Viking • 1992 • 305 pages
A Novel Critique
Though it shares a timeframe and some plot elements with its predecessor Gerald's Game, Dolores Claiborne is utterly unique in King's canon. From the first page, we are aware that things are not typical: the entire novel is told in an unbroken first-person monologue, as Dolores recounts the events that led to her recent arrest. Vera Donovan, the woman Dolores has worked for most of her life (and cared for into Vera's infirmity) is dead, and Dolores has been accused of murder. In order to exonerate herself, Dolores has decided to tell the story of the murder she did commit - of her husband Joe, during the eclipse of July 1963.
Dolores's long narrative bounces back and forth between time frames - the early 1960s and the present - detailing the secret histories of her terrible marriage and her employment under Vera Donovan. Unlike with It, these twin stories are not given the benefit of chapter breaks or offset italics, depending entirely on King's narrative skills to keep things coherent and flowing. We come to understand Dolores's abusive relationship with her husband, and why she bore it for so long before taking action against him. In a less successful novel, Joe St. George could have come across as nothing more than a caricature. The many levels of abuse he heaps upon Dolores and her children - physical, emotional, sexual, psychological, even financial - could potentially have made him an outsize monster (as Norman Daniels becomes in King's later Rose Madder), which would have been to the book's detriment. King wisely fleshes Joe out enough to make him human, and terrible enough for readers to understand Dolores's drastic decisions.
As in Gerald's Game, incest is a central element: Dolores comes to discover that Joe has been molesting their daughter Selena. Her awareness of her daughter's radical change in demeanor and her determination to uncover what has triggered it underlines Dolores's resourcefulness. Though we see this from Dolores's point of view, we also get a sense of Selena's pain and confusion; though this is not her story, Selena St. George seems more realized than Jessie Burlingame. Dolores's initial plan is to empty her children's college funds and escape Joe, but even there, he has blocked her: though his name is not on the accounts, he has been allowed to withdraw from them. It is here that King is in greatest danger of allowing his message overwhelm the story, as Dolores asks whether she, as a woman, would have been allowed to take money from accounts in Joe's name. While there is some discussion of gender inequality, King never allows these statements to become sweeping. Dolores's story remains unique and personal, keeping us grounded and interested without allowing authorial intent to show through.
Joe's murder - which takes place during the same eclipse that allowed Jessie Burlingame's father to molest her in Gerald's Game - is the closest Dolores Claiborne comes to a traditional horror novel. Dolores tricks Joe into plunging down a well on their property just as the eclipse is taking full effect. That his fall doesn't happen as neatly or as quickly as Dolores hoped it would prefigures the bad death of Eduard Delacroix in the later The Green Mile. Joe's death is slow and agonizing, a horrific sequence that is as cathartic as it is darkly entertaining. The shift from day to night is eerie, amplifying the realism throughout the rest of the novel into something almost supernatural. Indeed: the psychic connection between Dolores and Jessie referenced in Gerald's Game recurs here. While the intrusion of the supernatural damages the earlier novel, here it is more easily dismissed. The narrative force of Dolores Claiborne is strong enough to forgive King his occasional dependence on the supernatural in otherwise realistic novels (such as Cujo, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and, to a degree, The Colorado Kid).
Dolores's voice is key to the novel's success: King gifts her with a foul mouth and colloquial speech as idiosyncratic as it is entertaining. By putting the entire book in her tongue, King colors every page with Dolores's forceful personality. It is this voice more than any other element that propels the novel forward, making Dolores Claiborne one of King's most swiftly paced novels.
It is a testament to King's writing that Dolores's time with the infirm Vera Donovan is as compelling as the tragic details of her marriage and her husband's death. In a straightforward narrative, Vera's personality quirks and terrors might have grown frustrating; seen through Dolores's eyes, and counterpointing Dolores's marriage, they are more understandable and absorbing. As with all the other minor characters in the novel, Vera comes across as human, with a determination to live independently so fierce that it colors every aspect of her life.
Here as elsewhere, Dolores Claiborne's feminist undertones work subtly, woven into the subtext of the novel so skillfully that they never become obvious. Unlike the less successful Gerald's Game and Rose Madder, Dolores Claiborne doesn't speak in black and white terms. Dolores herself is a complex character, far more developed than either Jessie Burlingame or Rose Daniels, and more able to carry her own novel. Beyond character, Dolores Claiborne is an incredible blend of voice, dialect, pacing, and tone, one of Stephen King's most impressive novels to date.