (often situated in Maine) as relatively closed settings within which to pursue his plots, but in The Shining he does himself one better by choosing the claustrophobic expedient of a totally isolated, snowbound hotel as the setting for one of his most inward-looking, psychologically oriented novels. Character, plot, theme — all are vastly enhanced by this choice, and it is one of the novel's most successful technical features.

Other elements of technique which King uses to good purpose in the novel include multiple points of view, a limited but highly effective set of symbols ranging from the conventional (snow) to largely innovative (topiary animals), and pointed allusions to other literary works, principally E. A. Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" (1842), and Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hilt House (1959).

Ideas for Group Discussions

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The Shining ranks with 'Salem's Lot, The Stand, and The Dead Zone as the best novels by Stephen King. Remarkably, these also appeared within the first decade of his publishing career. The Shining is probably his most literary as well, demonstrating King's understanding of the scope and nuances of the American canon, as well as his specific study of the various genres of literature fantas tique—literature of the imagination, which encompass horror, science fiction, fantasy, even mainstream literature. These characteristics make The Shining the most-taught novel of King's collection, a reputation which was enhanced by Kubrick's film. While some purists criticize the film, particularly suggesting that the characters are not accurate to King's text, the film catapulted Stephen King to brand-name status in American fiction, while bringing his unique horror images to life.

1. King builds on the Gothic tradition of the haunted house. For King, a haunted house has more than a creepy history and a rumor of ghosts; it is a physical structure that embodies psychic evil. But he carries this image on step further, giving the house ill will and malevolent impulses. How does King give the Overlook Hotel a personality, and the power to act? What descriptions and images illuminate its nature?

2. One of the prevailing themes in King's novels is the breakdown of the family, particularly from the child's perspective. What normal stresses does the Torrance family suffer? What supernatural stresses? How do these stresses interact? What is at stake for Danny? for Wendy? for Jack?

3. King's continuing fascination with writing about writing is also evident in The Shining. Based on Jack's failed experiences with writing, what connections can you draw between writing and madness?

4. The Shining is one of a few novels by King that does not take place in Maine. In fact, the Overlook Hotel is based on the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado. How has he transplanted the New England gothic landscape of Hawthorne, Poe and Love-craft?

5. While King draws extensively from contemporary fiction, he also makes some unique contributions to the powerful and enduring images and scenes in American horror fiction. What images stand out from your reading? How is it unique? How does it adapt previously-existing images and motifs?

Social Concerns

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The Shining, Stephen King's third published novel, avoids the sweeping social concerns manifest in such apocalyptic visions as The Stand (1990) and The Mist (1985), or even the more limited examination of society's treatment of the "outsider" figure prevalent in so much of his fiction from Carrie (1974) onward. Despite its powerful supernatural elements, careful readers of this novel have long noted that a great deal of its core interest lies in its examination of a family attempting to function under conditions of extreme stress, and, perhaps most particularly, in the manner in which it depicts the gradual and ultimately total disintegration of its central character, Jack Torrance. Within this context, a number of motifs common to King's depiction of parent-child relationships in a great many of his works, in particular alcoholism, child abuse, obsessive behavior of one sort or another, and destructive guilt, are strongly evident in The Shining. Still, the largely naturalistic stance which seems to underlie the novel's basic movement forces attention to a somewhat different plane of understanding and provides an essentially nonsocially oriented frame of reference from which to explore its thematic implications.

Literary Precedents

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What is generally considered to be the first gothic novel, Horace Walpole's The Caste of Otranto (1764), features at its heart a haunted castle, and of all the elements which have come to be regarded as conventional in the roughly 200 years of gothic tradition linking Walpole and Stephen King, the haunted house has surely been the most frequently employed. To note that King has written a haunted house novel in The Shining is thus to immediately place him in the distinguished company of such writers as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, and Shirley Jackson, to name but several, and in his or her own way each of them has contributed something vital to the texture of King's work.

King's frontispiece to The Shining includes a lengthy quotation from Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death/' and he both quotes from and alludes to it on frequent occasions in the novel. Though such homage is certainly appropriate given the novel's context, it is another of Poe's works, "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839), which, though never explicitly mentioned in The Shining, seems most clearly linked to a number of the author's themes and techniques. From the use of similar details of descriptive personification (including eyelike windows and a palpable, vital atmosphere) to cataclysmic endings involving the total devastation of the respective structures, the works share a great many features in common, although most telling of all is undoubtedly the manner in which each author forges a ghastly symbiotic bond between house and character. This is not to suggest, of course, that The Shining is little more than an updated version of Poe's classic tale: to do so would be to absurdly oversimplify a work which addresses itself to a wide variety of issues not in any way a part of the earlier narrative. Still, some knowledge of this important precedent is useful in any attempt to thoroughly evaluate King's aims and accomplishments in The Shining.


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King's novels and short stories have formed the basis for a large number of film adaptations and have attracted the attention of such innovative directors as Brian De Palma, Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter, George A. Romero, and Lewis Teague, Perhaps none has been so controversial, however, as the 1980 film version of The Shining, directed by the celebrated Stanley Kubrick. King himself was clearly disappointed with Kubrick's handling of his novel (an attitude which he has not, incidentally, expressed with regard to most adaptations of his work), and critics have generally tended to view it as the sort of grand failure which men of genius are occasionally permitted. Kubrick's essential method was to reduce the novel's themes and structures to several monolithically sustained effects. This involved, among other things, a vastly simplified notion of character, which may be seen quite clearly in the stripped down versions of Jack and Wendy Torrance played by Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall. On the other hand, Kubrick enhances, rather than deemphasizes, a number of the novel's other features, so that, for instance, the setting (the Overlook Hotel) assumes monumental significance through the manipulation of the film's impressive sets, while the symbolism inherent throughout the novel is given additional vigor in the film's reiterative use of mirrors, mazes, and other powerfully suggestive elements. Whether The Shining is the most effective of Stephen King's film adaptations is, to say the least, open to serious debate: Nonetheless, it remains in all probability the most interesting.


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Beahm, George. Stephen King: America’s Best-Loved Bogeyman. Kansas City, Mo.: Andrews and McMeel, 1998. Beahm provides an intriguing glimpse into Stephen King’s life as a celebrity and publishing phenomenon. An excellent resource that helps readers gain deeper insight into King’s works.

Bloom, Harold. Stephen King. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1998. A collection of critical essays that address various aspects of King’s work. Useful for gaining a comprehensive overview of King’s canon.

Hohne, Karen A. “The Power of the Spoken Word in the Works of Stephen King.” Journal of Popular Culture 28 (Fall, 1994): 93-103. A defense of King’s work against the “snobbery of scholars who look down upon the rustic tradition of popular language.” Hohne gives a solid overview of King’s work and calls for academia to recognize “its potential to mobilize mass support.”

Magistrale, Tony. The Dark Descent: Essays Defining Stephen King’s Horrorscape. New York: Greenwood Press, 1992. A collection of essays that explore King’s works in depth. Includes “Complex, Archetype, and Primal Fear: King’s Use of Fairy Tales in The Shining,” by Ronald T. Curran. Also features a helpful bibliography for further reading.

Russell, Sharon. Stephen King: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. Offers a brief biography of King, as well as an overall view of his fiction. Entire chapters are devoted to each of his major novels, including one on The Shining. Discussion includes plot and character development, thematic issues, and a new critical approach to the novel.

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Critical Essays