Jack Nicholson in The Shining

The Shining

Jack of All Trades, Master of None

One man’s struggle to support a family on one income in an economy that’s moved beyond his worldview.


Jack, Jack, Jack: Nicholson, Torrance, Daniels. This essential triad forms the nexus within which you can make sense of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s 1977 horror novel.

The Shining is layered with enough ghost stories, reincarnation scenarios, psychological mazes, and other literary devices of the Monsters from the Id genre that it’s tempting to simply throw your hands up in preemptive despair and let the film take you to that “oooh . . . scary” place in your head that relies on associations and images rather than the um, you know, cool logic of reason.

But if you actually look at the story, it’s quite simple. The Shining is a movie about one man’s struggle to support a family on one income in an economy that’s moved beyond his worldview. Jack Torrance goes mad because the world is no longer on his side.

Forced to make a living in a culture whose economy has liberated women to work, Jack discovers that his old-fashioned desire to be the sole breadwinner for the family is actually the thing that will turn him into a murderer. He can no longer make ends meet without sending his spouse out into the workforce, nor can he abandon the economic idealism of his grandfather’s generation. It is this tension that splits his head open and causes him to lose his mind. As this transformation slowly takes place, we discover that Jack’s rage is fueled more irrationally and vehemently by his wife than any other person or aspect of the Overlook Hotel.

We are first clued in to the frustration he feels in the interview to be the off-season caretaker, when Stuart Ullman describes Jack to Bill in economic terms and Jack has to gently correct him.

Stuart: Jack is a schoolteacher.

Jack: Uh . . . formerly a schoolteacher.

Bill: What line of work you in now?

Jack: Um, I’m a writer . . . Teaching’s been more or less a way of making ends meet.

Having taught in Vermont and now having moved to Boulder, we presume that things did not go well for Jack as a teacher. From the description Wendy gives the psychiatrist, we realize that the Vermont portion of their lives was the beginning of the family’s trouble. She says that Danny began talking to Tony, the invisible friend that lives in his mouth, right when Danny started going to daycare. From this we infer that Jack’s salary was not enough to make ends meet, and that Wendy had to go to work out of necessity. Like most parents in this situation, they quickly discover the disastrous emotional and psychological effects this has on a child, and then discover to their increasing horror that the money earned by the second income is all but lost to the cost of daycare and the additional cost of outsourcing those roles that mother had previously saved the family economy by doing herself: laundry, cooking, cleaning, driving.

Jack and Family on the way to Overlook

Civilized folks discuss cannibalism:
to survive you must consume those you love.

Thus, the move to Colorado is clearly an attempt at a fresh start. Jack thinks that five months of paid solitude is just the cure for what ails him—the need for economic security and the internal desire to see his intellectual potential not go to waste. We are given clues to Jack’s intelligence and literary ambitions by the piles of books in both his Boulder apartment and Overlook Hotel room, and by the fact that Wendy is first seen reading the most famous novel of the twentieth century, Catcher in the Rye. But if those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach, then we are already implicitly aware that Jack is inherently incapable of producing a great American novel.

Stuart then says to Jack, “I don’t suppose they told you anything in Denver about the tragedy we had up here in the winter of 1970?” This brings out the story of Charles Grady, a man with an excellent employment record who went berserk and murdered his two daughters and wife with an ax before putting a shotgun to his own head.

This story not only foreshadows Jack’s own spiral into post-war economic frustration and madness, it suggests that just ten years earlier the economic climate was such that Mr. Grady was, like Jack, almost able to make his single income support a family of four. Ten years later, we are about to discover that a single income won’t even support a family of three.

On Tuesday, Wendy interrupts Jack at his writing for the last time.

Jack: Wendy, let me explain something to you. Whenever you come in here and interrupt me you’re breaking my concentration. (He takes out the sheet from the typewriter and begins tearing it up.) And it will then take me time to get back to where I was! Do you understand?

Wendy: Yeah.

Jack: Fine. Now we’re gonna make a new rule. Whenever I’m in here and you hear me typing . . . (tap tap taptaptap) or whether you don’t hear me typing or whatever the fuck you hear me doing in here, when I am in here that means that I am working, that means don’t come in. Now do you think you can handle that?

Wendy: Yeah.

Jack: Fine. Why don’t you start right now and get the fuck outta here?

Wendy: Okay.

As of this scene, we see that Jack has, unwittingly or not, made the association between his job and his wife’s existence. If she and the boy were not there to be supported, the hotel gig would be enough, and Jack would not have to work two jobs in order to try and get ahead. But by trying to write a novel while employed full time by the hotel, the pressure on Jack becomes unbearable.

As Danny’s shining continues, he begins to see the unseen causes and murderous effects unrestrained capitalism has had on the twentieth-century family. Parallel to this, we learn that Jack has come to imagine Wendy’s concern for Danny as simply another attempt to sabotage Jack’s economic future. He confronts her in the bedroom:

Jack: That is so fucking typical of you to create a problem like this when I finally have a chance to accomplish something! When I’m really into my work! I could really write my own ticket if I went back to Boulder now, couldn’t I? Shoveling out driveways! Work at a carwash! Wouldn’t that appeal to you?

Wendy: Jack!

Jack: Wendy, I have let you fuck up my life so far, but I am not gonna let you fuck this up.

Jack, who is literally reduced to feeling like a boy in his lack of financial prowess, has now returned to the bar in the Gold Room.

Jack: I need a drink. I’d give my goddamn soul for just a glass of beer.

Suddenly his five months of teetotaling are swept away—whether in fact or through latent delirium tremens is up to the viewer to interpret. Lloyd the bartender serves him shot after shot of Jack Daniels. It’s an interesting choice of liquor. The name signifies a connection between the child who is father to the man. Jack Daniels (the nickname of which is Danny) is not merely a strong drink, it is the very spirit or medium through which Jack the man is reduced to Danny the boy. That this connection is intentional is evidenced by Kubrick’s choice of naming the bartender Lloyd, the last name of real-life actor Danny Lloyd, who plays Daniel (Danny) Torrance in the film.

The Red Room

Red Room

In King’s novel, the bartender’s name is not Lloyd, but Jack’s full name is actually John “Jack” Daniel Torrance. His penchant for alcoholism is thus literally a beast “within” him just waiting for an opening to escape. And so it is Jack Daniels that is, literally, the “red rum” that Danny spells in reverse (in red lipstick) on the bathroom door, which Wendy sees as “murder” when read in the mirror. That Jack is given his murderous mission by Delbert Grady in a red bathroom also seals the symbolic significance of these otherwise disparate elements.

Significantly, the Gold Room is also where Jack receives the “words of wisdom” from Lloyd that describe Jack’s entrapment in a political economy no longer on his side: “Women—can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em.”

In this scene, a seemingly incongruous line of dialogue suddenly makes sense in reference to the political economy of Jack’s world:

Jack: You set ’em up Lloyd, and I’ll knock ’em back. One by one. (Lloyd sets up the drink.) White man’s burden, Lloyd, my man . . . White man’s burden.

This reference is not, of course, to the 1995 Harry Belafonte and John Travolta film, but to the Rudyard Kipling poem of the same name that suggests that Europeans are the caretakers of the world (which is, by extension, the essential worldview of NPR and PBS and any good “enlightened” liberal of the late nineties—the kind of Volvo Democrats who constantly nag you about the ozone layer and vegetarianism while whining about the acidity in their Château Lafitte). But this is also Jack making a reference to alcoholism as the hidden price paid by the middle class for the cost of industrialization and the benefits of the technological society. That the cotton gin ultimately leads its beneficiaries straight to gin and tonics is one of the ironies of modern life that has left many of us still reeling.

But this otherwise odd moment about the “white man’s burden” also clues us in to why Dick Hallorann, the black head chef played by Scatman Crothers, is the only one Jack succeeds in murdering throughout the film. For Dick has managed to “live without ’em,” though he compensates with the naked Nubian goddesses plastered around his Miami apartment. Thus, when Jack murders him, it is not out of race relations gone wrong; it is merely professional jealousy.

This is why the physical entrapment by Wendy in the kitchen larder is so killingly untolerable to Jack: he is stuck in the domain of the head chef, with all of his biological needs met (food, shelter, water), and yet the one thing he “can’t live without”—his wife—is on the outside tormenting him about his failure as a husband and provider. Had he chosen Dick Hallorann’s life, Jack would have had no need to escape the dry goods room. Like the alcoholic drowning in the vat of rye whiskey, he could call out, “Oh death, where is thy sting?”

Shortly thereafter, however, Wendy discovers that Jack’s manuscript consists of 500 pages of the same monetary-complaint-as-psychological-effect typed over and over and over again:

All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.

She realizes this can’t be good, and has a baseball bat in her arms for protection as Jack discovers her final invasion of his workspace and begins pursuing her menacingly up the stairs of the main hall. But Wendy tries to shield Jack and herself from the truth they both know by locating her worry on the health of their child, whose visions have been showing him the tragic trajectory of recent financial history.

Jack: You think “maybe he should be taken to a doctor”? When do you think “maybe he should be taken to a doctor”?

Wendy: As soon as possible.

Jack (mocking): “As soon as possible!”

Wendy: Yes!

Jack: You think his health might be at stake.

Wendy: Yes!

Jack: And you are concerned about him.

Wendy: Yes!

Jack: And are you concerned about me?

Wendy: Of course I am!

Jack: Of course you are! Have you ever thought about my responsibilities?

Wendy: Oh, Jack, what are you talking about?

Jack: Have you ever had a single moment’s thought about my responsibilities? Have you ever thought for a single solitary moment about my responsibilities to my employer? Has it ever occurred to you that I have agreed to look after the Overlook Hotel until May the first? Does it matter to you at all that the owners have placed their complete confidence and trust in me and that I have signed a letter of agreement—a contract—in which I have accepted that responsibility? Do you have the slightest idea of what a moral and ethical principle is? Do you!? Has it ever occurred to you what would happen to my future if I were to fail to live up to my responsibilities? Has it ever occurred to you? Has it?

Wendy: Stay away from me . . . I just want to go back to my room . . . I’m very confused. I just need a chance to think things over.

Jack: You’ve had your whole fucking life to think things over. What good’s a few minutes more gonna do you now?

Wendy: Please! Don’t hurt me! Stay away!

Jack: Wendy, darling! Light of my life! I’m not gonna hurt you. You didn’t let me finish my sentence. I said, “I’m not gonna hurt you.” I’m just gonna bash your brains in. I’m gonna bash them right the fuck in.

It has suddenly become clear to him that only by eliminating his wife and child will he be able to make ends meet. And he pursues them with all the maniacally happy glee of prime time television, whose feral smiles are a thin veil over the violence that is necessary to earn the salary of fame, which is the only ticket to affording a wife and child in a culture that rewards wealth with an instant disgust for the pleasures of hearth and home.

The malaise of the “Hollywood marriage” is nowhere more perfectly embodied, in other words, than in Jack Nicholson’s sex life. To men like Jack, you can’t live with ’em, you can’t kill ’em. Unless you’re drinking Jack Daniels while playing Jack Torrance.

The Red Room

Underemployment is hell

Thankfully, of course, the film never allows Jack to do away with his wife and child. Instead, he ends frozen to death in his own maze of internalized financial despair.

The movie ends with a slow close-up on a picture of Jack’s initial incarnation in more prosperous times, back in 1921 when the economy was not just booming, but literally roaring. Jack has a smile so wide it’s clear he’s got the world in his hands. He’s the head of the ball, the life of the party, and the celebration is July 4th, the birthday of the very culture whose economy will systematically destroy his heirs a mere sixty years later.

And Kubrick, that master of minutiae, that obsessed director who worried about every single microscopic detail, the man who never discussed the “meaning” of any of his films, quietly shows us his hand by showing what’s missing from Jack’s: conspicuously missing throughout the movie is the one symbol that would prove Jack worthy of his calling as a husband, father, and provider, but which we never see him with in a single scene. Though his wife Wendy does wear one, we never see a wedding ring on Jack’s left hand. This can be no accidental omission on Kubrick’s part. He was, by this time, on his third wife and had just filmed the disastrous Barry Lyndon, another story of the failure of the best masculine intentions.

Moving about the country in the search for gainful employment, Jack must have pawned his gold ring at some point along the way in another desperate attempt to keep his family afloat. Yet like so many men of his time, whose surviving sons grew up to join Fight Club, Jack ends up underpaid and overlooked by the hotel, where he wears out his welcome with random precision—and where his economic candle is finally blown out by the steel breeze.

Shine on you crazy diamond.

posted by editor ::: April 18, 2003 ::: philms :::