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Literature / Dolores Claiborne

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Dolores Claiborne is a 1992 Psychological Thriller novel by Stephen King.

Presented as a text transcription of a voice recording by the police, the story introduces Dolores Claiborne (married name St. George), an elderly maid from Little Tall Island off the coast of Maine, who has been caring for her wealthy employer Vera Donovan for many years. Vera suddenly dies under suspicious circumstances, and Dolores who had also been suspected of murdering her husband Joe many years before is caught standing over the body clutching a rolling pin. The novel begins as Dolores has voluntarily gone down to the police station in order to make a statement concerning her role in both deaths.

King wrote the novel with Kathy Bates whom he'd met on the set of Misery and was greatly impressed by in mind for the role of Dolores in the inevitable film version. Sure enough, Bates starred in Taylor Hackford's 1995 film alongside Judy Parfitt as Vera, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Selena, and Christopher Plummer as (unique to the film character) Detective John Mackey, and also features memorable appearances by John C. Reilly, Bob Gunton and David Strathairn. The film is often cited as one of the more underrated King adaptations, but has been somewhat obscured by the fact that it followed the release of The Shawshank Redemption and appeared amid a flurry of other memorable (if often of low or questionable quality) film and television adaptations of King's work.

Bates later cited Dolores as her favorite among her own roles.

Tropes present in the novel:

  • Abusive Parents: Dolores Claiborne has a husband who, in addition to physically abusing her, has a decidedly unwholesome interest in their teenage daughter Selena, who suffered sexual abuse at his hands in addition to manipulation into being afraid of her mother in order to keep her from talking about it. It is this, along with the stealing of their children's college money in order to spite her, that would ultimately lead to Dolores's decision to murder him.
  • Adaptation Name Change: Vera's husband is called Michael in the book but Jack in the film.
  • Ailment-Induced Cruelty: During the last years of Vera's life, she devolves into a helpless bed-ridden old woman frequently hallucinating about "dust bunnies". Her only source of joy ends up being intentionally shitting her bed in order to make her caretaker, Dolores, clean it up.
  • The Alcoholic: Joe St. George, Dolores's husband was thought to be one. Dolores, however, disputes that Joe was actually an alcoholic: he liked to drink, but he was capable of moderating himself (such as drinking the good liquor in small portions, so it'd last longer). However, he could win sympathy from people by claiming to be a recovering alcoholic.
    • Dolores is saddened to realize that part of the reason adult Selena never visits is because she has taken to drinking like her father.
  • Annoying Patient: Vera Donovan gradually devolves from a strong-minded businesswoman to a feeble helpless old lady through the novel. It doesn't help that she maliciously craps the bed in order to make life harder for Dolores, her carer.
  • Apron Matron: Dolores.
    • Vera, to an extent.
  • Arc Words: Sometimes, being a bitch is all a woman has to hold onto.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: Dolores to the misogynist bank clerk: "I know why you won't help me, it's because I'm a woman, isn't it?".
  • Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: When Joe is trying to drag Dolores into the well along with him, she has a sudden image of her neighbours finding their bodies together and thinking that they committed suicide like that to show how much they loved each other. The fact that people would think this gives her the strength to struggle free from his grasp.
  • Character Title
  • Clear My Name: The entire reason for the novel. While Dolores is responsible for her husband's death, Vera's death is a genuine accident.
  • Convenient Eclipse: Dolores chooses the day of the solar eclipse to murder Joe because she knows that almost everyone on the island will be off watching it.
  • The Coroner Doth Protest Too Much: Dr John McAuliffe tries to make Dolores confess that she in fact either murdered Joe or ignored his pleas for assistance but is unable (much to his frustration) to prove that she could hear him or that she had any part in Joe's death — he has to rule it death by misadventure.
  • Country Mouse: Dolores, and proudly so.
  • Crossover: With King's Gerald's Game. The eclipse allows the two main characters a brief psychic link, even though they don't know (and never find out) who the other was.
  • Curse of The Ancients: Dolores would use 'cheese and crackers' as a minced oath.
  • Cut Himself Shaving: Although Joe does have a history of beating Dolores, she stopped him from doing so months before. She really, honestly did simply injure herself by accident. But the checkout lady refuses to believe her. However, both she and Joe use the large bruise to let him save face by pretending that he gave it to her.
  • Daddy's Girl: Joe and Selena, until he starts abusing her.
  • Dead All Along: Donald and Helga Donovan, Vera's son and daughter who have been dead since The '60s. This fact is unknown to Dolores until after Vera's death.
  • Determinator: Dr John McAuliffe tries as best he can to prove that Dolores had something to do with Joe's death but is ultimately unable to do so, much to his frustration.
  • Domestic Abuse: Joe, to Dolores; but she soon puts a stop to that. Dolores also recalls that her father hit her mother from time to time: in those days, this was an accepted practice. At first, she accepts Joe hitting her because she was raised to believe that this is normal in a marriage, but when Joe's abuse becomes more brutal than anything she saw her father do, she decides that she won't take it any longer.
  • Domestic Abuser: Joe.
  • Double Standard: Abuse, Female on Male: Definitely subverted, as the scene in which Dolores stands up to Joe's physical abuse by smashing his face with a cream pitcher is chilly and not played for laughs. It also has very bad consequences; Selena sees it and Joe uses that to turn her against Dolores, portraying her as the aggressor.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Vera may be a bitch, but she is absolutely disgusted when she finds out about what Joe has been doing, and helps Dolores carry out the planning for his death.
  • The '50s / The '60s / The '90s: When most of the action takes place.
  • Financial Abuse: Dolores has been working hard to build up a savings account to send her children off to college; when she plans to withdraw the money so she and the children can leave town and get away from her abusive husband, she discovers he'd already cleaned it out for his own use, giving her yet another reason to hate him (and, soon after, to plot his murder).
  • First-Name Basis: Vera always calls Dolores on her first name, but originally she called Vera "Mrs Donovan". After Dolores breaks down crying in front of Vera, she demands from Dolores to call her on her first name. "I insist that all women who have hysterics on my bed call me by my Christian name thenceforward."
  • Hair-Raising Hare: Vera is tormented in her old age by visions of 'dust bunnies', which terrify her but that Dolores can't see.
  • Hidden Heart of Gold: Vera.
  • Hollywood New England: Set on the (fictional) Little Tall island off the coast of Maine.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Vera is pretty insistent on not putting the hot baking on the windowsill to cool like 'shanty Irish' would do. Guess which country Vera Donovan's surname comes from?
    • Given that's her married name, it shows how she must feel about her husband.
  • I Am Not My Father: Joe St. George, Jr does his very best to be the complete opposite of his father, who he hated. He ends up as a Democratic Party politician, a party his father hated (calling Roosevelt "Sheeny-velt").
  • Ineffectual Death Threats: Dolores, who's worked for Vera for thirty years, threatens to kill her literally all the time...but she's overheard saying it shortly before Vera dies for real.
  • Jerkass: Vera Donovan, who in her old age intentionally soils herself in order to make life for Dolores harder.
    • Joe, who sexually molests their daughter Selena, hits Dolores and squanders some of his children's college savings.
  • The Loins Sleep Tonight: After Dolores stood up to Joe's abuse and humiliated him, he became impotent with her. So, he started to molest his daughter.
  • Line-of-Sight Name: Vera says that her son, Donald has a company called Golden West Associates and her daughter, Helga works at Gaylord Fashion. Dolores finds out at the end that they both died in 1961 and that Vera most likely made up the names because she used to read romance novels by a publisher named Golden West and had been born in Gaylord, Missouri.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: The way Vera advises Dolores to get rid of Joe. Dolores does.
    'Husbands die every day, Dolores. Why, one is probably dying right now, while we're sitting here talking. They die and leave their wives their money'.
    • Vera even hints that she offed her own husband by this line:
    'I should know, shouldn't I? After all, look what happened to mine. An accident is sometimes an unhappy woman's best friend.'
  • Mama Bear: Dolores puts up with years of physical and mental abuse from Joe because her main focus is giving her kids the best life she can by saving for each of them to go to college. But when she finds out that he's started molesting Selena and has cleaned out the kids' college savings, he has to die. She's very methodical about it, arranging to make it look like an accident and ensuring that none of her children are home at the time it happens.
  • Meaningful Name: "Dolores" means "pains, sorrows" and is traditionally associated with the pains of Mary, the Holy Mother of Jesus. Throughout the novel, Dolores experiences a number of pains and sorrows, especially as a mother. "Claiborne" (as stated by King himself) literally means "born of clay," indicating both her strength and the fact that she is, in the end, only a common woman (at one point, Vera even suspects that Dolores is "made of stone").
    • Vera means "truth."
    • "Selena": From the Greek Selēnē, which is derived from selēnē (the moon). The name was borne by the Greek mythological goddess of the moon.
  • Mercy Kill: Vera asks Dolores to do it to her after she falls off the stairs. Dolores promises to do so, but Vera dies on her own before Dolores could do anything.
  • Miranda Rights: The novel starts with Dolores' annoyed reaction to having her Miranda rights read to her.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Selena is a journalist.
  • No Sense of Humor: Joe whacks Dolores in the back with a fire log because she laughs at him.
  • Not So Stoic: Dolores — when she finds out that Joe took the money out of the accounts as well as everything else he did, she breaks down crying in Vera's house.
    Vera: You know, you startled the shit out of me, woman. All these years I wasn't sure you could cry - I thought maybe you were made of stone.
  • Nouveau Riche: Subverted with Dolores. Although Vera's will leaves her well over $30 million, she doesn't accept it and donates it to an orphanage instead.
  • Old Retainer: After thirty years in Vera's employ, Dolores has become this. She acknowledges that these days, the majority of her job is instructing the younger, more spry housekeepers and taking care of Vera herself.
  • Parental Incest: Joe, who sexually molests his fourteen year old daughter Selena over a number of months before Dolores finds out. This was one of several factors that eventually led to her killing him.
  • Rich Bitch: Vera is definitely the richest woman on Little Tall Island, and she's notoriously difficult to work for.
  • Rolling Pin of Doom: The postman catches Dolores standing over a dead Vera with one. He wrongly concludes that she has killed Vera.
  • Scottish English: Dr John McAuliffe speaks it, despite having lived in Maine since World War II.
  • Scrapbook Story: The last bit of the novel has two excerpts.
    • An excerpt from The Boston Globe about an anonymous donation from Dolores, out of Vera's will of $30 million to the The New England Home for Little Wanderers orphanage, and that the 'guardian angel' who sent it is completely serious about their anonymity.
    • From The Weekly Tide, a section called "Notes from Little Tall". It informs us that Dolores is free and expecting a visit from her son Joe Jr and Selena (for the first time in twenty years).
  • Shout-Out: Dolores threatens to send Joe to Shawshank Prison if he ever touches their daughter Selena again.
  • Single Tear: Dolores cries one single tear for Joe, when she's being questioned by Dr. McAuliffe. It is not calculated; while she isn't sorry for killing Joe, she never wanted him to suffer as much as he did.
  • Sir Swearsalot: Dolores, who says she is a foul-mouthed woman which probably comes from having lived a foul life.
  • Stylistic Suck: The novel is intentionally written like a report of speech, which is what it is meant to be (Dolores is recorded on a tape by the police). As such, it lacks paragraphs and chapters. It also dips into Funetik Aksent when trying to emulate Dolores' Maine drawl.note 
  • Sympathetic Murderer: Dolores. What pushed her over the brink wasn't her Joe's treatment of her, it was his treatment of their children — emotional abuse of Joe Jr, sexual abuse of Selena, and cleaning out the college savings accounts Dolores had worked long and hard to build up.
  • Thrown Down a Well: Dolores leads her drunk husband on a wild goose chase to make sure he falls into the well, then she throws a rock on his head to make sure he died.
  • Tomato Surprise: In-universe. When Dolores receives a call from Vera's lawyer about her inheritance, she is stunned to discover that Vera's two children, Donald and Helga, have been dead for decades and Vera was lying to her about it.
  • Total Eclipse of the Plot: Dolores gets Joe to fall into the well out the back of their house during the real life Maine eclipse of July 20, 1963.
  • Unexpected Inheritance: After Vera dies, Dolores is informed that she has left her entire fortune to her (in excess of $30 million) except from a small donation to an orphanage. Dolores ends up giving it all to the orphanage.
  • Unreliable Narrator: One possible interpretation of the story, as it's presented entirely through the first-person narration of a woman speaking to police after being suspected of multiple murders, and it depicts her and everything she does in an extremely favorable light.
  • Villainous Incest: After his wife stands up to him, Joe becomes impotent and begins to sexually abuse his own daughter for stimulation, scarring the young girl.
  • Woman Scorned: Vera's husband died in a car crash. It's implied that Vera murdered him (and made it look like an accident) because he had been cheating on her.
    Vera: But sometimes men, especially drinking men, do have accidents. They fall downstairs, they slip in bath-tubs, and sometimes their brakes fail and they run their BMWs into oak trees when they are hurrying home from their mistresses' apartments in Arlington Heights.

Tropes unique to the 1995 movie:
  • Adapted Out: Dolores' other two children (Pete and Joe Jr.), Vera's son and daughter (Donald and Helga), Andy Bissette, Frank Proulx, Nancy Bannister, John McAuliffe...
  • Age Lift: Dolores, who is sixty-five in the interrogation scenes of the novel, is played by Kathy Bates, who was forty-seven at the time of filming. Given that Dolores works for Vera for twenty-one less years in the film than she does in the novel, this probably means she's supposed to be about Bates' age.
  • Composite Character: Christopher Plummer's character John Mackey is not present in the novel; his dedication to put Dolores away for life seems to be based Dr. John McAuliffe, who tried to pin her for Joe's murder but was ultimately unable to prove it was anything but an accident. He also has echoes of the two cops that interrogate her in present day: Andy Bissette and Frank Proulx.
  • Extremely Short Timespan : While the flashbacks go back over twenty years of Dolores's employment and family life, the main plot takes place over a weekend.
  • Inspector Javert: If McAuliffe was The Determinator in the novel, his film analog Mackey is the Javert. Unable to prove Dolores murdered her husband, he shows up thirty years later to convict her for the murder of her employer. He even shows up at her house and follows her on her shopping
  • Intrepid Reporter: Selena.
  • Ivy League for Everyone : Selena attended Vassar on a full scholarship.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: Selena starts out as a cheery, helpful girl but by the second course of the film, she suddenly stops talking, withdraws from her parents (especially her mother), displays emotional moodswings and aggressive behavior and stops eating and bathing. Anyone who has gone through child sexual abuse would identify such behavioral red flags.
  • Repressed Memories: In the film, Selena doesn't remember that her father sexually abused her, and doesn't believe Dolores when she brings it up. Her memories return near the end of the film.
  • Setting Update: Not to the then present-day scenes set in 1995 (the movie came out only three years after the book) but rather the flashbacks. In the novel, Dolores started working for Vera in 1949 and was under her employment for forty-three years. In the film, she started working for Vera in 1973 and remained there for twenty-two years.
  • Total Eclipse of the Plot: The eclipse takes six and a half minutes, long enough for the climax of the flashback portion of Dolores's story.
  • Trauma Button: Selena's repressed memories of her father molesting her traumatize her to the point where she vomits into a sink after remembering the ordeal.
  • Trauma-Induced Amnesia: Selena doesn't remember her father Joe molesting her until near the end of the film.
  • Wham Shot: adult Selena's repressed memories showing her father Joe molesting her as a little girl proves that Joe really was that evil and her mother Dolores really was telling the truth.