Monday, May 21, 2018

She Had Three Ways of Bein a Bitch: "Dolores Claiborne" Revisited, Part 2

Depicted above: the Hodder & Stoughton edition of the novel's hardback.  Ain't it a beaut?  I probably still prefer the American edition from Viking, but our British cousins did well with this one, and if I can find a reasonably inexpensive used copy, I'mma have me one.

That acquisitorial note made, let's now crack on with part two of our Dolores Claiborne revisit.

Today, I want to look at the novel's two most prominent supporting players, Joe St. George and Vera Donovan, beginning with the latter.  (We already talked about here some here, but there's plenty more left to be said.)

Dolores's relationship with Vera is probably the most important of the novel, and it's one of the most compelling relationships in all of King's work.  It's difficult to put a label on exactly what kind of relationship it is.  It's not romantic or sexual (a thing which is likely not in doubt, but may nevertheless need to be stated); it's an employer/employee relationship, but one which morphs into caregiver/patient; it can't quite be considered a friendship, except in the numerous ways which it behaves as one.  What are these two women to each other?

We don't quite know, and since Dolores is the narrator, this can mean only that she herself doesn't know.  And since she isn't exactly the kind of person who is prone to waste a great deal of mental energy figuring such things out, it remains somewhat ill-defined throughout.

As such, I think it manages to be incredibly compelling.  It is infuriating at times, it is thrilling at other times, it is moving at still others.

This is life, isn't it?
Dolores's relationship -- such as it is -- with Vera is not unlike that any of us have with the unpleasant aspects of day-to-day life that we simply have to endure.  We all have to earn a living in one manner or another, and unless we are incredibly good at something or are incredibly lucky in some way, there is always going to be a certain amount of misery accompanying that.

It's better for some than for others.  Me?  I got it pretty good.  I work in an industry I love and do a job I'm relatively well-suited for.  For this, I am paid what strikes me as a fair wage.  I have a career, not a job.  Even so, a certain amount of things come my way that I'd rather not have to do.  But do them I can, and so I do them, and rarely is there cause for me to worry about it much.

A lot of people ain't me.  I'm aware of this.  I try never to forget it, and I sometimes find myself wondering, as I go about my day, how many people I drive past who are on their way to or from a job that they despise.  A lot, I'd imagine.

That's kind of what lurks behind the character of Vera Donovan in this novel; but there's more to it than that.  She's by no means merely a facile symbol for the plight of the working (wo)man.  She's also a symbol for the fact that life is a difficult and unpleasant thing more often than not for more people than not.  And yet, life continues, because really, what other choice is there?  In order to succeed even minimally, one must simply accept this as a fact and then make decisions accordingly.

King uses Vera as a sort of on-both-hands-simultaneously illustration of these ideas, wherein she is the one who is making Dolores's life miserable but is also the one who is able to give Dolores advice about how to make life more bearable.

"She had three ways of bein a bitch," says Dolores (12).  Over the course of the next twenty-plus pages, she will list those three ways for us, with copious examples of behavior illustrating each method.

"The first way was when she was a bitch because she couldn't help it," Dolores says (12), with one example of this being Vera's expectations for precision when it comes to hanging sheets and the like.  Always use six pins to hang them; never only four.  The way Dolores sees this, "she had her ways of doin things.  Did she ever!  I don't know where she got her idears, but I do know she was a prisoner of them."  (16)  This was evidently enough of an issue that if things weren't done to her specifications, Vera would get headaches or stomachaches.  This sounds to me an awful lot like some form of obsessive and/or compulsive disorder.  And I can surely imagine how a wealthy woman with OCD could be hell on the house staff.

But let's be honest: unless Vera was literally insane, how hard could it possibly be to do what she wanted done?  Dolores herself says as much on pages 18-9.  "Well, maybe she was crazy and maybe she wasn't, but I can tell you one thing -- if you remembered" [to do things to her specifications without having to be told multiple times], "she didn't give you the heat.  And my way of thinking is this: anyone who can remember who's sleepin with who on all those soap-opera stories they show in the afternoon should be able to remember to use Spic n Span in the tubs and put the welcome mats back down facin the right way."

In other words, it's simple: do the job you've been hired to do.  It may not be to your liking, and you may not agree with the premise behind the directions you are given; but you took the job, and from that point the responsibility to carry it out is on you.

This attitude is not dissimilar to the type of attitude Jessie has to find within herself in order to escape the handcuffs in Gerald's Game.  That's a much more severe thing, obviously, but in the end it all boils down to the same thing: the willingness to do what must be done.

Vera's second way of "bein a bitch," according to Dolores on page 24: "She'd get mean."  She adds, "That woman could be as mean as cat-dirt when she wanted to.  Even stuck in a bed most of the time, wearin diapers and rubber pants, she could be a real stinker."

This is an understatement.

Pages 26-44 (or thereabouts) are a stretch of the novel that I like to refer to as The Shitting.  In this bit, Dolores tells the saga -- and I damn near mean Saga in the Nordic sense, so epic is this tale -- of Vera trying to shit her pants so that Dolores has to clean up the mess.

Now, let's be clear: this is horrifying.  It's among the grossest stuff King has ever written.  I mean, hey, I guess some people enjoy doo-doo; it's just that I'm not one of them.  I recognize that it exists, and that it is as natural a thing as natural gets; but I prefer to have minimal involvement with my own excrement, and other people's...?  Right out.  No thank you, pass; hard pass.  Those of you who have had children (or who have cared for the invalid) are rolling your eyes at me, and this is fair and proper; I duck no accusations of being a dainty flower from y'all.  I salute you; sincerely.  But I've never been in that position and will, I hope, continue to duck it for as long as humanly possible.

In any case, Dolores herself, in The Shitting, finds herself literally having to duck it.  King knows that to some extent, this is all very funny.  As Dolores begins the story, she tells how she knew she was in for a rough go of things when a few days would go by and no "clinkers" would be deposited in Vera's bedpan.  "I see you tryin not to laugh, Andy," Dolores says (26-7), "but that's all right -- you let it out if you have to.  It wasn't no laughing matter then, but it's over now, and what you're thinkin ain't nothin but the truth.  The dirty old bag had her a shit savings account, and it was like some weeks she banked it in order to collect the interest . . . only I was the one who got all the withdrawals.  I got em whether I wanted em or not."

What follows is a -- I shit you not (pun intended) -- tale of a cat-and-mouse game in which Vera and Dolores try to outfox each other, Dolores trying to figure out when Vera was about to pay a visit to the proverbial bank and slide a bedpan under her withered rear in time to catch the result, and Vera trying to be surreptitious enough to prevent Dolores from being successful.  It's ludicrously suspenseful, given what we're talking about; it's funny as all get-out, too, and simultaneously quite sad.  You obviously can't help but feel sympathetic toward Dolores, whose miserable job it is to clean up the results no matter what they are.  (And on multiple occasions, they are quite wretched indeed.)

But you also are apt to feel some real sympathy for Vera, who is clearly in an a state of mental deterioration the likes of which most of us will be unable to understand.  It seems fairly clear what is going on: Vera is a woman who, via her OCD (and the degree to which her wealth enabled its expression through the delegation of tasks to those who worked for her), is used to having her way.  Whatever she wishes that way to be, she typically gets it.  So in her declining years, for whatever reason, it pleases her (at times when her mind has temporarily slipped even farther) to shit when she wants to shit.  And ONLY when she wants to shit.  Since this does not necessarily result in beneficial results for Dolores, she sees Dolores's attempts to keep her regular as efforts to deprive her of her individuality and the fulfillment of her desires.  Is it rational?  No.  But her mind has, during those times, lost its ability for rationality; it has hung on to its need for dominance, however, and poor Dolores is in the crosshairs of that need.

By this point in her life, Dolores has committed to being the sort of person who will not give up simply because the going gets tough.  She needs her job, so there's that; but she also needs to be the kind of person who won't be beaten.  Vera and Dolores are co-dependents of a sort in this regard.

"Well," Dolores says on page 44, the Verafecalsaga having concluded, "the third way she had of bein a bitch was the worst."

If you anything like me, you wonder how anything can top The Shitting.  And it's debatable that what comes next does, I suppose.  But I'll say this: what comes next has stuck with me ever since 1992, never entirely forgotten.  I forgot about the doo-doo; I remembered the dust bunnies.

Let's let Dolores herself tell it, since it occasions some marvelous writing from King.

She was a bitch because she was a sad old lady who had nothin to do but die in an upstairs bedroom on an island far from the places and the people she'd known most of her life.  That was bad enough, but she was losin her mind while she did it . . . and there was part of her that knew the rest of her was like an undercut riverbank getting ready to slide down into the stream.
     She was lonely, you see, and that I didn't understand -- I never understood why she threw over her whole life to come out to the island in the first place.  At least not until yesterday.  But she was scared, too, and I could understand that just fine.  Even so, she had a horrible, scary kind of strength, like a dyin queen that won't let go of her crown even at the end; it's like God Himself has got to pry it loose one finger at a time.  (44)

There's a sort of inverse here of Dolores's own life.  Vera is someone from Away who has exiled herself to this tiny corner of Maine despite having the money to go literally anywhere she wishes; Dolores is someone who circumstance has stranded right where she is.  You get no sense that she has much of a desire to go elsewhere; but you also get the sense that if she had somehow developed that desire and then found a way to act upon it, she'd have been a whole heck of a lot better off.  It's the fact that the thought never seems even to have crossed her mind that is so heartbreaking; Dolores is a woman who grew up knowing she would never go anywhere else, never do anything else, never be anything else above and beyond what she was meant to be: a woman, doing "woman's work" (as she refers to it on p. 21).

But what might a woman of this wit, determination, and intelligence have been capable of if NOT stranded in this tiny corner of the world?  King never plucks these particular strings during the course of the novel; the thoughts are literally not present in Dolores's head, so he can't.  In considering how Vera has willingly stranded herself here, though, I can't help thinking about it.

But I digress.

Back to Vera's third way of "bein a bitch."  What Dolores is referring to here is Vera's propensity for hallucination.  She hallucinates two types of things, apparently: wires and dust bunnies.  "She seen all these wires comin out of the wall and scratchin across the floor toward her bed," Dolores says (45).  This prompts screaming fits from Vera so severe that Dolores says "there was never a time I didn't think my heart would stop when her screams began" (45).  This prompts Dolores to go get a butcher knife and pretend to chop all the wires off from where they were supposedly coming out of the wall, after which she comforts the sad old woman as best she can.

As for the dust bunnies, well, we've already talked about them a bit (in the same post I linked to earlier); and in that post, I framed them in a very specific way, as part of whatever psychic ability Vera has.  For this post, though, my preference is to downplay that.  It isn't hard to do, since Dolores herself downplays it somewhat.  Or perhaps it's more correct to say that she plays up the more mundane aspects.  If you can call this sort of thing mundane:

What I started to say was that when she got a bee in her bonnet about the other things -- the snake in the pillowslip, the sun, the wires -- she'd scream.  When it was the dust bunnies, she'd shriek.  Wasn't even words in it most times.  Just shriekin so long and loud it put ice-cubes in your heart.
     I'd run in there and she's be yankin at her hair or harrowin her face with her fingernails and lookin like a witch.  Her eyes'd be so big they almost looked like softboiled eggs, and they were always starin into one corner or the other.

We won't dwell on the dust bunnies; but we will use them as a transition of sorts.  By now, I think it makes sense why Dolores would think of these hallucinations as being even worse than the bowel-related fracases; a bit of poop cleans up, whereas a nerve-shredding hallucination does not.  But really, aren't all three of Vera's ways of being a bitch one and the same?

Aren't they all, at the bottom of that particular well, madness?

What Dolores discovers eventually is that Vera's madness runs much deeper than she would have suspected.  Upon Vera's death, Dolores learns that years and years previously, Vera's two grown children died in a car accident.  This is what prompted Vera's permanent move to Maine; she retreated her her summer home, where none of the staff were aware of Donald and Helga's deaths.  This permitted her to speak of them in the present tense, as though they were still alive; and in this manner, she kept them alive, if only in a shadowy way.  This is an even more incredible act of self-deception than Jessie Burlingame burying the memory of her father's sexual abuse of her; but one senses that it was perhaps a necessary step for Vera to take, lest she lose hold on her sanity altogether.

We also know that Vera has somehow killed her own husband (if only by commission) in payment for his infidelity.  It is his face haunting her in those dust bunnies, and my gut impulse tells me the wires have something to do with him as well.  And while there is no evidence that Vera had any sort of a hand in her children's deaths, they occurred on the one-year anniversary of their father's demise; so it seems almost certain that the two things are linked in Vera's mind, and that guilt for the one gets transferred emotionally to the other.  How could that not be the result?

So what happens afterward is that Vera does everything she can to bury these memories and feelings; and, like Jessie, it seems to be relatively successful.  But in her declining state of mental health, what is buried unearths itself in peculiar ways.  The mind, shoved into a corner, leaks its way out unexpectedly.

Let's now talk about Joe St. George. 

Joe, Dolores's husband, is about as sorry a sack of shit as any shit that was ever sacked up.  So he is as we see him, at least; this is via Dolores's own perspective, so maybe she's biased, but since I'm inclined to accept every word she says as the unvarnished truth, I see no reason not to in this instance.  (As I've said before in relation to this novel, do please refrain from raising the idea of Dolores being an unreliable narrator.  I'm going to yawn at you if you do, and quite possibly chase this with pointing and laughter.)

Via Joe, King will deliver most of the novel's most potent moments of horror.  I'm not sure Dolores Claiborne actually counts as a horror novel; I feel as if most critics would probably say it isn't.  But for my part, I think...

Well, i think several things.  Thing the first: it doesn't make a damn bit of difference whether it counts as horror or not.  Thing the second: it kind of counts if only by virtue of the fact that it was written by King (he'd be aghast with annoyance to hear that, I bet).  Thing the third: I think there's just enough horror content that it kind of gets there on its own steam, regardless of things one and two; only kind of, granted, but ... kind of.

The dust-bunny stuff is part of that, but the demise of Joe St. George and its aftermath is the bulk of it.  There is some KILLER horror imagery in this stuff, and that's what we are interested in talking about with Joe.

We know well in advance of reaching the scene that the day of the eclipse is when Dolores kills her husband.  We know it well enough that King really need not remind us of it, but he does remind us of it, and in a bone-chilling way.  As they sit on the porch (p. 182-3) waiting for the solar event, Dolores is being kind and loving toward Joe, or so he thinks.  He is drinking up a storm, and having a grand old time.

"Christ, Dolores, you must think this is my birthday," he says.  His voice had started to get thick and furry.
     "Well -- somethin like it, maybe," I says, and began sewin up a pair of Little Pete's jeans.

Man, that is brutal.  This is even moreso:

The last thing I did was sew a new fly in one of Joe's two or three pairs of good slacks.  They were old but not entirely worn out.  I remember thinkin they would do to bury him in.

If that all don't give you a chill up your spine, your spine ain't chillable.  And perhaps we should stop there to discuss the ethics of this novel.  Because here's the thing: I've got no issue with Dolores killing Joe.  None whatsoever.  Yeah, sure, they're fictional characters, so there's nothing actual to object to.  But there are lots of Joe St. Georges in the world, and to be blunt, they could probably most of em use a good killin.  A fella who'd mess with his own daughter is a fella who does the world no good; so if a Dolores Claiborne comes along and cleans up that particular spot of shit, well, why wouldn't she?  Put my fat ass on a jury, I am unlikely to vote to convict her.

Perhaps this says nothing good about me.  I leave you to be the judge of that.  But either way, I feel like Stephen King here is on the same side.  Even if it's only in a hypothetical sense, I think he feels that some folks just need killin, and some folks who kill em deserve our sympathy and perhaps even our gratitude.

But that doesn't mean the act itself isn't terrifying and heavy with consequence.

What happens is this: Dolores's plan to lure Joe out into the blackberry tangle and onto the rotting boards of the well's cover is entirely successful.  He goes right through it, and after a brief struggle to stay above ground, falls into its depths.

Unfortunately, the fall does not kill him outright.  What happens next is a physical ordeal for Joe that must in some ways rival the one Jessie Burlingame has to go through; Joe lies in the bottom of the well, battered and broken, but not by any means dead.  Death does not come that easily.

He was on his knees, and there was blood all over his chin and neck and the front of his shirt.  When he opened his mouth n screamed my name, more blood came pourin out.  He'd broke most of his ribs when he fell, and they musta been stickin into his lungs on both sides like porcupine quills.  (205)

Dolores sits down outside the well, listening to Joe holler up at her for hours -- sometimes begging, sometimes threatening -- and waiting for him to die of exposure or blood loss.  This goes on and on until true dark comes, and then manages to look down into the well with her flashlight once more.  She sees Joe standing there "with his head down, swayin from side to side" (207).  He looks up at her and grins, then begins to climb the wall.  He gets a little way up, and then falls back down again, at which point Dolores can't handle it anymore and goes back to the house.

She tries to go to sleep, but keeps jolting awake.  "Each time I'd drift a little, I'd think I could hear Joe stumblin his way up the side of the shed toward the back door, and every time the house creaked, I jumped."  (209)  She goes back out to make sure he's dead.

I stood there with Joe's flashlight in my hand, the beam aimed at the hole in the wellcap, feeling greasy, sticky sweat creepin down all over my body, stingin in the sweat creepin down all over my body, stingin in the cuts n digs the blackberry thorns had made, and I told myself to kneel down and look in the well.  After all, wa'ant that what I'd come out there to do?
     It was, but once I was actually out there, I couldn't do it.  All I could do was tremble n make a high moanin sound in my throat.  My heart wasn't really beatin, either, but only flutterin in my chest like a humminbird's wings.
     And then a white hand all streaked with dirt and blood n moss snaked right outta that well n grabbed my ankle.  (210)

That's as good a jump scare as any in any novel I know of.  Does it beat the one in Gerald's Game where Jessie sees Joubert the first time?  Fuck, man, I dunno; that's a photo-finish, and I'm unable to call it at this time.

Dolores -- seemingly prompted by Vera's voice speaking inside her head -- brains Joe with a rock and sends him back down into the well; but even now, it's not over.  "I woke up a couple of hours later, sure I could hear someone in the kitchen.  Sure I could hear Joe in the kitchen.  I tried to jump outta bed and my feet tangled in the blankets and I fell on the floor.  I got up n started feelin around for the switch on the lamp, sure I'd feel his hands slide around my throat before I could find it."  (215)  She goes outside again and finally accepts that Joe is dead,after Vera speaks inside her mind again, saying that she should get some sleep, and when she wakes "the eclipse really will be over."  (216)

But even this doesn't prevent her from propping a chair underneath the door when she goes back inside again.

From here, it is simply a process of living with what she has done.  Unlike Vera, she does not hide it within herself; she does, obviously, find it necessary to hide it to the public and to the law, but those are different things, and one gets the sense that she does that only for the sake of her children.
Here again, Dolores has simple done what she feels she had no choice but to do.  Joe's death lines up precisely with Dolores's approach to living her life: it was a matter of paying the bills when they came due.

Vera is another matter; she obviously puts off paying the bills she doesn't want to pay, and has developed a certain amount of talent for doing so.

Of the two women, who would you say is the wealthier?  I'm not sure it's a clear-cut answer.  My heart wants to say "Dolores," and certainly she is where my sympathies go.  But I wonder if Vera isn't even more capable than Dolores is, in some ways.  Either way, the amount it costs her -- and others -- to be what she is makes her life rather unenviable, to say the least.

That, of course, is one of the major lessons of Dolores Claiborne: life is a tough way to live sometimes.
Thanks to eBay and Australia, I did indeed find an affordable copy of the Hodder & Stoughton edition, which is now sitting on top of my scanner.
I did not know this prior to buying the book, but there are interior illustrations -- seventeen of them!  A generous amount, although not so generous that the artist is credited anywhere.  That seems like a shame, doesn't it?
Let's have a look:
I left in the page numbers because...well, just because.

Of Vera's three delusional bugaboos, the idea of there being a snake inside her pillowcase gets far less play than either the wires coming from the walls or (especially) the dust bunnies under the bed.  But this is considerably easier to depict, so I don't blame the (sadly anonymous) artist.

This is awesome.  It also appears on the front inside dustjacket flap.

This depicts Dolores sad glance at Selena, sitting alone in a schoolroom.

Say, what kind of car is that in the Donovan parking lot...?

I believe this is just a detail from the following image.

I love it.

This would have made an excellent cover, although I do slightly prefer the image they went with.

Pretty cool that the layout permitted that line and this image to appear right on top of one another.

Another one which would have made for a good cover image,
Cool, eh?  I bought the book just because I dug the cover, and have been rewarded with a goodish amount of additional art as icing on the cake.
And I do love me some icing.


  1. (1) I don't remember the Verafecalsaga at all! Wow. How could I forget THAT? But have had quite a few poop explosions/ "The Shittings" of my own since then... and I'll leave that there! lol

    (2) We need to have Barbara Walters interview you sometime to figure out how and when the Unreliable Narrator hurt you... some people have dust bunnies and spaghetti-like cords leading under the bed; you've got unreliable narrators. (And spiders.)

    (3) "The Unreliable Spider-Man"...

    (4) "Life is a tough way to live sometimes" indeed. This is such a good entry in that murky bordertown of murder fiction, where Dolores enlists the aid of the law (sort of) to cover her own ability to do what the law cannot, and like you say, the reader/ author is totally on the side of our vigilante stand-in. It's amazing, really, how many books and movies exist in this fictional zone.

    1. (1) And you know, I actually thought of that while writing this post! I thought, "Well, I know at least one person who's gonna be nodding knowingly."

      (2) And black holes. And, weirdly enough, tomatoes.

      (3) Would it be THAT surprising if Marvel decided the entire Marvelverse was a lie told by an utterly powerless Peter Parker to try to impress some girl? Yuck.

      (4) It does seem to be a deeply and widely held belief that sometimes, somebody just needs to be done away with.

    2. 1. "Verafecalsaga". My eyes stuttered over that word so bad, for a minute I thought you were using an actual Swiss/Norse/German word, one of those that end in either -lager or -laden.

      Then I read more carefully. I can remember listening to this section from the audiobook. I remember my reaction a wanting to stare in incredulity, wanting/not wanting to laugh, and finally thinking, "Why am I not surprised"?

      The irony is I just hope I don't have to be like that to others.

      3. Well, maybe it can be an else-worlds tale.


    3. 1. Yeah, that seems like a garbage way to end up. I'd like to think I'll avoid it, but who can say?

  2. I added an update at the end to reflect some previously-unknown-to-me interior art for the Hodder & Stoughton edition.