Then the laughter, disgusted, contemptuous, horrified, seemed to ride and bloom into something jagged and ugly.
Carrie White is sixteen-years-old, and only months away from her end-of-year prom, when disaster strikes. She has not lived the easiest of lives; her mother is a religious fanatic who plasters the house with crucifixes, religious paintings, and the dreaded closet. Whenever Carrie commits a ‘sin’, her mother locks her in the closet until she ‘repents’ her actions. In other words, Carrie is being abused. She is neglected, beaten, and her mother has already tried to kill her on multiple occasions. Yet this is not the end of Carrie’s troubles; her home life is unpleasant, but her time at school is just as bad. She has been bullied by her classmates since the first day of school, when she got down on her knees to pray in the middle of the canteen.
Ever since that fatal day, Carrie has been the focus of every joke that has passed through the student body. Yet the abuse she faces only gets worse when, one day in the changing rooms, Carrie gets her first period. She is sixteen – far too old to be experiencing menstruation for the first time – so her classmates cannot understand her confusion. As she stands, gazing at her body in horror, they laugh. Their cackles ring around the room, and although all Carrie wants to do is hide, she has to stand there, humiliated beyond comprehension. The thing is, Carrie’s mother has never told her about menstruation. She has never told her what to expect, and so when Carrie’s period starts, she believes she is bleeding to death.
Carrie’s humiliation leads to a catastrophic set of events. Her classmates are given detentions for their cruel behaviour, but this only makes them angry, unable to understand why they should be punished for laughing at a girl whom they have been laughing at for years. So, they set about plotting their revenge. They are going to make Carrie suffer for the trouble she has caused. They are going to make her weep. Only what her classmates don’t know is that Carrie has a hidden talent. She can move things with her mind, causing boys to fall off their bikes as they pass her in the street. She can make doors slam and her mother whizz across the room. Carrie has a very powerful ability, and when her classmates turn against her at the school prom, she decides to use it. She will use her power to stand up for herself, no matter what the cost.
Stephen King’s Carrie takes the form of a powerful epistolary narrative that allows Carrie’s story to be told through the piecing together of various newspaper articles and book extracts. Through this structure, it enters into a gothic tradition made famous by Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which used the epistolary form to present its narrative with more authority than the typical fiction novel. Yet unlike Dracula, Carrie also contains some linear portions of prose that help make this text more accessible. The result is a continuous narrative that, instead of having chapters, is broken up through changes in writing style.
This epistolary structure introduces an element of realism to a genre ordinarily associated with the supernatural. Several excerpts of text suggest a scientific-grounding to Carrie’s telekinetic powers. The result is that, even as Carrie’s powers grow increasingly out of control, it is possible to believe in them, and to question – just for a moment – whether the events described in this narrative could have actually taken place. This introduces a large amount of tension into the novel, for even though the ending is not in any way surprising, it becomes extremely dramatic as its readers become invested in Carrie’s story.
It is not only the realism of this story that can cause its readers to feel invested, either. It is inevitable that you will begin to feel sorry for Carrie – perhaps even from the first few pages. When she was a baby, she exhibited a few of her ‘powers’, which caused her religious mother to believe that Carrie was the spawn of the devil. Since then, she treated her daughter as a monster, locking her in the closet and frequently considering coming at her with a knife. Yet perhaps the most disturbing part of this story occurs when it is revealed Carrie’s mother never taught her about menstruation. There is clearly no love in their relationship – or even concern. Carrie is not only physically abused: she is emotionally neglected, and this makes her story incredibly moving.
Questions of morality are raised throughout this narrative. King asks us to consider whether a child can be truly moral – or whether they lack the awareness to make coherent, moral decisions. This is seen both through Carrie’s actions and through her classmates’. Carrie has only ever experienced cruelty, both from her mother, and from the girls in her class. Carrie asks us to question whether such a child – who has never witnessed acts of kindness – could possess a moral compass. Her classmates, on the other hand, appear to have had structured lives. They have not been exposed to the cruelty Carrie is used to, and so when they commit immoral acts, the question arises as to where their motivations come from.
Carrie is an intensely interesting narrative that raises a lot of questions about childhood. It considers the importance of a child’s development, asking its readers to think about the different influences a child may experience. It was the first of King’s books to be published, and began as a short story that was later extended into a full-length novel. For the most part, this was successful: Carrie is profoundly thrilling, a quintessential example of an epistolary narrative. Yet there are still elements of the short story present in Carrie. It is not chronological, and so from very early on in the text, readers will be able to predict its conclusion. For a narrative of this length, a predictable nature can come across as a little unnecessary. Such a revelation about the book’s ending could have occurred much later in the narrative; it’s a shame that readers are deprived of what could have been a truly jaw-dropping ending. Then again, it can also be argued that the non-chronological framing of this story helps increase its realism, adding to the drama of a tale that is sure to keep its readers entertained.