Playing children’s games in Stephen King’s “A Good Marriage.”

Posted by Jessica Folio on May 06, 2014 in Dr Jessica Folio, Guest Blog tagged with , , , ,

Playing children’s games in Stephen King’s “A Good Marriage.”1goodm

 

  1. Setting the stage:

Stephen King has been engaging himself in a game with his “Constant Reader” for over thirty-nine years.[1] The game implies an unveiling and an exploration of the characters’ and readers’ repressed childhood fears, a letting out of the uncanny[2] in identifiable loci where down-to-earth characters are staged. King’s Gothic heritage and his reworking of the Gothic genre have been highlighted for instance in Tony Magistrale’s Landscape of fear: Stephen King’s American Gothic (2005). King establishes a bridge between the predatory villain figures permeating Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) or Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796) and his own malevolent characters. From Manfred’s, Montoni’s or Ambrosio’s transgressive sexuality, lewdness and hubris or from the pursuit of the naïve heroine in the labyrinthine corridors of a castle or an abbey to King’s tortuous narratives staging tormented, otherised heroes/anti heroes, a door can be opened. Barbara Welter’s insightful comparison of the Gothic wife to “a hostage in the home” (Welter 1966, 15) provides the key to step into King’s world and to follow the path of entrapment and household issues.

  1. Lifting the veil on the issues at stake:

King chooses to weave the circumvoluted thread of marital life, of the intricacies of the female mind[3] in order to create the canvass of his short story “A Good Marriage” (2010). The narrative unravels the fake foundations of the apparent harmonious Anderson family. Married for twenty-seven years, Darcellen Masden, and her husband, Bob Anderson have two children who seem to have a fulfilled life: their son, Donnie, runs his ad firm with a friend and their daughter, Petra, dedicates her time to the preparation of her wedding. Besides being an accountant; Bob also appraises and sells rare coins with Darcy’s help.

The theme of the united and stable family is put forward in the early stage of the narrative but only to be slowly destroyed as Darcy progressively finds out Bob’s double evil personality. Indeed, she discovers that he is in fact the serial killer, Beadie, who, during many years, tortured and killed women, sending bits of their ID and cheerful notes to the police. Bob’s and Darcy’s marriage, which is metaphorically at the image of their seemingly comfortable house, cracks down and crumbles away as the story evolves and the marital union, just like the house, slowly becomes a locus of secrets and confinement, a revisited Gohic castle with its different rooms, staircase and hidden spaces. Both the marriage and the house are a microcosm of the hide and seek game played by Bob along the years, and consecutively of the game Darcy plays in return to her villain husband.

Our emphasis laid on the hide and seek game allows us to follow different paths: the enclosure and disclosure of secrets leads to a presentation of the significance of an apparent good marriage and comfortable life in an identifiable average American family. The game also leads us to ponder on Bob’s behavioral deviancy revealed through Darcy’s demasking of his Hydean identity. Moreover, the hide and seek game establishes a link with the world of childhood, which is one of the elements that can account for Bob’s abject behavior. The reference to hiding pre-eminently holds psychoanalytical undertones; the game consists in finding out what lies behind the mask of apparent reality, beyond the looking-glass. The reference to Lewis Carroll’s novel –highlighted by the omnipresence of the term “mirror” used thirteen times in King’s narrative– is also used as a reminder of the Lacanian mirror stage. The hide and seek game is about the unfolding of repressed elements and the return of the repressed. Keeping in mind the underlying themes of entrapment, isolation and fear, our article also roams on the path of psychoanalysis to analyze the implications of the hide and seek game as regards the instability of marriage and the quest for identity.

  1. The double facet of love:

Just like in The Shining (1977), Gerald’s Game (1992), Dolores Clairbone (1993) or 11/22/63 (2011), King tackles familial and marital problematic in “A Good Marriage.” The reader is led to ponder on what a good marriage and a comfortable life signify. Darcy primarily believes she and Bob know all the important things about each other: “it was a good marriage, one of the 50% or so” (King 2010, 266-67). However, stability is depicted as follows: the stress is laid on their uneventful, enduring relationship throughout the years. The omniscient narrator tries to humanize this villain husband by revealing details on the couple’s marital life: the capsules taken against his thinning hair, the concessions they make as time goes by, his support when she is sick, her support when waiting for his biopsy results or the continuing satisfaction of his physical presence.

Nevertheless, the enumerated details conceal another facet. The love he claims he has for her is deciphered as domination, possession. He always calls her at the same time during his business trips. He knows her least habits, perceives the tiniest changes in her voice on the phone. For instance, she is unable to hide her emotions when he calls her after her discovery of his double identity. Her pretending to think about her dead sister does not fool him. The magazine Bondage Bitches Darcy discovers under a worktable is an indicator of the real balance of power between husband and wife. Bob’s apparent signs of love are in fact signs of possession. To rephrase Leslie Fiedler, King substitutes terror for love as a central theme of this marriage.[4]

  1. Bob’s binomial nature:

Overwhelmed by the death drive, Bob is in a desire to dominate and even entrap the feminine. Bob ironically uses a symbol of their love –a little oak box she had given him for Christmas five years earlier– to conceal the proofs of his dual identity. Bob set in a precise order in the box the blood donor, the library card and the driver’s license of Marjorie Duvall, one of Beadie’s victims. Those markers of Marjorie Duvall’s identity are held by an elastic confined in a small oaken box; this could be interpreted as a will for the male figure to stifle the feminine. Bob’s victims’ bodies are hidden. Marjorie Duvall’s strangulated body was hidden in a ravine six miles from her house. The seventh victim, Stacey Moore, was found by her husband in the cellar of their house: “her head had been stuffed into a bin of the sweet corn the Moores sold at their roadside Route 106 farmstand. She was naked, her hands bound behind her back, her buttocks and thighs bitten in a dozen places” (King 2010, 285). The aim is to defeminize the victim.

Delusional and psychotic,[5] Bob played a game along the years of hiding his devious nature to others and to himself, refusing to take the blame for his atrocious acts. He chose for his double identity to transform the initials of a dead childhood friend, Brian Delahanty, (B.D) in a phonetic name, Beadie. He hides himself behind his ghost friend’s supposed voice in his head or behind misspelling mistakes in his notes to the police. The twisted use of grammar echoes his twisted mind and his willingness to mask his identity. He misguides the police force but he is himself misguided when he misinterprets women’s behavior. He is convinced that women are the ones who seduce him whereas Detective Holt Ramsey, who comes and sees Darcy at the end, claims Bob was the one preying on them. The simple marriage and stable family is a stage for the concealing of Bob’s Hydean lustful nature; this culminates with his seemingly perfect home and his implication in the life of the community.

  1. The spatial paradigm:

The hide and seek game implies a particular treatment of space which, in the narrative, epitomizes the dichotomy between a male and female significance of loci. This spatial significance can be analyzed in connection to Darcy’s progressive discovery of Bob’s double identity. Darcy is either depicted as being in the kitchen, in the garage or in the bedroom. If the kitchen appears as a feminized space, a place of sharing, of communication between husband and wife or between mother and son via the phone, the garage is oppositely a male domain: “the garage was mostly his domain, after all. She only went there to get her car out and that only on bad-weather days” (King 2010, 267). It represents theworld of the Phallus[6] where Darcy finds out the evil identity of her husband. The reason for this discovery may appear at first glance commonplace: she needs batteries for the remote control to watch her favorite TV show Two and a Half Men. “Bob’s just-short-of-maniacal neatness” (King 2010, 268) does not prevent Darcy from stumbling over a cardboard box which opens the way to the discovery of the terrifying truth. One may consider that Bob purposely let the tip of the iceberg of his madness to be discovered since he seems relieved that his atrocities are out in the open when he confesses everything to Darcy in their bedroom later on.

The way to the door of truth follows different stages. The first one consists in Darcy discovering a pile of her own catalogues under a worktable. Below the two-feet high layer of catalogues is a porn magazine, Bondage Bitches, revealing Bob’s repressed deviant sexual urges. Darcy’s attempt at rationalizing and trying to justify its presence by first regarding it as “male investigation” (King 2010, 270) is not viable considering the absence of a price or a bar code on the magazine. The magazines hide a secret compartment, “a hidey-hole eight inches long, a foot high, and maybe eighteen inches deep” (King 2010, 275) in which is the little oaken box hiding one of the victims’ ID cards. The accent laid on the depth as well as the elongated form of the compartment emphasizes the previously enunciated predominant phallic dimension of the garage. The latter is also the epitome of neatness, purity, with even an absence of total stains on the floor and with the tools meticulously placed. This stress put on neatness assimilates the garage with a sanctuary, a sanctified place where Bob praises the two-headed mythological figure, Janus. This highlights the underlying theme of the double running through the veins of the narrative as the god Janus is represented as a two-faced god, looking both to the future and the past.

Our analysis of space goes on with the bedroom which concentrates Darcy’s fears following her discovery. She keeps the lamp on to be able to sleep at night. A regression to a childhood state is perceived, for light is believed to hold nightmares and fear of darkness at a distance. She turns the clock towards the windows, marking her willingness towards this wish for regression, for a time of oblivion. The bedroom in which she falls asleep despite her shattered mind and where Bob gently awakens her to give his confession is also a place of make-believe: Bob asks Darcy to forgive him, promising to kill himself if he back slides. She pretends to take part in this hide and seek game for her children’s sake and even asks him to bury Marjorie Duvall’s ID cards in the woods. This stress on burying the mutual knowledge equals it to a process of repression into the characters’ Id. Darcy’s silence places Bob’s deviancy outside the logos and can even be perceived as being proleptic of Bob’s eventual death which will make him eternally speechless.

  1. Understanding the villain:

One of the red threads of the story is the notion of repression and of the return of the repressed. Bob’s dual nature is recurrently stressed: “they were his eyes … and they weren’t” (King 2010, 304). His deviant personality is hidden behind consecutive veils: a cardboard box containing Darcy’s catalogues (269); below them a magazine, Bondage Bitches, and behind it, a secret compartment containing the oaken box. The Freudian Id is similar to a set of Chinese boxes which, little by little, let out Bob’s most bestial desires. His perfect civility conceals the worse monstrosity: “his insanity was like an underground sea. There was a layer of rock over it, and a layer of soil over the rock; flowers grew there. You could stroll through them and never know the madwater was there… but it was. It always had been” (King 2010, 296). The notions of hiding and repression are lexically underlined: “underground, layer, over.” Bob’s insanity is repressed and concealed behind the opaque veil of the Id just like the proofs of his guilt are hidden in the secret compartment in the garage. The neatness of the garage can actually be seen as the reflection of a Superego concealing the urges of the Id.[7]

Bob’s game is visible up to the end. At the moment he announces he found in his change money a 1955 double-date wheat penny, Darcy “saw him again (after that brief, loving lapse) for what he was: the Darker husband. Gollum, with his precious” (King 2010, 313). The hidden evil world beyond the mirror is not merely a darker version of the day-to-day one but appears as a new land of Mordor where a coin turns into a parodic double of the malefic Tolkienan ring. Bob’s utter monstrosity resurges once more at the moment of his death: “all were nothing but camouflage. He was a shell. There was nothing inside but howling emptiness” (King 2010, 315).

Bob does not consider himself as sick or crazy. Murders are for him justified in the case of the women he considers as easy girls enticing men. Murders are the outcome of his urges and are necessary since the magazines and internet sites have not enough cathartic strength for him. Murders are an auxiliary of abreaction but they are also explained by unresolved issues from his childhood. Bob lays the blame on his best childhood friend, Brian Delahanty, who was killed in an accident fourteen years prior to the story. He blames the latter for polluting his mind and sowing the seeds of his deviant behavior. Bob even claims to get amnesia at the time of the proper killings when BD takes in charge. Bob gives an anecdote of a group of girls at school who used to entice him and his friends, then laughed at them and did not allow them to go further. The anger at being rejected remained anchored in his mind, resurges and is transferred on the women he kills. The process of displacement[8] normally assimilated to dreams is applied to an addictive murderous deviancy. Murders are then a mark of a return of the repressed and a sign of a regression to the state of childhood.

  1. A mirror game:

The terms “regression” and “childhood” appear as the cornerstones of the story which deals with revealing the dark truth concealed in the darker side of the house, in the darker side of the marriage, in other words, hidden beyond appearances on the other side of the mirror, which you can only penetrate if you believe in your own darker side. The omnipresence of mirrors lays the emphasis on both the theme of the double identity and the Lacanian mirror stage.[9] If this stage is primordial in the constitution of any individual’s identity and establishes a boundary between the self and the other, this process seems to have failed for Bob. In his case, the connection was not made between his self and his reflection but Brian took the role of the Lacanian concept of imago. Bob’s identity is unclear and confounds itself with Brian’s. The process of abjection analyzed by Julia Kristeva as a necessary rejection by the child of the maternal in order to leave the semiotic and enter the symbolic stage is even revisited. The symbiotic relation to the mother seems to be replaced for Bob by an intricate relation between Brian and himself. Since Bob did not abject Brian, he seems condemned as a result to be deprived of any stable identity.

The significance of mirrors in connection with the theme of the double and theconstruction of the self is pregnant in King’s short story. As far as Darcy is concerned, her childhood was marked by an actual game with mirrors: “she would stand in front of them with her hands cupped to the sides of her face and her nose touching the glass” (King 2010, 290). As a child of five, she was convinced that they opened the door to another world, apparently resembling the one she lived in but diverging in its details: “it was similar on the other side of the glass, but not the same, and if you looked long enough, you could begin to pick up on some of the differences” (King 2010, 290-91). The mirror paradoxically does not offer a perfect identical reflection but reveals differences. There is a play on perception: “what is similar is not the same” (King 2010, 290-91). The mirror does not give a mimetic or an inverted image of reality but a diverted one. A discrepancy exists imagesbetween the Concrete and its Manifestation. The term “Concrete” is chosen to designate the world we live in and which has a material substance while the “Manifestation” is its reflection seen in the mirror. In her imagination, Darcy steps, like Alice, through the looking-glass and finds out a distorted, subverted world in which her husband turns into the ogre from the classic fairy tales, biting his victims sometimes down to the bone. His carnivorous tendency is even brought one step further in a paradigm of excess for Bob bits off a child’s sexual organ; there is a subversion of fairytales as the common children eaten by ogres are replaced by a castrated boy or savagely bitten female victims.

Darcy undergoes herself a regression to the mirror stage. The bathroom mirror becomes the door to her hidden self: “she shifted her gaze back to the wild-haired woman with the bloodshot, frightened eyes: the Darker Wife, in all her raddled glory. […] The Darker Wife was Mrs. Brian Delahanty” (King 2010, 307). The identification process is not made with her own self but with her darker self: she embraces her identity as “the monster’s wife” (King 2010, 307). “This was the Darker Life, where every truth was written backward” (King 2010, 308). The hide and seek game is equaled to regression and backward writing is a mark of this regression as though the very connection between signifier and signified were reversed.

The staircase, another space of depravity chosen for the scene of Bob’s death, is the place where Darcy entirely embraces her dark self. It is an in-between space blurring the boundaries between the Superego and the Id. Upstairs and consequently in an all-knowing and powerful position, Darcy pushes Bob down the stairs as if to push back the darker reality into the depths of the Id. Darcy becomes a murderer herself, being as methodic as Bob, thinking of the minutest details. She makes him choke on a plastic bag; she removes the scraps of the bag left in his mouth, washes Bob’s Chevrolet before selling it. She makes herself cry before calling 911 and she even fools the policeman Harold Shrewsbury who asks her to come to his house overnight.

The hide and seek game implies finding one’s place on the right side of the mirror and unifying the double perceived reality. It is because Bob finds pleasure in taking on Beadie’s personality, that the problematic of the double cannot be solved for him. Contrary to Bob, a reestablishment on the right side of the mirror is possible for Darcy.

  1. Out of darkness:

Darcy’s need to be alone after her husband’s funeral “to find herself again, to re-establish herself on the right side of the mirror” (King 2010, 322) highlights the possible resolution of conflicts. The circle starts to complete itself when she uses Bob’s oaken box to ironically hide the proofs of his murder. An elderly detective Holt Ramsey, who questioned Bob for one of the murders, helps her reach closure by finally letting her know that Bob had been on the verge of getting caught. He gives her the absolution to free herself from her own guilt: “this man had fought considerable pain -maybe even excruciating pain- to come here, and now he was giving her a pass” (King 2010, 334). Closure is achieved when Holt Ramsey pulls her into his arms and kisses her cheek, re-establishing a sane physical contact as opposed to Bob’s fake love. The mirror eventually reflects a single reality: “she felt younger, lighter. She went to the mirror in the hall. In it she saw nothing but her own reflection, and that was good” (King 2010, 336). The hide and seek game is resolved when oneness replaces in-betweeness. Darcy’s regression to her repressed urge for darkness is necessary in order to reconcile her body and her imago.

A good marriage and a fulfilled life imply coming to terms with one’s darker side, and staying on the Symbolic side of the mirror. Mirrors are then auxiliaries of ambivalence, doors to a double, monstrous side reality but also a path to oneness.

Nevertheless, the familial nucleus is not reconstructed as Darcy is ultimately depicted as being alone, although with a reconstructed identity. King seems to emphasize feminine superiority and annihilate the patriarchal order which is powerless to come to terms with its repressed issues. The notion of deconstruction is then perceived at several levels: the characters’ bodies depicted in a fragmented manner, the deconstruction of identity, of the link between signifiers and signified with words appearing reversely. Former meanings collapse so a new meaning can be given birth to, a meaning which includes the fact that the role traditionally allotted to women either as passive victims or evil figures does not apply in this short story.

  1. Leaving the closing door ajar:

The regression process to the mirror stage, the disclosure of the haunting past and of the return of the repressed are depicted as vital for the reconstruction of a stable identity, for a resolute attainment of the Symbolic, in other words, for a revelation and a reconciliation of the body with the agencies of the self. Darcy’s marriage is at the image of her house, a microcosm of the quest for unicity. What would each of us perceive in a mirror if we allowed our imagination to step up and invade the Concrete, if we accepted the process of regression and fell for our innate curiosity for the maze-like possibilities of the hide and seek game?

 

Notes

[1]I consider his novels from Carrie (1974) to Doctor Sleep (2013). He gives the name of “Constant Reader” to his faithful fans who have followed him along the years.

[2]Freud defines the uncanny as: “that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar.” Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny”, The Uncanny, trans. David McLintock (New York: Penguin, 1919. 2003), 150. Several issues are here at stake: a compulsion to repeat as well as the return of the commonly known that had been repressed. It is that repression that explains why the familiar turns into the unfamiliar.

[3]King has explored various themes throughout his career, such as the wavering balance between rationality and irrationality (Carrie, The Shining), the dysfunctional familial nucleus and the problematic of the female mind (The Shining, Christine, Gerald’s Game or Dolores Claiborne).

[4]Original quotation:“terror for love as a central theme of fiction.” Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (N.Y: Skin and Day, 1960), 134.

[5]Freud viewed the psychotic as a person who projects his libido from objects to his ego. The ego rejects an idea but during the delusion, this idea irrupts from the outside back into the ego. Bob rejects as much as he can his murderous desires but the sight of enticing women has those desires resurface in his ego. The psychotic subject considers he is sane and he interprets the world around him in terms of persecution and aggressiveness.

[6]The term “phallus” implies a fascination with power and male superiority. The elongated shapes visible in Bob’s garage place him as the domineering persona in the marriage: “big silver pipes […] crisscrossed the ceiling.” King, “A Good Marriage,” 268.

[7]Freud has a ternary vision of the human psyche. The Id corresponds to the instincts and operates on the pleasure principle. The Ego operates on the reality principle. The Superego controls the Id’s impulses.

[8]It designates the fact that “an idea’s emphasis, interest or intensity is liable to be detached from it and to pass on to other ideas, which were originally of little intensity but which are related to the first idea by a chain of associations.” J.Laplanche & J.B. Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-Analysis (Hogarth Press, 1983), 121.

[9]Jacques Lacan makes that stage correspond to the moment the child etablishes the connection between his body and his own image in a mirror. It is the process of identification “where the child transforms itself into the image as it appears to the child (or imago) and assumes the identity of the imago.” Steve Pile, The Body and the City: Psychoanalysis, Space and Subjectivity (London: Routledge, 1996), 123.

 

References:

Leslie, A. Fiedler. Love and Death in the American Novel. 1960. New York: Skin and Day, 1966.

Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny”. The Uncanny. Translated by David McLintock. 1919. New York: Penguin, 2003.

King, Stephen, “A Good Marriage”. Full Dark, No Stars. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2010.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: an Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Laplanche, J, & Pontalis, J.B. The Language of Psycho-Analysis. London: Hogarth Press, 1983.

Magistrale, Tony. Stephen King: the Second Decade. Danse Macabre to the Dark Half. New Yok: Twayne Publishers, 1992.

Pile, Steve. The Body and the City: Psychoanalysis, Space and Subjectivity. London: Routledge, 1996.

Welter, Barbara. “The Cult of True Womanhood. 1820-1860”. American Quaterly 18.2 (1966): 151-74.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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