By Stephen King
On the heels of 1991’s plunge into feminist literature, Gerald’s Game, King returned with yet another “evil men doing good women wrong,” book. Dolores Claiborne was markedly better than the painfully dull and plodding Gerald’s Game.
The book is one monologue, written without chapter breaks. Dolores Claiborne sits in a police station on Little Tall Island, accused of murdering the wealthy widow for whom she’s been employed for more than 30 years. She tells them she didn’t kill Vera Donovan, but she confesses to having killed her husband, Joe St. George during the eclipse over Little Tall Island in 1963.
In her monologue, she starts by talking about what a chore it was to take care of old Vera Donovan after the wealthy widow made herself a permanent residence at the family’s summer estate after her husband’s death in a car accident. She had to change bedpans, clean up shit and piss, hang wet sheets outside in bitter cold Maine winters, and other drudgery. All through this, Vera needled and pestered her and kept careful watch – or as careful as she could as she slipped into senile dementia.
Dolores admits she got angry with Vera. Sometimes she hated Vera. Sometimes she’d wish the old woman dead. But she didn’t kill her – even if she inherited the woman’s entire estate.
She leaves that subject and proceeds to describe in detail the trials and tribulations of her marriage to her ne’er do well husband, Joe St. George. Married young right out of high school, Dolores quickly realized what a mistake it was. But with a baby on the way, she felt like she had to stick it out. They would go on to have one daughter who was now a writer in New York, a son who was a state senator, and a son who died in an accident in Vietnam.
Joe is a drunk. He’s mean and occasionally hits Dolores. One day, he belts her across the bath with a piece of stove length maple, almost crippling her. She suffers through the pain and a few days later, gets back at him by hitting him upside the head with a pitcher. She tells him that she’ll dish it out as well as take it and he’d better back off the beatings. He’s petulant and pouty, but the beatings stop.
Unfortunately, their daughter, Selena, sees the encounter. Later, Dolores learns that Joe has told their daughter that Dolores is always mean to him and hits him frequently. Selena resents her mother and tries to be nice to her father to make up for what she perceives as her mother’s ill treatment of him.
Shortly after Selena turns 14 years old, Dolores notes a marked change in Selena’s behavior. She starts staying late every day on the mainland at school. She has become quiet, reserved, and dresses in heavy, concealing clothing all the time. Dolores thinking it might be drugs or boy problems decides to confront Selena. On the ferry ride home, Selena confides in her that her father is molesting her. They have not progressed to intercourse yet, but Joe apparently has his heart set on it.
At that point, Dolores decides she’s going to have to act and act quickly. She goes to the bank to withdraw the kids’ savings accounts and finds Joe has beat her to it. She hasn’t the money to leave him and feels trapped and weeps for poor Selena who has to live with her father and the knowledge that her father knows she told her mother about the abuse.
One day, as Dolores is pondering all that is wrong in her life, she breaks down and cries in Vera Donovan’s bedroom as she’s changing the sheets. With a cold detachment, Vera insists that Dolores call her by her first name. She insists that all the young women who break down in hysterics in her bedroom call her by her first name. She tells Dolores to spill what’s bothering her.
Dolores lays out the story. Vera listens with the same cold detachment. She then suggests to Dolores that perhaps Joe could have an accident. An accident, Vera tells her, can be an unhappy woman’s best friend, like an unhappy woman whose husband has a car accident on his way back from his mistress’ apartment. She wraps up by telling Dolores to get herself together and finish the job she’s paid to do.
A few months later, the whole island is caught up in the excitement of the eminent solar eclipse that will darken Little Tall Island. Vera Donovan is throwing a huge party and is hopeful that her two children, who have not visited in several years, will be able to attend. Vera supervises the house staff that is working feverishly to get the grounds prepared for Vera’s party. Vera invites Dolores to join her guests aboard a boat she’s chartered, but Dolores opts to stay home. Knowing, Vera smiles and approves. She gives Dolores two eclipse viewers. Vera’s children couldn’t make the party after all.
Dolores has made her own plans for the eclipse. She’s found an abandoned well on her property with a rotting cap. She plans to see that Joe falls down that well while the rest of the island is partying during the eclipse. She brings home for Joe a bottle of good scotch and makes sandwiches for them. Joe is suspicious of Dolores’ good humor, but the suspicions evaporate as he delves into the scotch.
As the moon’s shadow slowly darkens the sun, Dolores begins taunting Joe, telling him she knows he stole the kids college money and how he did it. She says it was against the law and he’s in deep shit. She continues to taunt him until his anger bursts. He hits her and Dolores takes of running toward the well. Joe pursues and Dolores’ plan unfolds just as she’d hoped. Joe falls through the well cap. He hangs onto a board for a few moments before dropping thirty feet to the bottom.
The fall does not kill him and he pleads for help. As she is looking down, her mind’s eye focuses on the image of an adolescent girl sitting on her father’s lap watching the eclipse. Daddy’s hand has moved up her thigh to an improper place. That little girl is in trouble, Dolores realizes. That girl, of course,is Jesse Burlingame from Gerald’s Game. Jesse had a vision of her own – the vision of a woman staring down a well.
Joe’s body is obviously broken. He’s got blood all over him, yet he’s able to rise and try to climb out of the well. Dolores watches in horror as he progresses several feet. But he falls again and hurts himself worse. The sun is slowly starting to brighten and Dolores needs to get back and clean up all evidence that she and Joe were together at the house that day.
She cleans up the porch and leaves no evidence that Joe was there. She plans to tell anyone who asks that Joe went off drunk to watch the eclipse with his buddies. She goes back out to the well. When she gets there, a hand reaches up out of the well and grabs her ankle. Joe has made it within reaching distance of the top. Dolores breaks loose and slams a rock down on Joe’s head. He falls to the bottom again, apparently dead. Dolores goes home, scared about what will come next.
That next morning, she reports Joe missing. Search parties are formed and Joe’s body is eventually found at the bottom of the well. A detective from the mainland comes to Little Tall Island and interrogates Dolores. Dolores says she didn’t see Joe that day and assumed that he went off with his friends to watch the eclipse. Her theory is that Joe was drunk and staggered into the well. The detective is dubious, but without evidence, can’t act on his suspicions. Dolores is relieved. She’s saved her daughter from further molestation and saved her sons from a poor role model.
She goes on to tell how her children grew up. Selena and her middle son went to college. The youngest went to Vietnam where he died. Dolores went back to work for Vera Donovan who was slowly sinking into senility after a series of strokes. After telling her life’s story, she finally gets to the part police are interested in: the death of Vera Donovan.
Vera is supposedly completely senile and confined to bed and wheelchair. One day, Dolores is hanging sheets outside when she hears Vera screaming in one of her frequent delusional panic attacks. She comes into the house to see Vera standing at the top of the steps. Dolores rushes up the steps to stop what she knows is going to happen. Vera takes a step and plunges down the steps. Dolores can’t catch her.
Dolores goes back down the stairs and finds Vera beaten up badly and apparently near death, but suddenly lucid. She asks Dolores to end it for her. Dolores already has blood on her hands and is reluctant. But after Vera begs her, she goes to the kitchen and gets a marble rolling pin with the idea of hitting her over the head. When she gets back to the steps, she finds that Vera has died.
The mailman walks in and finds Dolores standing over the body with a marble rolling pin. The police are summoned. There isn’t enough evidence to arrest Dolores on the spot, but an investigation commences. Dolores goes home.
Over the next several days, she gets a series of threatening calls promising revenge for murdering Vera Donovan. She also gets a call from Vera’s attorney. She learns that Vera Donovan was worth approximately $30 million and left her entire estate to Dolores. Dolores tells the attorney that Vera had children that were entitled to the money. The attorney tells Dolores that the Donovan children died together in a car crash several years prior to the eclipse.
She is then summoned to the police station to be questioned which brings Dolores Claiborne’s narrative to an end. The book ends with a couple news clips. One is from a local Maine newspaper that says that Dolores Claiborne has been cleared of murder charges. The second one describes an anonymous donation of $30 million to a Maine orphanage.
Dolores Claiborne was the second in King’s feminist literature phase and is the best of the four books that make up that set.
This was my third reading of the book and the first since my daughter was born which gave me a whole new perspective on child molestation. I found that I appreciated this tale more than I had before. I used to positively loathe the book almost as much as I disliked Gerald’s Game and Rose Madder. I don’t dislike it that much anymore.
I still would not rank it as anything more than average, however. I am a bit prejudiced by its tie in with Gerald’s Game which disappointed me like no book had before or since. Having been published immediately after Gerald’s Game, I loathed it because I feared that Stephen King would dedicate the rest of his career to writing thinly veiled treatises on feminism or other political causes. Had it been written years before or years later, I would have appreciated it more.
I will give King credit for his unusual manner of telling the story of Dolores Claiborne. The monologue is replete with Maine accent phonetics that I usually find irritating. King found just the right balance of proper English and phonetics. He didn’t let you forget that you were reading nothing but dialogue, but they didn’t detract from the story. He really went one step beyond the standard first person narrative to tell his story in a unique way.
The characters are caricatures. Joe St. George is the consummate abusive, ignorant, ne’er do well white male complete with bigotry, unnatural sex drives, and a taste for spousal abuse. He’s one dimensional. Vera Donovan is the standard matriarch. She has no depth. Dolores is the long suffering domestic servant and battered spouse. While King’s story was interesting, his characters weren’t.
As I noted, this was the second of King’s evil white male books. Most of his Constant Readers hoped it would be the last. But he wasn’t done. He would continue to disappoint his fans who’d come to love his supernatural tales with more feminist bullshit. Insomnia followed which contained a Dark Tower tie in and commentary on the nature of the cosmos to go with the hateful white male who wants to destroy abortion clinics and battered women’s shelters. That would be followed by the bizarre and inane Rose Madder which was a disjointed tale of a woman who escapes into an alternative reality to escape her abusive husband who also wants to blow up or burn down a battered women’s shelter.
This most disappointing phase of King’s writing career would not end until 1996 when he published the serialized The Green Mile. This deep and meaningful novel would have his fans breathing a sigh of relief. Dolores Claiborne was the best of that awful period, but it would rank among his entire body of work as average to below average in his body of work.