Study Guide

The Shining Symbols, Imagery, Allegory

By Stephen King

Symbols, Imagery, Allegory


We use the word REDRUM throughout this guide to refer to killing and violence. If you really want to understand redrum, try this brief exercise. First, get some red lipstick (like Danny writes with in the movie, but not the book) and write REDRUM on a piece of paper. Now go into the bathroom and stand in front of the mirror. Turn off the lights. Hold up your piece of paper and say, "Bloody Mary" thirteen times. If you are still alive after that, turn on the light and look at your paper in the mirror. What does it say? It says, MURDER!

Simple enough, right? Maybe not. Consider this:

If we think of redrum symbolically, we can find an even more compelling reason. Redrum is, in a way, something positive. It means, symbolically, the reverse of murder. In the chapters titled "REDRUM" and "Jack and Wendy," Jack and Wendy both almost murder each other. Almost-murder, is kind of like the reverse of murder. It's murder averted, murder that doesn't come to pass. Redrum is the possibility of the reverse of murder – life.

At the same time, it holds within it the possibility of murder. The prophecy can go either way, depending on the choices Danny is too young to be forced to make. His decision to call in Halloran (arguably) saves Wendy and Jack from actually murdering each other. Danny's own courage and love in dealing with Jack saves Danny from being murdered by him. (True, Jack dies, but at least he doesn't have the burden of murder to take with him into the afterlife.) And Danny's decision not to stop his parents from going to the Overlook saves us from reading a (potentially) really boring book.

The Wasps' Nest and the Wasps

Most of us don't fancy a wasp. They are pretty unloved as creatures go. As we see in the novel, they can sting over and over again without dying, unlike bees who can only sting once. When Jack gives Danny the wasps' nest he bug-bombed on the roof, we're pretty sure there's trouble on the horizon. Of course, the dead wasps come back to life, and come back to their nest, only to sting Danny in his sleep and put Jack back in the perennial doghouse.

Like the hedge animals, we can see their roots of the wasps in King's own childhood. In his On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, King reveals a moment from his life at the age of two. He was "imagining" he was the "Ringling Brothers Circus Strongboy" complete with "animal skin singlet." To demonstrate his strength, he lifted a cinderblock that happened to have a wasps' nest inside it. He was stung by a wasp hidden in the cinderblock, causing him to drop the block on his tender tootsies.

Similarly Jack is stung by the wasps on the roof when he's being creative, sorting through the issues of his play in progress. We say similarly, because in both cases the wasp stings seem like punishment for being creative. In the equipment shed, Jack sees the black and yellow snowmobile as a wasp. He thinks of it as another stinging pest that will take him away from his imagination, his desire to create fictional worlds. As always, the Overlook perverts reality. The snowmobile, wasp-like as it is, could have helped Jack live to practice his craft.

The Fire Extinguishers

Although both Jack and Danny see the fire extinguishers move, and Danny is particularly frightened of them, they don't prove menacing. In fact, they are what they seem, rather puny creatures, unfit for their raison d'être, putting out fires. They are certainly no match for the boiler explosion that proves fatal for the hotel. They are a further symbol of the hotel's perversity, where things which are supposed to protect (like fathers, for example) are twisted to do the opposite.

The Topiary

If you're looking for a discussion of the hedge animals, see "Setting."

The Roque Mallet

The roque mallet lends the story an unrelenting and murderous rhythm, creates suspense, and works as a rather unique symbol. We hear about the roque mallet from the first Tony incident and then we never stop hearing about it. Danny has frequent visions of some creature (which, of course, is Jack) using the mallet as a horrifically destructive weapon. In a way, Danny's predictions come true. Jack mallets Wendy every which way, and he also mallets Halloran in the face, temporarily halting the rescue mission. As predicted by Danny, Jack also uses it to destroy the caretaker's quarters at the Overlook, along with Wendy's records.

But, the part of the prophecy where Jack mallets Danny is not fulfilled, as we discuss in "What's Up With the Ending?". Instead, Jack (who the narrator is now calling "it") turns the mallet on himself, as we see in this excruciating moment:

[…]instead of aiming at Danny, it reversed the handle, aiming the hard side of the roque mallet at its own face. […] Then the mallet began to rise and descend, destroying the last of Jack Torrance's image. […] What remained of the face became a strange and shifting composite. […] Danny saw the woman in 217; the dogman; the hungry boy thing that had been in the concrete ring. (55.76-78)

In a combination of the extremes of self-loathing and extreme supernatural influence, Jack Torrance is completely taken over by the Overlook at this moment. When we look at Jack's earlier musings on roque and the roque mallet, we can see the ironic symbolism at work. While in the equipment shed where he first encounters the roque set, he thinks,

"[…] it was a schizo sort of game at that. The mallet expressed that perfectly. A soft end and a hard end. A game of finesse and aim, and a game of raw bludgeoning power." (33.6).

Schizo here is the pop-psychology abbreviation for schizophrenic. Here, King is playing on the idea of the split or divided personality who loses time and who can't accurately perceive reality. If you discount the supernatural or some reasonable explanation for the scene at the Overlook, you can chock it all up to schizophrenia. Furthermore, Jack Torrance is a tad deficient in finesse and aim these days. He's leaning hard toward the raw bludgeoning power side of life. Even his "soft side" is capable of doing damage, or of coming under the control of his violent side. The mallet embodies the confusion within Jack, with regards to the different sides of his personality.

The Cane

Jack's father's cane is the ultimate symbol of Jack's childhood trauma. Although the cane isn't used on Jack, his father quite nearly beats Jack's mother to death with it. The roque mallet becomes Jack's version of his father's cane. He echoes the horror he witnessed so long ago when he beats Wendy with the mallet.

The Scrapbook

The scrapbook is a confusing symbol. As we discuss in "Setting," it contains some of the crucial details of the Overlook's history from 1945 to 1967. For Jack, the scrapbook is a symbol of the novel he hopes to write. The hope of eventually writing this novel is part of the bait that keeps Jack wanting to stay at the Overlook. He desperately want to find out its secrets. The ghost of Delbert Grady, the murderous, suicidal 1970 caretaker, tells Jack that the mysterious "manager" left the scrapbook especially for Jack to find.

If the Overlook is like a criminal who wants to get caught in order to be famous, it would make sense that the Overlook would leave it for Jack to find. He's a writer who can immortalize it in print in a way the moldering news clippings and boxes of files cannot. For one thing, they're never read, except by Jack. The hotel also uses the scrapbook to toy with his aspirations, and then cruelly snatch them out of reach.

For Jack, the scrapbook also triggers his own mental scrapbook, particularly the pages featuring his father. This puts Jack in a trancelike state that sends him upstairs to destroy the radio, which is broadcasting murderous instructions from said father. The scrapbook symbolizes an extreme human powerlessness against bad memories and the potential in such memories for self destruction.

The Japanese Lanterns

In "Setting," we talk about how the 1945 and 1975 settings help turn The Shining into, among many other things, an expression of post-war anxiety. The Japanese lanterns on hand at the 1945 masquerade ball contribute to that argument. Rather subtly, the novel asks if it's fair that Derwent and his revelers are enjoying a fabulous party with imported Japanese lanterns when the Japanese are reeling from the effects of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The explosion of this never ending party along with the rest of the Overlook shows the violence turned upon those who were (symbolically) so oblivious to it.

The Masquerade Ball

Edgar Allan Poe's "Masque of the Red Death" is heavily alluded to in the novel's epigraph. In his introduction to Poe's short story, Poe expert, G.R. Thompson, explains that in the Renaissance productions "it was the custom to perform masked balls and plays that symbolized the interpenetration of the realms of Heaven, Earth, and Hell" (source). Seems to us that King is definitely drawing on this idea, though there isn't much discussion of heaven or divinity. Heaven, in the novel, might be represented by the rare moments of peace and optimism the characters find at the hotel, or even by their idealized notions of the hotel as a place where all their dreams can come true. The ideas of hell and earth are pretty obvious. The interplay of the three creates lots of tension and lots of food for thought.

The motif of masks and unmasking is also crucial to the novel. When the truth of the Overlook is revealed to the Torrances, it's a kind of unmasking. The Torrances, themselves, are also unmasked. Ironically, Jack is completely masked by the Overlook, after destroying his face with the roque mallet only to have it taken over by the faces of the hotel's spirits, he thinks that his mask is finally off. Sadly, Jack never takes off the mask he gained in childhood, the mask that says he must follow in his father's footsteps. Danny on the other hand, presents a hopeful version of unmasking. His experience at the Overlook is an unmasking of sorts, a rather brutal unmasking of life, but also an unmasking of the truth of who Danny is. In addition to learning he has great courage as well as human frailty, Danny's identity is validated by Halloran when he acknowledges his ability to shine. Halloran helps Danny see that his abilities are real and that he's not alone.


This is a juicy symbol. Broadly, it's a symbol of children's literature, and gets us into hot-button issues of censorship and age-appropriateness. In case you've missed it, Bluebeard is the story of a young bride who marries a serial widower named Bluebeard. The grisly fellow forbids the young bride to enter his secret room. But, overpowered by curiosity, she does. Lo and behold, the room is chock full of wife corpses, and the floor is so bloody the young wife gets some blood on the key, leading to the discovery of her betrayal by Bluebeard. The tale was published by Charles Perault in 1697 in French and has since been frequently adapted in film, theatre, and both written and oral stories. You can find the text here, for free.

Bluebeard ends with the death of Bluebeard. In spite of her curiosity, the young lady survives. Looked at in this way, the story promotes curiosity and values truth coming to light. Young Danny doesn't really recall this part of the story Jack likes to read to him at bedtime, but remembers the gist of it. As Danny tries to fight his extreme curiosity to enter 217, we are told:

It seemed vaguely to Danny that the story had had a happy ending, but that paled to insignificance beside the two dominant images: the taunting, maddening locked door with some great secret behind it, and the grisly secret itself […]. The locked door, and behind it the heads, the severed heads. (19.29)

Interestingly, Danny seems comforted by this thought. Halloran told him that the things in the Overlook are "(like scary pictures in a book)" (19.39). If so, Danny can learn the secret and not get hurt. The only thing that stops his from entering 217 at this moment is his memory of promising Halloran that he wouldn't. The symbol of Bluebeard also tells us something about Danny's character – he's insatiably curious, just like Jack.

Although The Shining isn't accessible to most five-year-olds, Kubrick's film, frequently broadcast on the small screen over the years has probably been seen by more than one youngin'. It has five-year-old appeal too, because of Danny. The question is, for what ages is this story, in its varied forms, appropriate. Is it possible kids can derive some benefit from a story, or from a story like Bluebeard. Do kids like scary stories? Can they avoid hearing them? Childhood is a scary time, because children are at the mercy of adults, as King illuminates in many stories. Can Gothic and horror stories have the same purgative effect on kids that they are supposed to have on adults, or do they just make things worse? For that matter, are such stories good for grown-ups?

The Bike

After a night of drunken carousing, Al Shockley and Jack run into a child's bicycle on the road. Jack is sure they've hit a child, but, apparently, they haven't. Jack and Al find no body and no mention of a child missing or dead in the papers. For Jack, the bike is a flashing sign: STOP DRINKING!!! And he does. The idea that he's killed a child literally scares him sober. It might be an especially scary image for him because of his history of hurting his own child, Danny, while drunk.

The Timer

For Jack, the timer is symbolic of his conflict with George Hatfield, the fight which loses him his job and pushes him toward the Overlook. George, a student on Jack's debate team, stutters and therefore is never fast enough in debate. George accuses Jack of setting back the clock timer to rob George of part of his five minutes. Though he's sober during his conflict with George, he still completely loses control and becomes violent. The incident reminds Jack that the violence was inside him in the time before the drinking, and is therefore separate from it.

The timer also points to the haziness and anxiety surrounding time throughout the novel. In Jack's walking-dream, the timer is attached to a string of dynamite, foreshadowing and counting down the explosion of the boiler, and the end of Jack and the Overlook.