Stephen King’s 1987 horror novel “Misery” is one of his most critically acclaimed works for good reason. Not only was the original novel itself richly written with complex themes and frightening moments, but the movie adaptation that came out in 1991 did it justice.
The performances in the movie were so stirring that then-newcomer Kathy Bates won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of the psychotic Annie Wilkes.
Analysis of the novel and the movie often focus on the compelling and intimidating figure that is Annie Wilkes. However, they often ignore the main character of the movie, historical romance author Paul Sheldon. Just like Fat Thor, there is more to this character than meets the eye.
But who is Paul Sheldon? What does he represent in the story? And how does Stephen King use Paul Sheldon to explore the themes of the novel and himself?
What was “Misery” About?
“Misery” tells the story of writer Paul Sheldon, who feel stuck in a rut after he has been relegated to writing a series of bodice-rippers, kind of like the Khaavren Romances by Steven Brust, only historical.
Sheldon has begun to loathe the main character of his books, Misery Chastain, and has promptly killed her off in the final installment of the series, “Misery’s Child.” He then finished a new novel, a serious novel, while in Colorado.
Unfortunately, while driving back to New York, he gets into a car accident that shatters his limbs and pelvis. He is rescued by perhaps the worst person ever: Annie Wilkes, a psychotic nurse who happens to be Paul Sheldon’s “number one fan.”
Annie has read all of Paul Sheldon’s books and is obsessed with him and Misery. When she discovers Sheldon has killed off her beloved character, she imprisons Sheldon in her remote home and coerces him with drugs and violence to write a new book to bring her back to life.
And if he doesn’t cooperate? Annie has an axe that’s just begging to be used.
Who is Paul Sheldon?
It’s clear from the very first page that this novel isn’t like other horror novels. It focuses on mental horror, growing dread and the suspense of who will win to keep the reader on edge. Although Annie Wilkes is the main source of this dread and thus the more compelling character, Paul Sheldon is equally important and can be just as interesting.
Sheldon is one of the many writer protagonists in Stephen King’s works. He represents a specific era of King’s life as a novelist.
Bill Denborough of “It” represented King as young and successful writer and Scott Landon of “Lisey’s Story” represents him as a writer sharing his life with his wife. Paul Sheldon represented King when he was stuck in multiple ruts in his life.
When King wrote the novel, he was afraid of being typecast as a horror author, just like how Paul Sheldon’s books trapped him as a romance novelist. He also represents the passion inherent to great writers and struggles with addiction, just like King did at the time. Sheldon’s struggles with addiction throughout the novel is so realistic because King was going through them, too.
What are the Themes of “Misery”?
Aside from how Paul Sheldon acts as a way for King to showcase and process his struggles, the events that happen to Sheldon during the novel explores the deeper themes of the book. Throughout the novel, Annie’s torments, Sheldon’s memories and the interplay between the two characters develop the following concepts.
A huge part of Paul Sheldon’s character arc is moving on from his Misery books. Paul Sheldon’s books are treated as a weight around his neck. Although he successfully moves past them, he also acquires new weights in the form of the trauma and addictions he developed during the events of the novel.
Despite being a horror novel, the book ends in a surprisingly hopeful note with Sheldon potentially getting past his hurdles.
Despising the Work
Another facet of Paul Sheldon is the way he despises his own creations, mimicking King’s fears that he will be shoehorned into only writing horror. The same thoughts have passed through other author’s heads before, most notably Agatha Christie and her eventual loathing of Hercule Poirot. But even though he is forced to write “Misery’s Return,” it helps Sheldon get a new respect for the character and understand that he can grow as a writer and beyond his previous works.
Appeasing the Audience
King developed the term “Constant Reader” in this novel. Although the term in the real world is used to name King’s devoted fans, in the novel it takes on a more sinister meaning.
Annie Wilkes is perhaps the darkest type of Constant Reader, the one who showcases the difference between fan and fanatic. Her dependence on fictional characters for identity and joy, and her wrath when they are taken away from her, is a struggle real authors have had to deal with.
Finally, King uses both Paul Sheldon and Annie Wilkes to explore mental illness. Sheldon is used to showcase addiction and trauma while Wilkes is the posterchild for psychosis and obsession. After “Misery,” other types of fiction have done nuanced explorations of mental illness like Broadway’s “Next to Normal” and television’s “Bojack Horseman.”
Paul Sheldon may have only directly appeared in a single novel, but his ordeal has served as a cultural milestone. Thanks to King’s nuanced writing and evocative words, one novel is enough to establish him and explore the themes he represented.