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THE LONG READ 2: DOLORES CLAIBORNE

I said it would be a long road didn’t I? A great deal has happened between the last entry in the series and this one, but none of it is relevant here. This quest through King’s bibliography is one I have no intention of rushing. Hopefully future entries will come a little quicker, but I make no promises. Regardless, let’s get back to it, ya ken?


Format Reminder:

  1. Not spoiler-free.

  2. I’m assuming you’re familiar with the King-lexicon.

  3. Not a rated review.


A copy of Stephen King's novel Dolores Claiborne, with a cover of a woman standing over a well looking in

“There ain't no power in heaven or on earth that can stop people from thinkin the worst when they want to.”


DOLORES CLAIBORNE’s story is delivered by its title character as she gives a deposition to her local police in hopes of clearing her name of murder. Accused of killing her friend and employer Vera Donovan, Dolores recounts the events of her life that lead up to her long-time employment with Donovan, in the process admitting to the murder of her own husband. It’s setting, Little Tall Island, serves as much as one of the characters as anything else, providing texture and a breath of life into Dolores’s story. The entirety of Dolores’s recollection is framed against a coming total eclipse, which serves as an ominous Kingian ambiance setter, mirroring the growing darkness being forced on Dolores. (This eclipse also connects this story directly to King’s other work GERALD’S GAME, but it is much more plot relevant to that one, so we’ll address that connection a little more when I eventually get to GERALD’S GAME). The setting of Little Tall Island, and the economic struggles common to island communities in New England serves as the broad backdrop of Dolores’s story, giving King free reign to explore her and her relationships with a razor sharp clarity.


However, any discussion of just the story's plot and setting is skirting around the most striking part of DOLORES CLAIBORNE. The thing that sets it apart from many of King’s other works is, by far, the formatting. From the outset, all of the book is told in a single, unbroken narrative absent of chapter breaks, paragraphs, or section headers. Feeling at times like a bizarre mixture of the wheeling oral tales of William Faulkner and the terse, plain-structured prose of Cormac McCarthy, DOLORES CLAIBORNE reads beginning to end like a 60-something blue collar woman recounting the simple facts as she sees them. From the outset of her introduction, Dolores’s character is fully realized and living on the page. She starts her recollection with “What did you ask, Andy Bissette? Do I ‘understand these rights as you’ve explained em to me’? Gorry! What makes some men so numb?” That moment is an unforgiving introduction to Dolores Clairborne the character and DOLORES CLAIBORNE the story. After all, “Sometimes you have to be a high riding bitch to survive, sometimes, being a bitch is all a woman has to hang on to.”


Throughout the story, Dolores, as well as some of the other female characters in her recollection, use “bitch” in this reclaimed way meant to show the unforgiving attitudes of the women on the island. That leads into the central theme of the book, and the one true Kingian thing about the story, its treatment of women. The two main characters in the series are women, but two women from totally different economic backgrounds. Dolores, a blue collar cleaning lady and home caretaker, and Vera, a wealthy socialite widow. Both characters can only be accurately described as “hard women '' with Vera serving as an implied mentor on Dolores’s quest to kill her abusive husband.


King is often chided for his formulaic or one-sided female characters, with even the more well fleshed out examples such as Susannah from the DARK TOWER series often derided for their own reasons, but Dolores is nothing if not fully realized. She is a character layered with contradictions. Hard, self-learned, and whip-crack brilliant, but also near-totally beholden to her dirtbag, good for nothing husband, up until she reaches her breaking point. Because, as I’m sure many of the constant readers here know, that is the crux of King’s character writing. Regardless of gender, readers often meet characters either just before or well after they have reached a breaking point in their lives. The story of DOLORES CLAIBORNE is no different. We are, after all, reading as a woman explains that she didn’t kill her employer, but that she did, in fact, kill her husband.


Perhaps the most difficult thing that an unexpecting reader will have to grapple with as they head into DOLORES CLAIBORNE is that, regardless of whether or not she is a murderer, Dolores Claiborne is not a villain, not to King or anyone in the story. Dolores’s decision to murder her husband, her breaking point, comes after she discovers his violence has reached beyond her towards her young daughter in the worst way imaginable. Not once in the narrative does she attempt to justify her actions as righteous. The story casts her all in a growing shadow of violence mirrored by the eclipse, but they are never described as wrong. DOLORES CLAIBORNE’s morale center summarized easily as “some folks just need killing.” If that isn’t something you appreciate, if Dolores’s brutal perspective on the actions she took aren't for you, then the entirety of the story won’t be. King makes no effort to offer the reader a morally-centered way out. Dolores’s husband just needed killing, and them are the facts as she sees them.


Dolores figured her husband needed killing, so she did it, and she never worried about him again. And he never hurt her daughter again. King wrote Dolores as a hard woman, and she lives on the page that way. She is as unforgiving of the world as she expects God to be of her.


Remember, there is an adage in this book that rings true for many of King’s female characters.


“There's no bitch on earth like a mother frightened for her kids.”


Thanks for reading.

-Billy Don

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