Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Stephen King: Dolores Claiborne (1992)

In Dolores Claiborne, character is more important than action. The entire novel (save for a few newspaper clippings at the very end) consists of a lengthy statement Dolores gives to local police regarding the death of "that bitch" Vera Donovan, an elderly woman for whom Dolores works as a live-in nurse on Little Tall Island, off the coast of Maine.

Dolores knows she is suspected of foul play in Vera's death because most people on the island believe she killed her husband, Joe St. George, nearly thirty years earlier. Indeed, very early in her statement, she admits to the murder. ("Everyone on Little Tall knows it ... It's just that nobody could prove it.") And so she has come to the police station voluntarily to tell her story. She says she will give a complete and truthful accounting, but she will tell it her way.

Over the course of several hours, Dolores - 65 years old and a lifelong resident of the island - details the trials of caring for the increasingly-senile Vera, her marriage to Joe and the many years of abuse, her planning and carrying out of his murder, and her less-than-ideal relationships with her children. This is Dolores's life story - more of a long narrative than an actual confession.

The book was originally planned as one half of a longer novel - In The Path Of The Eclipse - with Jessie Burlingame's story (his previous novel, Gerald's Game). The two novels were published six months apart (May and November 1992).

King dedicated Dolores Claiborne to his mother, Ruth Pillsbury King, who raised King and his brother David after their father went out for cigarettes one evening when Steve was two years old, and never came back. In Danse Macabre, King writes:
After my father took off, my mother landed on her feet scrambling. My brother and I didn't see a great deal of her over the next nine years. She worked at a succession of low-paying jobs ... She was a talented pianist and a woman with a great and sometimes eccentric sense of humor, and somehow she kept things together, as woman before her have done and as other women are doing even now as we speak.

James Ronald Guthrie ("Three Decades of Terror: Domestic Violence, Patriarchy, and the Evolution of Female Characters in Stephen King's Fiction" (2009)):
King doubles his risk as an author both by removing much of the suspense in the novel and by using a first-person narrator. ... King must rely on the strength of the novel's themes and, perhaps more importantly, the strength of Dolores's character to keep the reader's interest. This last is even more challenging for king because he goes beyond simply using a first-person narrator by writing the entire novel in the form of a monologue with no chapter divisions or other breaks of any kind. This narrative structure gives him an opportunity to develop a female character in much more internal detail than he ever has before.
Dolores's story is full of Maine vernacular and folksy phrases, and King occasionally uses phonetic spelling (pitcher, ast, warshin). Dolores explains: "I'm just an old woman with a foul temper and a fouler mouth, but that's what happens, more often than not, when you've had a foul life."

She was married to (and pregnant by) Joe St. George when she was only eighteen years old. "I was tired of fightin with my mother. I was tried of bein scolded by my father. All my friends was doin it, they was gettin homes of their own, and I wanted to be a grownup like them." Joe hit her for the first time two days after their wedding. Dolores grew up seeing her father hit her mother occasionally - "that sort of thing was called home correction in those days" - and believed that "a man hittin his wife from time to time was only another part of being married."

Dolores began working as a housekeeper at the Donovans' summer house in 1949, a few years after getting married. After Vera's husband dies in a suspicious car accident, she moves to the island full-time. Dolores needs the work to make up for the money Joe lost in his weekly poker games. Joe's inability to find steady work and the need for Dolores's income to provide for the family only increases Joe's contempt for his wife, and his need to exert control over her.

After years of abuse, however, Dolores finally takes a stand. When Joe whacks her in the kidneys with a stove-length piece of rock maple, she asserts herself, smashing a creamer against the side of his head and threatening to kill Joe with a hatchet if he ever hits her again. Her threat actually stops the physical abuse (Joe's verbal abuse continues), though Dolores does nothing to prevent Joe from bragging to his friends about how he still keeps his woman in line.

It is after creamer/hatchet incident that Joe begins to take an interest in his fourteen-year-old daughter, Selena. Although we never see any of the sexual abuse, we do get a full portrait of Selena's depression. A distance develops between her and her mother (Joe has told Selena lies about how unstable and violent her mother is). Selena starts dressing in baggy clothes, spending more time studying at school and not at home, often not washing her hair, not eating, and not talking much to anyone. We are privy, through Dolores's recollections, to the conversation when Selena finally tells her secrets to her mother: "I feel so dirty and confused, and I can't be happy no matter how hard I try."
There were two other things she said on the way back - one with her mouth and one with her eyes. The one she said out loud was that she'd been thinkin of packin her things and runnin away; that seemed at least like a way out. But runnin won't solve your problems if you've been hurt bad enough - wherever you run, you take your head n your heart with you, after all - and the thing I saw in her eyes was that the thought of suicide had done more'n just cross her mind.

I'd think of that - of seein the thought of suicide in my daughter's eyes - and then I'd see Joe's face even clearer with that eye inside me. I'd see how he must've looked, pesterin her and pesterin her, tryin to get a hand up her skirt until she wore nothin but jeans in self-defense, not gettin what he wanted (or not all of what he wanted) because of simple luck, her good n his bad, and not for any lack of tryin. I thought about what might've happened if Joe Junior hadn't cut his playin with Willy Bramhall short a few times n come home early, or if I hadn't finally opened my eyes enough to get a really good look at her. Most of all I thought about how he'd driven her. He'd done it the way a bad-hearted man with a quirt or a greenwood stick might drive a horse, and never stop once, not for love and not for pity, until that animal lay dead at his feet ... and him prob'ly standin above it with the stick in his hand, wonderin why in hell that happened. ... My eyes were all the way open, and I saw I was livin with a loveless, pitiless man who believed anything he could reach with his arm and grasp with his hand was his to take, even his own daughter.

I'd got just about that far in my thinkin when the thought of killin him crossed my mind for the first time.
Dolores says that it was shortly after her daughter's confession that "the thought of killin him crossed my mind for the first time". But as Dolores admits to Vera, in whom she has confided, "I'll be goddamned if I see a way to do him the way he deserves to be done." It is Vera - who strongly implies that she tinkered with her late husband's car's brakes - who insists she get rid of this obstacle in her life: "An accident is sometimes an unhappy woman's best friend."

Dolores, realizing she cannot control Joe from taking out his aggression on her sons, resolves instead to leave the island with the three children, and goes to withdraw money from their college fund accounts at the bank as money to start a new life. When at the bank, she learns that Joe has secretly withdrawn the money from all three accounts for himself. Dolores is incensed at the betrayal, both by Joe and the bank. She rightly claims to the bank's manager that if the situation had been reversed, Joe would have certainly received a call from the bank alerting him to what his wife had done with approximately $3,000. This small incident exemplifies the unequal power in marital relationships in the early 1960s, and the subservient role that women were forced to accept.

This betrayal is the final straw and after much hard thinking, Dolores works out a plan to kill Joe on the day - July 20, 1963 - that a solar eclipse crossed Maine by getting him drunk and luring him over to an abandoned well on their property. Also on that day, Dolores has a vision of a 10-year-old girl sitting on her father's lap. It's young Jessie Mahout, also watching the eclipse from somewhere else in Maine. In Gerald's Game, Jessie thinks of a woman leading her husband to a well. King offers no real explanation for these twin visions. Perhaps he is implying some shared spiritual connection between abused girls/women?

Rachel Anne Turnage ("Finding the Faces of Our Mothers: Everyday Feminism in Stephen King's Dolores Claiborne and Gerald's Game" (2006)) praises the
complex and conflicted way in which King represents Dolores' reaction to violence and the historically accurate representation of the great limitations put upon women in this time period. ... In this manner, Dolores Claiborne imagines the suffering of a victim subjected to the social and legal restrictions that first wave feminists were fighting to abolish.
King's portrayals of Jessie Burlingame and Dolores Claiborne (she begins re-using her birth name six months after Joe's death) represented a huge leap forward in his writing. Unfortunately, the men in the two novels are nearly one-dimensional. In this novel, Joe is presented with few, if any, redeeming qualities. He is cowardly and paranoid, a frequent drinker, has no sense of humour, and, in addition to beating his wife and lusting after his daughter, he ridicules his oldest son as a sissy for reading books. King seems determined that no reader can have a shred of sympathy of Joe - and that Dolores's decision to kill him is wholly justified.

Next: Nightmares & Dreamscapes.


laura k said...

This sounds riveting. I wonder if I would like it.

Anyone interested in these themes might want to read Roddy Doyle's The Woman Who Walked into Doors and Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison.

allan said...

I wouldn't call it "riveting", only because you pretty much know what has happened. She admits killing Joe right off the bat and you trust her when she says she did not kill Vera. After that, it's basically telling stories. King wisely comes at the social/political stuff from the side, but makes his points if you're paying attention. He does a great job (as you would have to, considering it's all first person) of getting inside the character and making her more than believable. On the other hard, other parts feel far too wordy for someone supposedly giving a statement, but I imagine it's hard to balance that against writing an actual novel.

laura k said...

The "giving a statement" format is always tricky. At some point you have to pretend it's not a spontaneous statement. One such that is often cited is Anne Rice's debut, Interview with the Vampire.

Zenslinger said...

I did not read this, but saw the movie with my girlfriend at the time. I thought of her as pretty feminist, and I remember when Joe (David Straithirn, I think) hits Dolores (Kathy Bates) unexpectedly at the stove, my girlfriend commented that working-class men are always depicted as uncomplicated as alcoholic wife-beaters.

I love the giving-a-statement framing device for novels. I'm using it now.

laura k said...

I agree that there is definitely an anti-working-class bias that depicts working class men as brutes. Even Charles Dickens used this (as George Orwell convinced me in his essay on Dickens).

Sometimes for shock value Hollywood will show an educated professional man as abusive. This is supposed to be a shock because everyone knows only the lower orders suffer from these things.