Carrie is a horror novel written by Stephen King, his first published novel, which came out in 1974. The title character is a troubled teen, bullied by her high school classmates and abused by her Christian fundamentalist mother. She also has telekinetic powers (TK), strong enough to kill anyone who hurts her, as the people of her town, fictional Chamberlain, in Maine, learn.
A superb movie version was made in 1976, directed by Brian De Palma and starring Sissy Spacek in the title role, and Piper Laurie as the mother (both actresses receiving Oscar nominations); it co-starred John Travolta as Billy Nolan, Nancy Allen as Chris Hargensen, and Amy Irving as Sue Snell. Other film versions were made, though they weren’t as successful.
The dominant themes of the novel are bullying and abuse, the illusion of omnipotence, failed communication, and the motif of blood. Apart from these, I’ll be doing a psychoanalytic reading of the novel’s symbolism.
Much of the narrative is given in epistolary form, with passages from newspaper or magazine articles, books about the Carrie White affair (The Shadow Exploded, My Name Is Susan Snell), transcripts of an inquiry (The White Commission Report) into the tragedy, etc. This breaking up of the narrative flow into fragments, telling the story from different angles, symbolically suggests failed communication, with its starts and stops. This failed communication is much of the root cause of the bullying and abuse that Carrie suffers.
Like most victims of school bullying, Carrie is different from her classmates. This difference comes from how she’s raised by her mother, Margaret White (white as the Christian innocence she tries–and fails–to preserve), whose religious fundamentalism won’t allow her to expose her daughter to the ‘sinful’ ways of the modern world. This failure to communicate needed information leaves Carrie in a state of arrested development, infantilizing her. Psychologically, Carrie White (white as a baby’s innocence) is a baby going to school with teenagers.
This infantilizing is made clear when her mother fails to tell her about menstruation, her first period being her rite of passage, as it were, into womanhood. So when she’s bleeding in the shower during gym class, what should be a simple matter of using a tampon ends up a terrifying moment for her: all that blood makes her think she’s going to die.
Adding to her trauma are all her bullying classmates, who start laughing at her and throwing tampons at her, chanting, “Plug it up! Plug it up!” Since, as noted above, she is psychologically a baby among teenagers here, instead of this being a passage from girlhood to womanhood, she’s held back by one phase of life, passing from unborn to born, from unknowing innocence to the terrors of the real world, like a newborn baby. Thus, this naked, terrified ‘baby’, dripping wet and bawling her eyes out, is symbolically experiencing a birth trauma, or at least the triggered reliving of it.
Blood as a motif symbolizing death runs throughout the novel. The flow of blood signifies movement from ignorance to knowledge. Carrie finally learns about menstruation, and she is angry with her mother for not telling her about it; but her mother (pages 62-66) equates the blood with sin (e.g., the Tree of Knowledge, of which eating the forbidden fruit, symbolic of sexual indulgence, leads to death).
“…the first Sin was Intercourse. And the Lord visited Eve with a Curse, and the Curse was the Curse of Blood. And Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden and into the World…” (page 63) Out of the Garden of Eden and into the world of sin parallels Carrie’s bloody movement out of the world of innocence into knowledge, out of a peaceful, psychological in utero state and into birth, into the physical, painful world, a world of blood. “And then there was a second Curse, and this was the Curse of Childbearing, and Eve brought forth Cain in sweat and blood.” (pages 63-64) Again, we have an association of blood with newborn babies, curses, pain, suffering, and death (Cain, the first murderer).
Later, the pigs’ blood, first being the result of the pigs’ deaths, of course, later becomes the cause of so many deaths not only in the high school, but all over Chamberlain, too. And with the splashing of that blood all over her comes the realization that her enemies are still enemies. The outflowing of her menstrual blood is her projected destructive instincts; the pigs’ blood poured on her is that death instinct re-introjected.
With the flowing of her blood from her mother’s stab (page 250) comes her knowledge that her filicidal mother is no less an enemy than her school bullies. Margaret is all the ‘bad mother‘ object; not even the slightest trace of the ‘good mother’ object exists in her. After Carrie finally dies in the presence of Sue Snell, one of the few people who tried to be a friend to Carrie, Sue leaves in a state of abject horror, in a knowledge of that horror and death, with her own menstrual blood running down her leg (page 277).
In the contemporary world, with all of our advanced science, technology, and modern knowledge, being raised in a fundamentalist family is a terrible handicap. So much ignorance of today’s world abounds in such a setting; it’s like being a naïve child among a crowd of adults. This is what I mean when I call Carrie a psychological baby among teenagers. Thus, I feel justified in using her story as an allegory for the pathological infant’s psychological state.
When we see a baby, we usually think of an adorable child smiling up at us. We don’t think of the terror that a vulnerable child feels so very often, weeping its frustrations at not getting what it needs. Normally, a good enough parent (to use D.W. Winnicott‘s terminology) provides for all of the baby’s needs well enough in the beginning that the baby is given the illusion that it magically provides for itself: the breast magically appears as soon as the baby wants it.
“The mother, at the beginning, by an almost 100 per cent adaptation affords the infant the opportunity for the illusion that her breast is part of the infant. It is, as it were, under magical control. The same can be said in terms of infant care in general, in the quiet times between excitements. Omnipotence is nearly a fact of experience. The mother’s eventual task is gradually to disillusion the infant, but she has no hope of success unless at first she has been able to give sufficient opportunity for illusion.” (Winnicott, page 238, his emphasis)
With Margaret’s calling Carrie’s breasts her “dirtypillows” (page 142), thus showing that she considers the breast to be only a ‘bad breast’, it can be safely assumed that she hardly, if ever, breast-fed Carrie when she was a baby. It’s not just the milk that the baby enjoys; the texture of the nipple provides pleasure, too, so bottles aren’t always a good substitute. Thus, Margaret is what Melanie Klein called the bad mother, whose frustrating bad breast rarely if ever gave suck to baby Carrie. This willful refusal to provide her baby with a basic need shows a child neglect that would soon grow into full-blown child abuse.
This failure to provide a good enough environment can lead to pathologies in the infant, as Winnicott noted. Margaret, with her prudish attitude towards sex and the body, would have been loath to hold her child or give her any physical affection. This is more emotional neglect, aggravating Carrie’s mental pathology. Carrie’s whole problem is a lack of love, which needs to be grounded in the body.
A healthy infancy involves a child’s peaceful “going on being,” without impingements frustrating that natural, peaceful, passive continuity in life. Not only isn’t she receiving a loving, holding environment, people frequently cut into her private space, bothering her, abusing her, and bullying her. If it isn’t her classmates throwing tampons at her, it’s her mother locking her in a small closet with frightening religious icons so she can pray for forgiveness (pages 65-67), when surely she is one more sinn’d against than sinning.
A baby in such an uncaring, hostile environment goes through terrible persecutory anxiety, the paranoid-schizoid position, as Carrie is going through. When asked out to the prom by Tommy Ross, she can only assume that it’s another trick from her bullying classmates to set her up for humiliation. The impingements she regularly suffers make her want to isolate herself from the world, as Winnicott said a child would want to do: an overly-aggressive environment makes for “…faulty adaptation to the child, resulting in impingement of the environment so that the individual must become a reactor to that impingement. The sense of self is lost in this situation and is only regained by a return to isolation.” (Winnicott, page 222)
“The persecutors in the new phenomenon, the outside, become neutralized in ordinary healthy development by the fact of the mother’s loving care, which physically (as in holding) and psychologically (as in understanding or empathy, enabling sensitive adaptation), makes the individual’s primary isolation a fact. Environmental failure just here starts the individual off with a paranoid potential…In defence against the terrible anxieties of the paranoid state in very early life there is not infrequently organized a state which has been given various names (defensive pathological introversion, etc.) The infant lives permanently in his or her own inner world which is not, however, firmly organized.” (Winnicott, pages 226-227) Recall Carrie’s words to Sue as she’s dying: “(why didn’t you just leave me alone)” (page 275).
Defenceless and without the infantile illusion of omnipotence that a good enough mother provides in normal circumstances, Carrie is forced to retreat into phantasy to provide herself with that omnipotence, which is symbolized by her telekinesis. “…a rain of stones fell from a clear blue sky…principally on the home of Mrs. Margaret White, damaging the roof extensively…Mrs. White, a widow, lives with her three-year-old daughter, Carietta.” (page 3) Her ability to move things with her mind is symbolic of the baby magically making the breast appear at feeding time, when Margaret probably never did it herself. This frustrating bad mother provokes wishes for revenge in Carrie’s phantasy life, represented by her TK.
People who are abused or bullied are essentially infantilized, treated as if weak and helpless, but never given compassion: their feelings and opinions are trivialized and invalidated. Carrie’s mother shows no interest in the pain Carrie feels from having been laughed at for not knowing about menstruation, nor does Margaret care that Carrie is mad at her for not telling her about it.
Carrie’s feelings are cared for so little that even when people do care, she thinks they don’t, as when the assistant principal, Mr. Morton, tries to speak kindly to her, but keeps getting her name wrong (pages 18-19). This is also why she indiscriminately kills people all over Chamberlain instead of just killing Chris Hargensen and Billy Nolan, the ones responsible for the prank with the pigs’ blood.
A few people want to show genuine kindness to Carrie, though it’s a case of too little, too late: Miss Desjardin, the gym teacher (Miss Collins in the 1976 movie, played by Betty Buckley, who also played Margaret White in the Broadway musical version of 1988), Sue Snell, and Tommy Ross. Sue, feeling remorseful over having participated in the “plug it up” teasing, wants her boyfriend Tommy to take Carrie to the prom, to get her to mix with people and build her self-confidence (pages 95-98).
This getting insular Carrie to socialize is symbolically like a baby experiencing the transitional phase between the illusory state of omnipotence (able to summon Mother at will) and reality-testing, where the baby progressively learns to accept that Mother isn’t always there for it, and environmental impingements are at a tolerable level. During this transitional period, the baby has a transitional object (a stuffed animal, a blanket, or, by extension into adult life, creative or imaginative stimuli like the arts or religion). As Winnicott states, “The transitional object stands for the breast, or the object of the first relationship.” (Winnicott, page 236)
For Carrie, the dress she makes for the prom can be seen to represent this transitional object (recall how, when her mother sees her wearing it, she can see her breasts, i.e., note the association of the dress, the transitional object, with breasts). She bought the materials (page 107) and made the dress (a soft material, like that of a security blanket), similar to how the arts and creativity are like an extension of the transitional object into later life. This making of the dress represents aspects of the task of reality-acceptance, away from the illusion of infantile omnipotence: “It is assumed here that the task of reality-acceptance is never completed, that no human being is free from the strain of relating inner and outer reality, and that relief from this strain is provided by an intermediate area of experience which is not challenged (arts, religion, etc.).” (Winnicott, page 240)
By wearing the dress when Tommy takes her to the prom, she symbolically demonstrates the transitional phenomena of going from “me,” the isolated world of dependence on Mother when the baby sees Mother as an extension of itself, to a “not-me” understanding, based on a growing independence from Mother. Carrie’s leaving home with Tommy, in open defiance of her mother, symbolizes this separation of “me” from “not-me”. “It is usual to refer to ‘reality-testing’, and to make a clear distinction between apperception and perception. I am here staking a claim for an intermediate state between a baby’s inability and growing ability to recognize and accept reality. I am therefore studying the substance of illusion, that which is allowed to the infant, and which in adult life is inherent in art and religion.” (Winnicott, page 230, his emphasis)
At the prom, she has a brief moment of happiness, finally feeling accepted by the external world. She has even forgotten her telekinesis, since she doesn’t seem to need it (i.e., she’s letting go of her need of the infantile illusion of omnipotence). But Chris’s cruel prank (ruining her dress, her transitional object, and thus rendering impossible her transition from inner fantasy to outer reality) reminds her of her ever-present persecutors, and like a baby suffering in the paranoid-schizoid position and fighting back against a frustrating outer world in phantasy, so does Carrie get her revenge. “She was forgetting (!! THE POWER !!) It was time to teach them a lesson.” (page 220)
Having been subjected to bullying and emotional abuse myself from family and school, I find myself cheering Carrie on whenever I watch the 1976 movie and she’s using her TK to trap and kill everyone in the high school gym. “Flex.” (page 222)
But her TK doesn’t give her the omnipotence against the danger of her knife-wielding mother, who won’t “suffer a witch to live” (page 175). Nor will Margaret’s fundamentalist faith give her an omnipotent God to save her from Carrie (who kills her in the novel by slowing down and stopping her heartbeat; in the 1976 film, Carrie kills her by making knives fly in the air and stab her to death in a manner similar to the death of St. Sebastian).
Chris imagines her lawyer father can help her get revenge on the school for not firing Desjardin for hitting her (pages 77-84); and she’s bitterly disappointed to know he can’t. This spoiled girl doesn’t have the omnipotence she thinks she has. She never considers how her meanness has consequences. Even after Carrie has already destroyed much of Chamberlain, killed many of the people there, and given everyone the uncanny sense, psychically, that she was responsible for all the mayhem, Chris and Billy imagine they can kill her by hitting her with his car (pages 260-262). Instead, she kills them.
One indication of Carrie’s infantile mental state is her calling her mother, ‘Momma’, one of the first sounds a baby makes in its baby talk; hence the reason that some variation on ‘mama‘ is common in languages around the world for the first object relation most of us form in early life.
Many paradoxes can be seen in this novel (“…she was weeping even as she laughed…” page 226). Blood is associated with death and birth (remember Margaret’s words: “Eve brought forth Cain in sweat and blood.” page 64; also, “I fell down and I lost the baby and that was God’s judgment. I felt that the sin had been expiated. By blood. But sin never dies. Sin…never…dies.” page 247). There are failures to communicate, then there’s Carrie’s uncanny ability to make everyone in town know, psychically, that she’s responsible for the destruction of Chamberlain (pages 213, 229-30, 232-33, 235, 241, 244, and 256).
Also paradoxical about this story is how people seem powerful, but are really powerless, and this applies especially to Carrie. With all of her formidable powers of telekinesis, and all the death and destruction she causes just by thinking it, she is still, in her mind, just a baby: sensitive, vulnerable, fragile, and helpless. One stab to her shoulder kills her. “Able to start fires, pull down electric cables, able to kill almost by thought alone; lying here unable to turn herself over.” (page 272)
Similarly, her bullies think they’re immune to punishment when they’re throwing tampons at her, then find themselves in detention, doing exercises with Desjardin in gym class (page 74). Chris and Billy don’t think anything will happen to them after they drop the pigs’ blood on Carrie. And Margaret assumes she’ll go straight to heaven after death, even when she stabs her own daughter.
So often, we think about our own vulnerability so much that we forget about that of our enemies; and so often, this is the basis for our hurting each other, without end.
At the beginning of the story, Carrie fears bleeding to death when she needn’t; at the end, after she’s reached the height of her destructive powers, she bleeds to death for real. As she’s dying, she whines, like a baby, “(momma would be alive i killed my momma i want her o it hurts my chest hurts my shoulder o o o i want my momma…o momma i’m scared momma MOMMA)” (page 275). She is going through the depressive position, wishing to have reparation with her mother, despairing at her loss.
Though Sue wants to show Carrie love, it’s too late: psychological baby Carrie has lived her whole short life unloved, and is hated all the more after death “CARRIE WHITE IS BURNING FOR HER SINS JESUS NEVER FAILS” (page 287).
Could anything be more horrifying than wishing death and eternal suffering on a baby, a baby that was never even truly loved in the first place?
“Graffiti scratched on a desk of the Barker Street Grammar School in Chamberlain:
Carrie White eats shit.” (page 4)
Stephen King, Carrie, Anchor Books, New York, 1974
D.W. Winnicott, Through Paediatrics to Psycho-Analysis: Collected Papers, Brunner-Routledge, London, 1992