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The Shining | Themes

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Good and Evil

Stephen King's body of work can be read as a study of good and evil. In interviews King has speculated about whether evil is an intrinsic element of the human character, something people create or bring upon themselves, or whether evil originates from outside forces—forces people don't necessarily understand. In The Shining evil comes from both internal and external sources, but intrinsic evil tends to be more mundane than the go-for-broke malice of the Overlook Hotel. Yet the source of the Overlook's evil nature remains ambiguous. It may be a supernatural power created with the hotel's construction, one that inspires the hotel's history of scandal and violence. Or perhaps the Overlook turned evil after absorbing the energy of evil done within its walls over the years.

Jack's character arc is the clearest example of the interplay between internal and external forces to create evil. Without question Jack is a deeply flawed man, severely damaged by years of witnessing his father's drunkenness and rage and doomed to repeat his father's mistakes in his own family dynamics. Whether these tendencies make Jack inherently evil on his own is subject to the reader's own definition of evil and tolerance for bad behavior, but Jack wants to be a better man than he is. He understands and regrets the consequences of impulsively breaking Danny's arm. Likewise, he regrets his assault on George Hatfield and the loss of his job. Jack wants to do better and save his family because loves Danny deeply. Even at the end of the novel, with Jack fully in the Overlook's thrall and having attempted to murder Wendy and Danny, his love for Danny comes to the surface one last time and urges Danny to escape while he can.

Exterior forces push Jack over the line from deeply flawed to pure evil, but those forces play upon Jack's flaws to make that push. Were Jack in better control of these characteristics, these lesser evils, the external greater evils couldn't find a hold within Jack. Alcohol influences Jack to violently lash out at his family. When alcohol is no longer available, the Overlook influences Jack to murderous rage—and gives him alcohol in the bargain.

While evil results from a complex interplay between internal and external forces, goodness is straightforward and intrinsic. Danny is possessed of a goodness inherent in childhood innocence. He loves his family and wants everyone to be safe. He hasn't had opportunities to do truly bad things. Dick Hallorann provides the clearest example of how goodness can be ingrained in an adult. Dick may be more empathetic because he has the shine, but the novel presents evidence of Jack's ability to shine as well, without an appreciable increase in empathy. Dick befriends a lonely little boy who shares his gift, even though Dick has no obligation to educate others about the shine. He then risks his life—and undertakes considerable expense—to travel from his home in Florida to the Overlook Hotel when Danny calls for help. Dick even has a conversation with himself about the insanity of this decision. He doesn't know these people and has no investment in them. He already plans to find another job. The journey itself is treacherous, not to mention the terrors that await when Dick arrives on the hotel's property. Yet Dick knows he can't leave an innocent child to die. He refuses to remain comfortable and inactive in Florida while a tragedy he may be able to stop unfolds. The external factors all act against Dick's expression of goodness in his rescue mission. Dick's goodness comes from within.

Addiction

On a basic level The Shining is a cautionary tale about the dangers of addiction. When he arrives at the Overlook Hotel, Jack is a recovering alcoholic. The novel details Jack's drinking days during his brief tenure as an English teacher at Stovington Academy in Vermont. Forming a friendship with Al Shockley, a fellow alcoholic who sits on the school's board, Jack and his buddy spend many evenings downing martinis, which Shockley calls "martians." Jack's marriage deteriorates as Wendy waits up for him with the infant Danny cuddled next to her on their sofa. Often these evenings end with fighting and recrimination. After several beers, Jack breaks toddler Danny's arm when the child scatters his papers in his home office, but even this incident does not deter Jack's habits. Only after he and Shockley hit a bicycle, mysteriously left in the road with no apparent owner, do the two men resolve to clean up their act. These incidents illustrate the pervasive nature of alcoholism and the difficulty of overcoming addiction, even when the addict's life is unraveling around him.

Alcohol is not Jack's only problem, though. After he gets sober, he remains prone to fits of rage. His inability to control himself and his anger causes him to assault a student and lose his job. Jack catches the student, George Hatfield, slashing the tires on Jack's car after Jack cuts the boy from the debate team. Anger is an acceptable response to such a situation, but assault is not. Jack knocks George unconscious. Jack's addictive behavior is a symptom of his lack of self-control and unchecked aggression. When Jack can no longer channel these destructive impulses into drinking, they express themselves through other outlets.

The Overlook Hotel recognizes Jack's weaknesses and exploits it. The hotel presents Jack with a scrapbook of the most notable moments in its history, and Jack fills the space alcohol has left in his life by spending hours in the basement reading over the minutiae of newspaper coverage, discarded invoices, and bills of sale. Jack is vulnerable and weak, and he literally becomes addicted to the Overlook. As fall wanes and winter approaches, Jack sees the risk remaining at the Overlook poses to Danny's health, but Danny's well-being is not enough to convince Jack to leave his post at the hotel, just as Danny's well-being was not quite enough to convince Jack to quit drinking. As the Overlook's manifestations in Jack's reality become stronger, the addiction to the hotel and the addiction to drink converge with spectral service from Lloyd in the Overlook's Colorado Lounge. The combination of these two addictions prove deadly, as Jack seeks his family's destruction and finds his own, but Jack is powerless to stop himself because he is an addict.

Past, Present, and Future

The Overlook Hotel is literally haunted by the past. Scenes from decade-old killings appear in rooms. A party from the 1940s plays out over and over in the ballroom and the hallways. The hotel's fixation on the past appears to be part of the source of its power, but the past also feeds into the hotel's destruction.

Like the Overlook, Jack is stuck in his own past. He remembers the way his father drank and abused his mother and siblings, and he seems doomed to repeat that pattern just as the Overlook repeats its masquerade ball. Jack blames Wendy for not forgiving him for breaking Danny's arm, but his resentment and fixation on the event reveals Jack's inability to forgive himself for hurting Danny. He relives his interactions with George Hatfield, justifying dismissing George from the debate team because of George's stutter, trying to excuse his attack on George because he was stressed from quitting drinking and George was vandalizing his car. Jack's entire relationship with the past is an attempt to retell the defining events in his personal history in such a way that allows him to avoid responsibility for his own actions. He didn't become an alcoholic because of his own wiring and family history. He became an alcoholic to cope with Wendy's nagging. It's Wendy's fault. Breaking Danny's arm was an accident.

Jack's obsession with the past makes him an easy mark for the Overlook as Jack becomes immersed in the hotel's history. He dreams of rewriting the historical events he discovers during his explorations among the basement papers, just as he attempts to rewrite his own history mentally. As Jack becomes more absorbed in the Overlook's influence, his grip on present reality deteriorates further. Jack and the Overlook are destroyed together, eliminating their future, because neither Jack nor the hotel can let go of the past.

The characters who do survive the Overlook to face the future are the ones with less fixation on the past, and they are more mentally stable for it. Wendy remembers past events from her marriage to Jack and has occasional regrets for not leaving him sooner. However, she does not dwell on these events the same way Jack does. She doesn't try to revise their history into something better than it is. She faces the ugliness of the past and, through sheer force of will, tries to make the present and future better. Danny shows little interest in the past and has spare thoughts about his arm being broken. He focuses on his current love for his parents and his hope for his family to remain intact. His visions of the future terrify him and almost prove his undoing, but he is also able to face his murderous father with courage when those visions come true because he is prepared for them. Dick Hallorann's past is sketchily drawn because he is a secondary character to the Torrances, but he doesn't dwell on tragedies in his history and dismisses visions of the Overlook's past as "pictures in a book." Dick, more than any of the Torrances, focuses on the task at hand in the present, and that focus enables him to save Danny and Wendy.

Power and Corruption

The story of the Overlook Hotel is one of wealthy and powerful people exploiting less wealthy and powerful people for their own pleasure or gain. In his only direct appearance in the narrative, the millionaire Horace Derwent is seen at a party tormenting a former lover. He holds out the promise of a reconciliation if Roger comes to the party dressed as "a cute doggie." Derwent and his friends make Roger perform as a dog, humiliating Roger and amusing themselves. The scene is a minor incident in a string of far more horrific events, but it reveals how the Overlook is powered by a belief that allows those with privilege to use, toy with, and discard other people at whim. Such carelessness with people's lives can be deadly. Roger's fate is unclear, but years later Mrs. Massey's young lover has the advantage of youth rather than wealth over Mrs. Massey. When he discards her, it ends in her suicide in Room 217.

Jack's friend Al Shockley uses his wealth and power to get Jack the caretaker's job at the Overlook. Stuart Ullman doesn't believe Jack is right for the job, but he bends to Shockley's will because Shockley owns controlling stock in the hotel. While Shockley frames the job offer as a favor to help Jack get back on his feet after losing his teaching job, his motives are suspicious in light of Ullman's reservations about Jack's ability to handle the isolation of the winter caretaker position. Shockley knows everything Ullman knows about the Overlook and about Jack. He knows Jack is a recovering alcoholic with anger management problems. He also knows the previous caretaker murdered his family in a fit of "cabin fever." As much as Shockley says he wants to help Jack, it's difficult to see why he wouldn't share Ullman's reservations and perhaps find Jack some other position that might be more suitable to his welfare. Furthermore, Shockley becomes enraged at the possibility of Jack's writing about the Overlook. Jack's writing is his own business, but Shockley wants to preserve his resort's reputation. He pulls rank on Jack, addressing him not as an old friend but as a superior with sufficient influence to ruin Jack if he pursues the project. The evidence indicates Shockley wants to take advantage of Jack's unfortunate position to get cheap labor he can easily control because Jack is beholden to him for the job.

The exploitative behavior of the respective Overlook owners mirrors the exploitative nature of the Overlook's power, which works by using people's weaknesses against them. Danny recognizes early in his father's deterioration that the hotel is using Jack to get to him, to seize Danny's power. The hotel also seems to feel threatened by Danny's power, illustrated by Delbert Grady's warning Jack about Danny's plans to involve an "outside party" in the proceedings at the Overlook. Grady also tries to establish superiority over Dick Halloran, the aforementioned outside party, by referring to Dick with a racial epithet. Stuart Ullman describes Grady as barely literate, but Grady knows his whiteness allows him power over Dick. Danny's power is substantial, as he saves his own life when Jack pursues him into the attic by speaking truth to the power of the Overlook, telling Jack the hotel is only using him and will give him nothing in return. "Yes, they promise, but they lie," he tells Jack, which breaks through the Overlook's possession long enough to bring the real Jack back to the surface so Danny can escape. The only way to overcome the powers that seek to exploit weakness is to confront those powers and show strength.

Isolation

The Overlook Hotel is more than 20 miles away from the nearest town, and its remote location in the beautiful backdrop of the Rocky Mountains is part of its appeal. Isolation, particularly when snows make the road to Sidewinder impassable, also contributes to the danger of the place. Beyond its physical isolation from the rest of the world, the Overlook is an isolating place, as hotels tend to be. Guests are relegated to their own rooms and are left to socialize with strangers who are equally content to leave one another alone. Events such as masquerade balls may bring the guests together, but the masks preserve anonymity and prevent genuine human connection. Similar scenes are playing out in hotels around the world at this very moment. At the Overlook, isolation proves corrosive and deadly. A caretaker kills his family. A woman commits suicide in a bathtub.

The Torrance family arrives at the Overlook together and lives in close quarters with one another, but their physical proximity does not generate emotional proximity. Wendy considers how infrequently Jack has told her he loves her during the years of their relationship. Guilt and blame about past misdeeds and the family's current financial problems also create an undercurrent of mutual resentment between Wendy and Jack. They have sexual intercourse, but displays of affection are rare between them. Danny loves his parents, but he fears they will divorce, which means he would seldom see his beloved father. Jack loves Danny as well, but his guilt over breaking Danny's arm keeps father and son at a distance. Furthermore, Danny feels isolated from both his parents because he knows they don't understand his shine, which also frightens them a little. Just as isolation proves corrosive to the Overlook Hotel's regular season guests, the emotional isolation within the Torrance family leads to the family's full collapse.

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