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Literature / The Long Walk

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The Long Walk is a novel by Stephen King published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman in 1979 as a paperback original. It was collected in 1985 in the hardcover omnibus The Bachman Books, and has seen several reprints since, as both paperback & hardback. The plot revolves around the contestants of a grueling walking contest, held annually by a despotic and totalitarian version of 1980s America. The rules of the eponymous Long Walk are as follows (at least the ones that are mentioned in the novel):

  • Walkers have to maintain a speed of at least 4 mph at all times.
  • If a Walker drops below 4 mph for 30 seconds (all at once or spread out), he gets a verbal warning.
  • If a Walker with three warnings drops below 4 mph for 30 seconds, he "buys a ticket."
  • Staying above the minimum speed for 60 continuous minutes allows a Walker to lose one warning.
  • Minor rule violations lead to a warning; major ones result in an immediate ticket.
  • Walkers may not receive aid from spectators, but may bring whatever food or supplies they can carry.
  • Civilians can be arrested for giving aid to Walkers, or ticketed for interfering with them.
  • Walkers may have bodily contact with any spectators they wish, but cannot leave the road.
  • Each Walker is given a canteen of water and a belt of food concentrates at the start of the Walk. They may ask for a new canteen at any time, but may only receive another food belt at 9:00 am each morning.
  • The Walk does not stop for any reason.
  • The eventual winner receives "The Prize," anything he wants for the rest of his life (short as it may be), as well as an undefined sum of money which is apparently less than $1 million since the country no longer has any millionaires.

Not to be confused with the retirement option for judges, Sławomir Rawicz’s disputed memoir of the same name, or the 2019 Laotian film about time travel. Compare and contrast King's other novel centered on a deadly gameshow, The Running Man.

This work provides examples of:

  • Agony of the Feet: Because of the extreme distance involved in the Long Walk, many of the walkers develop blisters, swollen feet, and other ailments on their feet, especially those among them whose shoes are destroyed on the Long Walk. When Garraty loses his shoes, he notes how swollen his feet have become. One poor unfortunate gets his feet run over by the halftrack, leaving him unable to continue.
  • Alternate History: A blink-and-you-miss-it example where Garraty narrates about a landscape view reminding him of the German air-blitz on the American East Coast during the last days of World War II. Other examples include a comment about an official who lost a leg to radiation storming a German nuclear bunker in Santiago, Chile during 1953 (suggesting the war went on for around another decade), a mention of April 31st as the day before the Long Walk begins, and a statement hinting that America has 51 states.
  • Alternate-History Nazi Victory: A very subtle example. While it's entirely set in an Oppressive States of America, references made by various characters indicate that Nazi Germany won the war in Europe, attacked the U.S. East Coast, then ended up in a stalemate when both sides developed nuclear weapons. The subsequent economic downturn due to much of the old world now being dominated by fascist governments drove the United States to adopt a totalitarian government as well.
  • Ambiguous Ending: Garraty wins the Long Walk but what exactly happens after that isn't clear. Is the dark figure Death? Is it a hallucination brought on by his exhaustion? Is it merely another person in the distance? Or is it something else altogether?
  • And I'm the Queen of Sheba: After Gary Barkovitch introduces himself to Olson, Olson sarcastically replies, "I'm John Carter. My home is Barsoom, Mars."
  • Anyone Can Die: The nature of The Long Walk means that There Can Be Only One and everyone else ends up getting shot.
  • Artistic License – Sports: Most of the competitors in the Long Walk are stated or shown to not have trained for long distance running, and those who are athletes are amateur or high school level athletes at most. This makes their performance in the Walk highly unrealistic; a pace of 4 miles per hour may not sound very fast but it is a jogging pace that someone could not keep up all day without training that would significantly improve their endurance and lung capacity. (And they certainly couldn't keep up that pace and have long conversations with other people.) A pace of somewhere around 3 mph or slightly higher (the pace for a brisk walk) would have been much more realistic.
  • Bastard Angst: Stebbins is actually the bastard son of the Major himself, one of several unacknowledged ones as he notes. He wants his prize for winning the Long Walk to merely be his acceptance into his father's home.
  • Big Brother Is Watching: Anyone who is too "political" or vocal against the government is taken away by the Squads, referred to as getting squadded.
  • Black Dude Dies First: Subverted, but just barely. Ewing is the first Walker mentioned to be black, and he is the second to die. The first dead Walker's ethnicity is not mentioned.
  • Bolivian Army Ending: Garraty wins the Long Walk, and breaks into a run after his last competitor buys his ticket. The novel ends without letting us know his fate, although it's implied that he's gone insane from the stress.
  • Boom, Headshot!: How Walkers who buy their ticket are executed.
  • Bread and Circuses: The Long Walk is a popular source of entertainment for citizens across the country, inspiring billions of dollars in wagers and huge crowd turnouts along the route.
  • Clawing at Own Throat: Barkovitch goes insane and rips out his own throat.
  • Cry into Chest: Garraty cries into Olson's chest in the middle of Olson's Rasputinian Death.
  • Day of the Jackboot: The United States has been turned into a dictatorship after the second World War ended in a stalemate and the US fell into a renewed depression as a result.
  • Deadly Euphemism: Losers in the game "get their ticket", which involves being shot to death by the soldiers escorting them.
  • Deadly Game: One hundred teenage boys are selected to participate in the titular "Long Walk" and only one is left alive by the end of it. Assorted remarks by the Walkers indicate that very few, if any, of the winners live long enough afterward to enjoy the Prize.
  • Death March: The novel is set in a dystopian Alternate History America where the government organizes a Deadly Game known as the "Long Walk" every year. One hundred teenage boys are selected to walk from a starting point on the Maine-Canada border and down the Atlantic coast until only one boy remains. They're accompanied by soldiers in half-tracks who monitor the walkers' speed, and will shoot to kill after issuing a walker three warnings for falling below the mandatory minimum speed.
  • Deer in the Headlights: Olson describes an incident from the start of the Long Walk two years earlier. One participant completely froze up at the starting line and bought his ticket two minutes later without taking a single step.
  • Determinator: What you have to be to even make it to the halfway point, let alone win. A particularly gruesome example is Hank Olson, who makes it just past the halfway point entirely on sheer force of will as both his body and his mind had completely broken down by then. He even gets shot through the gut and that doesn't immediately faze him.
  • Developing Doomed Characters: One of the hardest parts of the Long Walk is making friends, as eventually, they will die. Several characters give their backstories as the walk goes on, only for them all to buy their tickets.
  • Driven to Suicide: Barkovitch. He rips out his own throat.
  • Dwindling Party: One hundred boys start the Long Walk. One by one, they die until one remains.
  • Empty Shell: Despite his initial cockiness, Hank Olson becomes this after tiring early in the game, though he manages to make it up to just beyond the halfway point through sheer force of will.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: The Long Walk. 100 teenage boys walk until there is only one left alive.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Scramm, knowing full well he can't finish the Long Walk with such an advanced case of pneumonia, and Mike, one of two Hopi brothers who gets struck with severe abdominal cramping. Instead of just falling over and taking it, Scramm says his goodbyes, talks with Mike who bids goodbye to his brother, and walks into the escorting half-track's path. They flip the half-track off, insult the soldiers approaching them and sit down to talk while they wait for death.
  • Fair-Play Villain: There are very clear rules that are equally enforced amongst all competitors. This is taken to extremes; when a contestant has his feet run over and clearly won't be able to continue, the soldiers still give him his warnings every 30 seconds before finally shooting him when he runs out of time.
  • Get A Hold Of Yourself Man: When Garraty experiences a fit of laughing madness and incurs three Warnings during said fit, McVries intervenes, holding Garraty up to keep him going so he doesn't get a ticket and attempting to verbally coax him out of it. Eventually, McVries slaps Garraty to get him to snap out of it before he gets his ticket, getting himself a Warning in the process of this act.
  • The Grim Reaper: The dark figure Garraty sees at the end. Maybe. See Ambiguous Ending.
  • Heroic Vow: Once word gets out among the Walkers that Scramm has a pregnant wife after Scramm himself is going to die, they make an agreement that whoever wins the walk will help his newly made widow.
  • In Spite of a Nail: Despite being set in an alternate 1980s going back to at least WWII, John Travolta is apparently still a celebrity (it's not clear for what reason, but a character sees and recognizes Travolta's picture in a newspaper).
  • Interplay of Sex and Violence: Garraty hits Jimmy Owens with his Daisy air rifle as a response to the two of them getting caught exploring their sexuality together.
  • I Should Write a Book About This: Harkness carries a notebook with the intention of writing a book from a Walker's perspective, noting that it would make him rich. It's pointed out to him that winning the Prize would make this superfluous. Needless to say, the book doesn't get written.
  • It's All About Me: McVries got his scar from his ex-girlfriend, who slashed his face with a letter opener when he tried to rape her. McVries is hung up on the fact that she asked him why he would hurt her when HE was the one with a cut.
  • Jerkass: Gary Barkovitch. Not only does he manage to make enemies out of most of the other Walkers, but he even manages to goad an already-enraged and violent Rank to exhaust himself, resulting in his elimination.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: As unpleasant as Barkovitch is for the most part, he points out that Scramm shouldn't have entered the Walk if he had a kid on the way.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Hank Olson and Collie Parker. McVries can count as one at times too.
  • Killed Offscreen: Obviously, a lot of non-characters among the boys get this treatment, but two of Garraty's friends are also unceremoniously offed out of sight or between chapters: Harkness, and much later, Pearson.
  • Last-Name Basis: The Walkers call each other by their last names, though Garraty and McVries eventually upgrade to First-Name Basis.
  • Last Stand: Parker climbs onto the halftrack and manages to disarm and kill one of the soldiers before he's shot dead.
  • Laughing Mad:
  • Meaningful Name: Barkovitch. Taking "Bark" or "B...itch", his name helps paint him as a rabid dog—which he is most prominently when he provokes another boy so much that the kid buys his ticket, and again when he rips out his own throat.
    • These wordplays aside, his name actually has its origin in the Balkan states. "Barko" would be the name of a patriarch, and the -"vitch" ending marks it as a typical Yugoslavian patronym. The correct writing would be "Barković", though.
    • Barkovitch's appearance speaks for this, since the narration states multiple times that he has dark eyes, dark hair and olive skin (generally describing a Southern European appearance). Which of the Balkan states the character is supposed to be from (if at all!), is up to Stephen King, though.
  • Men Are the Expendable Gender: There are no female participants in the Long Walk. The reason for this is never specified.
  • Never a Self-Made Woman: The only girls and women who are mentioned (especially by name) or appear in the plot action are girlfriends and family members of the Walkers, who are all male. Justified, though, because the Long Walk only allows male teenagers to compete and the plot is basically the events of the Walk.
  • Noble Savage: The Hopi Indian brothers Mike and Joe, who lead the pack. One of them even gets to Face Death with Dignity sitting in front of a halftrack.
  • Nobody Poops: Averted. Much is made about how the Walkers unzip to pee right as they are Walking. As well, one Walker dies because he stopped to squat due to a case of diarrhea and incurred three Warnings as well as buying his ticket before he could even finish up his business. Also, a big deal is made about Garraty squatting to pass a turd on the road and surviving, incurring only two Warnings in the process.
  • No, You: This exchange.
    Woman: [Garraty] won't last much longer.
    Garraty: Your tits won't last much longer!
  • Oppressive States of America: The United States has become a dictatorship under the control of the Major and his Secret Police after the country lost World War II (note that the U.S. is still independent, since it appears the Axis Powers only performed skirmish campaigns in the Americas). The regime keeps the population docile with the annual Long Walk, where 100 teenage boys are forced on a grueling marathon and killed one by one.
  • Playing Doctor: Garraty recalls how he and a boy named Jimmy Owens once did this when they were five years old, and Jimmy's mother caught them in the act.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: Olson gives two examples as he is trying to hang on for just a little longer.
    Garraty: God's garden? What about God's garden, Olson?
    Olson: It's full. Of. Weeds.
    * pause*
    Olson: I.
    * pause*
    Olson: I don't. Want. To die.
  • Pyrrhic Victory:
    • Garraty is the Pyrrhic Victor of the eponymous Long Walk by virtue of having outwalked 99 other male teenagers. However, he's also watched most of them die, including those he had established a rapport with, and is at the point where his physical and mental health have greatly deteriorated and he welcomes the prospect of his own death.
    • The only previous winner from Maine finished the Walk blind in one eye from the physical strain of the ordeal, ended up in hospital, and died within a few weeks. He got a street named after him.
  • Raging Stiffie: Gribble, who feels up a young woman watching the walk. The sexual frustration is enough to slow him down sufficiently to incur his ticket.
  • Rasputinian Death: Hank Olson is shot in the belly as he climbs up onto the halftrack. The next two bullets knock him to the ground, then he takes three more, and then he starts to sit up. More shots lay him out, but he manages to get to his feet and start walking, even though his intestines are now spilling out of his body. After he finally falls dead, the soldiers put two more bullets in him and take him away.
  • Released to Elsewhere:
    • At the beginning of the book, all the reader knows is that if a Walker commits any offense, then they get a Warning and if he commits one more when he's already got three Warnings accumulated, he "buys a ticket." It then turns out that "buying a ticket" is a euphemism for being shot dead by the soldiers on the escorting halftrack.
    • Being "Squadded" (taken away by the National Squads) is also this. Garraty's father had this happen to him ten years before the events of the book.
  • Sanity Slippage: Practically everyone suffers from this at some point. Or at least, those who survive long enough do.
  • Second Place Is for Losers: The boy who comes second gets the exact same prize as the other ninety eight: getting shot. At one point it's discussed among the Musketeers whether or not a consolation prize of being simply allowed to live should be given to the runner up, though it's also argued that this is pointless, as he would have walked All for Nothing.
  • Sleepwalking: At various points in the book, walkers doze off while walking with Garraty even dreaming during his periods of sleepwalking. It's not really any kind of useful sleep because they're still walking at the end of the day.
  • Someone to Remember Him By: No one featured directly in the plot gets pregnant with or is one of these babies, but Scramm has a wife who is pregnant with his baby and with his death has made the baby an example of this trope.
  • Spoiler Cover: The original cover of the book shows #47 (Garraty) as the last one standing.
  • Suicide Attack: Hank Olson and Collie Parker both try to overtake one of the escort half-tracks by force. Both of them fail, but while Parker gets off lightly even after killing one of the soldiers, Olson is made an example of.
  • Suicide Mission: The Long Walk is essentially a walk to the death that will leave only one participant alive — and yet, hundreds of boys sign up each year.
  • There Can Be Only One: There is no set distance for the Walk. It just goes on until there is only one survivor.
  • The Stoic: The soldiers. Their lack of emotion in dealing with the walkers is pointed out several times.
  • Too Dumb to Live:
    • Ewing wears sneakers despite the fact that the rulebook given to all the Walkers in advance explicitly tells them not to do so, as no other type of footwear will cause blisters faster on long distances. Predictably, he develops blisters after only two miles, and is ticketed after the pain becomes too great for him to maintain speed, becoming the second Walker to die. Garraty even discusses it in his internal monologue, and Barkovitch derides Ewing for it out loud.
    • Percy tries to sneak away from the Walk under cover of darkness. Of course, it doesn't work—the soldiers have sophisticated tracking equipment. They shoot him as soon as he puts one foot off the road, and Percy should have known that would happen.
  • Unbuilt Trope: Had it been released in The New '10s it would be considered a Deconstruction of works like Battle Royale or The Hunger Games, since it starts with very similar premise (dystopian country holding a Deadly Game for their youth). However unlike in those works, the walkers are all volunteers mostly in it for the prize, there is no hope of them threatening the system or inspiring the populace to rise up and things as simple as walkers' bodily functions are a much more of a hindrance to them than any kind of interpersonal rivalry.
  • Wandering Walk of Madness: By the end of the Walk, there's only one survivor, and even after he wins he keeps walking (and even starts running) towards a hallucinatory figure beckoning him to continue.
  • Was It Really Worth It?: The prize for the sole survivor is anything they want for the rest of their lives, but at several points throughout the narration, and in conversations between the Walkers, it's made pretty clear that the Walk is so physically and psychologically damaging that the rest of the winner's life is not a very long time.
  • Why Don't You Just Shoot Him?: Averted. The soldiers on the half-tracks have no problems shooting Walkers under any circumstances, although they still have to give out the mandated three warnings unless the Walkers directly attack the halftrack or go off the road.
    • An interesting example with Olson, who has bought his ticket and been shot multiple times in the belly to the point where his intestines are spilling out, but he keeps right on walking. After he finally falls dead, the soldiers shoot him a few more times for good measure and then carry him off.
    • It's notable that most of the kills the soldiers deal out are quick and clean, but it's remarked in the story that because Olson confronted the soldiers directly, his death is deliberately drawn out so that other Walkers will think twice before trying to confront the soldiers as well.
    • Several Walkers pass out on the road, but the soldiers still stand there and give the unconscious bodies their three warnings before shooting them. Rules are rules, after all.
    • One Walker ends up having his feet run over - and obliterated - by the halftrack. The soldiers still call out his warnings over his screams, despite the fact that there is no way he can continue.
    • Even after Stebbins collapses and dies in the final chapter, the soldiers still issue the warnings and then shoot him.
  • You Are Number 6: Each of the hundred walkers is referred to be number when incurring warnings. Garraty's number is 47. No mention of him having a bar code on the back of his head though.
  • Your Head A-Splode: The very first elimination gives everyone a good idea of how serious the rules of the competition are.