Carrie is Stephen King's first published novel, released on April 5, 1974, by Doubleday. Before this book, King had been writing mostly short stories for magazines while working as a high school English teacher. He had started writing the novel, but gave up quickly until his wife, Tabitha, picked the pages out of the trash and wanted to know what happened next.
Carrie was inspired by a girl with whom King had gone to school and another one that he had taught later in his adult life. He writes in his memoir On Writing that both of these girls were picked on by others. One appeared to have religious-fanatic parents while the other one wore the same clothes to school every day. These girls relate to Carrie in the way that they both made an impact on his life, and he wondered how the comments on their appearance and personal life at home affected them. He brought those ideas to life in his protagonist.
This novel is about Carrie White, the daughter of religious fanatic Margaret White. Carrie gains telekinetic powers after traumatically getting her first menstrual cycle in front of her peers in the locker room of her high school. The other girls in the room, including Chris Hargenson and Sue Snell, tell her to "plug it up" and proceed to throw tampons and sanitary napkins at her while she is asking for help because she doesn't know what is going on with her body. Carrie had noticed little things happening around her when she was upset or scared, but during the harassment and attack on her by the other girls in the locker room, the light bulbs burst. Carrie comes to realize that these little strange actions are caused by her. Sue Snell later feels remorse for what she did to Carrie and asks her boyfriend Tommy Ross to take her to prom. Sue and Tommy are in the running for Prom King and Queen, but Tommy agrees after much explanation and pleading from Sue. Tommy asks Carrie who agrees and becomes excited as she feels going to the prom with Tommy will make her feel more "normal."
Tommy and Carrie then go to prom where they are elected as Prom King and Queen due to Chris and her boyfriend Billy Nolan's intervention. Chris and Billy rig a bucket of pig's blood to fall on Carrie, but the fall from the bucket also unintentionally kills Tommy. This horror provokes Carrie to flee with embarrassment, but she then recovers, flies into a rage, and attacks everyone at the prom. After attacking and killing most of the kids, Carrie crosses town – wreaking havoc and killing Chris Hargenson and Billy. After arriving home, Carrie is attacked by her mother who Carrie then kills. At the end of the novel, Sue visits Carrie's house and talks to her while Carrie dies. As she dies, rocks fall from the sky and crush the Whites's house into the ground. Sue is sympathetic to Carrie, stating "I am sorry for Carrie...she hurt. More than any of us probably know, she hurt." Sue feels guilt for causing Carrie's embarrassment and the subsequent attack on the town.
By examining the three central young girls in King's Carrie, Sue Snell, Carrie White, and Chris Hargensen, we can see how the tropes, or stereotypes, that these girls personify factor into the novel's coming of age genre as well as how the novel interacts with feminist ideologies. These characters exemplify the coming of age tropes of pubescent young women often utilized in novels, showing the "ideal girl," the "extremist," and the "outsider." Analyzing these stereotypes, we see how some characters can or cannot be identified as "feminist" through the lens of second-wave feminism.
The Coming of Age Novel and Feminism in the 1970s
Carrie, while not explicitly geared towards younger girls, falls into the genre of the coming of age novel that focuses on pubescent young adults. This novel was also written in the time of second-wave feminism, and as Maysia Zalewski writes in her chapter in Emotions, Politics, and War, “It might seem unusual, even for the 1970s, that a girl of sixteen from the seemingly most developed country in the world knew nothing about menstruation." The sexual revolution led to the publication of many novels and educational books that touched on female sexuality. For example, as Zalewski states, "1973 saw the publication of the iconic Our Bodies, Ourselves by the Boston Women's Health Collective, and in the same year the infamous Roe vs. Wade court case in the USA resulted in radically changing women's access to abortion." These kinds of books as well as young adult novels were revolutionary in their subject matter – geared towards girls with open talk about menstruation and strong female characters.
Carrie showcases several tropes/stereotypes that young girls often play into in the “coming of age” novel. Sue Snell is the "popular girl," running for prom queen, with a steady boyfriend who she lost her virginity to after a prolonged relationship. Chris Hargensen is the "extreme girl" in regards to teenage behavior as she dresses in a more provocative way and has a "bad boy" boyfriend. She represents the more promiscuous way in which teenage girls can act. Carrie White, the titular character, is the "outsider" in high school who is bullied and picked on by others. The tropes that Sue, Chris, and Carrie showcase are what define Carrie as a young adult "coming of age" novel, as Ebony Daley-Carey writes in Testing the Limits: Postmodern Adolescent Identities in Contemporary Coming-of-Age Stories, "YA fiction is ideologically underpinned by the prospect, and often the inevitability, of individual growth." Throughout the novel, Carrie shows the most growth as her telekinetic abilities develop, but Sue and Chris both grow as well, for better and worse.
Overall, Carrie is a feminist novel of the 1970s in the sense that it subscribes to some of the values put forward by activists. Chris and Sue are both "free" sexual characters whose experiences are mentioned without judgment. Carrie is a character who grows in her pubescent life and whose start of the menstrual cycle is talked about openly in the novel. Some of the characters may even be viewed as feminist icons.
Sue Snell and the Expectations for the "Ideal Girl"
Sue exemplifies the "ideal" high school girl. She is popular, has a popular long-term boyfriend, and is in the running for prom queen. However, Sue is not always pleased with her standing in the school and knows that it is her duty "to conform." Victoria Madden writes in "'We Found the Witch, May We Burn Her?': Suburban Gothic, Witch-Hunting, and Anxiety-Induced Conformity in Stephen King's Carrie," that "Sue Snell has everything that Carrie longs for." As King writes it, "a sense of place, of security, of status." Even Sue, however, admits that this elevated social standing "carried uneasiness with it like a darker sister." This unease that Sue feels led her to tell her boyfriend, Tommy, to take Carrie to prom. These expectations that Sue experiences are due to her status as a "good girl," and the actions that she takes next are due to her belief that she must fit into that mold.
What Sue believes is expected of her showcases the way that she fits into the "ideal" trope and how she is portrayed throughout the novel. As Madden explains, "Sue's litany of stifling conventional activities to which she is expected to conform highlights not only the dullness of suburban life for women, but also the ridiculousness of these accepted behaviors." The following violent events at the prom and after can be attributed to stemming from Tommy's prom invitation to Carrie, as this event was the catalyst in Carrie's increased confidence and Chris's anger towards the protagonist.
Sue's "good girl" character trope is one that is often used in young adult coming-of-age fiction. She represents the way in which young women are expected to act, and Sue showcases these actions at every turn. While being popular and prom queen potential is not true of every girl in high school, Sue plays the role that is the common desire of many girls. In coming of age novels, the "ideal" character often looks a lot like Sue.
Chris Hargensen and Teenage Extremes
Chris Hargensen exemplifies stereotypical "extreme" teenage behavior and acts as the "bad girl." She is portrayed as the "promiscuous" girl amongst the others. King describes her as "looking exceptionally pretty, her black hair held by a shamrock-green band and a tight basque blouse that accentuated her firm, upthrust breasts." Kehily writes, "What girls wear and the associations generated by their clothing remain a leitmotif of commentaries on sexualization." Thus we can see that Chris's description showcases the way in which her character fits into this trope of the "bad girl" in her look as well as her actions. Along with her mistreatment of Carrie, Chris also has had "[s]eventy-four assigned detentions. Twenty of those have been for harassment of misfit pupils...She skipped out on fifty-one of those assigned detentions." Chris has shown a tendency to be a rule-breaker and bully, not just with Carrie. This makes her the foil to Sue. While Sue tries to help Carrie, it is inevitably Chris whose actions push Carrie over the edge and fuel her rage at the prom.
Chris's relationship with the older Billy Nolan is one that showcases the way in which she is potentially more sexually aware than others as she uses sex as a reward for Nolan helping her play the trick on Carrie. While he is very attracted to Chris, Nolan "wondered how long she would last. Maybe not long after [the night of the prom]...He thought she would start to look less like a goddess and more like a typical sorority bitch again." By describing her as a "typical sorority bitch," King reinforces Chris's "bad girl" trope. SHe doesn't support other women and thus falls short of what many my see as a feminist ideal.
Carrie White as the Outsider
Carrie plays the role of the "outsider" in the novel. She's lonely and "a frog among swans" amongst her peers. This role is one that is most exemplified through Carrie's anger and frustration in terms of her standing in high school society. Her identity of being an outsider is part of what leads Carrie to ultimately hit a breaking point and attack others at the prom. With all of this, however, Carrie can still be seen as a feminist character due to her sexual growth throughout the novel with increased confidence and autonomy.
Much of the frustration Carrie feels stems from her own feelings of being an outsider, she "had tried to erase the red-plague circle that had been drawn around her from the first day she had left the controlled environment of the small house...with her Bible under her arm...the laughter had begun on that day and had echoed up through the years." The way in which Margaret raised Carrie and how she acted around others started Carrie's role of being an outsider from an early age. Margaret raised Carrie to exclude others based on their religious beliefs and also cited God for much of what Carrie was taught to believe in terms of morals. Along with this teaching of exclusion and fanaticism, Margaret also told Carrie that "God had visited [her] with cancer; that He was turning [her] female parts into something as black and rotten as my sinning soul," which caused Carrie distress to know that her mother believed such a thing.
Carrie comes to despise Chris: "They all hate and they never stop...Imagine Chris Hargensen all bloody and screaming for mercy. With rats crawling all over her face. Good. Good. That would be good...Crash her head with a rock, with a boulder. Crash in all their heads. Good. Good." These angry and hateful feelings are the result of Carrie's outsider label, that being from herself as well as from her peers. This hate ultimately leads Carrie to take her revenge on others at the prom after she walks out in humiliation. She then realizes that she needs to teach the other kids at school a lesson because of their teasing and bullying her, so she returns with a vengeance. Had Carrie not have felt that she was an outsider with the other kids, she may not have discovered her telekinetic powers out of rage and would potentially not have taken such drastic measures of revenge.
Carrie longs for acceptance and normality, which is part of the reason she agrees to go to prom with Tommy. Madden writes, "Essentially, Carrie yearns to find acceptance within her community…To progress beyond an abject and fundamentally gothic existence, thus, Carrie must become 'like all the rest,'...Simply put, she must learn to conform” (16). This conformity leads to Carrie's ultimate demise, as her striving for such feelings of acceptance leads her into Chris's trap, which causes Carrie to feel tormented once again. She feels "tears of shame [begin] to flow, as hot and heavy as that first flow of menstrual blood had been" after she had been drenched in pig's blood at the prom. While Carrie felt she might finally be "normal" after the prom, Chris's attack solidified her identity as an outsider to others as her attempt to blend in failed.
While Carrie does not blossom into a character like that of Sue Snell, she does grow into her telekinetic abilities. Carrie has her own character arc. Along with this growth in telekinetic abilities, she also gains confidence, which gives her the ability to have fun with Tommy at prom, for a short time, as well as to stand up to her mother in the process. Carrie makes some empowering changes.
Overall, Carrie showcases the way in which the "outsider" trope plays out in some young adult coming of age novels. While she's much more violent than the typical outsider, she still harbors the feelings of rage and dissatisfaction with her life that others in her role often do. However, her sexuality, growing confidence, and autonomy reveal a certain emerging feminist identity.
Carrie reveals the ways in which young women are often represented in young adult coming-of-age fiction. Sue and Chris represent the "good girl/bad girl" dichotomy while Carrie plays the role of the "outsider." These tropes represent some of the concerns of second-wave feminism during the sexual revolution of the 1970s.
From guest contributor Summer Hale, Northern Arizona University