The Shining Essay Questions

The Shining is considered by many critics and readers to be one of King’s best works. The characters are interesting and well rounded, especially Jack, an essentially decent man battling not only supernatural forces but also inner demons of alcoholism, resentment, and rage. Although Jack becomes dangerous and terrifying, he remains a real, three-dimensional character, capable of love and sacrifice as well as brutality; thus he is a stronger character than some of the menacing male figures in King’s later works, such as Joe St. George in Dolores Claiborne (1992), who is essentially a one-dimensional villain. The narrative moves at a steady pace, not rushed and not excessively drawn out. Many of King’s later novels, such as Insomnia (1994), suffered from literary excess.

King conceived The Shining as a contemporary version of classical tragedy. The novel contains all the traditional tragic elements: a restricted setting, a small cast of characters, a protagonist with a fatal flaw, and an unrelenting sense of impending doom. Ironically, King strays from the classic tragic format in providing a less horrific ending for his work than did such writers as Sophocles and William Shakespeare for theirs. Plays such as Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606) and Hamlet (c. 1600-1601) end with most of the major characters dead, but everyone except Jack survives The Shining’s climactic disaster. Although...

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  • 1

    How does The Shining address wealth and class?

    Although Jack exudes confidence when we meet him during his job interview with Mr. Ullman, his professional insecurities soon shine through, revealing a man who is deeply anxious about his place in the world. We learn, for example, that he used to be a teacher and is now interviewing for a menial maintenance position at the Overlook Hotel. Despite his blue-collar background, Jack aspires to become a successful writer, an ambition that drives his decision to accept the job at the Overlook, since it will give him the time and space to write. This dream aligns Jack—a name already associated with the blue-collar "average Joe"—with the hordes of working-class American men who likewise aspired to write the "great American novel" in the mid-twentieth century, in hopes that they would transcend their class circumstances.

    Much of the film's central conflict revolves around Jack as furiously protective of this goal, as he often lashes out at Wendy, whom he perceives as a threat to his lofty ambitions, for disturbing or undermining his writing time. Just before Wendy discovers Jack's typewritten manuscript, which consists of only one sentence manically repeated thousands of times, Jack accuses her of sabotaging him by forcing him to work at menial jobs; just after, he accuses her of failing to understand the meaning of a job contract. Wendy often functions as an archetype of the middle-class, aproned American housewife, and Jack is sensitive to—and resentful of—this throughout the film. When Mr. Ullman gives the Torrances their initial tour of the hotel, Wendy humbly remarks on the Colorado Room, "God, I've never seen anything like this before"; later, she says of the kitchen, "It's the biggest place I've ever seen!" Whereas Mr. Ullman emphasizes the elite nature of the hotel, mentioning the movie stars and presidents who have stayed there, Wendy plays the part of the country bumpkin, marveling at the beauty of the hotel. It is this humble, dumbfounded quality of Wendy's demeanor that irritates Jack, driving him to the brink of insanity later in the film, when he will implicitly blame Wendy for preventing their family from achieving higher social status.

    Jack's delusions are often ones of imagined grandeur, allowing him to fantasize about being wealthy and important. For example, when Jack walks into the Gold Room while a lavish party is being thrown, Lloyd greets him as one would a valued regular at the bar, refusing to let Jack pay for his drinks. Moments later, Delbert Grady begs Jack to follow him to the restroom to clean his jacket, treating Jack's casual bomber jacket as if it were an expensive suit jacket like the rest of the men wear at the party. it is precisely these fantastical encounters with the upper crust that motivate Jack to take revenge on a wife and son whom he perceives as embarrassingly lower class.

  • 2

    Who, ultimately, is the film's protagonist? Its antagonist?

    The Shining is unique in that it performs a subtle bait and switch regarding its protagonist. At the start of the film, it seems clear that Jack Torrance is the film's protagonist, since he is the first character to which we are introduced. Jack also remains the character with whom the viewer spends the most time late into the film, as we follow his attempts to settle into the creepy Overlook Hotel. For better or worse, Jack is consistently the most active character; he finds a job, moves his family to the hotel, and subsequently embarks on a mission to write. All this makes him the easiest character to follow at the start of the film. Even so, the seeds of his later antagonism are planted in his character even at the film's start, such as his tendency to lose his temper and his insecurity about his professional status.

    Later, however, the film subtly transfers the power of the protagonist to Danny. Throughout the film, Danny seems mostly passive, due in part to his young age but also, perhaps, to his involuntary ability to "shine," which afflicts him with traumatic visions that he is unable to escape. This passivity at times appears to undermine Danny's identity as the protagonist. At the same time, Danny is very aware of the danger posed by Jack and the hotel, and even actively confronts it; because of this, Danny is the character through whom a great deal of foreshadowing and plot information is conveyed. For example, Danny elects to explore Room 237 and suffers for it, providing the motivation for Jack to enter the room later, when we are permitted to see what lurks there. As Jack gradually veers towards a role as the film's antagonist, Danny takes on a more active role, attempting to warn Wendy of the imminent danger present and running from Jack. In the end, it is Danny's vigilance that allows him to succeed by tricking Jack into following his footprints deeper into the hedge maze.

  • 3

    How does the film address themes of childhood and play?

    Although The Shining contains characters of all ages—including ghosts—many of these characters seek to recover a lost youth. The first of these is Jack, who is perpetually anxious about his role as a father, husband, and provider, and thus lashes out against the pressures on him to grow up. Like Danny, he seems to want to play more than work, resorting to bouncing a tennis ball off the walls of the Colorado Room until he loses it; later, the ghosts of the Grady twins roll this ball to Danny, inviting him to play. The culmination of Jack's madness is expressed through his manifesto, which simply reads, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." This marks the start of Jack's violent romp through the hotel, an outlet for his energetic mania, serving a role similar to child's play.

    Danny, however, is the primary character who suffers a loss of innocence due to the horrors of the hotel. His visions are the first and primary signal of this loss of innocence,forcing him to witness horrific scenes that would terrify any grown man. Although Danny often attempts seemingly normal childhood activities, such as watching cartoons and playing with his toys, these scenes are often interrupted by either the Grady twins or his father. In fact, the Grady twins embody the concept of stolen youth, as they were robbed of their childhood when their father murdered them. Thus, their frequent invitations to Danny function as threats to his childhood.

  • 4

    What could the color red symbolize in the film?

    The color red permeates the memorable aesthetic of The Shining at every turn. Wendy and Danny both wear red the first time we meet them, and Danny continues to do so throughout the film. Later, the bathroom in which Delbert Grady convinces Jack to kill Wendy and Danny is painted entirely red; this room is referenced implicitly when Tony repeats REDRUM ("murder," but also "red room") as if in a trance and eventually writes the same word on his bathroom door with his mother's red lipstick. The color also appears in the patterned carpet on which Danny rides his bike through the hotel. Perhaps the film's most significant iteration of red is Danny's repeated vision of blood pouring out of the hotel's elevator bank.

    On a literal level, the color symbolizes the massive bloodshed that defines the hotel as a source of terror, embodied by the image of blood rushing from the elevators. But in the Western cultural imagination, red also has figurative associations with madness, war, love, lust, and the loss of control, all of which are strong presences in The Shining. Indeed, it is precisely because red symbolizes all these elements in the film that we are able to link them to each other; for example, Jack's madness is a product of his complicated feelings of love towards his wife and child, and the war that he declares on them marks a loss of control that defines Jack's final violent romps through the hotel. It is a frenzy defined by its utter lack of reason, depending instead on a heightened state of being, a Dionysian climax embodied by the color red. In this way, red symbolizes not a singular theme, but rather the fusion of all madness, love, and anxiety that we see Jack struggling to control throughout the film.

  • 5

    How does the film comment on the state of the nuclear American family?

    At the start of the film, the Torrances appear to be a somewhat idyllic, even classic American family. Wendy, for one, is often portrayed as a sweet, loving housewife and mother, preparing breakfast in bed for her husband and watching cartoons with her son. Jack often functions as an archetypal working-class father, as well, rueful towards his job and wife, and perpetually desperate for a beer ("I would give my goddamn soul for a beer"). Indeed, one of the central tensions of The Shining is that of the resentment that Jack harbors towards Wendy for holding him back from success. He often appears annoyed at her lack of sophistication, as he aspires to join the upper-class elite; for example, when Mr. Ullman gives the Torrances a tour of the hotel, Wendy stands in sharp contrast to Ullman's mention of the jet set, remarking that she has never seen anything as beautiful or big as the Overlook. Later, Jack refers to Wendy as "the old sperm bank," reducing her to her function as a child bearer. As this conflict intensifies, Jack grows more impatient with Wendy's frenzied, desperate demeanor, eventually threatening to kill her and Danny. This hostility derives from madness, of course, but it also suggests common marital tensions carried to the extreme.

    Danny's relationship to his father is likewise rife with textbook anxieties about paternal love. This is particularly evident in the scene in which Danny tries to retrieve his toy fire engine without waking his father. When Danny finds Jack awake and staring blankly out the window, Danny asks Jack if he would ever hurt him or Wendy, to which Jack replies in the negative. Still, Danny is clearly afraid of Jack, likely due to Jack's history of violent temper tantrums. Embedded in this father-son dynamic are classic anxieties about what it means to love a child. It is likewise significant that the final chase of the film is between father and son. In this sequence, Jack is unable to connect to his son physically or emotionally, disoriented by the twists and turns of the maze, which could symbolize the twists and turns involved in raising a child. Importantly, Wendy and Danny explore the maze early in the film and are quite easily able to find their way to its center.

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