My very first guest blog post comes to you from Elin Williams, bilingual (English/Welsh) theatre critic and fellow Stephen King nerd.
You can follow Elin on Twitter here and you can read her excellent reviews here on her personal blog and on the Welsh Arts Review. Elin’s article will also appear in my Stephen King zine. Hope you enjoy!
Many of Stephen King’s novels explore the character of the woman. From Annie Wilkes in Misery to Dolores Claiborne in the eponymous novel, it cannot be denied that King is a keen writer for the female.
Interestingly, both women in the aforementioned novels are played by Kathy Bates in film adaptations, somewhat supporting the argument which exists that this surely indicates a stock-type female character.
Gerald’s Game is one of King’s most popular novels, and remains so despite never being adapted into TV or film. Jessie Burlingame, the novel’s protagonist, is an extremely conflicted individual. She is repressing some extremely dark memories of paternal abuse, reflected in her perhaps predictable ‘hard’ exterior.
One evening, she and her husband Gerald go to a cottage in the woods in an attempt to liven up their dull sex life with some light bondage, but things take a turn for the worst when Jessie changes her mind, kicks her husband in the balls inducing a heart attack, and he dies leaving her handcuffed to the bed. Oh, and then a feral dog eats him.
The plot of the novel is slightly far-fetched, but really the plot is merely a motor to validate Jessie’s uncovering of repressed memories; it just happens to include a decomposing corpse, in true King fashion.
In terms of sexuality, the opening chapter is loaded with allusions to the representation of the female. We could go down the usual, boring route of ‘Jessie is handcuffed to the bed, therefore she is consequently objectified…’ and so on, but more interesting things are going on.
Jessie may be handcuffed to the bed in a vulnerable manner, and there may be several descriptions of Gerald with his ‘wolfish’ grin. In fact, there are echoes of a certain fairy tale here; the tale that is originally thought to have been a message to young girls that if you dare to deviate from the path of sexual righteousness, the Big Bad Wolf will come and eat you. Gerald is the wolf, but this comparison is almost laughable.
He is constantly stripped of any power attributed to him, and significantly he is stripped of it by his wife: “A few more of his small, inoffensive attorney’s teeth came into view; his IQ tumbled another twenty or thirty points.” It seems every time Gerald is permitted the power over his wife, he is almost immediately stripped of it in following sentences. He is almost feminised, with his “pouting rosebud of a mouth”, but he always manages to draw out some clichéd insult: “You could be an actress. Or a call-girl. One of the really high-priced ones.”
Really, Gerald’s character is only there to reveal the usual threats a woman may be up against in her day-to-day life, but up against such a pathetic example of a man, Jessie seems to come out stronger. She uses her own stereotypically ‘female’ traits to her own advantage too: “Yes, but now I have a headache; Yes, but I’m having these really shitty pre-menstrual cramps; Yes, but I’m a woman and therefore entitled to change my mind.” The whole chapter is a tennis match which sees the notion of female empowerment bounce to and fro. It just doesn’t seem to make any sense.
As the novel progresses (we’ll just skip over the death of Gerald, as it is pretty irrelevant.), more confusion begins to arise. Jessie ‘hears voices’, but not in a particularly schizophrenic way. The voices are familiar ones, and significantly one is the voice of Gloria Steinem, the American feminist, journalist, and social and political activist.
Steinem became nationally recognized after the woman’s liberation movement in the late 60’s. Ironically, this voice speaks to Jessie as she’s literally restrained by a man’s actions. Although arguably the whole basis of the novel relies on Jessie’s restraint, Jessie must be in such a dire situation in order to confront her past demons of abuse in order to ‘be free’. In essence, it is this confrontation of repressed memories which gives her the strength to break free (both mentally and physically) and also makes her stronger in the long run.
Asides from a hasty serial grave robber thrown in, Jessie is our main character of interest. Her self-confliction with aspects of her own sexuality is very confusing to the reader.
It could be argued that this is down to King’s inability to fully assert the female voice.
Although King clearly has great skill in creating these female protagonists, there seems to be always something slightly amiss. Just as Annie Wilkes is physically ‘masculine’, Jessie is mentally ‘masculine’, but the whole novel is peppered with confusing signals regarding the vulnerable female.
It’s uncertain whether King succeeds in ultimately empowering the female in his novel, or whether this was even his intention in the first place, but it certainly makes for an interesting discussion.