by Stephen King
Analysis: What's Up With the Epigraph?
Epigraphs are like little appetizers to the great main dish of a story. They illuminate important aspects of the story, and they get us headed in the right direction.
It was in this apartment, also, that there stood … a gigantic clock of ebony. Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when … the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the orchestra were constrained to pause … to hearken to the sound; and thus the waltzers perforce ceased their evolutions; and there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company; and, while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation. But when the echoes had fully ceased, a light laughter at once pervaded the assembly… and [they] smiled as if at their own nervousness … and made whispering vows, each to the other, that the next chiming of the clock should produce in them no similar emotion; and then, after the lapse of sixty minutes… there came yet another chiming of the clock, and then were the same disconcert and tremulousness and meditation as before.
But, in spite of these things, it was a gay and magnificent revel.
– E.A. Poe
"The Masque of the Red Death"
The sleep of reason breeds monsters.
It'll shine when it shines.
– Folk Saying
As you can see, the excerpt from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" is supersized, suggesting that Stephen King's pop-culture sensation The Shining owes it a big debt. Basically, "Red Death" is the story of a mysterious plague (the Red Death) raging through a land, killing off its inhabitants. The ruler of the land, Prince Prospero, holes up in his isolated, tres chic castle to party with a select group of revelers. Yet, the prince and the revelers can't hide from the plague; it infiltrates the castle and busts up the party, terminally. Some interpretations of the tale argue that Prince Prospero himself is the Red Death, and that he can't hide from it because it's inside him.
We're seeing some parallels between Poe's tale and The Shining already, foremost, the theme of isolation. There's also the motif of inner demons. Jack isn't the ruler of anything, but he is trying to isolate himself from the horrors of the world and the horrors inside himself. In the case of Prince Prospero, we don't know precisely what these demons are, because we don't see his inner life. Arguably, the Red Death is emblematic of that inner life. By contrast, Jack's inner life is on display for the readers.
King's treatment of the Overlook parallels Poe's treatment of the castle in "Red Death." In both cases, much attention is paid to atmosphere, down to the details of the decor. King, like Poe, knows there's more to the Gothic atmosphere than just blood and spattered brain matter. An elegant and elaborately designed setting highlights certain qualities of the gore. It reminds us that we're dealing with art, with a composition created for our pleasure (and pain!). The juxtaposition of the beautiful and the gruesome encourages a stretch of the senses and emotions in ways we might not be used to. In short, it helps us have a new experience.
Now that we've covered some of the broad parallels, we can get down to specifics. The "apartment" in the quote is the site of the masquerade ball that Prince Prospero puts on before Red Death infiltrates the scene. It's the castle's version of the Overlook's ballroom, complete with a clock that seems to possess some supernatural qualities. In the excerpt, the partying is disrupted every hour by the chiming of the clock. Although the revelers think they are safe from the plague, the clock reminds them that they can't escape the passage of time as it speeds them toward their mortality, Red Death or no Red Death. The clock might also act as a chime to their consciences; something inside them knows it's not fair to use wealth and privilege to insulate themselves from the problems of 'the common people. Or is it fair? We leave that moral dilemma to you.
In The Shining the revelers are brought back to life by the chiming of the clock. The grand opening-masquerade ball that Harry Derwent throws in 1945 goes into full swing when the clock starts ticking. When it chimes the hour, the revelers wake up and we can see them party. More so than Poe's clock, King's clock challenges 'rational' ideas of time and how it passes. When the clock strikes midnight on December 2, 1975, Jack thinks:
All the hotel's eras are together now, all but the current one, the Torrance Era. And this would be together with the rest very soon now. That was good. That was very good. (43.45).
Another master of the Gothic, William Faulkner builds heavily on this idea. His character Gavin Stevens in Requiem For A Nun says, famously, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."
The clock is a part of the Overlook, and more loaded with supernatural qualities than Poe's clock. It can run backwards; it shows Redrum; it manifests perverse images. The revelers awakened by it are also overtly perverse. In addition to being wealthy and privileged like Poe's revelers, many of King's revelers seem to be sexual predators. Of course, we don't know if we are being shown the 'real' revelers or the revelers as they appear under the twisted influence of the hotel.
The first epigraph paints The Shining as a meditation on time, on mortality, and morality. It also makes think about the nature of memory and the past, which can be just as real and alive as the present, maybe even more so.
The final line of the epigraph, "But, in spite of these things, it was a gay and magnificent revel," might apply to the experience of the reader. Reading The Shining is uncomfortable, but in a scrumptiously spine tingling way. We love it. We stay up in the wee hours reading it. We can no more put it down without finishing it, than Jack can leave the Overlook. Why? Because, it's a gay and magnificent revel. Check out "Symbols, Imagery, and Allegory" for more on the masquerade ball.
The Shining's second epigraph is taken from the inscription on an etching by the extremely influential Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746–1828), whose work is often considered grotesque. The inscription is in Spanish, "El sueño de la rozon produce monstros." The word "sueño" means both "sleep" and "dream."
The etching features an artist-figure asleep at his desk, while ominous airborne creatures approach his back. (Check out the etching here.) A close look at the etching reveals that one of the owls is holding a writing instrument. One interpretation argues that "when [the artist] wakes he will take up the crayon […] and use reason to encompass the irrational by portraying it" (source). This seems very much like what King is doing in The Shining and what Jack is trying to do in the novel he plans to write about the Overlook. Jack's mistake is not acknowledging that the fantastical things going on around him are real and not just part of the book he wants to write. He fails to use his reason to admit the truth to himself. He also fails to use reason in his imagining and fails to use his imagination to reason.
Speaking of writing, portraying the irrational is dangerous business. One might accidently forget how to get back to the rational world, or what is portrayed might take on a life of its own and turn on the artist. Yet, if one tries to ignore the irrational (like Jack does) it might force you to look at it. The Shining seems very interested in this dilemma. Goya seems to have believed firmly in the marriage of fantasy and reason to produce art which exposes the truth.
According to "Reason in the Age of Enlightenment,"
A preliminary drawing for this print from 1797 was inscribed as follows: "The author dreaming. His one intention is to banish harmful beliefs commonly held and with this work […] [and] to perpetuate the solid testimony of truth." (source)
As the quote suggests, Goya was deeply political. He used his art to critique the very real horrors of the world around him, including irrational prejudices and the horrors of war. King is definitely doing some of this with The Shining.
Like Jack, Goya undertakes his final works, known as the Black Paintings, in isolation. The Black Paintings are notorious for their gruesome images. For example "Saturn" features a man devouring his son. Unlike Goya, Jack's final work is never completed. His unfinished play is destroyed along with the Overlook.
The quote seems connected with the phrase, "(This inhuman place makes human monsters)" (17.), which is repeated quite a few times in The Shining. If the two phrases are meant to form a parallel, this inhuman place = the sleep of reason. This could suggest that the Overlook is meant to represent the sleep of reason. The sleep of reason could be a way of saying that if we are too reasonable, we ignore the reality of the unreasonable. If we ignore the unreasonable, we might turn into monsters.
Danny's premonitions of the Overlook are too unreasonable to be believed, even by him. Jack thinks he can pretend that everything can be explained away, somehow. If he could believe in the supernatural, he could use reason. He would know that his only chance is to leave the Overlook, not to stay in. But, because he omits the unreasonable from his reasoning, he can't reason correctly. Of course, that's all a little too reasonable, isn't it? Jack's problems go beyond reason and unreason – life has been cruel to him. It's broken his heart way too many times. He doesn't necessarily trust himself to live in the world. We could view Jack's demise as an elaborate suicide plot hatched by his too fertile imagination. In any case, the second epigraph promotes the novel as a meditation on reason and imagination. It also highlights another tragedy of The Shining – Jack's failure to complete a major work in his lifetime.
In "What's Up With the Title?" we talk about shining, and what it means to shine. The third epigraph gives us more insight. On the surface the saying refers to the weather. The sun shines when it shines; we can't control it. This is folk wisdom; we don't need scientists to tell us. It's natural and obvious. When we apply this to what we know about the novel's definition of shining, it seems to suggest that this heightened sense of knowing is something natural – as opposed to something induced by human beings, or something from a realm outside of nature. The epigraph could also suggest that shining is accepted as natural by folks – like Halloran and his grandmother.
It also gets at why shining seems and feels unnatural. Because Danny and Halloran have limited control over this heightened sense of knowing, it controls them. The shining makes them act contrary to the ways humans 'naturally' act. For example, when Halloran gets hit with psychic messages from Danny, it doesn't matter that he's driving a car. The shining won't wait. And he nearly loses his life. Likewise, when Danny is with Tony, he checks out of "the world of real things," as he puts it.
The shining seems a force of nature, but also one which isolates people who shine as unnatural. The third epigraph suggests that the novel seeks to call into question tags like 'natural' and 'unnatural' and 'supernatural,' as well as to indulge in a little 'common wisdom' as we read. It provokes a question – if shining was more accepted as natural, would people who shine have an easier time in the word? If Danny's shine was accepted as natural and real by his parents and society, could this tragedy have been averted? Are there cultures that are more accepting of these types of phenomenon? What do you think? Is shining real or fictional?