Common Themes in the Works of Stephen King
I was asked to answer a question on Quora about the common themes in Stephen King’s works. I have read everything that King has written, and I have noticed several “big ideas” that recur in his works. Taken together, these ideas provide a worldview that I find very compelling, which is probably why I enjoy King’s writing so much. The following are the seven major themes that seem consistent across King’s body of work. Please note that this essay does contain spoilers for many King books. I have provided as many examples as I can remember, but I am sure I have missed some, so please fill in the gaps in the comments.
1) There are two elemental forces, the Purpose and the Random, which are constantly at war with each other; this battle affects all worlds and all lives. The goal of the Random is destruction of all worlds. The goal of the Purpose, which King calls the “White” and uses synonymously with God, is to hold the Random in check and maintain a balance between the two forces. The “Coming of the White” refers to the restoration of the Purpose, or setting things right after a period of chaos. The Purpose selects and guides humans to achieve its aims; these people, although retaining free will, are in the thrall of fate or destiny, which King calls ka. The Random enlists its own agents, which may be human or supernatural beings.
Examples: The Stand and The Dark Tower series are King’s epics about this ongoing battle, but the theme recurs in many other books, especially Desperation, The Eyes of the Dragon, Insomnia, It, Low Men in Yellow Coats, Needful Things, and The Talisman. In Pet Sematary, the symbol of the spiral found in the Pet Sematary and the Micmac Burying Ground leads from chaos to order. In The Talisman, this elemental opposition is reflected in the two hotels — the Alhambra Inn and Gardens and the Black Hotel — where the quest begins and ends.
2) Ordinary people, when they come together, can achieve extraordinary things against overwhelming odds. Everyone, even the most ordinary or lowliest person, has something special to contribute. When people form a bond and work together against a common foe, the effects of their contributions are magnified, enabling them to overcome powerful enemies. When the Purpose brings together a group of people in this way, the group is called a ka-tet.
Examples: King introduces the term ka-tet in The Dark Tower series, where it refers to a group where many lives are joined by fate. Ka-tets are also formed in Black House, Desperation, It (the Losers’ Club), Insomnia, The Stand and Under the Dome.
3) The most important thing a person can do is make a stand for the ultimate good. Heroic characters are exhorted to “stand and be true” against the forces of chaos that oppose them so as to preserve order in the world. Making a stand is an incredibly difficult, often self-sacrificing act. It requires faith and courage in the face of overwhelming terror and power.
Examples: Of course, The Stand is the epic story about making a stand against the ultimate evil. Other books where the hero is required to make a stand are The Dark Tower series, The Eyes of the Dragon, It, Needful Things and The Talisman.
4) Everything in space and time is cyclical, and all events are fundamentally connected. This idea is symbolized by a wheel. In Insomnia and The Dark Tower series, King describes his vision of the multiverse as a wheel made up of perhaps an infinite number of worlds, connected by the axle of the Dark Tower, and held together by the spokes, called the Beams. The phrase repeated in many King novels, “Life is a wheel,” expresses the cyclical nature of life and that nothing happens by chance. Ka, or fate, is also “the wheel that moves the world” (Rose Madder). This cyclical repetition can be a Hell for the people caught up in it (“Hell is repetition”), reflecting the Eastern idea of the endless cycle of reincarnation, which can only be escaped via enlightenment.
Examples: The Dark Tower series, which explains the cyclical nature of all worlds, is itself structured as a cycle, with Roland ending up where he began. This theme is also explored in the cyclical nature of time travel in 11/22/63, It’s sleeping and waking cycles in It, Duma Key, Insomnia, Low Men in Yellow Coats, Rose Madder, The Shining, The Stand, Storm of the Century and The Talisman. The idea of Hell as repetition is the major theme of the short story, “That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French.”
5) Creation is a powerful tool in service of the Purpose. If the Random’s goal is destruction, then creation is the ultimate weapon against it. This may be why writers figure so prominently in King’s works, as writers literally create worlds when they tell stories. Like any tool, the writer’s ability to create can be used either for good or evil ends.
Examples: This idea is taken to the extreme in The Dark Tower series, where King introduces himself as a pivotal character as the creator of Roland and his world; therefore, he is responsible for Roland’s success or failure in his quest to save all worlds. Writers and their ability to create figure prominently in Bag of Bones, The Body, The Dark Half, Desperation, It, Lisey’s Story, Misery, The Regulators, ‘Salem’s Lot, Secret Window, Secret Garden, The Shining and The Tommyknockers, as well as the short stories, “The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet,” “Dedication,” “The Road Virus Heads North” and “Umney’s Last Case.” In Duma Key, the creator is a painter rather than a writer, but the theme persists.
6) The innocent and uncorrupted are closest to the Purpose, which makes them unexpectedly powerful. Generally, the innocents are children, but they could also be the mentally disabled (Tom in The Stand, John Coffey in The Green Mile, Duddits in Dreamcatcher) or the saintly (Mother Abigail in The Stand). Their powers manifest as prophetic visions or dreams, as well as the ability to alter reality and communicate telepathically. Adolescence is a time when the innocent are most vulnerable to corruption, when their powers may be turned to evil, such as in Carrie or Christine.
Examples: Powerful children appear in Bag of Bones (telepathy), Cujo (visions), Desperation (visions and miracles), Firestarter (pyrokinesis, telekinesis and telepathy), Insomnia (can see auras), It (visions and magic), The Langoliers (visions), Pet Sematary (prophetic dreams), The Regulators (also autistic), The Shining (telepathy and visions), The Stand (telepathy and visions), The Sun Dog (visionary dreams), The Talisman (travel between worlds) and Under the Dome (prophetic dreams).
7) The greatest evil that people do is victimization of the weak by the strong. Victimization usually manifests as abuse of animals, women and particularly children. Abuse of the weak is a particular evil of human nature (rather than an elemental evil like the Random), but it can lead to corruption of the abuser by the Random. The abused are generally not rescued; if they are to escape, they must do so themselves, by calling on their inner strength and power. If abused children do not escape or die, they often grow up to commit evil acts as a result of their abuse.
Examples: Child abuse takes places in The Body, Carrie, The Dead Zone, Dolores Claiborne, Gerald’s Game, Insomnia, It, The Langoliers, The Library Policeman, Rage, Rose Madder, The Shining and The Talisman. Wife/girlfriend abuse takes place in Cujo, Cycle of the Werewolf, The Dark Half, Desperation, Dolores Claiborne, Gerald’s Game, The Green Mile, Insomnia, It, Rose Madder, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Talisman, The Tommyknockers and many short stories.
Filed under: Authors | 3 Comments
Tags: Stephen King, Themes
About the Author
shannon.turlington AT gmail.com
Authors and GenresAlternative histories Bildungsromans Books Books and reading Boys California Children's literature Children's stories Christopher Moore City and town life Cormac McCarthy David Brin David Mitchell Detective and mystery stories Domestic fiction Dystopias End of the world England Families Fantasy Fantasy fiction Genetic engineering George Saunders Ghost stories Good and evil Historical fiction Horror tales Human-alien encounters Humorous stories In memoriam Interplanetary voyages Jonathan Lethem Joseph Heller Juvenile fiction Kazuo Ishiguro Kim Stanley Robinson Kurt Vonnegut Life on other planets Love stories Maine Male friendship Man-woman relationships Margaret Atwood Married women Michael Chabon Michael Cunningham Murder investigation Neal Stephenson Neil Gaiman New York Octavia Butler Paranormal fiction Philip K Dick Police Private investigators Psychological fiction Ray Bradbury Reading Satire Science fiction Shirley Jackson Short stories Sisters Stephen King Sunday Salon Survival Suspense fiction Terry Pratchett Time travel Twenty-first century Ursula K Le Guin Viewpoints War stories World War (1939-1945) Young adult fiction
- Farnham's Freehold by Robert A. Heinlein
- The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
- The Kids Will Be Fine: Guilt-Free Motherhood for Thoroughly Modern Women by Daisy Waugh
- The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
- The Dinner by Herman Koch
- Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress
- My Man Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse
- Still Life by Louise Penny
- The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson
- The Life and Times of Persimmon Wilson by Nancy Peacock