Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is both deeply terrifying and deeply layered with subtext. At the level of plot, Jack Torrence (Jack Nicolson) and his family agree to care for the secluded Overlook Hotel during its closed winter season, giving Jack an opportunity to work on writing his novel. However, through an enigmatic connection to the hotel’s violent history, a murderous hysteria slowly overtakes Jack, and we soon find him wielding an ax and chasing his wife and child about the hotel grounds. But this is no random act of violence. The events that unfold at the Overlook function as a lens into the culture from which they arise.
Decades worth of keen film observers and Kubrick fans have been rewarded generously in deciphering The Shining’s visual cues and coded language, unearthing a latent history of colonialism and genocide built into the foundations of the Overlook Hotel. Strewn about the spacious wings of this mountainside resort are the repressed traumas of western culture. From the sweep of America’s western expansion to the Holocaust of the 1940s, the bloody horrors of history stalk the rooms and corridors of the Overlook Hotel.
Common readings of Jack’s mania distill these horrors down to their most essential vehicle—white, patriarchal violence—a symbol as elemental to our repressed histories as the image of blood from the massacred dead gushing through closed elevator doors. But little in Kubrick is so flat and unambiguous. Even Jack’s ultra-violence has its nuance. What we see is Jack go through a process steeped in the frustrated dynamics of class-consciousness. He yearns to attain a higher station in life, but in failing, seeks an outlet for his frustrations. Rather than focusing his resentment against the social structure under which he struggles, Jack directs it in the way many men do: relief in drink and anger at his family. Jack’s story is as fundamental as any to the history of American capitalism.
Within the diegetic world of the film, we know little of Jack Torrence extraneous to the events at the Overlook, but what we do know about him is almost entirely related to his working life. For all the subtleties of The Shining, it couldn’t be more obvious how entrenched in working class anxieties Jack Torrence is. Here is just a short list of some of the ways we know Jack in a work-related context:
- We first meet Jack interviewing for a new job at the Overlook Hotel, seemingly sound of mind, brown-nosing the management and appearing in all ways the reliable, gracious prospective employee.
- Formerly, Jack worked as a schoolteacher, but just “to make ends meet.” He would rather make it as a writer.
- Jack dislocated his son’s arm after Danny messed up Jack’s “work papers”: an interference with Jack’s work triggers the initial abusive event that haunts the family (one of several hauntings).
- Jack accepts work at the hotel, so he can work on his novel at the same time—work on top of work: one to subsist; the other, so he and his family can stop living at a subsistence level.
- Jack turns the Colorado Lounge into his office—a traditional leisure space turns into his work environment. No play for Jack.
- Jack accuses Wendy of interrupting his work in his first aggressive outburst toward her.
- A noticeably unstable Jack can’t sleep because he has “too much work to do.”
- Jack’s labor as a writer amounts to variations on “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
- When Wendy expresses her desire to leave the hotel, Jack accuses her of undermining his work and emphasizes his obligation to his employers, “the owners.”
- And then, Jack goes totally, murderously nuts.
Work, work, work. Maybe with Jack it really is all work and no play.
Tellingly, whereas Jack’s existence appears monotonously confined to the anxieties and trials of working-life, the ghosts, under whose coercion he falls, enjoy uninterrupted leisure. They are the leisure class of the 1920s, eternally partaking in the gala of the hotel’s Gold Room. As a class, they signify the unabashed enjoyment of wealth, freed from toil and struggle, in service to nothing other than the maintenance of their own self-image.
As the film and literary theorist Fredric Jameson observes, “The twenties were the last moment in which a genuine American leisure class led an aggressive and ostentatious public existence, in which an American ruling class projected a class-consciousness and unapologetic image of itself and enjoyed its privileges without guilt, openly and armed with its emblems of top-hat and champagne glass, on the social stage in full view of the other classes.”
The leisure class is not only the specter that haunts the Overlook, it is the specter that haunts modern capitalism, that entices the weary and the downtrodden with a glimpse of the freedom and indulgence awaiting the hardworker, ready to reward the entrepreneurial spirit. Someone just like Jack, right?
As a white male, Jack identifies with the dominant culture of America, idealized in the blasé grandeur of the leisure class, but his entrance into that class—the true ruling class of America—is frustrated by the realities of his working life. Being a struggling writer in the 1970s doesn’t carry the same romance and glamor it had in the 1920s. The closest he gets to the ruling class experience is finding a little reprieve from his frustrations in the enjoyment of alcohol. But, for Jack, drink is no more than a coping mechanism for disenchantment. Even in the midst of the Gold Room’s gala, Jack’s disheveled hair, weathered coat, and faded jeans alienate him from the black ties and coattails of the other guests. The festivities remain at the distance of wonder, dissociated from his lonely consumption of booze.
Rather than being welcomed by the partygoers, it is Delbert Grady, a mere waiter working the party, who befriends Jack. It is Grady who directs Jack’s frustration and anger towards his wife and child, and towards the “n*gger cook” who threatens to intervene at the hotel. With Grady, we have one man in service to the ruling class enlisting another. Grady channels Jack’s resentment and rage not towards the social structure under which Jack struggles, but towards the marginalized, the expendable, those who threaten to disrupt the structure by breaking in from the margins.
It’s the dirty work of empire building. It’s not an image fit for the dignified performance of leisure, which is why Grady must escort Jack away from the party and into the bathroom before they can hatch their scheme. For, the violence asked of Jack occurs in marked distinction to the prim and proper image of the ghosts under whose direction he acts. The leisure class represents itself as puritanically divorced from anything unclean or unpleasant, most particularly manual labor and unmannered aggression. Jack’s toil and violence is thus the repressed content of their social practice, the dirty ground upon which they have built their stage.
And, looking up at that stage is Jack, both audience and stagehand. They enamor him with their spectacle, entice him to imitation, and then, when his efforts fall short, employ him in the maintenance of the social structure over which they preside, as a caretaker of sorts, keeping the upstart younger generations in line, and the meddling women too, and the uppity minorities, as well. White men banding together across class-lines.
It’s a helluva party. Really.