The Breathing Method is a novella by American writer Stephen King, originally released as part of his Different Seasons collection in 1982. It is placed in the section entitled "A Winter's Tale".
David, the narrator of the frame tale, is a middle-aged Manhattanlawyer. At the invitation of a senior partner, he joins a strange men's club where the members, in addition to reading, chatting and playing pool and chess, like to tell stories, some of which range into the bizarre and macabre. The club and its butler are also featured in King's short story "The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands".
One Thursday before Christmas, the elderly physician Dr. Emlyn McCarron tells a story about an episode that took place early in his long and varied career: that of a patient, Sandra Stansfield, who was determined to give birth to her illegitimate child, no matter what, despite financial problems and social disapproval. McCarron comes to admire her bravery and humor, and the implication is that he has even fallen a bit in love with her.
Sandra masters Dr. McCarron's novel (for the 1930s) breathing method intended to help her through childbirth. However, when she goes into labor and is on the way to the hospital on an icy winter night, her taxi crashes and she is decapitated. McCarron arrives at the crash site and realizes that Sandra is somehow still alive. Her lungs in her decapitated body are still pumping air, as her head, some feet away, is working to sustain the breathing method so that the baby can be born. McCarron manages to deliver the infant alive and well.
On a sweet but haunting end note, Sandra whispers "Thank you"—her severed head mouthing the words, which are distortedly heard from the throat jutting from her headless body. McCarron is able to tell her that her baby is a boy and to see that she has registered this before she dies. McCarron and his office nurse pay for the woman's burial, for she has no one else.
The child is adopted, but despite the confidential nature of adoption records, McCarron is able to keep track of him over the years. When the man is "not yet 45", and an accomplished college professor, McCarron arranges to meet him socially. "He had his mother's determination, gentlemen," he tells the club members, "and his mother's hazel eyes."
SOURCE: Reino, Joseph. “Fantasies of Summer and Fall: Full of Sound and Fury.” In Stephen King: The First Decade, Carrie to Pet Sematary, pp. 117-35. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988.
[In the following essay, Reino provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of the novellas comprising Different Seasons.]
With brief seasonal subtitles, Different Seasons (1982) attempts to bind together four unusual novellas of varying lengths and moods. Taken from the optimistic “Essay on Man” of the eighteenth-century English poet Alexander Pope, “Hope Springs Eternal” is the subtitle of the vernal season, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption—a subtitle that is, at the tag-end of the violence-ridden twentieth century, little more than a pleasant, but not quite believable, cliché. The second and longest of the novellas, the sinister Apt Pupil, is a “Summer of Corruption”—an apparent variation on the “winter of our discontent” from the oft-quoted opening line of Shakespeare's Richard III. The third and autumnal season, The Body (widely acknowledged as the most nearly autobiographical of King's works), flirts with the attractive deceptions of an American Eden and is, consequently, a “Fall from Innocence.” The fourth, The Breathing Method, easily the most fantastic of the group, is appropriately subtitled with Shakespeare's late fantasy-romance, The Winter's Tale. While this brilliant quartet of tales does not deal with the unabashed horrors and terrors of the more famous novels, nevertheless, according to King's personal observations, “elements of horror can be found in all of the tales, not just in The Breathing Method—that business with the slugs in The Body is pretty gruesome, as is much of the dream imagery in Apt Pupil” (DS, 502). Although King raised sharp objection to psychiatrist-author Janet Jeppson, when she suggested that he has been “writing about it ever since”—“it” being the train accident that killed a young playmate—he admits in his afterword to Different Seasons that, with respect to horror in general, only “God knows why,” sooner or later, “my mind always seems to turn back in that [gothic] direction” (502).
Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, the first “season,” is the most strangely titled of all King's stories, the kind of story (“with a homosexual rape scene”) that Susan Norton's mother complained that “sissy-boy” novelist Ben Mears had written. Taking place in an imaginary Maine prison called Shawshank, the story is supposedly narrated by one of the inmates (nicknamed “Red”), a clever entrepreneur who can “get it for you” for a price, that is, obtain whatever a prisoner might like, or need, from the outside world: pictures, comic books, posters, panties from a wife or girl friend, etc. Red's hundred-page story concerns a banker-prisoner, Andy Dufresne, sentenced to life imprisonment because of incriminating circumstantial evidence in the murder of his wife and her lover. Though consistently denied parole, and tragically unfortunate in attempting to prove his innocence, Andy becomes the financial wizard of the prison (“quiet, well-spoken, respectful, non-violent” ), with an unusual smile and a cool far-away look. Red is intrigued by Andy's strange requests, two in particular: a rock-hammer and a Rita Hayworth poster. What Andy is doing with these objects—the Hayworth poster changing to other shapely females as the years go by—is revealed only at the end of the novella, when the reader learns that for years and years (1949-75) Andy had been digging himself a tunnel, and successfully concealing the cellblock escape route (the “hole”) behind sexy, and inevitably distracting, pin-up posters.
Both the prolonged tunneling and the subsequent escape are as improbable as the incriminating evidence that incarcerated Andy in Shawshank State Prison in the first place (18-25). But King makes the narrative plausible by having whole sections of Red's account reported as gossip, rumor, and prison talk, slowly turning Andy Dufresne into a legendary folk hero about whom (like Robert Frost's Paul Bunyon, Washington Irving's Icabod Crane, or some medieval Arthurian knight) one tends to expect the unexpected. Unlike the final section of Carrie, which attempts to verify everything through newspaper reports, eyewitness accounts, and court transcripts, here King exercises his ingenuity by having everything sustained through sheer guesswork and speculation.
Of all the plot improbabilities in Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, however, the most hilarious is the author's success in hiding in his rectum a one-hundred-page (or more) manuscript about Andy Dufresne's life, prison escape, and detailed plans for secret life in Mexico (30, 101). On the occasion of the author-prisoner's parole, this rectal secreting is done so as to escape detection from guards during a strip-down physical examination prior to final release. Thus what the average King enthusiast has been devouring with such interest derives from the same part of the human anatomy that is naturally used to eliminate foul-smelling body wastes, but was “unnaturally” violated (and presumably also much enlarged) by the prison “sisters” during one of their many sodomitic escapades.1 Both this rectal literary joke, and the impossibles and improbables of the quasi-legendary prison career of Andy Dufresne, give the Popean subtitle, “Hope Springs Eternal,” a rather hopeless resonance indeed—implying, one supposes, that if you believe this “story,” you will believe just about anything.2 The “redemption” part of the title has various implications, not the least of which is the elimination of the Bible-quoting Warden Norton, who never so much as cracked a smile and “would have felt right at home” with those infernal New England preachers, the “Mathers, Cotton and Increase” (56).
The Breathing Method, the fourth and last “season,” and a gothic/fantasy successor to such traditional Christmas stories as the medieval romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Charles Dickens's Christmas Carol, is an out-and-out tall tale best suited to winter in which, as one editor points out in connection with Shakespeare's Winter's Tale, “no one expects any probability.”3 In folklore and legend (the Roman Saturnalia, ancient rituals surrounding the birth of Mithra, the tradition of the modrenacht among the Angles, etc.), the season of the winter solstice (21 December) is often filled with fantasy. The main incident in the fourth season is the birth of a child from an accidentally decapitated woman (Sandra Stansfield) occurring “on the eve of that birth we have celebrated for two thousand years” (462). The young woman is unmarried and wearing a false wedding ring, and this mysterious and/or magical birth thus parallels, or even parodies, the traditional Christian belief in the virgin birth recounted in the gospel of Luke. Despite the potential for blasphemous satire (which King does not elsewhere resist), the parallel is not overstressed, and at several points only gently reinforced: (1) by a quotation from a Roman Stoic that might well have come from the Pauline epistles, to the effect that “There is no comfort without pain; thus we define salvation through suffering” (461, 482-83); and (2) by having the tall tale of an impossible Christmas Eve birth told by an eighty-year-old physician, who thereby parallels the author of the gospel of Luke, traditionally believed to have been a physician, from whom the story of the virgin birth is almost exclusively derived.
Without demeaning the power of these spring and winter narratives, Rita Hayworth and Breathing Method appear as prologue and epilogue to the central tales of summer and fall that are among King's finest creations: Apt Pupil and The Body. The former concerns a thirteen year old's not-quite-accidental discovery of a Nazi war criminal living secretly in California, while the latter recounts the adventures of several twelve year olds who set out to find the dead body of a boy struck by a train, and in the process one of them (the teller of the tale) makes significant discoveries about his personal sensitivity and poetic proclivities. Taken together, Apt Pupil and The Body are youth-oriented companion pieces, offering in-depth analyses of young boys who can easily take their place among King's other preteens: Mark Petrie, Richie Boddin, Danny and Ralphie Glick, Danny Torrance, and Marty Coslaw. Interestingly, in both Apt Pupil and The Body, King again explores depth after desperate depth of feelings about father-son relationships that are central to a sympathetic understanding of much of his work—a psychological dimension too often glossed over by reviewers, who seem to harp exclusively on elements of terror, horror, and the supernatural.4
CORPSES THAT REFUSE TO STAY BURIED
The protagonist of Apt Pupil is a thirteen-year-old “innocent” in the pleasant-enough beginnings of this California revelation, but a seventeen-year-old criminal in its tragic conclusion. A stereotypical American boy of WASP background—the family was Methodist (164)—Todd Bowden has the kind of “summer” face that might easily be found advertising Kellogg's Corn Flakes: “hair the color of ripe corn, white even teeth, lightly tanned skin marred by not even the first shadow of adolescent acne” (109). Despite the gradual deterioration of Todd's personality throughout this 175-page “Summer of Corruption,” his face matures but never loses its boyish attractiveness: “young, blond, and white” (281). Even toward the end of Apt Pupil, when Todd is one of four victorious boys named to Southern Cal's All Stars, the newspaper photograph is “grinning openly out at the world from beneath the bill of his baseball cap” (254). When identified as the probable killer of local derelicts, he is remembered as having an “ain't-life-grand” air about his improbable face (282).
In addition to a happy-time television reaction to nearly everything (good or bad), several other aspects of Todd's personality—always superficially favorable—receive considerable attention: his “aptness” as a school student, his high degree of intelligence and foresight, his full-blooded teenage slang, and his outstanding athletic abilities. These apparent positives in Todd's All-American makeup, however, inevitably deteriorate. So boyishly appealing and attractive at first, showing “perfect teeth that had been fluoridated since the beginning of his life and bathed thrice a day in Crest toothpaste” (113), his smiles sour into the sardonic expression of a psychopath beaming out “rich and radiant” (131) as he eagerly absorbs Nazi stories about gas chambers, conspirators hung by piano wires, or lampshades designed of human skin. On one occasion, when the old concentration camp commander (Kurt Dussander, whom Todd all-too-willingly befriends) is forced to tell Todd about the experimental nerve gas (poetically nicknamed Pegasus) that caused its victims to scream, laugh, vomit, and helplessly defecate, the All-American Boy is happily consuming two delicious chocolate Ring Dings. Even old reprobate Dussander reacts negatively, not only in being forced to remember horrors he himself eagerly perpetrated in German concentration camps, but especially because of Todd's enthusiastic “That was a good story, Mr. Dussander” (136). Ironically, King puts in the mouth of the old Nazi, wanted by the Israelis for being “one of the greatest butchers of human beings ever to live” (262), reactions that are likely to pass through readers themselves when he says aloud to the boy, “You are a monster.” Innocent-looking Todd reminds Dussander that “according to the books I read, you're the monster, Mr. Dussander,” who sent thirty-five hundred a day into the ovens “before the Russians came and made you stop” (127). The next time Dussander (in something resembling teenage slang) is tempted to damn Todd as “putrid little monster,” he only thinks it (135), keeping to himself his disgust with Todd's behavior, even though that behavior is viciously patterned after his own (giving an inkling of King's attitude toward the relationship of postwar American behavior to the Nazis.)
The name Todd suggests “toddy,” a pleasant drink of brandy or whiskey mixed with hot water, sugar, and spices. Like the boy's blue-eyed All-American appearance, therefore, his name has sweet connotations. Winter suggests a sinister undercurrent—quite apt, one might add—to this attractive first name, since “Todd” is similar to the German word for death, Tod.5 Kurt Dussander's name derives from Peter Kurtin, Monster of Düsseldorf, a novel about an actual criminal included in Father Callahan's recollections of gothic junk in 'Salem's Lot (296). But Dussander's American pseudonym is the kinder-sounding “Arthur Denker,” the first name deriving from the mythic medieval king,6 and the patronym from yet another German word, “thinker” (Denker). The fake last name covertly suggests the octogenarian's cleverness in concealing his true identity by skillfully avoiding detection and capture by sharp Israeli authorities for so many years. Dussander's ability to “think” things through is so masterful that inexperienced Todd, who at one point had the potential of being an absolute blackmailer, comes to feel that “his skull had turned to window-glass and all things were flashing inside in large letters” (201). The living room of Dussander's house contains a neat symbol of all the false facades in Apt Pupil (Americans and ex-Nazis included): “the fake fireplace” that was “faced with fake bricks” (115).
The Jekyll/Hyde qualities of the Todd/Denker names seem—and indeed are—the exact opposite of what they pleasantly suggest, and have parallels in some unusual literary techniques. The most important of these is the series of empty-headed clichés, banalities, proverbs, and (on Todd's part) slang simplicities that are placed in plot situations in such a way as to point up their utter shallowness. As names reverse (e.g., from sweet “toddy” to grim “death”), so do the cliché-drenched conversations among the doomed older characters.
Important among these typically American pseudoprofundities are the following. Todd's parents “don't believe in spanking” because “corporal punishment causes more problems than it cures” (115). Todd's father (Dick Bowden) thinks that “kids should find out about life as soon as they can—the bad as well as the good.” His silly rationale is that “life is a tiger you have to grab by the tail, and if you don't know the nature of the beast it will eat you up” (120). Dick Bowden balances off his wife's cliché, “Waste not, want not,” with his own innocuous “Not by a long chalk” (138). Todd's teacher (the well-intentioned Mrs. Anderson) lectures the students of the California school (of which sweet-looking Todd is one) about finding “YOUR GREAT INTEREST,” hers being “collecting nineteenth-century post cards” (117). The guidance counselor (satirically nicknamed “Rubber Ed,” ‘’Sneaker Pete,” and the “Ked Man” by mocking high school students) idiotically supposes that his rubber-covered Keds gives him “real rapport” with the students. He too has an assortment of dismal colloquialisms on which he thinks he can structure educational success: that he could “get right down to it” with the kids, “get into their hangups,” knew what a “bummer” was, and understood and sympathized when “someone was doing a number on your head” (166).
The upshot of all this “right-thinking,” superficial claptrap that passes for wisdom—a parody of certain educational practices that dominated American society during the period of the 1976 bicentennial, the time-frame of the story (206)—is that Todd Bowden, one of the young people these insights were supposed to direct into proper channels of patriotic behavior, becomes a Nazi admirer and hobo murderer. King is not saying that benign and “liberating” clichés are inherently wrong or that they cause Todd's inclination toward social misbehavior. Rather, his gothic perspective is that benevolent philosophies, reduced to thoughtless aphorisms and innocuous clichés, are utterly powerless against the boy's adamantine malevolence. Todd, too, is entrapped in his own kind of verbal superficiality, mostly teenage American slang that might have been considered “cute” in something other than a California neo-Nazi context: “Gotcha,” “Right on,” “You'll go ape,” “School's cool,” “Crazy, baby,” “It blows my wheels,” “Blasts from the past,” etc. Only infrequently does Todd trot out some really humorous wit, as on the occasion when his mother brings up a matter that Todd does not want to deal with, and he leaves her with the wise crack: “I've gotta put an egg in my shoe and beat it” (134). All too frequently, unfortunately, his mind reverts to mindless banalities, as when, entrapped by Dussander, he thinks of a “cartoon character with an anvil suspended over its head” (202).
Possibly offensive to some readers—and this may explain the negative criticism of Apt Pupil by some reviewers—is the fact that the Nazi proves the more elegant and perceptive in language skills than the sentimental, cliché-ridden Americans, who—as Dussander scornfully points out—“put photographs of firemen rescuing kittens from trees on the front pages of city newspapers” (202). Thus at the dinner table with Todd's parents, when offered another glass of cognac by Todd's mother, Dussander gracefully declines with the proverb, “One must never overdo the sublime” (149). When in...