Gerald and Jessie Burlingame have made an impromptu midweek trip to their summer home on the deserted north shore of Lake Kashwakamak in central Maine. It is October, and the summer crowd is long gone. As the novel opens, Jessie is handcuffed to the bedposts, wearing only a pair of panties – part of a mild bondage game Gerald has introduced into their flagging, 17-year marriage.
The role-playing initially gave Jessie "a certain uneasy excitement", but now she feels only demeaned and humiliated. She tells Gerald she wants to stop, but he willfully ignores her. She lashes out in anger, kicking her husband in the groin and stomach, triggering a fatal heart attack. Suddenly, Jessie is in a far greater danger – trapped on a bed in the middle of nowhere. She realizes that by the time anyone notices she and Gerald are missing and then thinks to check their remote cabin, it will likely be too late. It's not long before the awful possibilities ("starvation, thirst-induced madness, convulsions, death") flood her mind.
As she tries to find some way to escape, Jessie must draw on previously untapped wells of physical and mental strength. She must concentrate in order to figure out a way to get to the glass of water resting on the shelf above her head or to the keys to the handcuffs on the dresser on the other side of the room. She must also contend with the intense pain from being held in a position resembling crucifixion. During her second day on the bed, she tries exercising, mainly to alleviate the steady muscle cramps, pedaling with her feet and pumping her arms up and down as much as the handcuffs allow.
In spite of the exercise, she could feel coldness creeping into her feet and hands, settling onto her skin like a skim of ice and then working its way in. This was nothing like the gone-to-sleep feeling with which she had awakened this morning . . . She supposed this numbness would eventually overwhelm the cramps and that, in the end, her death might turn out to be quite merciful after all – like going to sleep in a snowbank – but it was moving much too slowly.Throughout the novel, King does a marvelous job at creating tension, anxiety, and suspense. While the narrative drags in a few places – including the ending – for the most part Gerald's Game is nearly as taut as Misery. King's plot is simple – Jessie gets handcuffed to a bed and tries to escape – but he easily overcomes any dramatic limitations; his imagination and story-telling skills are far too good for that. King concentrates his energies on what one critic described as "the delicate and contradictory intricacies of the human mind, [creating] a character that is entirely recognizable and imminently relevant."
Time passed but it wasn't time; it was just a relentless, unchanging flow of information passing from her sleepless senses to her eerily lucid mind. There was only the bedroom, the scenery outside . . . and the slow movement of the shadows along the floor as the sun made its way across a painted autumn sky. Every now and then a cramp would stab into one of her armpits like an icepick or pound a thick steel nail into her right side. As the afternoon wore endlessly along, the first cramps began to strike into her belly, where all hunger pangs had now ceased, and into the overstressed tendons of her diaphragm. These latter were the worst, freezing the sheath of muscles in her chest and locking down her lungs. She stared up at the reflected water-ripples on the ceiling with agonized, bulging eyes as each one struck, arms and legs trembling with effort as she tried to continue breathing until the cramp eased. It was like being buried up to the neck in cold wet cement.
James Ronald Guthrie ("Three Decades of Terror: Domestic Violence, Patriarchy, and the Evolution of Female Characters in Stephen King's Fiction" (2009)):
The horror of domestic violence and a harsh criticism of American patriarchal society have been the dominant tropes in King's novels from the beginning of his career. ... [His novels] show that domestic violence is not only widespread and feared throughout American society, but also enabled by American patriarchal society itself, if not explicitly condoned by it. ...Rachel Anne Turnage ("Finding the Faces of Our Mothers: Everyday Feminism in Stephen King's Dolores Claiborne and Gerald's Game" (2006)) agrees, writing that in Gerald's Game and Dolores Claiborne – which King originally envisioned as two halves of one long novel entitled In the Path of the Eclipse – King
For King in the 1990s, domestic violence in the private sphere is a metaphor for the ultimate violence of American patriarchal society, the public sphere that condones, enables, and sometimes even rewards violence against women.
has created a history of fifty years of feminist struggle in the United States that is not only meaningful and authentic to readers, but also serves as a powerful expression of social criticism. King achieves authenticity through rough, vernacular language, recognizable heroines, and an unrelenting political incorrectness that refuses to shy away from the real monster in the closet: horrific abuses of power made possible by a patriarchal culture.While these two mainstream novels "contain much feminist theory and history ... [alongside] a clear and relevant analysis of American culture", Turnage says they are also "accessible to readers who would otherwise be turned off by texts that openly define themselves as feminist".
King tells his story by making extensive and expert use of what Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin called heteroglossia – a diversity of voices, styles of discourse, or points of view that create a complex unity in a literary work, especially a novel.
Early in the novel, King writes that ever since Jessie was a young girl, she had been hearing voices. These voices began "on the day the sun went out": July 20, 1963, when a section of central Maine experienced a total solar eclipse. That was the day on which Jessie, then only 10 years old, was molested by her father.
Since then she has steadfastly repressed the trauma, driving away friends, discontinuing therapy, and ending up (nearly three decades later) unfulfilled in a grossly unequal relationship, quietly acquiescing to her husband's demands. But now, trapped on the bed, with the voices chattering in her head like a Greek chorus, she cannot run, and is forced to confront what happened. As darkness falls on the first night, Jessie begins "not so much dreaming of the day of the eclipse but reliving it".
Guthrie writes that by using these various voices,
King is able to expand the conflict within Jessie's psyche to encompass the conflict within the discourses of an entire society. ... Almost all of society's stereotypical views of women reside within Jessie's troubled mind. ... [Her] journey of self-discovery involves the recovery of the repressed memories made available by a multiplicity of voices ... She is not schizophrenic in the true sense of the word; rather, these multiple personae symbolize the many different aspects of her self, a conglomeration of what she was, what she is, and, most importantly, what she could be. ...Realizing that her father – a man she worshiped – took advantage of her and then manipulated her into taking responsibility for his crime, convincing her to tearfully beg that he never reveal what had happened, Jessie is forced to ask herself a terrifying question: "How many of the choices she had made since that day had been directly or indirectly influenced by what had happened during the final minute or so she had spent on her Daddy's lap?"
King deftly uses the terror of Jessie's immediate situation to perform an in-depth study of an abused woman's inner turmoil, a struggle for self-integration applicable not only to abused women but also to all women and to men.
Two final points:
After Jessie frees herself and begins driving slowly away from the house, the narrative point of view changes. We jump ahead four months and find Jessie recovering from what she refers to her "hard time". We learn the rest of the story in the form of a long letter Jessie is writing to reconnect with her old friend, Ruth. This shift works for the most part, but it goes on far too long, and makes points a careful reader has already deduced. (The Joubert section feels like it was dropped in from another King manuscript and serves no good purpose, defeating the purpose of a reader thinking Jessie was hallucinating, which would make far more sense in light of her vivid recollections of the day of the eclipse.)
While Jessie is trapped on the bed, a starving stray dog wanders into the house, and rips a chunk out of Gerald's right arm – making a "wet, snotty, ripping sound" – and takes it back into the hallway to eat. King provides the back story to how this mangy mutt ended up near death in the Maine woods and it's absolutely heartbreaking. King is superb at communicating the dog's thoughts; he did it expertly in Cujo, as well. How the dog got to the cabins by the lake is irrelevant to the novel – though there are similarities with the dog and Jessie both doing whatever they need to do to stay alive – but King includes it anyway. After thinking seriously about how dependent domestic animals are on humans, and how irresponsible and sadistic those humans can be, I was left with a messy mix of sadness and impotent anger.
Next: Dolores Claiborne.