“Monsters are real. Ghosts are too. They live inside of us, and sometimes, they win.”Stephen King, The Shining
When thinking of bad fathers, we might immediately recall the lunacy of Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining (1980): breaking through the door with his axe, shouting “Here’s Johnny” as he attempts to murder both his wife and son.
The set up leading to that act of violence sees Jack lose his job and take a position over winter at the remote Overlook Hotel, accompanied by his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd). However, as Dale Bailey notes in Unmanned by the American Dream: Stephen King’s The Shining, Jack is soon driven by his demons, both inherited and self-created. By the film’s end he becomes deranged and determined to kill his family: the epitome of a bad father.
The Failed Breadwinner
“The world’s a hard place, Danny. It don’t care. It don’t hate you and me, but it don’t love us, either. Terrible things happen in the world, and they’re things no one can explain.”Stephen King, The Shining
Jack’s failure to achieve success at the breadwinner model is part of the reason why he fails at fatherhood. At first glance, the Torrance’s appear to be a perfect family – but it soon becomes evident that each member is unhappy.
When Jack is fired from his respectable job as an English professor, his family is driven to financial hardship. Steven Bruhm rightly asks in ‘Stephen King’s Queer Gothic’ what greater horror could we imagine than the white, middle-class, American family man – Jack Torrance, unemployed English professor turned caretaker? (469). It is a fall from grace, indeed. The pressure that is often put on fathers as breadwinners can be extremely tough. There was (and still is) a societal expectation that they must do all they can for their families without complaining. After his job loss, Jack starts to drink more as a form as escapism from the burdens of his life. I believe this is the reason that by the film’s middle, and certainly its end, Jack Torrance becomes one of the worst fathers in the history of film – he no longer upholds these ideals and gives in to his suppressed rage at being a failure.
The Monstrous Father
“You’re not my daddy. […] And if there’s a little bit of my daddy left inside you, he knows they lie here. Everything is a lie and a cheat. […] You’re it, not my daddy. You’re the hotel. […] Go on and hit me. But you’ll never get what you want from me.”Stephen King, The Shining
Jack is a monstrous father because he physically abused his son. In the novel, when Danny states that Jack is “not his daddy”, it shows Danny finally confronting his father after a period of abuse. King’s novel describes how in a drunken rage, Jack broke his son’s arm:
“He had whirled Danny around to spank him, his big adult fingers digging into the scant meat of the boy’s forearm, meeting around it in a closed fist, and the snap of the breaking bone had not been loud, not loud, but it had been very loud, HUGE, but not loud” (18).
In the film Wendy talks to the child psychiatrist, letting slip that Jack accidently dislocated Danny’s arm because he “had been drinking and was not in the greatest mood that night”. This detail is in both the book and the film, reinforcing Jack’s failure as a father. The patriarch is supposed to guide and protect the family, not harm them. Jack displays some guilt towards hurting Danny when he confesses that breaking Danny’s arm had been a ‘terrible thing’ (258). Never fully receiving forgiveness from Wendy for breaking their son’s arm constantly plagues Jack’s mind. When speaking to Lloyd in the bar scene he says:
“That bitch [Wendy], for as long as I live, she’ll never let me forget what happened. I did hurt him once okay. It was an accident, completely unintentional, and it was three goddamn years ago”.
This statement reinforces that Jack feels that his efforts to make it up to his son have been in vain. He seems to feel an immense amount of pressure because he was never fully forgiven for something he feels “was an accident”. I believe that Jack intentionally meant to hurt Danny under the excuse of having too much to drink: Jack’s monstrousness as a father then is the fact that he knows that he hurt Danny in the past, and by the films end still tries to kill him and Wendy; his true nature revealed.
The Failed Husband
“Wendy? Darling? Light, of my life. I’m not gonna hurt ya. I’m just going to bash your brains in.”Jack Torrance, The Shining (Kubrick, 1980)
Jack’s failure as a husband is shown through his relationship with his wife – not just through chasing her with an axe at the film’s finale, nor via his vilification of her in the middle, but through seemingly innocent dialogue at the start. It is no coincidence that the first scene has the family driving to the Overlook with Wendy trying to engage Jack in conversation, but Jack responding coldly with a series of grunts and blunt answers such as ‘yes’ and ‘I know’. Jack becomes increasingly isolated from his wife as the story progresses, disenfranchising himself from the family unit and moving ever closer to “failed husband and father” status.
From the outset the family appear disconnected: although, while Jack may be construed as monstrous, there are many signs that he is suffering from mental health issues like depression. David Karp notes in Speaking of Sadness: Depression, Disconnection, and the Meanings of Illness, men with depression tend to ‘withdraw and isolate themselves while realising this response to their feelings of depression will only make them worse’ (37). This is borne out since as the film progresses Jack becomes more aggressive towards Wendy. In the iconic scene where she enters the room where he was working, he screams:
“Whenever you come in here, you are distracting me and my concentration. Whenever I am in here, I am working. That means do not come in. Can you handle that? Start right now and get the fuck out of here.”
He starts to see Wendy as an anchor that hinders him from fulfilling his role as father and husband: for Jack, any distraction from his writing contributes to his anxiety about failing as a breadwinner. His disdain toward Wendy manifests as constant verbal abuse towards her, especially when she suggests that they leave the hotel because of Danny. Jack simply responds:
“All you ever think about is ways to drag me down. You’re just like my mother you milksop bitch!”
Jack’s hate for Wendy and feelings towards his son and the family unit are all factors that eventually lead him to become unhinged. As Tony Magistrale notes in Why Stephen King Still Matters, “Jack becomes a primeval Big Bad Wolf in a world that offers no opportunity for family love” (250). Jack seeks to eradicate the burden of family, because he will eradicate the pressure placed upon him as a man and the burden of his responsibilities.
Should We Cut Jack some Slack?
Jack looms tall in the cultural zeitgeist as an inherently evil figure: why else would anyone want to murder their wife and child? However, delving deeper into his portrayal we can see that the expectations upon Jack to be head of household, patriarch, father, and husband contribute to him eventually crumbling. Jack supresses his true emotions to fulfil society’s view of what a man and father should be, and these factors were influential in him becoming mentally and physically abusive towards his son and wife.
The image of Jack as the monster with an axe, trying to murder his family, has become engraved into cultural imagination. But should he be viewed as such, or is he a product of a broader cultural phenomenon? Given the right cultural forces and pressures, are we all not capable of barbarity?
Bailey, Dale. “Unmanned by the American Dream: Stephen King’s The Shining” in American Nightmares: The Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999)
Bruhm, Steven. “Stephen Kings Queer Gothic” in David Punter (ed) The New Companion to Gothic. (Chichester: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2010)
Karp, Allen David. Speaking of Sadness: Depression, Disconnection, and the Meanings of Illness (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996)
King, Stephen. The Shining (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1977)
Kubrick, Stanley. The Shining (Los Angeles: Warner Bros. Pictures, 1980)
Magistrale, Tony. “Why Stephen King Still Matters” in Charles L. Crow (ed). A Companion to American Gothic (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. 2014)