The Shining is a tragedy, and we'd be remiss to classify the ending otherwise. Jack's death hurts because readers have probably built up considerable sympathy for him by the time he dies. There's the sense that a great talent has been wasted; that a great potential for love has been lost. Jack Torrance has been kicked around by life, as if it's all along been leading him relentlessly to his macabre end at the Overlook. Perhaps surprisingly, the ending also has considerable bright stops and hope. We'll look at both angles, and contrast the novel's ending with the ending of Stanley Kubrick's iconic film version.
Breaking the Cycle?
One of the most hopeful elements of the ending takes place just before Jack's – and the Overlook's – death. The event that's been foreshadowed from the novel's earliest moments is upon us, the Redrum ("murder," spelled backwards) of Danny. Will Jack fulfill the prophecy he and Danny have been experiencing? The murder of the son by the father?
At this point, Jack is seriously deranged. He's walking around with a knife sticking out of his back – drunk on what seems to be supernatural gin martinis that have the taste, smell, and effect of the real stuff. Worse, he's speaking only his father's words now, saying things like, "Danny! Come here, you pup! Come here and take it like a man!" (55.16).
Figuratively speaking, roque mallet-wielding Jack has become his cane-wielding father. Jack's taking things a step further than his father did – he's quite deliberately trying to murder his son. Fortunately, Jack isn't able to take the cycle of domestic violence to the next level.
For a few moments, his love for Danny outshines everything. These few moments are made possible by Danny's extreme courage. He stands up to his father in a way that Jack was never able to stand up to his. This standing up is done with extreme empathy and love. Danny never for a moment doubts that the real Jack Torrance is a good man. His love and courage don't waver. He tells the Jack-thing:
"You're not my daddy. […] And if there's a little bit of my daddy left inside you, he knows they lie here. Everything is a lie and a cheat. […] You're it, not my daddy. You're the hotel. […] Go on and hit me. But you'll never get what you want from me." (55.56-55, 58)
This speech brings out the real Jack, one last time. Isn't this one of the most horrifically tender scenes you've ever read?:
The face in front of him changed. […] [S]uddenly his daddy was there, looking at him in mortal agony, and a sorrow so great that Danny's heart flamed within his chest. […] "Doc," Jack Torrance said. "Run away. Quick. And remember how much I love you." (55.59)
"No," Danny said, He took one of his father's bloody hands and kissed it. "It's almost over." (55.63)
Danny stands up to the Jack, with love. This strikes us as important for Danny's future well-being. He's already confused about how love and violence coexist. Jack has been violent since childhood, though he is far less violent than his own father. The story opens with dialogue about domestic abuse. It talks about how violence can be passed on through the generations, in a brutal confusion because the violence comes mixed with love. Danny, it seems, does learn to separate violence from love and takes a non-violent stance. It never enters his mind to use violence to defend himself against the Jack-thing. So what do you think? Is the cycle of violence broken with Danny?
Jack's death is organized around ideas of forgetting, remembering, and knowing. What ultimately saves Danny from being murdered, and Jack from having the weight of Danny's murder on his soul, is another part of the prophecy, "(You will remember what your father forgot)" (54.7). This is slightly playful on Stephen King's part. The recurring line is a teaser, suggesting we'll get an answer to the constantly multiplying loose ends of the tale. It's a moment of dreadful comic relief when Danny's remembers, "What his father had forgotten" (55.83), namely: "The boiler! […] It hasn't been dumped since this morning! It's going up! It's going to explode!" (55.85).
Notice how the moment reinforces five-year-old Danny's psychic ability. He knows all about the boiler from reading Jack's mind. More importantly, he sends Jack to his death, something he'll have to wrestle with for the rest of his life.
This raises a question: Why does the Overlook let Jack forget about the boiler? If Jack forgets the boiler, the Overlook dies, right? Maybe that's its weakness. It relies on "the world of real things" for food, and also for care. But its evil power relies on inducing forgetfulness and alterative realities in the caretaker. Or, is it possible the Overlook has a death wish, and this is its suicide? Is Danny simply compelled to remind Jack about the boiler, or does he consciously send Jack to his death? Consider what Jack has done to Wendy and Halloran, and consider his loss of sanity. If he hadn't died, is there still hope for him to live a happy life? Could King let Jack live?
Jack's consciousness upon dying is described as "dissolving, losing thought and will […], searching, not finding, going out, going out to, fleeing, going out to emptiness, notness, crumbling" (56.42). What do you make of these lines? Is Jack ceasing to exist or is he going to another place? Is there enough information to tell.
Fire and Ice
If you're most familiar with Stanley Kubrick's iconic film, you might be surprised to learn that in the novel, Jack and the Overlook die in a fiery boiler explosion. In the film, Jack dies by ice, and the Overlook survives. Who can forget the image of Jack Nicholson as Jack, buried up to the neck in snow, with his eyes wide open (check out a picture here), only to be "claimed" by the Overlook. The film ends with a gradually enlarged photograph of participants of a 1921 Fourth of July Ball at the Overlook. (The ball in the novel takes place in August 1945, probably near the time Jack was born.) Jack is featured most prominently in the picture. The Overlook survives, and Jack, presumably, with it to haunt another year.
Just before that, in the film, Halloran is axe murdered by Jack, and Wendy and Danny get away in a "Snowcat." In the novel, Danny and Wendy probably couldn't have escaped without Halloran. The novel's epilogue features Danny, Wendy, and Halloran in the summer after the winter of their discontent . Halloran's survival is important to Danny's future well being. He's the one person who can validate and verify Danny's ability to shine. He's part of the story's hopefulness. We aren't quite sure why Kubrick decides to kill him off. Any ideas? In a way, killing Halloran thwarts the novel's 'code of honor,' so to speak. In the novel, the reward for strength and bravery is life. The penalty for weakness and loss of control is death. Halloran survives because he's brave and true.
That aside, which do you think makes the better ending? Fire or ice? Check out Robert Frost's poem "Fire and Ice" to deepen the inquiry.