Screening Series: The ‘Monstrous Feminine’

Posted on -

Back to all posts

Misery (1990) 

Director:  Rob Reiner.   Starring Kathy Bates, James Caan

Source Novel: Stephen King (1987) 


Paul Sheldon: ‘It was if he was a character in a story or a play, a character whose history is not recounted like history but created like fiction’. (24) 


Misery is a powerful thriller of psychological terror telling a simple story of a bestselling author of trashy historical romances, caught in a desperate nightmare of threat and fear by his ‘No.1 fan’ Annie who has trapped Paul Sheldon in her isolated house in order to force him to resurrect the dead heroine Misery Chastain in a new mass market novel. To locate this evening’s Misery screening in the season of films with the theme of the Monstrous Feminine, I’m going to open with a piece from the earliest pages of Stephen King’s source novel:

Then there was mouth clamped over his, a mouth which was unmistakably a woman’s mouth and down his throat, puffing his lungs, and when the lips were pulled back he smelled his warder for the first time, smelled her on the outrush of the breath she had forced into him the way a man might force a part of himself into an unwilling woman, a dreadful stench….The lips clamped down again - the breath blew down his throat again, blew it down like the dank suck of wind which follows a fast subway train… He thought the Christ’s sake don’t let any of it out through your nose but he couldn’t help it and oh that stink - that fucking stink’. ‘Breathe God damn you’ the unseen voice shrieked, and he thought ‘I will, anything, please just don’t do that anymore, don’t infect me anymore, and he tried, but before he could get started her lips were clamped over his again, lips as dry and dead as strips of salted leather, and she raped him full of air again (17). 

This scene narrates Paul Sheldon’s first encounter with Annie – it is an extremely disturbing characterisation of a woman who is giving him life-saving mouth to mouth resuscitation following his car accident. It sets out key images of the novel: of a helpless baby’s struggle for its first breath at birth, a powerful but dangerous life-giving but not maternal figure and the metaphor of a man being raped by a putrid, physically invasive woman. 

In both novel and film, the power dynamic of between the male and female principals is in constant flux as each tries to outwit the other in a grim struggle for escape and survival. But the primary power condition is a reversal of the accepted gender positons: a weakened, powerless male dominated and controlled by an all-powerful female. The atmosphere is of heightened threat, menace, fear and helplessness for an (almost literally) castrated, impotent man and she is described as truly monstrous:

The image of Annie Wilkes as an African idol out of She or King Solomon’s Mines was both ludicrous and queerly apt. She was a big woman who, other than the large unwelcoming swell the bosom under the grey cardigan sweater she always wore, seem to have no     feminine curves at all - there was no defined roundness of hip or buttock or even calf below the endless succession of wool skirts she wore in the house (she retired to her unseen bedroom to put on jeans before doing her outside chores). Her body was big but not generous - there was a feeling about her of clots and roadblocks rather than welcoming orifices or even open spaces, areas of hiatus’.

She has a ‘solid fibrous channelled body (20). ‘So his feeling that she was like an idol in a perfervid novel was not really surprises at all. Like an idol, she gave only one thing: a feeling of uneasy deepening steadily towards terror. Like an idol, she took everything else’. Paul depicts Annie as an all-powerful force demanding sacrifices from him - she is primitive, not sexy or with soft, yielding flesh. There are very graphic depictions of his infantalization in the face of a mammoth, suffocating female presence, figuring a perversion of traditional mother/child male/female relationships: He is the infant – he cannot feed himself and is dribbling, dependent, weak, immobile and bedridden. With Paul reduced to a primary abject state of bodily functions, Annie is rendered monstrous because she does not conform to cultural demands of being feminine, sexual or maternal: indeed, it is a ‘strange maternal grin’ that is the most disquieting (27) sign to Paul of her madness. 

As a Hollywood film adaptation, Misery is necessarily concerned with showing the action of characters to tell its nail-biting story. The film adds an investigative police agent and Paul’s literary editor to frame the investigation into Paul’s disappearance which adds heightened dramatic tension to the search-and-rescue aspect for the missing author: these are both absent from the book where external agents intrude only briefly (and with murderous consequence) into the claustrophobic, isolated prison-house. This is significant because, while the film narrates a story of what is supposed to have really happened to Paul, King’s book allows instead for the possibility that ‘Annie’ is an imaginary being, conjured by the imaginative brain of an author who needs somehow to justify to himself making a lucrative living as author of lowbrow, trashy historical romances. ‘He was Paul Sheldon, who wrote novels of two kinds - good ones and bestsellers’ (7).  Is the monstrous ‘Annie’, then, the punishment Paul feel he deserves for being immersed in the lucrative but low class ‘feminine’world of 19th century bodice-rippers and their female readers? Is ‘Annie’ the necessary fiction required to exonerate himself from responsibility for the creation of another Misery Chastain novel?  A punishing presence conjured from his own unconscious mind as a masochist might fantasise about coercion and punishment? 

The novel plays around with self-conscious references to authorship, popular fandom and storytelling. Hence their lengthy discussions about the bounds of fictional credibility and Annie’s desire for ‘cliff-hanger’ narratives. It is acutely self –reflexive in recognising that these are the staples of mass popular fiction genres - but the novel (and film) itself uses the very story structures that typify low-brow mass popular fiction: formulaic, plot-driven, one-dimensional characters, appealing to emotions rather than the intellect. Misery explicitly reflects on the distain the author feels for visceral thriller ‘bestsellers’ at the same Stephen King is utilising its very techniques: ‘hold your breath’ tension, narrative retardation, entrapment, frustrated attempts to escape, fake endings, and delays before reaching the point of closure. Anyone might claim to despise the emotionally tense, often incredible, story tactics of popular fiction but Misery and its film adaptation are nonetheless superlative examples of condensed narrative structure.  What gives this an additional dimension is that narrative tension derives from the fact that the gender power dynamic is in flux: she is dominant, he is utterly dependent on her for life. Annie depends on Paul to give birth to a new Misery novel; but the quicker he finishes, the nearer to extinction of both his purpose and his life. It is not surprising that Scherazade is invoked to signal the intertextual nature of all stories: a 20th century contemporary psychological thriller consciously borrowing its technique from the 12th century 1001 Tales of Arabian Nights.

Another way in which the monstrous Annie might be considered a self-conjured figment of Paul’s imagination is the huge role played by Novril – a made-up codeine-based painkiller – that Annie can dispense or withhold at will. His drug addiction reinforces the idea that ‘Annie’ is a fantasy created by Paul to dramatize his drug addiction. The supply of Novril sits in the circle of Paul’s experience of addiction, withdrawal, dependency and delayed - but then all-consuming – surrender to gratification. Paul says Annie is not maternal but that ‘soon enough he learned to suck eagerly at those poking fingers in spite of the bitter taste’. This suggests a strong possibility that the whole story is his fantasy: he is in denial about the low-class trashy novels he is bound to so Paul invents a coercive agent who ‘makes him do it’ against his better judgement. It is telling that the novel suggests how much Paul misses ‘Annie’, even after the nightmare ends. Paul recognises that he needs ‘Annie’ when, after their story is violently concluded, he realises can no longer write at all – he looks back with fondness on Annie’s co-dependent regime of no smoking, no alcohol, regulated drug administration, no casual sexual hook-ups or everyday distractions from the discipline of writing, with every physical need taken care of. 

Even if it does not fully capture the complex interplay between subjectivity, fantasy, drug-induced paranoia, psychological regression and the claustrophobic, gendered power dynamics of King’s novel, the film is still a very powerful example of a woman wielding monstrous power, a nurse who perverts her caring vocation, a thrilling ‘edge of your seat’ potboiler story which provides the audience with enormous pleasure in witnessing her inevitable punishment and ultimate fate.


Esther Sonnet

Feb 1st 2019

Share post