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"Your Legs Must Be Singing Grand Opera": Masculinity, Masochism, and Stephen King's Misery

From: American Imago
Volume 59, Number 1, Spring 2002
pp. 53-71 | 10.1353/aim.2002.0005

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American Imago 59.1 (2002) 53-71

Writing is like "dreaming awake" (King 1987, 112), thinks Paul Sheldon, echoing Freud in "Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming." In Freud's definition, a "dream is a (disguised) fulfilment of a (suppressed or repressed) wish" (1900, 160). But, we may wonder, if Paul's -- or Stephen King's -- writing represents his wish-fulfillment fantasies, why is it so unpleasant, so unbearable? Why is it horror? Misery: "As a common noun it meant pain, usually lengthy and often pointless; as a proper one it meant a character and a plot, the latter most assuredly lengthy and pointless, but one which would nonetheless end very soon" (King 1987, 220). If there is no point to Paul's misery, why draw it out in the way that Stephen King does here, prolonging to an almost unbearable extent the spectacle of Paul in pain, the parts of his body being hacked off piece by piece even as he nearly loses his mind? What kind of sense does it make to call Misery "a novel so disgusting you just have to finish it" (179), a nightmare at which we "did not wish to look and yet could not forbear to" (215)? If it is clear why we are repulsed by horror, what accounts for its attraction?

Freud argued that anxiety dreams or nightmares were still wish-fulfillment fantasies in which the dreamer is compelled to repeat traumatic experiences that occurred earlier in life, but to repeat them with a difference: in the revision that is the dream, the dreamer is no longer a passive victim, but instead eventually gains control over disturbing past events. Repetition compulsion is thus "a matter of attempts made by the ego, in a piecemeal fashion, to master and abreact excessive tensions. Repetitive dreams following mental traumas would especially tend to bear this out" (Laplanche and Pontalis 1973, 80). Elizabeth Wright (1987) provides a useful summary of Freud's difficult theory, adding a comment about the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe that is strikingly relevant to our consideration of Stephen King:

Since the central tenet of Freud's theory of dream-formation was that dreams are wish-fulfilments, the compulsion to repeat raised a problem for him when it came to anxiety dreams . . . where the dreamer returned over and over again to the memory of his traumatic experience. Freud came to think of anxiety dreams in general as attempts to fulfil wishes accompanied by the performance again of the ego's initial repression of the dangerously challenging upsurge from the id, as if to renew and strengthen the resistance to that wish. Poe's fiction, according to [Marie] Bonaparte, embodies the wish to become reunited with his dead mother; since this must needs be a censored wish we should not be surprised that Poe's tales hardly read like wish-fulfillments [but nevertheless are wish-fulfillments in disguise]. (41)

Surely, Paul Sheldon's nightmarish experiences involve his fear of a mother-figure, Annie Wilkes, the crazed female fan who rescues him from a car crash and then holds him hostage, progressively infantilizing him and threatening to castrate him if he does not use his pen to keep writing about the Gothic romance character, Misery, with whom she has identified. What might be less obvious and more interesting is the fact that Paul's matriphobic fear of Annie may disguise a desire to return to the mother, to regress to a pleasurable state of total dependency and reliance upon the mother to fulfill his every need. The attraction-repulsion Paul feels for Annie reflects his own ambivalence toward a state of dependency, which he both desires as a relief from the burden of independence and fears as a challenge to his hard-won autonomy.

Paul's misery is Stephen King's masochistic fantasy, a nightmare of the male body emasculated, the male psyche stripped of its independence. And yet not quite, for all of Paul's suffering -- and there is an extraordinary amount of it, shockingly detailed, excruciatingly drawn out, and just a chop away from fatal -- all this male masochism merely leads to the triumphant assertion of masculinity in the end. As feminist critics...



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