“Some Books Should Not Be Opened”: The Primal Self and Family Decay in The Shining

“Some Books Should Not Be Opened”: The Primal Self and Family Decay in The Shining

Written by Sarah Levi

for Prof. Kristopher Woofter

Throughout The Shining, Stephen King foreshadows the destruction of the Torrance family by hinting that Jack will eventually fall victim to mental instability. Besides portraying his character as a dangerous man who struggles with alcoholism and a short temper, King makes Jack face challenging situations, inciting him to lose his cool and wreak havoc on his family. The Shining can be viewed as a story about a man’s inner demons taking control of his mind, making him reveal his primal self and do the unthinkable. The novel also focuses on the dangers of repressing one’s desires: no matter how hard one tries to suppress them, they demand to be fulfilled and will grow stronger until they cannot be ignored. Early in the book, Jack may seem to have some control over his life, but as the story progresses, the readers realize that the scenarios he faces are leading him into inevitable decline.

Although Jack thinks the experience of working at the Overlook will stabilize his family, the readers get a sense that the Torrances’ stay at the hotel will not be a pleasant one. Within the first few chapters, we learn that Jack, Wendy, and Danny must deal with cabin fever, which is described in the book as “a slang term for the claustrophobic reaction that can occur when people are shut in together over long periods of time” (King 12). They must cope with this isolation throughout the winter, or else this “feeling of claustrophobia [will be] externalized as dislike for the people [they] happen to be shut in with” (12). When Jack is being interviewed for the job to manage the Overlook, he learns of Delbert Grady’s story: this previous caretaker of the hotel had suffered from cabin fever, which had driven him to murder his wife and twin daughters, and to then to commit suicide. Upon hearing this, Jack simply thinks, “[he] shouldn’t have been here. And he shouldn’t have lost his temper” instead of recognizing Grady’s qualities within himself (36). Jack does not understand that he will have no other outlet for his frustration than his wife and son. So, when he is trapped in the hotel for the season, he has nowhere to go to calm down, which ensures that his anger will remain pent up inside of him should he try to control it. No matter how long Jack can manage to keep his rage contained, it will eventually seep out and damage his relationships with his wife and son. The solitude will affect Jack more than he realizes and is one of the factors enabling his primal self to make its way to the surface, thus forcing him to lose control over his actions and his mind.

Another way that King foreshadows Jack’s crumbling mental stability is by revealing the strong correlation between the hotel and death. The readers learn of the many violent deaths that occurred at the Overlook and are encouraged to foresee a similar fate for the Torrance family. While the characters are settling into the hotel, the cook tells them that the man who built the place lost his wife to the flu, and his son “was killed in a riding accident on the grounds while the hotel was still a-building” (King 109). Not only has his family been destroyed, but he also, “plugged his finger into a light socket by mistake and that was the end of him” (109). This building has witnessed the death of its founding family, which sets a pattern that future caretakers, like Jack Torrance, will follow. It was previously mentioned that Delbert Grady was a caretaker who was victim not only to cabin fever, but also to this prophecy of death at the Overlook. However, it is not only the caretakers who are subject to the violence: even the guests can fall victim to this cycle of death. For instance, a woman who returns to the hotel every year tells the clerk, “my second husband died of a stroke on that tiresome roque court” (94). There is an obvious link between the Overlook and death, which incites the readers to think that a member of the Torrance family will be killed. The grim past surrounding the hotel is like that which surrounds the abandoned farmhouses in Joyce Carol Oates’ “Haunted.” Both the Minton and Medlock farms were scenes of death, and, because no one wanted to live there, remain uninhabited. The legacy of death in “Haunted” can be connected to that in The Shining, especially since people continue to visit these locations. In the novel, people still rent rooms in the hotel, which parallels how Melissa and her friend constantly trespass onto restricted grounds. People are, ironically, lured to these places even though their histories should repel visitors, and in the end, everyone’s mental state of mind is negatively affected by these experiences. Based on what happens to Melissa’s mind at the farmhouse, I think that if the Torrance family undergoes a similar ordeal, it would not be surprising. Because Jack struggles the most with his behavioral issues (out of the whole family), he seems to be the most likely to fall victim to mental insanity.

We are given insight to the reactions that Jack exhibits during certain scenarios, which makes us realize that his willpower is doomed to succumb to his yearnings. By following Jack’s deteriorating state, we are led to the conclusion that he is bound to undergo a mental lapse as did Delbert Grady. Stephen King enables the audience to understand how Jack analyzes the behaviour of people, which is key to the development of his insanity. While he is doing maintenance on the roof of the Overlook, he is stung by a wasp and starts to contemplate a worker redoing the rooftop shingles during the summer. If you are attacked by wasps in this situation, he assumes, “it would be entirely possible to forget you [are] seventy feet up. You might just charge right off the edge of the roof while you [are] trying to get away from them” (King 154). Jack remembers reading an article explaining that insects may be the cause of many unexplainable car accidents; after all, “[the] driver gets panicky, tries to swat it or unroll a window to let it out. Possibly the insect stings him. Maybe the driver just loses control” (154). He peacefully thinks about these deadly situations, which shows the true depths of his curiosity and reveals his repressed attraction to violence. Rather than bothering Jack, these thoughts seem to be appeasing his inner desires for death and destruction. The average person would probably be repulsed to think about how something as small as an insect can kill a human, but Jack willingly ponders these abject ideas. He does not seem fazed, which is odd since he is standing atop the roof near a wasp’s nest that could cause him to play out one of the scenarios he describes. His calmness is disturbing to the readers because it makes us question how he can remain so relaxed in potentially harmful circumstances. We are led to believe that he is becoming mentally unhinged and is allowing his deepest desires to come to the surface. He lets himself start to lose his mind so he can satisfy his darker side that has always been hidden away.

Another example of Stephen King revealing Jack’s brutish nature is when he reads the scrapbook containing the dark history of the Overlook. His son refers to the danger of reading the white book; when Jack picks it up, “Danny suddenly need[s] to cry out to his daddy, to tell him to leave that book alone, that some books should not be opened. But his daddy was climbing toward[s] it” (King 207, 208). This moment shows how Jack falls victim to the darkness of the Overlook; he is drawn to learn about its past even if the memories may end up haunting him, which they do indeed. Jack is overwhelmed with all this new information about the place in which he is staying throughout the entirety of the winter, and he cannot escape his new state of consciousness; he knows of all the horrors that have occurred in the rooms he walks through every day, and there is no way for him to forget these facts. He must live with them for as long as he stays at the hotel. In a way, he has become aware of his environment and the fact that it holds darker secrets than he could have ever imagined. Some part of Jack may feel repulsed by the hotel, wanting to get as far away as he can since he now knows of the truths buried within its walls. However, there is another part of him that is drawn to learn about the daunting history, which reveals his desire for destruction. The information that is presented to Jack in the book will help to bring about his primal self, which will enable him to truly lose his mind and his humane values. Jack reacts very oddly to almost being caught in the act of reading the scrapbook; when Wendy calls out to him, “[he] start[s], almost guiltily, as if he [has] been drinking secretly and she would smell the fumes on him. Ridiculous” (242). Because he relates uncovering the truths of the hotel to drinking, an act he is not supposed to do, it appears as if he feels he should not be reading the book; he should not be learning about the hotel’s past because it is not meant to be brought to light. The fact that he says his emotions are “ridiculous” shows how he is repressing his true feelings towards what he is experiencing. He does not want to feel ashamed or scared of learning about the history of the hotel, but he cannot deny that it is unsettling to him. He does not want to acknowledge that the hotel makes him feel uneasy, but it is slowly consuming and overpowering him.

The Overlook is ultimately encouraging Jack to reveal his darker side and let it take over, completely forgetting about any moral values he may have. This does indeed happen later in the book as Jack becomes reckless and attempts to murder his family, but he is unsuccessful; the hotel explodes and he dies alongside the establishment before he can kill Wendy or Danny. Jack loses himself at the end of the novel, just like the hotel has willed to happen: the Overlook pushes him over the brink. He becomes a wild animal who has no control over his mind or actions, and is influenced so strongly by all the factors previously mentioned that he tries to destroy the one thing in his life that is supposed to make him happy: his family. His repressed desires for violence and destruction are finally brought to the surface, and because they have been ignored for so long, there is no way for Jack to suppress them again and fight his urge to inflict chaos. He has no choice but to hurt his family because he lost all agency to the hotel, which is manipulating and controlling his every move. There is no way for Jack to save his family since he is the one who, subconsciously, wishes them harm, but consciously, would never perform. Now that his subconscious has taken him over, it cannot be tamed and he no longer has the power to repress his desires. His primal self is revealed to the world, and it refuses to return to the shadows where it once was.


Works Cited

King, Stephen. The Shining. Doubleday, 1977.

Oates, Joyce Carol. “Haunted.” Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque, Plume, 1994, pp. 3-25.


About the Author:

My name is Sarah Levi. I am currently in my second semester of CEGEP studying Health Science, which I plan to pursue after I graduate. However, I have taken a great interest in writing as of the Fall 2016 semester when I was enrolled in the Reflections program at Dawson. I find it interesting to analyze different texts, and I enjoy sharing ideas with others since it enhances my understanding of what I am learning.

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