Stephen King’s Carrie is perhaps best known for the climactic prom scene where Carrie does what I’m sure many teenage girls have wished to do to their tormentors—revenge. It’s not technically “classic”–yet—but it has the markings of everything that a classic work should have. Not only are there traceable elements that go back centuries, the traditional sign a literary work has the potential for greatness, but there are elements that speak specifically to the time and place in which it was written.
There’s almost a Shakespearean element to the tragedy. A parent who visited the sins of her own parents on her child’s head. A society that identified Carrie as an outcast and took every opportunity to treat her as such, and last, but never least, the division within Carrie herself.
Ophelia’s self-destructive madness takes on a whole new dimension. As does Eleanor Vance’s lack of self-knowledge. Carrie is not the forbearing Emily St. Aubert of Ann Radcliffe or the long-suffering Jane Eyre of Charlotte Bronte. She isboth a monster and a victim—but a created one. Not one by choice.
Carrie’s Shakespearean Origins
As with any classic or prospective classic, there is precedent for characters like Carrie White, and yes, even hints at the storyline. You can, perhaps, see a little of the Gothic heroine in her. Place her in an Ann Radcliffe and, on paper, she has the makings of another Emily St. Aubert: shy, withdrawn, sheltered from the rest of the world. Just throw in a little telekinesis, social ostracism, and a lot of religious fundamentalism and you have something completely different.
Personally, I think you can make a much better argument for Ophelia being a Carrie White forerunner than perhaps the traditional Gothic heroine. Yes, all roads lead back to Shakespeare. Again. Didn’t Horace Walpole say as much when he wrote the first Gothic novel?
While Ophelia’s father’s (Polonius) and brother’s (Laertes) lectures about her love interests aren’t nearly as cringe-worthy as Margaret White’s demented ravings, they are near enough to the mark. They basically call her a stupid whore because Prince Hamlet couldn’t possibly be interested in someone like her. He’s a prince and can do what he wants. Understandably, Ophelia is very upset and only becomes more and more detached and disturbed as the events unfold.
Some productions have even shown Ophelia in increasing states of frumpiness after her lectures on chastity. The worst part? Neither her father nor her brother attempts to actually remove her from danger or take preemptive steps to discover Hamlet’s own intentions on the subject. But they’re more than happy to berate her, smear Hamlet’s reputation, and then leave her to fend for herself.
In fact, there is poetic justice in Hamlet dispatching both Polonius and Laertes. Polonius dies whilst spying, which is a rather telling comment on his habit of secretly manipulating people to his own ends. Laertes dies by the very poison he used on Hamlet, a commentary on his first preaching to his sister about virtue and then not holding to it himself. In more ways than one, he becomes, as he tells Osric “a woodcock to mine own spring”–a victim of his own trap.
Margaret White falls into her own trap too. She tells Carrie she’s sinned, and that’s why she has “dirtypillows” and has a period. Only for us to find out later on that the only sin involved anywhere was Margaret’s own, and that was just her perception.
For all her sermonizing, using a lot of false theology and a very twisted version of Genesis, Margaret White doesn’t end up protecting her daughter from much of anything and is perhaps her daughter’s most dangerous and destructive abuser. She tries to get rid of Carrie’s perceived sins and only multiplies her own.
The child she tried to kill—twice—actually defends herself and strikes back. But, Carrie takes her mother’s life in a much more merciful way. Her mother tries to stab her. She just stops Margaret’s heart with a thought.
Carrie, unlike Ophelia, avenges herself. But without the clarity of knowing who and what she is. She, like Ophelia, is already too damaged to live longer. And the town in which she lives never recovers. This is Hamlet without redemption. At least Old Hamlet’s murderer is finally brought to justice. But what kind of justice is there for Carrie White?
That, perhaps, is the final crowning glory of the horror novel—there is no resolution.
The sins of the mothers are as terrible as the fathers.
Margaret White talks about the sins of the fathers in some of her rantings. This is a familiar trope within Gothic fiction—the idea that the crimes of a previous generation will at some point come back to haunt the next generations. In fact, it is the entire point of The Castle of Otranto.
But what about the sins of the mother? Mothers in fairy tales and Gothic tales are often dead before the events of the story. I think the closest we get to the “sins of the mother” is perhaps in French Romanticism with The Count of Monte Cristo. There, two mothers committed sins, and both were revisited upon their children’s heads. One doesn’t wait for her fiance to come back and married the very man who helped betray him. The other, a serial poisoner, decides to murder her son as well as herself.
But neither of these is on the same scale as what we see in both The Haunting of Hill House and Carrie. Eleanor Vance’s mother is shadowy except for rare glimpses of her controlling nature and how it plays out in her daughter’s psyche. Carrie White’s mother, however, is monstrously detailed.
And here, the sins of the mother go back at least two generations if not possibly three. Margaret White’s grandmother was also telekinetic but seems to have done very little to prepare her descendants for the possibility they could inherit the trait. Instead, Margaret assumes it’s witchcraft and devilry and goes on to some very self-destructive beliefs without her own mother’s correction. In each case, we have a mother failing to pass on vital information to their daughter.
Just as Margeret fails with her daughter. Only when she fails, the fallout is mass destruction and half the town dead. When she fails, it’s not just that she’s neglected to teach her daughter, it’s that she’s taught her daughter lies. And for that, she is the worst of all the mothers who came before her.
The timeliness of Margaret White’s fanaticism.
Religious fanaticism never ends well for anyone of any religion. Just ask Salman Rushdie. Or Mahsa Amini. Or anyone who’s survived a fundamentalist cult. I’d say to ask Carrie White, but she’s fictional and, well, you’ll have to read the book to find out what happens to her.
But what happens to her happens largely because of her mother’s upbringing. And that is where Stephen King really hit the nail on the head with this particular book.
Carrie was published in 1974 but takes place in 1979. If you look at a timeline of Christian fundamentalism in the United States, the 1970s were fairly significant. 1979 is when Liberty University (Jerry Falwell Sr’s “contribution”), and other figures like Elisabeth Elliot with her purity culture were getting larger numbers of followers than ever before.
And here comes the fictional Margaret White, husband dead, and one daughter of the union, preaching about purity. I’ll let you make of that what you will.
And most of the figures from these movements used terror and hellfire to scare people into thinking Armageddon was coming. By Armageddon, of course, I mean Communism, secularism, and any other -ism that wasn’t “fundamentalism.”Now, a healthy dose of caution is nearly always a good thing, but scaring people into salvation? That rarely works out well in the end.
The point I’m making here is that Carrie appears just when the religious right started to really pick up the fear-mongering. Now, if that isn’t timely, then I don’t know what is.
In fact, I think it would behoove us to look at just how King couches Margaret’s fanaticism. He carefully separates her from known denominations: Baptists, Catholics, Methodists, Episcopalians, etc. This is significant, and personally, I think brilliantly done. By doing so, he directly identifies Margaret herself as a type of aberration from even the conservative Christian norm.
She is a fringe element of a fringe element. Instead of “going to church” she holds church services in her own house where she preaches sermons to her daughter. She claims that the monthly menstrual cycle and growing breasts is God’s punishment for lustful thoughts. She is Elisabeth Elliot’s idea of purity on steroids.
Worse still, Margaret White doesn’t even get her Bible stories correct. She gets the story of the Garden of Eden completely wrong, and while she has a copy of Jonathan Edwards’s Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God in her house, anyone who’s read Jonathan Edwards’s other works–like his journals–knows that his most famous sermon was actually a rarity.
The world full of damnation, sin, and the Devil which Margaret White paints as reality, is all a show to hide her own failings. Much like the trappings of the ultra-conservative movements which began in the 1970s were mostly just for show too, as the Vanity Fair interview with Jerry Falwell Jr reveals. Only, unlike the Falwells, Margaret White actually believed her own hype.
What do you think?
Does Carrie have enough merit to perhaps one day be a “classic novel”?
Let me know in the comments section!
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2 thoughts on “Why Stephen King’s Carrie Will be a Literary Classic”