Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Contagion of the Mind

Stephen King is a master of the craft. Misery, although not my favorite book of his, demonstrates his talent as a suspense writer, pulling him away from some of his supernatural and Lovecraftian roots. I've seen the movie before, and although Kathy Bates has solidified her face in her portrayal of Annie, the book redeveloped the rest of the story in my mind. What might be one of the most fascinating elements in this book that I didn't pick up in the film was that even though Annie was the psycho in this tale, Paul's narration illustrates how a mind can be manipulated, damaged, and fragmented into psychosis, as if psychosis were a contagion (a theme King revisits in other tales, such as "N"). King succeeds in demonstrating Paul's mental deterioration as the tension builds through Misery.

By the way, there are some spoilers in here.

As the novel begins, a physical calamity kick-starts Paul's traumatization. Shortly after, he's forced to burn the only copy of his latest novel, the work he's most proud of. This situation is a bit farfetched these days because with computers backups are almost mandatory; however, given the time period, and the use of typewriters, the situation works. And the situation is important because by incinerating his beloved work, Paul's starting to let go of his old life, of his normalcy. To build upon this insulting experience, Paul is forced to drink dirty, soapy water, sealing the ordeal.

Another step Annie takes in obliterating Paul's psyche is always knowing what he does. She knows that he's gotten out of his room but does not divulge her knowledge to him. He continues under the assumption he has his own secret, a little private room of safety in his mind that he can keep away from his tormentor. But when she reveals she knew of his breakouts the whole time, Paul's little mental sanctuary is decimated. I've heard this is a method used during interrogations, too--interrogators work as if they already know the answers to the questions they're asking and the captive loses the sense of privacy and having secrets.

Of course, the major component in shattering Paul's mind is when Annie chops his foot off. King also manipulates plot at this point, inverting time and connecting the amputation with the removal of Paul's thumb, which happened days later. This physical torture is a manifestation of Paul's vulnerability. He's powerless, and if he ever questions that, he can look down at his missing body parts.

It's no surprise that he finds it hard to call for help when a policeman comes, and no surprise he starts to connect Annie to being a goddess when she murders the cop. She is all knowing and invulnerable. In the end, Paul has come to terms with not surviving. He has turned into a vicious animal, wanting to instill pain just as Annie has instilled pain in him. He's ready to die, just as long as Annie is tortured, too.


After Paul escapes, the narrator leaves much ambiguity whether Annie lived. At one point, it appears that she's hunted Paul down and finally murders him. This narration is successful because it displays how Paul's so traumatized he's constantly terrified of Annie's return. Finally, readers learn Annie died, but they only learn that after they've felt the fear Paul experiences--if readers knew Annie is dead, they'd feel no sense of danger knowing Paul just dreams her return. The story ends on a positive note, Paul returning to a new normal, but he's only able to do so after a long battle and by escaping into the world his writing provides.

Misery is violent and full of tension. On the outside, it's a tale of a crazed fan having her way with her favorite author. But beneath the surface, King has delved deeply into how the human mind and psychosis work. Annie is an interesting villain, but Paul's character development is what makes this novel so fascinating.


  1. Excellent analysis. I never thought of the psychosis as contagion before. Well thought out.

  2. "Paul's narration illustrates how a mind can be manipulated, damaged, and fragmented into psychosis, as if psychosis were a contagion (a theme King revisits in other tales, such as "N")." I read, and pulled out this line before I saw Scott's response. Thought this was a great note in your posting as well. Write on!

  3. Great post! Interesting how you point out the reader experiencing Paul's deep fear that Annie has come back to haunt him or did not die in the first place. After all, he killed Misery dead and he didn't expect her to come back to life, either. Why couldn't his crazy muse defeat the grave to torture him more?