I’d like to use the space allotted to me this week to talk about Jack Torrance, because after at least twenty rereads of The Shining (I read this book for the first time when I was twelve years old) facets of his character still hold a certain fascination for me. I don’t find The Shining frightening anymore – I admire the book’s claustrophobic vibe, but at fifty years old the bathtub scene doesn’t scare me the way it did when I was twelve and I wouldn’t go into the bathroom.
What interests me now is Jack. Wendy and Danny are straightforward characters, in that we know what makes them tick. Jack is interesting in that his desire line isn’t so clear. What makes Jack tick? Let’s talk about him, shall we?
The thing that struck me upon this reread of The Shining is the fact that Jack Torrance goes through the pages of this book in a constant state of piss-off. If Danny is always getting hurt, Jack is always getting pissed off. Big things, little things, it doesn’t matter. Jack starts the book angry, and goes downhill from there. Rage is the key to Jack’s character. The first three words of the book – officious little prick– tell us everything we need to know about Jack.
I guess that’s why my view of Jack has changed over the years. I used to view him as a man in turmoil, but now I can honestly say that I just don’t like him. The description of Jack breaking his son’s arm comes early in the book, and it’s brutal. Looking back, I’m not sure why I kept reading. I’m not a big fan of the horror genre’s fascination with domestic violence.
So why did I keep reading? If I’m being honest, I guess it’s because King makes it obvious that Jack views breaking his son’s arm as the worst mistake of his life. He feels great shame and views himself with pure self-loathing. Yet he doesn’t stop drinking. That is a brilliant character moment. Even after breaking his son’s arm, Jack doesn’t stop. It’s not like Jack can’t stop. He doesn’t stop. All it takes to make him stop is a broken bike.
Yes, this tells us something about the nature of addiction, sure, but maybe it’s also a hint about how Jack really feels about his son. Don’t believe me? The plot of Jack’s puerile play is all about an older man beating an insolent youngster to death. The play is another brilliant character moment, because King doesn’t dwell on it. It’s just another view into Jack’s subconscious. Here’s another: Jack putting a wasp’s nest in his son’s bedroom. This is a man who has conflicted feelings about fatherhood, to put it mildly.
However, the true key to Jack’s character is that he’s in denial about being an asshole. Jack is a bad guy who thinks he’s a good guy. Jack isn’t a good guy. Jack is a self-destructive asshole. The Overlook didn’t make Jack beat the shit out of his student. The Overlook didn’t make Jack break his son’s arm. The Overlook didn’t make Jack an alcoholic. Jack did all those things to himself.
Jack tries to quit drinking using sheer willpower, which is lunacy. Let me explain my statement, lest people get the wrong idea: people can and do quit drinking all the time. However, the magnitude of Jack’s drinking problem isn’t something he can just walk away from without repercussions.
To expound upon my point: there’s a reason people go to AA meetings for years after they’ve had their last drink. Jack has no support system. Jack doesn’t seek treatment. Jack decides to hole up in an abandoned hotel in the middle of nowhere in the hopes that the experience will somehow solve all his problems and heal his fractured marriage.
It doesn’t work. Why on earth would it work? Jack is broken from the first page on. The book’s big question is whether Jack will also break his son. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but the biggest trick The Shining pulls off is making Jack seem interesting enough so that the reader doesn’t throw the book at the wall.
King’s obvious fascination with Jack is a big part of that. King starts the book with Jack. Danny Torrance is the main character of The Shining, but by starting the book from Jack’s point-of-view we get the impression that Jack is our main character. He isn’t. We see more of Jack than Wendy, even though Wendy is a stronger character. Wendy really loves her son and doesn’t harbor subconscious fantasies about murdering him. When the shit hits the fan Wendy kicks Jack’s ass. Jack needs the hotel to bail his ass out, just like he needs Al to bail him out. At the book’s end, Jack even screws up killing his son. YOU HAD ONE JOB.
To conclude, Jack is an utter failure at everything.