What about Jack? Another Perspective on Family Relationships in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining

In the following essay. Manchel examines the protagonist of The Shining. Jack Torrance, contending that “there are mitigating circumstances for his diabolical role in the disintegration of his family.”

In the following essay1, Manchel examines the protagonist of The Shining. Jack Torrance, contending that “there are mitigating circumstances for his diabolical role in the disintegration of his family.

by Frank Manchel

In the end we all come to be cured of our sentiments. Those whom life does not cure death will. The world is quite ruthless in selecting between dream and reality, even where we will not. Between the wish and the thing the world lies waiting.
—Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses

If anyone back in 1980 wanted to see a modem dysfunctional household being demolished by violence, they could watch Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, a screen adaptation of Stephen King’s 1977 best-selling novel. This horror story of a family in crisis ends with Jack Torrance, an insane husband, first terrorizing his wife and next murdering the man who had come to save their five-year-old son, Danny. Then, calling himself the “Big Bad Wolf,” the beastly, limping father madly pursues the boy through the snow-covered maze of the Overlook Hotel. Cleverly, however, Danny retraces his steps, and not only escapes from his axe-wielding father, but also succeeds in ending Jack’s reign of terror over the Torrance household. The shot most of us remember is that of the deranged, grinning Jack hunched over in the snow, frozen to death.

For more than a decade, the fate of the Torrance family has been blamed on Jack’s insanity and the evil forces at the Overlook Hotel. This essay reexamines those sentiments. My hypothesis is that The Shining’s reception is skewed by a contemporary critical desire to make Jack Torrance—the white, American, middle-class father—the scapegoat for the sins of a patriarchal society. While the surface facts (e.g.. Jack’s drunken rages, his deranged pursuit of Wendy and Danny with an axe, and the murder of Hallorann) find him guilty as charged. I argue that a closer reading of the evidence produces a different verdict on Jack’s behavior, and that there are mitigating circumstances for his diabolical role in the disintegration of his family. More attention must be given to his condition prior to the attacks on his relations and murder of the hotel chef. In short, this essay asks why—when so many critics often associate the terms “fantasies,” “victimization,” and “exploitation” with this film—does Jack get left out in the cold?

In taking this tack, I want to be clear that I am not excusing wife bashing, child abuse, or homicide. Nor is this exercise part of a backlash against current interpretive criticism revolted by the predicament of women and children in a patriarchal society. My quarrel is not with slated academic judgments, but with the omission of any serious empathy with Jack’s predicament. Debates over other issues. like Kubrick’s “signature.” his revolutionary use of the Steadicam. the chess parallels, the significance of an African-American being killed in the film but not in the novel, or the meaning of the “shining,” I leave to others. M desire is to do what Anthony Magistrate perceptively claims both Kubrick and King do: offer insights “about the deathless struggle to define what it means to be human” and to contemplate the “psychological terrors” that spare no one when a household breaks apart (vii-viii).

That a revisionist approach is necessary would not surprise Kubrick, who is acutely aware of just how long the public takes to understand and to appreciate his works.2 None of his twelve films has ever opened to widespread critical and commercial success.3 Whether it is his painstaking emphasis on non-narrative techniques, his novel exploration of popular film genres, or his refusal to be pigeon holed. Kubrick remains an enigma to most audiences. Consequently, his works are often misunderstood, with observers berating him for lacking a consistent style, a failure to get his ironic messages across, an obsession with detached narratives, and a mean-spirited attitude about human nature.

These by-now predictable charges greeted his 1980 screen adaptation of The Shining.4 James Hala’s survey of the movie’s reception showed that popular reviewers “loved it,” journals “defended” it, and intellectual magazines “disliked it intensely” (203). Norman Kagan put the case more gently: “A majority of the critics, although they found The Shining flawed, said they felt Kubrick must be praised for seeking to move beyond the horror genre” (212).

Equally predictably, The Shining’s reputation, as with almost all of Kubrick’s works, increased upon closer inspection of his techniques. Even during the film’s first run. Ja­net Maslin commented that “The Shining, like Barry Lyndon, is so richly textured, it improves immeasurably upon second viewing, once an audience moves beyond worrying about a story line or taking the facts at face value” (Cl). A decade later, Mark Madigan, comparing the film to Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, concluded that while both works “envision worlds of futility and disorder, they offer salvation through their superbly crafted, highly ordered depictions of chaos” (200).

This essay probes one constant audience interest about that chaos: how a nuclear family falls apart as symbolized by the fate of the Torrance household. Whereas King’s novel is preoccupied with the fears of the five-year-old son. Kubrick’s movie centers on the traumas of the father. Both creative labors, however, describe a structural relationship in which everyone feels alienated, in which their values are shallow, and in which an inability to discuss dehumanizes Jack, tyrannizes his family, and leads to his doom.

A quick scan of the critical literature on Kubrick’s film readily reveals Jack’s status. He is seen either as a well- meaning unemployed Vermont school teacher who eventually turns into a monster or as an unredeemable alcoholic who in rapid order abuses his son, loses his job. and becomes a homicidal maniac. His tenure as an off-season caretaker of an isolated luxurious Colorado hotel not only destroys his self-esteem, but also turns him into a primal beast. Even when critics claim that the tragic events are manipulated by the surrealistic ghosts of the Overlook Hotel. the spectators dole out all their sympathy for Wendy, Danny, and the murdered head chef, Hallorann. In fact. Jack is more often perceived as an appendage of the Overlook Hotel’s diabolical forces than as a tragic person dominated by powers greater than himself. About the closest critics come to sensing Jack’s dilemma is labeling it either as a “nightmare” (Keeler 2-8) or as the allegorical fantasy of “the American Breadwinner” (Leibowitz and Jeffres 45).

The surface reasons for these antipathies are revealing and very pertinent to a revisionist approach. First, the Kubrick and King labors are clearly identified as the products of their age. In commenting on the hint’s origins, P.L. Tittertngton affirms that “The Shining works primarily through elements that evoke America’s past history and its present slate of society” (118). Alan Cohen’s analysis of the novel is even more specific. He points out that the seventies epitomize the radical shift in our values and behavior because of Watergate, the Vietnam War, a sexual revolution, and the skyrocketing divorce rate (Cohen 49). Not surprisingly. film reviewers, socialized by reactions to the book and sensitized to the toll that such events were having on American society and families, dwell on Jack’s violent nature and lament the vulnerability of his wife and child. Why waste time scrutinizing the beast within us. when, like the nation itself turning to an optimistic Ronald Reagan, we could find comfort in the illusory salvation of a terrorized mother and son? “The urge,” Magistrale wisely points out, “is to see the evil “out there in someone or something else (an evil empire) [rather] than to fix the lo­cus on the self.”5

A second reason for ignoring Jack’s humanity was the consciousness-raising activities of feminists. What we read in the film journals about the victimized Wendy reflects a long overdue awakening to the horrors that far too many desperate wives experience daily. For example. Flo Lei­bowitz and Lynn Jeffres interpret the tragedy of the Tor­rance family as an allegorical tale of the problems women face in a male-dominated world: “Jack’s sense of self and his relation to others in his often fantasized world show-s him to be animated by a patriarchal authoritarianism” (Leibowitz and Jeffres 46). Susan White makes a similar point, but in a different context, insisting that Kubrick’s view s of sex and aggression arc simply facilitators of “fantasies about women,” and are yet one more example of “the adaptation of the male to the demands of a ritualistic male group” (121-22). Even in the critiques of the novel, a feminist critic like Patricia Ferreira downgrades Jack’s problems to valorize “a contemporary Hester Prynne, [who] possesses the strength and the courage to turn away from her husband and to lead herself and Danny away from the Overlook” (32). Each critique, in its own way, attacks the values of those males who not only abhor feminine characteristics in men but also encourage anti-feminine behavior. This legitimate, culturally political perspective, often associated with Kubrick’s films—i.e., he identifies male sexual power with aggression—is not limited to feminist critics.6

My position is different. Denouncing unacceptable behavior is not enough. By failing to scrutinize why Jack is seduced by false myths of success and patriarchal authoritarianism, we ignore the appeal of such seductions and focus only on the symptoms. I believe that Kubrick also wants us to study the dark side of Jack’s personality and recognize that each of us has the potential to be overcome by our Id. Why else would Kubrick insist that “One of the things that horror stories can do is to show us the archetypes of the unconscious: we can see the dark side without having to confront it directly” (qtd. in Kroll 99). This perspective permits us to interpret the narrative symbolically through the signs and subtexts of the fantastic. Thus, the filmmaker’s emphasis on associative editing,7 deep focus. wise en scene, and repetition guides the spectator to specific images of a tormented man who needs help but finds only manipulation and rejection. His dilemma over how to reconcile his dreams with reality must be addressed if the family structure is to improve.

A third reason for neglecting Jack’s problems is Kubrick’s handling of the horror genre. While some reviewers are quick to dismiss The Shining as an artless retelling of familiar material,8 many observers theorize that Kubrick’s first full-blown use of the film formula provides important ideas about the flaws in patriarchal family values (Nelson 198). For example, he uses the “haunted-house” convention to symbolize the decadence of the present and the guilt of the past (Titterington 118). The frequent shots of photographs and artifacts decorating the hotel’s corridors, floors, and rooms add credibility to the diabolical hold that history has on us today. To that end. Leibowitz and Jeffres argue that “Kubrick seems to be saying that America has a right to be superstitious, that its ghosts are real, capable of driving men mad, and that the most dangerous ghosts of all are the myths of success (‘The American Dream’) and of the authoritarian father (Leibowitz and Jeffres 47). Moreover, he uses the Western motif to rethink our myths about the American frontier, seeing it not as a place for opportunity and justice, but as a setting for ruthlessly destroying our dreams. It is not accidental, therefore, that there are frequent allusions in both the book and the film to the exploitation of Native American traditions and ancestral burial grounds. According to Thomas Allen Nelson, Kubrick uses “both Jack’s madness and the Overlook’s past [to] express a decidedly masculine ethos, one which not only threatens the structures of normality (man/woman, family) but also the integrity of psycho/sexual duality” (Nelson 219).

While these reasons for Jack’s infamy are presented imaginatively, they are woefully insensitive to the father’s crisis. Who in this “sexual allegory” about the decline of the American family is most injured? Who is the one person most traumatized by twisted fantasies about success? When you study the relationship in the film between violence and control, who is the one person conditioned to believe that the best way to end chaos is by “legitimate” force? Further, who is the one member of the nuclear family destroyed by the ghosts of the past and their insistence on maintaining traditional sex roles?

Obviously, I feel it is Jack Torrance.9 For that matter, so do the evil forces of the Overlook Hotel. Clearly, they see him as the ideal candidate to manipulate because of his traumatic childhood experiences, his substance abuse, and his feelings of inadequacy as a patriarchal figure. Again, my purpose is not to take away from the pain suffered by Wendy or Danny. Nor is it to excuse Jack’s bestiality. Rather, if this film reflects the toll that our culture is taking on the American nuclear family, we need to see why and to ask how we can help all the members of the household.

In the interests of space, let me comment on just two specific elements: the opening scenes of the film (primarily The Interview” sequence) and the relationship between Jack and his family. Given a start in a new direction, others then can pursue the pattern of Jack’s deterioration on their own. My strategy is to observe Kubrick’s restructuring of traditional family connections to underscore Jack’s frustration and disenchantment with the myths of success, middle-class family values, and marital life.

Consider our introduction to the screen narrative.10 Before the credits appear, a helicopter shot furnishes us with an omniscient long take of a glacial lake surrounded by towering mountains, as Barlok’s music plays on the soundtrack. Then the credits begin. In the background, the expressionistic camera tracks inward and tilts to the right, foreshadowing something both threatening and unnatural. Cutting soon establishes that we are following a small, at first barely perceptible car11 moving along a tortuous route (Kagan calls it “serpentine roads” [208]), carrying its solitary passenger to a prearranged interview for a job as the off-season caretaker of the isolated Overlook Hotel. Ominous horn music and sounds of animals cue us to the inhuman dangers that lie ahead.

From the outset, Kubrick presents Jack’s terrible isolation and impending doom. Whatever illusions he may have about the job or “making it big” have already been predetermined by a hostile universe. As we discover shortly, he and his family have recently moved from Vermont to Colorado in search of a fresh start. But the film permits no escape. Neither Kubrick nor his co-scriptwriter. Diane Johnson, includes any of the novel’s biographical information about Jack’s abused childhood or his regrettable relationship with the wealthy and irresponsible surrogate father-figure, Al Shockley. In the novel, these details help to explain Jack’s drinking problems, his drunken rage that resulted in his accidentally dislocating Danny’s shoulder, his being fired from his teaching position, and his troubled marriage. The screen collaborators, however, provide us with few details. It’s as if the Reagan-Bush generation were given the chance to draw from their personal experiences so that they can identify individually with a fragmented family struggling to survive economically in an indifferent world. On the surface, Kubrick shows us an apparently normal person seeking peace and quiet in an ideal winter setting for a budding writer. But closer examination reveals the truth of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s cynical observation that there are no second acts in America.

“The Interview” sequence concentrates on one major event: Stuart Ullman, the hotel manager, reviewing the caretaker’s responsibilities, along with his explanation of the tragic events of 1970. This section is framed by a prologue, showing Jack’s arrival at the Overlook Hotel, and an epilogue, when he calls Wendy to say he’s got the job. Significantly, Kubrick intersperses this central event with scenes of Wendy and Danny at home discussing the impending news, Danny being frightened in the bathroom, and a doctor’s house call to the Torrance apartment.

I view Kubrick’s editing as ironic, calling attention to the difference between what is said and what is shown. To me, his associative editing creates two different “interviews” so that we can graphically witness the conflicts in the Torrance family.

Let’s examine the sequence from that position. It starts with Jack entering the large, plush, almost empty hotel and asking the desk clerk (a woman) where Ullman’s office is. Once there, he announces himself to the chief executive, who then asks Betty, his secretary, to get the two men some coffee and to ask Bill Watson, a hotel employee, to attend the meeting. Thus, Kubrick’s visuals document the shift from the vastness of space seen in the trip and in the lobby to the narrow and confining room in which the interview takes place. He also shows the unequal status of women in this contemporary setting. This is a familiar approach in Westerns, used to contrast the expansive purity of the wilderness with the corrupting, claustrophobic nature of civilization.

In that same generic mode, the entrance to the office has. on one side of the wall, four photographs of the changing seasons at the Overlook Hotel, and on the other side, a Native-American tapestry. Kubrick, through Ullman and the Navaho furnishings of the hotel, will remind us that America’s exploitation of American Indians is evident in the sacrilegious building of the hotel on ancestral burial grounds and in using their artifacts for decorative purposes. The objects themselves testify to the presence of the past in the present.

To underline the symbolic import of our plagued heritage. Kubrick steers our attention to the first of several American flags, this one a small model placed prominently on Ullman’s desk as he discusses the hotel’s checkered history. The advantage of identifying the Overlook with America itself is to have us view the hotel symbolically as a warehouse for the nation’s values. Thus, parallels are drawn between the past and the present. Just as we come to appreciate the links between the nineteenth century and post-World War II America, we also come to see Jack’s personal history as analogous to his father’s. Kubrick punctuates this perspective by associating each time change with acts of violence. It is another reminder that the Torrances are following in the path of previous victims. Titterington wisely points out that “The theme of America is . . . pervasively present in the elaborate color scheme of the film, using a red, white, and blue base, the colours of the American flag” (118). That patriotic imagery would have Jack wrapped up in the myths of success as well as seduced by a ritualized male society. His problems then are our problems and not to be ignored. As Leibowitz and Jeffres claim, “Jack is caretaker not only of the hotel but also of the American dream, depicted in the film as empty and haunted’* (46). True enough, hut that dream also remains formidable and seductive.

Before we get to the Overlook’s past, a dissolve to an apartment complex in Boulder redirects our attention to Wendy and Danny. They’re seated at the kitchen table having lunch. The mise-en-scène is very telling. The boy is in the background eating, a television is running a violent Roadrunner cartoon, and the mother is screen right reading and smoking. Their appearance—e.g.. clothes, posture, movement—and the milieu dramatize the dismal existence they lead. As F. Anthony Macklin tells us, “Kubrick sees human beings as empty, their values shallow and vacuous. . . . Their basic banality is most evident in their dialogue” (93). The brief conversation between mother and son reveals that in the three months they’ve been in Colorado, neither the parents nor Danny has made any friends. Eventually, Wendy asks the child what Tony, his imaginary friend, thinks about the possibility of moving to the hotel for the winter. We can’t be sure whether she takes Tony seriously or is just placating Danny. But she tells her son that she is sure Tony is looking forward to the new surroundings. Danny says he isn’t. Before another dissolve takes us back to Ullman’s office, Wendy assures her son that they’re “all going to have a real good time there.” This cliché-ridden comment represents the first of her many denials about impending psychological dangers threatening the family.

Thus, Jack’s precarious economic situation, his troubled home life, and his “honorable” responsibilities position him to be exploited by corporate interests. The world of big business is narrowing in on him. Lest anyone think such a judgment is a stretch, study Jack’s facial expressions as he rationalizes every possible objection to his taking the job. Asked if the physical tasks arc too demanding, he smiles awkwardly and says no. Asked if he’s worried about cabin fever, being physically isolated from October 30 to May 15 in the snowbound hotel, he tells his male listeners that he craves solitude so that he can work on his proposed book. In this instance, his response seems a bit defensive as if he is trying to appear more independent and intellectual than he is. Ullman responds approvingly, pointing out that in contrast for some people “solitude and isolation” can be treacherous. The theme of corporate exploitation is also apparent in the frequent references later by Lloyd, the bartender, and Delbert Grady, the ex-caretaker. to “the management of the Overlook.” Equally telling is Jack’s refusal to vacate the hotel to get his son medical help because he has “signed a contract” and has to stand by his legal obligations.

For Kubrick, the focus here and throughout the film on snow and isolation functions metaphorically, reminding us just how “cold” reality and relationships have become in the modem world (Titterington 119). For Jack, the interview with Ullman gives him an opportunity for male bonding and to prove his conformity to the stereotypical Western male ethic. He’s a tough hombre who cherishes the chance to prove his worth isolated in a remote part of the country. This is how “real” men make it big in the New World. Later in the film, in his conversations with Lloyd and Grady, Jack will again display his desire to fit in with the sex-role socialization of a ritualized male society. He has to prove again to them that he “has the belly” for the task and that the hotel was not wrong in choosing him rather than Wendy for the “assignment.”

The full extent of corporate manipulation becomes apparent when Ullman asks if Jack has been told about the events of 1970. knowing that the executives back in Denver didn’t want to scare Jack away. As the manager tells the tragic story of Charles Grady, Kubrick cuts to Watson’s study of Jack’s reactions. Both hotel agents are watching Jack to see how he reacts to hearing that the former caretaker became crazed during the winter, murdered his family (wife and two daughters) with an axe. and then blew his brains out. Jack listens intently, but says that he’s not superstitious. In his mind, he can’t afford to be. The code of the West says that a man has to do what a man has to do. And being a “man,” he needs to provide for his kin. So he quickly dismisses Ullman’s question about how the family will take to the anecdote by saying, “That’s quite a story. I understand why the people in Denver left it for you to tell me. And as far as my wife is concerned. I’m sure she’ll be absolutely fascinated by it. She’s a confirmed ghost story and horror film addict.”

A third dissolve takes us back to Danny, who is brushing his teeth in the bathroom. Like Jack, the boy is shown in a claustrophobic setting, also having a conversation about the hotel. Only his talk is with his imaginary friend. This time, Kubrick removes any doubts about the boy’s psychic credibility. Not only do we hear foreboding music as Tony warns the boy about the Overlook’s bloody past, but he also tells him that Jack will call shortly to say he’s got the job. Danny relays this information to Wendy, who is washing dishes in the kitchen while the TV plays silently in the background. The call comes seconds later. While Wendy and Jack exchange perfunctory’ comments. Kubrick cuts to Danny uttering a silent scream before the screen goes completely black. Unlike his foolish father, the boy fears the sins of the past. On another level, it symbolically reaffirms that the father and son do not relate well to each other. They think, feel, and behave differently. Their alienation evokes strong feelings from ex-servicemen in the audience who, being away from home for long periods, experienced similar problems with children who didn’t know’ or remember their fathers.

In the darkness, we hear a voice asking Danny to lie completely still. The scene then opens to a doctor (Anne Jackson) examining Danny and trying to find out about his imaginary friend. When the boy refuses to discuss him, the physician and Wendy retire to another room. She then questions Wendy about the boy’s background and their present circumstances. Wendy’s dialogue makes it appear that she is putting the best face on why Jack’s drunken behavior one evening five months ago is really not the direct cause for his grabbing the child and dislocating his shoulder—“It’s just the sort of thing you do a hundred times with a child … in the park and the street.” Moreover, she dutifully assures the doctor that her husband hasn’t touched a drop of liquor since and that he has told her to leave him if he does.

Kubrick’s mise-en-scène, however, makes it abundantly clear that neither the wife nor the physician accepts what she says as the truth. Nervous and smoking rapidly, Wendy personifies a deeply troubled woman who has genuine Concerns for her child’s safety and the future of her marriage. To underscore this point. Kubrick has the doctor sitting passively on the couch, listening intently, offering no encouragement. One might even speculate that the physician is quite familiar with parental denials of child abuse and marital turmoil. Interestingly, given the time frame, she never asks if Jack has gotten any help for his drinking problem, or whether the parents have sought any family counseling. Equally troubling is why she doesn’t pursue the point that Danny first discovered Tony after the boy was injured by his father, or the fact that Danny was taken out of his Vermont nursery school because of his psychological problems and never reenters school once the family gets to Colorado.

That is the way “The Interview” sequence ends. In a logical progression, the film establishes a dysfunctional nuclear family unable to talk effectively with each other. Except for the isolated case of the doctor, women exist as clerks, secretaries, and mothers. None of them is aggressive. They serve coffee, rear children, and don’t get involved in making it big. Wendy portrays the suffering wife, homebound, caught in a loveless marriage, and ineptly trying to keep the family together by suppressing any doubts about Jack’s or Danny’s mental health. This is Wendy’s seduction by patriarchal authoritarianism. In her mind, that is what a good wife is supposed to do: wash. weep, and wait patiently. Under no conditions is it “proper” for her to take action “against her sea of troubles.” Self-control, not anger, is the traditional way. Not until she discards her submissive role and becomes the “contemporary Hester Prynnc” will Wendy escape her cultural trap. The tragedy is that she has to flee her marriage, rather than find a way to make it work.

Kubrick’s casting of Shelley Duvall as Wendy is vital to the portrayal of the mother’s image in the disintegrating nuclear family. Unlike the self-reliant character described in King’s novel, she appears neither attractive nor bright. Otherwise, Kubrick explains, the film audience would “wonder why she puts up with Jack for so long.” Unlike the Jack of the novel, the film’s protagonist is not a loving or kind husband. Whereas King stressed this positive aspect of Jack’s personality, Kubrick eliminates it completely. More to the point, he adds, “Shelley seemed to be exactly the kind of woman that would marry Jack and be stuck with him” (qtd. in Ciment 189). Her quirky mannerisms and nondescript appearance superbly capture the sense of despair and disappointment that makes Wendy’s existence so depressing.

Simultaneously, we see Jack’s crisis. No one alleviates his guilt for what has happened. Neither his wife nor his child appears ready to forgive him for his mistakes. The move westward has not improved interpersonal relations, provided more love and security for the family, or made Danny happier. Unlike King’s novel, the film never shows the wife or the child being affectionate to the father, nor he to them. It is one more example of Kubrick commenting on the modern American family. Jack is spiritually alone. His patriarchal conditioning tells him to work hard, provide for his family, and repress “feminine” characteristics. Interestingly, Jack is an educated man, whose career allows him ample time to enjoy his family. Yet, he neither plays with his son nor shares any of his wife’s interests. Driven by a warped masculine mentality that violently blames women for men’s failures, he personifies the symbolic misogynist who finally reverts to an apelike creature.

Nevertheless, it is particularly telling that Wendy never confides to him that Tony may be more than a delusion; that may be Jack should not take this job because of Danny’s fears and the circumstances surrounding Tony’s warning before the phone call: that maybe Jack’s drinking and behavior are symptoms of problems more deep rooted than they care to admit, thus requiring professional help. With so much riding on this job and Wendy’s passivity, with no one offering Jack any alternatives to the false standards by which “real men” are being judged. Jack has few choices and is easily seduced by corporate interests. He then deludes himself further by thinking that he’s a writer and that the off-season job fits perfectly into his plans.

But we are not so naive. We see his predicament, we watch the male interplay in the office between the haves and have nots. we hear the menacing music, and we observe the symbolic settings. Like many anxious and insecure men, out-of-work and deluded by myths of success and a second chance, Jack Torrance is a sad figure more deserving of our pity than our contempt. I am not justifying or condoning what he does. I am arguing that pain clouds judgment, that a too materialistic society celebrates patriarchal authority, and that what happens to Jack is predictable if one chooses to put profit and prestige over personal relationships.

The choice of Jack Nicholson to play this ordinary, unimaginative human being only added to the film’s mixed reception. Those who, like King himself,12 found the star’s persona and broad acting style antithetical to Kubrick’s ironic story dismissed the decade’s most famous anti-hero as dull and miscast. Even Macklin, who recognized that the part of Jack required an actor who effectively combined the ordinary with the absurd, found Nicholson’s performance “out of synch ” (Macklin 94). I, on the other hand, find him ideal for the part, especially because we do identify the actor with his previous roles in Easy Rider. Five Easy Pieces, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Who better to symbolize a generation’s sense of an absurd world where it is fashionable to make Faustian pacts? Jack Kroll makes an equally telling point: “Nicholson [is] the most eloquent smiler on the screen. The movies have never shown a more haunted face than this” (Kroll 96).

Seen from this perspective, we can appreciate the rich texture of the next scene, which begins the film’s second episode. “Closing Day.” Kubrick repeats the tortuous drive back to the Overlook Hotel, this time with an interior shot of the family packed together in the yellow Volkswagen. Jack is sullen. Wendy pensive, and Danny troubled. Why? They should be excited by the upcoming adventure. But something is wrong. On the surface, everyone is anxious and the child is hungry, having refused to eat breakfast before the trip began. The tense silence is broken when Wendy asks if they are traveling the same route that the ill-fated Donner Party took years ago. Jack caustically points out that was farther west … in the Sierras. When Danny asks who the Donner Party was. Jack explains that they were settlers trapped in the snowbound mountains who resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. He tells the boy. “They did what they had to do!” When Wendy tries to end the conversation, fearing how Danny will react to it, the boy says it’s okay—“I saw it on TV.” Jack maliciously replies, “See, it’s okay. He saw it on television.” As Keeler observes, “He [Jack] is like so many family men who hunch up in their little trap and bubble with sarcasm because their resentment is acceptable only in that form” (7). The scene ends in stony silence as Kubrick dissolves to a shot of the foreboding Overlook Hotel.

Again. Kubrick’s expositor}’ scenes examine the dissolution of the nuclear family. The Western motif returns us to the illusion of settlers taking a dangerous journey through unexplored territory. Just as the inexperienced organizers of the original quest, George and Jacob Donner, found frontier conditions more difficult than they imagined, fought among themselves, and squandered precious time, so will the Torrances. And as we will see later, the allusions to Native Americans also will remind us of the parallels between the hotel’s shameful history and modern American values.

On the surface, Jack’s rudeness to his family reveals their vulnerability. On another level, however, it is symptomatic of his frustration and disillusionment. Together, they symbolize the failure of human communication to solve our problems. TV becomes the scapegoat for the perpetuation of America’s fantasies, and no one feels responsible for looking further into the real reasons for their personal crises. Trapped in the small car are three, not two, discouraged and unhappy people grappling with the memories of the past and uneasy about the future.

Once we reorient our focus, we search for ways that Jack’s disappointments could have been treated before they led to his dehumanization. What could Wendy and Danny have done to offset his feelings of inadequacy as a breadwinner, writer, husband, and father? Why couldn’t the family have shown more love and understanding to each other instead of so much suspicion and disdain? Let me be clear on this point. I do not know if compassion and caring could have compensated for the depth of Jack’s frustrations and fury. But then neither dries anyone else. It is the road not taken. And as the narrative shows us, the family’s failure to try contributes significantly to Jack’s embracing the “warmth” of ghosts.

Consider how differently the film’s dialogue sounds when we study it from the perspective of a disenchanted husband and parent. Very important is Wendy’s wrongly accusing Jack of injuring Danny. Her insensitivity in blaming her distraught husband for the strangle marks on the boy’s neck motivates much of the action that follows. From this point on, the two parents became permanently estranged. We see why the disgruntled Jack is attracted to Grady’s treatment of his family when they “got out of line.” Wendy’s terrifying discovery of Jack’s manuscript containing only a continuous statement, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” now reminds us how tormented he is by his “masculine” failings. No wonder he sneers at her. “Do you like it?” He blames Wendy for his disappointments. She. and almost everyone else, blames him. In the male bonding scene in the hotel ballroom. Jack rationalizes to Lloyd that part of Jack’s problem is that there is “Something wrong with the sperm bank upstairs,” and then adds, “Nothing I can’t take care of, though.” No wonder we are both shocked and amused by the scene of the insane Jack, breaking down his apartment door with an axe and screaming, “Honey. I’m home!” But neither self- pity nor finger-pointing relieves these adults of their responsibilities for each other’s support and safety. Finally. I can’t help wondering what kind of man Danny will become, having grown up in such a world and being forced to kill his father. Certainly, it was an issue that King raised at the end of the novel, when he has Hallorann counsel Danny to forgo his self-pity and get on with his life.

In conclusion, this essay argues that any concern with the dissolution of the American nuclear family as symbolized by the fate of the Torrance household must empathize with Jack’s crisis as well as Wendy and Danny’s. To date, that has not been the case, mainly because existing judgments are so intertwined with critical priorities related to the times in which the film was made and released. However, the past decade should have taught us that the horror genre contains marvelous insights about the negative aspects of the American Dream and that The Shining contains much more wisdom about the deterioration of the nuclear family than we first realized. Only when we have wrestled with the negative impact of patriarchal values on both men and women will we move toward a more humane society where families work and live in more harmony than existing cultural myths now permit. I reject assertions that Kubrick is detached, mean-spirited, and obtuse in The Shining. If anything, his ironic approach to every member of the Tor­rance family is one of empathy, sadness, and hope. He tells their story so that we can better understand what it means to be human and to experience vicariously the consequences of neglecting our psychological terrors. When that message is understood, maybe then families won’t have to be destroyed in order for some of their members to survive.


1. This essay is an outgrowth of a seminar, “The Films of Stanley Kubrick,” that I conducted at the University of Vermont during spring 1993. In addition to thanking my students for their contributions, the author also wants to thank the following colleagues whose comments helped shape the final form of this essay: Vir­ginia Clark, Littleton Long, Mark Madigan, Anthony Magistrale, Alan Shepherd, and Denise Youngblood.

2. For his precise assessment, see Hofsess 60.

3. Magistrale points out that the same reactions have greeted each of King’s novels. Note to the author, June 26, 1993.

4. For the record, I feel that a film should be judged on its own merits and not as a companion piece to its source. The fact is that books and films are two different media. Comparing the two works often leads to a literary analysis of a cinematic achievement. While it is usual for the public to expect a “faithful” adaptation of the original work, filmmakers are under no aesthetic obligation to comply with those presumed expectations. Commercial ambitions, however, frequently force artists to compromise their visions. Under appropriate circumstances, examining the strategies a filmmaker uses in adapting a work to the screen proves very rewarding. For a more complete discussion of this complex issue, see Manchel.

5. A note to the author, June 26, 1993.

6. For some male criticism of Kubrick’s sexual politics, see Michael Pursell, Full Metal Jacket: The Unravel­ling of Patriarchy,” and Claude J. Smith, Full Metal Jacket and the Beast Within,” in Literature/Film Quarterly 16:4 (1988).

7. In his impressive study of the filmmaker, Thomas Allen Nelson (12-13) discusses Kubrick’s considerable debt to the editing techniques of the great Soviet filmmakers in the 1920s.

8. For comments on Kubrick’s use of horror conventions, see Leibowitz and Jeffres 45.

9. The answer could also be the African-American chef, Hallorann. But in the context of this analysis, he is not placed in the nuclear family. His traumas, also ignored by critics, deserve their own essay.

10. Anyone seeking more complete descriptions of the film should begin by consulting Kagan’s and Nel­son’s works. 11

11. Closer scrutiny reveals that it is a yellow Wolkswagen. I feel it is useful to remind readers that Kubrick is a Jew who grew up in Brooklyn during World War II. He began his filmmaking career in the postwar era and was deeply influenced by the cynical values in Hollywood film noir. For many Brooklyn born-and-raised Jews of that generation, a Volkswagen evokes memories of Nazi Germany. Magistrate also points out that “A ‘bug’ on the face of the enormous universe further suggests Jack’s cosmic insignificance.” A note to the author, June 26, 1993.

12. According to King, Nicholson was miscast as Jack Torrance: “People have said to me that Nicholson is crazy from the beginning of the film; there’s never any progression. That is not right. The man is sane at the beginning. People impute that craziness to Nicholson because of the other parts he’s played. When he smiles you think he’s crazy just because of the kind of smile he’s got.’’ Cited in Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller, eds.. Feast of Fear: Conversations with Stephen King (New York: Carroll and Graf, 1992) 100. Another source claims that the novelist “had reservations about casting of Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance, fearing that unless Kubrick stops him, he’ll overplay the part, turning Torrance into ‘a really gifted writer.’” See William Wilson, “Riding on the Crest of the Horror Craze,” New York Times Magazine 11 May 1980: 63.

Works Cited

Ciment, Michel. Kubrick. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 1980.

Cohen, Alan. “The Collapse of Family and Language in Stephen King’s The Shining.” The Shining Reader. Mercer Island: Starmount House, 1991.

Ferreira, Patricia. “Jack’s Nightmare at the Overlook: The American Dream Inverted.” The Shining Reader. Mercer Island: Starmount House, 1991.

Hala, James. “Kubrick’s The Shining: The Specters and the Critics.” The Shining Reader. Mercer Island: Star- mount House, 1991.

Hofsess, John. “Kubrick: Critics Be Damned.” Soho News 28 May 1980.

Kagan, Norman. The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick. New Expanded Edition. New York: Continuum, 1993.

Keeler, Greg. “The Shining: Ted Kramer has a Nightmare.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 8:4 (1981).

Kroll, Jack. “Stanley Kubrick’s Horror Show.” Newsweek 26 May 1980.

Leibowitz, Flo and Lynn Jeffres. The Shining.” Film Quarterly 34:3 (1981).

Macklin, F. Anthony. Understanding Kubrick: The Shin­ing.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 9:2 (1981).

Madigan, Mark. “Orders from the House: Kubrick’s The Shining and Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.” The Shining Reader. Mercer Island: Starmount House, 1991.

Magistrate, Anthony. “Introduction.” The Shining Reader. Mercer Island: Starmount House, 1991.

Manchel, Frank. “Chapter 5: Comparative Literature.” Vol 2 of Film Study: An Analytical Bibliography. Cranbury: Fairleigh Dickinson UP. 1990.

Maslin, Janet. “Flaws Don’t Dim Kubrick’s The Shining.” New York Times 8 June 1980.

Nelson, Thomas Allen. Inside a Film Artist’s Maze. Bloomington: Indiana UP. 1982.

The Shining. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. With Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Barry Nelson, Philip Stone, and Joe Turkel. Warner Bros./Hawk Films. 1978.

Titterington. PL. “Kubrick and The Shining.” Sight and Sound 52:2 (1981).

White, Susan. “Male Bonding: Hollywood Orientalism and the Repression of the Feminine in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.” Arizona Quarterly 44:3 (1988).

SOURCE: “What about Jack? Another Perspective on Family Relationships in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining,” in Literature/Film Quarterly Vol. 23, No. I, 1995, pp. 68- 78.


1 thought on “What about Jack? Another Perspective on Family Relationships in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining”

  1. Diana Barney

    Yes, this is exactly what I told my husband after watching The Shining. I think Kubrick wanted to tell us that the average american family is being destroyed by the promise of power by the upper classes. He is warning American Men that it is not their wives, children, nor minorities that are destroying them. You are also right about the lack of compassion Jack receives. For example, I told my husband that Wendy did not apologize to Jack after Danny told her about the old woman.

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