Should I Teach “The Shining”?


ShiningTwinsA couple posts ago I questioned the exclusion of genre fiction from university literature courses. In my last, I ranted about Stephen King’s The Shining. In this one, I mean to combine those topics, asking—to paraphrase Jack Torrance—should I take my own medicine and teach The Shining.

I’m entering a new academic year and have, if I so desire, the option of including The Shining in a course. In the past, I’ve taught books that could be considered genre (The Maltese Falcon, The Quiet American, and Frankenstein, for example). But would I teach that famous 1977 King novel?

For one thing, I usually teach introductory courses, and I look for shorter novels. If something breaks the 250-page threshold, I can lose students; they are reading several other texts. But more importantly, The Shining left me unsatisfied as a piece of literature, probably because of its reliance on genre (that sounds elitist, I know). The Shining might have been a transcendent novel if it weren’t for the “shining” itself, that psycho-sensory quality that always provided young Danny with an escape from reality. Danny has a superpower, and writing a convincing, true, and honest superpower story is difficult. But writing that superpower story when you already have a great, true story is, well, unfortunate (and I mean true in the special way only fiction can be true) .

King provides ample fodder for an English classroom. His writing is intertextual (it explicitly and implicitly evokes a multitude of texts, modern and historical). His alternation between point-of-views is worth talking about (didn’t work for me, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t work). His senses of rhythm and structure and description are well-honed, even in this relatively early work.

But “the shining,” that get-out-of-jail-free card, destroys the story. Consider this novel: a playwright and teacher, having lost everything but his wife and son, takes a job as the winter caretaker (that’s an allegorical/loaded phrase) at an isolated and storied, some say haunted, Colorado Rockies hotel. The isolation and hotel awaken a rage thought left behind with the writer’s alcoholic binges. What started as a last shot at redemption turns into a nightmare of suspicion, visions, and violence that may destroy a family if spring doesn’t come soon. That’s the novel that could’ve been. That novel could still be a horror story. Everything—the sights and smells and actions of the hotel—can stay.

But “the shining” keeps the novel from being true. It becomes voyeuristic. If Danny can escape through his mindpowers, he isn’t like other boys in the midst of alcoholic fathers. He’s special. If Danny can defeat the hotel with his mindpowers—and a fortunate oversight by the hotel monster—he isn’t like other boys who are destroyed by fathers and mothers and psychologically violent houses. Jack’s story is true. Wendy’s is true. But Danny, and his “shining,” that is our escape—and if Danny can escape, then we, ironically, avoid the real horror of the Overlook Hotel and its residents.

Perhaps those critiques suggest a reason to teach the novel. After all, there are so many things done well, that the problems (or what I see as problems) can teach readers about literature. But, as tempting as it may be, the novel won’t be in any of my classes this year.

Am I wrong? Do you think The Shining should be read as college “literature”? And does King’s use of “the shining” take you out or bring you into the story?

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3 thoughts on “Should I Teach “The Shining”?

  1. Love the post. I teach “The Shining” in a high school lit and film class devoted to horror (Poe, Lovecraft, Jackson, King, Bloch, Straub, Hitchcock, etc.). Our studies are almost always character studies, exercises in psychology as much as literary devices. One of the reasons I love The Shining is for the very reason that it isn’t “true”, to use your word. It’s one of the reasons my students end up loving Danny, because Tony showed up what might happen if he and his family went to the Overlook, and he made the decision to sequester that information. And why did he do that? Because he wants his family to stay together. Whatever horrors the Overlook might hold, DIVORCE is far worse for Danny. Yes, what Tony shows Danny doesn’t always happen. But the visions of the Overlook are the worst Danny’s ever had; and yet he still takes the chance that the Shape won’t get him, that his family will stay together, that his actions will help his family avoid DIVORCE and the S-word.

  2. Love the post. I teach “The Shining” in a high school lit and film class devoted to horror (Poe, Lovecraft, Jackson, King, Bloch, Straub, Hitchcock, etc.). Our studies are almost always character studies, exercises in psychology as much as literary devices. One of the reasons I love The Shining is for the very reason that it isn’t “true”, to use your word. It’s one of the reasons my students end up loving Danny, because Tony showed what might happen if he and his family went to the Overlook, and he made the decision to sequester that information. And why did he do that? Because he wants his family to stay together. Whatever horrors the Overlook might hold, DIVORCE is a far worse reality for Danny. Yes, what Tony shows Danny doesn’t always happen. The visions of the Overlook, however, are the worst Danny’s ever had. And yet he still takes the chance that the Shape won’t get him, that his family will stay together, that his actions will help his family avoid DIVORCE and the S-word.

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