Study Guide

Jack Torrance in The Shining

By Stephen King

Jack Torrance

Jack is an extremely sympathetic character. His power as a protagonist lies in his deep desire, and great potential, to be a good person – a good father, a good husband, and a good writer. Yet, he's a tragic figure with very specific demons, namely his temper, his alcoholism, and the memory of his abusive, alcoholic father. The Overlook, and whatever it is that lurks there, magnifies the intensity of Jack's demons. The hotel transforms Jack from protagonist with occasional bouts of antagonism, to a full-blown antagonist. But even in Jack's horrific final moments, slivers of love remain. Let's take a deeper look at Jack Torrance, who has more than earned his place in the horror hall of fame.

Does Jack Shine?

We think this question does a lot to unlock the mysteries of The Shining and Jack's character. King obviously wants us to ask it. Why else would it keep coming up? When Danny and Halloran talk privately on closing day at the Overlook, the topic of Jack's shine is raised:

[Halloran] had probed at the boy's father and he just didn't know. It wasn't like meeting someone who had the shine, or someone who definitely did not. Poking at Danny's father had been…strange, as if Jack Torrance had something—something— […] he was holding in so deeply submerged in himself that it was impossible to get to. (11.105)

In spite of his doubts, Halloran tells Danny, "I don't think he shines at all" (11.106). This is partly to sooth Danny's fears – Danny knows there's a connection between people who shine and the hotel.

Danny takes it to heart, at least for a little while. When Jack goes to inspect Room 217 after Danny is choked by the ghoul, he tells the anxious Wendy, "Don't worry, mommy […]. He'll be all right. He doesn't shine. Nothing here can hurt him" (29.102). If it's true that those who shine are most open to perceive the evil of the Overlook, then Jack definitely shines!

Also consider how many parallel experiences Jack and Danny have. Almost everything that happens to Danny also happens to Jack, with some variation. They both have a bizarre experience with the clock in the ballroom; they both enter 217 and have a scary time; they both have visions of Jack murdering Danny and Wendy; they both encounter the hedge animals and Roger, the dogman; they both "sleepwalk." All in all, Jack experiences a roughly equal amount of paranormal activity with Danny.

Here's some more evidence to (possibly!) support arguments for Jack's shine. OK, first look at this description of Danny before he goes with Tony and sees REDRUM, early in the novel:

His brow furrowed and […] his hand clenched in tight fists. Danny sighed quietly and his body slumped on the curb as if all the muscles had gone out of it.[…] His chin sank into his chest. Then there was a dim painless tug as part of him got up and ran after Tony. (4.22, 29, 31)

Compare it with this moment before Jack goes into a state and breaks the radio. He's in the cellar, going through the Overlook's papers:

The receipts slipped from his relaxing hand […]; his eyelids, which had settled shut with his father's image tattooed on their backs […], opened a little bit and then slipped back down again. He twitched a little. Consciousness […] seesawed lazily downward. (26.16)

The first quote is from the chapter titled "Shadowland" and the second is from the chapter titled "Dreamland." King seems to be deliberately distinguishing between Danny's self-induced experience, and Jack's experience when he's involuntarily drifted off. If Jack does shine, he doesn't know it, whereas Danny is aware of his ability and even has some measure of control over it.

Although the two passages don't match exactly, we can see some similarities. Like Danny, Jack often loses time. His experience with the wasps on the roof and with the hedge animals both include moments of slipping away. He forgets himself, either in musing over fictional matters or over his father. This is similar to Danny's experience. Danny has some control, but not much. When he concentrates deeply on reading his parent's minds, he might get taken from the world of "real things." He also has nightmares that are very similar to the experiences he induces, or the visions that come upon him when he isn't sleeping.

There's no single answer to the question of whether Jack's shines, but the possibility deepens his character. If he shines, it would mean that Jack has blocked the ability from his consciousness, or never knew it was there in the first place. We see how isolating Danny's ability is for him. This is mostly because the ability isn't recognized, and because it makes him look like there's something wrong with him. Jack's home life was much more repressive and violent than the Danny's (at least before the Overlook). Jack might have repressed the ability. It's hard to say because we only see bits of his childhood. Within those bits we haven't been able to find clues that Jack shines, unfortunately. But, isn't it fun to explore the possibility? If you have more evidence, for or against, drop us a line.

Dr. Faust-Jack

(It's me they want…isn't it? I am the one. Not Danny, not Wendy. I'm the one who loves it here. […] I'm the one who took care of the snowmobile…dumped the press on the boiler…lied…practically sold my soul…[…]) (43.25)

Dr. Faust and Dr. Faustus stories have been around since at least the 1500s. You've probably heard some version of the story. You know, where a guy sells his soul to the devil to gain knowledge, power, money, or abilities of some kind. The most famous productions of this supernatural tale are Christopher Marlowe's play The Tragicall History of Dr. Faustus and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust: A Tragedy. The basic story is that Dr. Faustus trades his soul to the devil, called Mephastophilis or Mephostopheles, for forbidden knowledge. One reason Jack doesn't want to leave the Overlook is because it's feeding him forbidden knowledge, which is kind of every artist's dream. If Jack can write a book about the Overlook's hidden secrets, he can be a successful novelist. Unlike Dr. Faustus, Jack doesn't consciously trade his soul, because he doesn't even know the devil is a part of it.

In "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" we talk about the Overlook as a manifestation of the idea of hell. If the Overlook is hell, we can make sense of these lines:

[Lloyd:] "No charge to you Mr. Torrance. […] You're money is no good here. Orders from the manager." […]

[Jack:] "Manager?"

[Jack:] "I want to see the manager. I…I don't think he understands."

[Lloyd:] "[…] you will meet the manager in due time. He has, in fact, decided to make you his agent in the matter. Now, drink your drink. (43.37, 48)

When we consider Jack's working-class ethos, and his general dislike of managerial types, it seems right to make the devil "the manager." Since the Overlook is a hotel, it needs a manager. This is also rather comical, almost like a running joke through the novel. After Jack reads about how many times the Overlook has failed, in spite of all the money poured into it, he thinks, "The management must have been spectacularly bad" (18.14). Ha! The devil is spectacularly bad!

The martinis and other alcoholic beverages that magically appear at the Overlook might also have some roots in Goethe's Faust. In a rather early passage, Mephistopheles demonstrates his ability to create alcohol. We hope you enjoy his invocation as much as we do:

MEPHISTOPHELES – (with singular gestures)
Grapes the vine-stem bears,
Horns the he-goat wears!
The grapes are juicy, the vines are wood,
The wooden table gives wine as good !
Into the depths of Nature peer, —
Only believe, there 's a miracle here !
Now draw the stoppers, and drink your fill !

ALL – (as they draw out the stoppers, and the wine which has beendesired flows into the glass of each). О beautiful fountain, that flows at will !

Dr. Faustus's last lines in Marlowe's play also seem apropos. The lines are spoken when he's on his death bed and the devil's minions are coming to take him to hell. In short, he's having second thoughts. Famously, he says:

Ugly hell gape not! Come not, Lucifer!
I'll burn my books – ah, Mephastophilis!

Jack Torrance's last spoken words are, "I WIN! […] NOT TOO LATE! I WIN! NOT TOO LATE! NOT TOO LATE! NOT—" (56.32.). Although the mindsets of the bargainers are different, they both lose in the end. Dr. Faustus wants to do a trade back – he'll burn his books on "black magic" to get his soul back and escape hell. Jack, on the other hand, is trying to keep the bargain he thinks he's made with the devil – to protect the Overlook and give Danny to it. Can we think of the scrapbook, or even Jack's imaginary book on the Overlook, as similar to Dr. Faustus's books on black magic? Jack's books are burned up with the hotel; are Dr. Faustus's books burned upon his death? All these tales, like The Shining, contain lots of anxiety about the processes of reading and writing, as well as the impact of stories on the collective imagination.

A History of Violence

"Dear God, I am not a son of a b****. Please." (14.68)

There are two phases (that we know of) of Jack's troubled past. One, the more recent past, involves Jack as a father; the other, more distant past, involves Jack as a son. But, labeling one set of Jack's memories "recent" and the other "distant" is probably folly, so shame on us. In fact, both sets of events and memories are as fresh and oozing as the bloodstain on the wall of the Presidential Suite. They are memories too painful to be forgotten.

Like Danny, Jack loved his father in the extreme. He still does in fact. Yet, when Jack was Danny's age, physical and verbal violence was already part of the daily routine. Jack's father, Mark Anthony Torrance, habitually abused the entire family and was frequently drunk. Jack's eyes were opened to the reality of his father, when his father beat him at age seven and also beat his mother with a cane. Unlike Danny, Jack was a violent child. From kicking a dog to frequent fights, Jack had trouble controlling his temper. Jack's awareness of his violent tendencies and his intense battle to control them lends him lots of protagonist power.

The troublesome theme of father-son relationships is frequent in literature. Jack's description of playing the game of "Elevator" reminds us in particular of a classic poem by Theodore Roethke. We think it eloquently expresses something of Jack's relationship with his father, at least when he was Danny's age. Elevator is a game where Jack's father picks him up and spins him around. Sometimes, when the man is drunk, he drops Jack on the floor, but:

On other nights his father would only sweep him into a giggling ecstasy, through the zone of air where beer hung around his father's face like a mist of raindrops, to be twisted and turned and shaken like a laughing rag […] (26.9).

We find the same innocent, accepting love and delayed anguish in the Roethke poem.

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself.
The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.
You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt

See any connections? Notice also the figure of the frowning, worried mother, and echo of the role played by Jack's mother, and to some extent, Wendy.

Jack Hamlet?

At first, William Shakespeare's Hamlet might not seem connected with Jack Torrance. After all, Hamlet loves his father and wants to avenge his death. But wait! In the twisted logic of Jack's brain, perverted by the Overlook, he imagines that killing Wendy and Danny is a way to avenge his own father's death as well. Like Jack, Hamlet is haunted by the ghost of his father, or at least something masquerading as the ghost of his father (possibly a demonic spirit). Like Jack, Hamlet has some serious issues with his mother, though very different ones from Hamlet. The angst and inner turmoil Hamlet expresses as a result are not unlike the inner turmoil Jack experiences regarding his own parents.

Although the details are different, this turmoil in both cases revolves around the idea and concept of 'family' and what happens when family isn't all it's cracked up to be. Although Hamlet's madness might or might not be real, Jack's is unquestionably real. Thinking of Jack as a Hamlet figure also helps us see The Shining as a revenge tragedy. When Jack is consumed by madness, he's consumed by thoughts of revenge. For the Hamlet lovers out there we ask, how would you compare and contrast the states of mind of Jack and Hamlet through their respective stories?

Jack Prospero?

Throughout The Shining, starting with the epigraph, Stephen King acknowledges his dept to Edgar Allan Poe's story "The Masque of the Red Death." As we argue in our guide to the short story, its main character Prince Prospero has some solid connections to Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest. In addition to sharing a name, both are of questionable sanity, and both are artist-types who use their imaginations to create reality. Prince Prospero uses his imagination to decorate his castle and to put on the masquerade ball. Similarly, Prospero of The Tempest uses magic, which he often refers to as his "art," to try to create an ideal reality for himself, including, not coincidentally, a big party.

Perhaps the deepest connection between Prince Prospero and Prospero is what most deeply connects the two with Jack – the theme of isolation. This is also where Shakespeare's Prospero diverges from Jack and the Prince. Prospero does what Jack and Prince Prospero fail to do – return from isolation to begin life anew.

Prince Prospero is trying to use isolation to evade death and the mysterious plague sweeping the area. He uses wealth and privilege to try to buy off death. But, death comes for him nonetheless. There's also some indication that Prospero and the Red Death are foils for each other, and even that Prince Prospero and the Red Death are one in the same, though Prospero might not know it until his bloody end.

Similarly, Jack thinks that isolation is the way to regain sanity, to finish his play, and make some money in the process. But, he can't hide from the demons inside him – the isolation only makes things worse, because there's no one to check him. Plus, the isolation is an extension of Jack's already extremely isolated inner life. His temper, alcoholism, and his father isolate him from the 'normal' people in the world. Part of Jack's downfall is his emulation of the rich and famous people at the Overlook's 1945 masquerade ball, presumably people similar in class to the attendees at Prince Prospero's ball. Jack's identification with them seems to open him to much of the Overlook's evil. See "Symbols, Imagery, and Allegory" for more on this line of thought.