I saw The Shining when it was first released all those decades ago. The responses by critics were mixed and I remember thinking that Jack Nicholson’s and Shelley Duvall’s performances were extreme. Especially Shelley Duvall. Wendy seemed like a meek housewife who did nothing but cry and run around screaming. Stephen King said exactly the same thing, “(S)he’s basically just there to scream and be stupid, and that’s not the woman that I wrote about.” I’d also read the book and like Stephen King I was disappointed with Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of the novel. But despite it all, I’ve seen the movie multiple times and over the years my fondness for it has grown.
The Shining recently turned up on Netflix and I sat down for another viewing. As I watched I found myself re-evaluating the character of Wendy Torrance. I also gained a new respect for Kubrick’s casting choices. Shelley Duvall’s physical look (the large eyes and slight build), along with the quality of her voice makes us subconsciously assume that Wendy Torrance is a pushover. A woman too child like to ever stand up for herself–a dull person without much interest in the world. A woman who, rather than leave her husband when he injured her child, remained in the marriage.
However, Wendy’s actions are in complete contrast to her appearance and her words. She’s an intelligent woman who goes up against evil and wins.
So, lets look at the actions that tells us more about Wendy’s intelligence and strength rather than her surface emotions and appearance.
When we’re first introduced to Wendy and Danny, she’s reading The Catcher in the Rye. The main room is packed with books. The coffee table holds a copy of The New York Review. The subtext seems to be that Wendy is the voracious reader in the family. When Wendy is talking with the doctor, the titles of the books can’t all be seen, but the ones that can be viewed reveal a wide spectrum of genres.
When the Torrance family arrive at the hotel and settle into a routine, Wendy is the one who keeps the hotel running. She’s the one that checks the generators and checks the phone lines. She’s the one that contacts the rangers’ station when she realizes the phone lines are down. When Wendy and Danny go into the maze they’re able to walk to the center (after a wrong turn or two), and navigate their way out again. When Jack has his terrifying nightmare at his desk, Wendy immediately runs to him to see if she can help. When Danny appears in the room she tries to get Danny to go upstairs while she helps her husband. When she thinks Danny has been hurt by Jack, she doesn’t hold back in her opinion, and rushes Danny out of the room.
Thinking someone else may be in the Overlook with them, Wendy is the one that gets a baseball bat. When Jack begins to threaten her on the stairs, she initially tries to warn him off, but when he lunges, she smacks him in the head. Then she drags him down into the kitchen and locks her violent crazy husband in the storage locker. After that she grabs a knife and heads into the garage to use the snow cat. But the snow cat has been sabotaged.
Back in their bedroom, when Jack enters with an ax, she quickly gets herself and Danny into the bathroom and locks the door. Then she lowers Danny to safety out of the bathroom window. Trapped in the bathroom after Danny’s escape, she positions herself close to the door and cuts Jack’s hand with a knife.
After Jack leaves, and despite being terrified out of her mind, she exits the bathroom to try and find Danny.
In the final minutes of the movie, Wendy bundles Danny into the functioning snow cat left outside by Dick Halloran and drives away from the hotel and towards safety.
Wendy’s actions (what she does) and Wendy’s emotional state are in complete contrast with each other. How Wendy speaks seems boring and uneducated, but Wendy has all the hallmarks of a woman masking her intelligence. She says what she needs to get along, and to ensure her husband’s rampant entitlement and ego remain intact. And yes, there’s the unfortunate scene earlier in the movie where Wendy appears to justify Danny’s arm being dislocated by Jack. But the look on her face implies that Wendy has been scared of her husband for a very long time. Later, Wendy screams, sweats and cries her way around the Overlook, clearly frightened out of her mind. But who wouldn’t be a nervous wreck dealing with a psychopath of a husband, cut off from the outside world in a haunted malevolent hotel?
Now, let’s contrast Wendy with Jack. Isn’t Jack Torrance wonderful? So bright, so creative. A former school teacher (and therefore an educated pillar of the community), and a writer. He’s working on a new project.
In the interview for the caretaker’s position, and at the hotel, he talks about his writing. His demeanor says that as a writer he should be held in high regard. His conversations about his writing go unchallenged. At the hotel, rather than go outside and take a walk with his wife, he brushes her off. He should, “Try to do some writing first.”
Jack’s words keep saying, “I’m a writer Goddammit. And I’m important.”
And just to reinforce this message, we’re introduced to how little Jack knows about Wendy during the job interview and what he thinks about certain other fiction genres. When Stuart Ullman tells Jack about the Grady murders, Jack responds, “As far as my wife is concerned, I’m sure she’ll be absolutely fascinated when I tell her about it. She’s a confirmed ghost story and horror film addict.” This is followed by a smile and dismissive laugh from Jack and Stuart.
But what do Jacks’ actions say? First off he thinks dragging his wife and child up a mountain to live in isolation is a good way to get a book written. Despite having zero ideas. Once he’s settled into the hotel, he does nothing except throw a ball around, and sleep until 11.30 AM. His wife takes care of Danny, keeps their apartment clean, cooks the meals, and keeps the hotel running. He doesn’t lift one finger to help her. In a moment of irony, she serves him breakfast on a silver platter, signifying Jack’s position as king of this particular castle. Jack Torrance is also a dry drunk. He spends a lot of time complaining and justifying his decisions and actions to Lloyd.
Although it’s not stated outright, the implications in the film is that Jack may have been fired from his position as a school teacher. He’s been an alcoholic for a long time. His dreams of being a writer, are just that–dreams. And he probably has a habit of hauling his family from place to place thinking a new town will fix his life. Wendy says at the start of the movie that they moved to Boulder three months ago from Vermont. Her husband, “(…) was teaching school there.”
Jack’s actions show how much he hates the woman in his life who does everything for him. He’s thinks that whatever Wendy does isn’t enough. She should offer him encouragement, but the right kind of encouragement. She should automatically understand what he wants without him having to express it. She should do all of the work because he’s too talented and creative to hold an ordinary job. When Jack decides to kill her, she should just lie down and accept it like any good wife would.
And that is the genius of Stanley Kubrick. A surface viewing of The Shining seems to show a frail, stupid, hysterical woman pitted against a powerful intelligent man and the evil forces of the Overlook hotel. The woman spends a lot of time running around screaming and reacting to whatever is happening in the moment.
Another viewing of the The Shining shows a woman who decides that this time around, she’s not taking any more abuse from her husband and she’s not going to let her son be hurt a second time. She does everything in her power to escape with her child.
Wendy Torrance is a bad ass.