A Spiral Into Madness

A presentation on Stephen King’s “Suffer the Little Children” by Jessica Horton, Caroline Woods, and Christian Hinojosa

The story begins with Ms. Sidley, a strict lower school teacher. Ms. Sidley is teaching a class and is routinely punishing students for minuscule errors by looking at them with her glasses while turned around. She asks a student named Robert to use the word tomorrow in a sentence. Foreshadowing what will happen later, Robert answers, “Tomorrow something bad will happen.” Ms. Sidley then begins to suspect that Robert knows about her glasses trick. Then, Robert’s face changes for a moment, this makes Ms. Sidley uncomfortable and suspicious of Robert.  Ms. Sidley begins to become very anxious and snaps at all of the children. The tone of the story begins to become increasingly uneasy.

The  middle of the story continues on with the uneasy feeling that was evident in the beginning. There are a lot of little things that build up the creepiness, like when Mrs. Sidley is in the bathroom and hears the little girls giggling and then sees their shadows morph into monsters and when Robert shows his true face. 

After Ms. Sidley takes time off because she nearly got hit by a bus, she comes back to school and is soon confronted by Robert. He tells Ms. Sidley that she wouldn’t believe how many of them there were now, and  no one will believe her either.  

The ending of the story, “Suffer the Little Children” is really the pinnacle of all this build-up of Ms. Sidley’s mental health episode. At the end of the story, Ms. Sidley decides that she must take her brother’s gun to school and kill all the monsters inside her students, thinking that killing the children will actually be murdering the monsters and not harming the children at all. One by one, calling it a “test,” she leads the children to a sound-proof room and shoots them all, even when she realizes (with Robert’s shooting) that she was killing both the child and the monster. I think the gun is symbolic of Ms. Sidley’s change from a stern teacher to a psychotic murderess. By using her brother’s gun, a gun previously used for good things in the past, she is changing the function of the gun from good to bad, but also changing her role from loving instructor to crazy teacher. 

After killing twelve children, Sidley is relieved of a trial and is sent to Juniper Hill, a psychiatric facility in Augusta (wherever Augusta is). At the hospital, she is heavily medicated and sent into intense therapy. 

The final scene is Ms. Sidley in a highly-supervised environment where she will be put with “retarded” children (as King describes them). She is gentle with them and loving, until she reaches a point of disturbance. Suddenly, she requests removal without any tone. They take her from the room with the kids, her psychiatrist bewildered by this. Then, he realizes the monsters inside the children and “never stops looking.”

Jessie’s Analysis:

The short story, “Suffer the Little Children” by Stephen King, is a story of mastery put together with incredible writing. Although some of the specific plot points aren’t always clear, the characters and individual scenes are told brilliantly, making us focus more on that than the exacts.

Style

An aspect of King’s writing in this piece that really stands out to me is the style he used. He used such clever diction to eloquently express each scene, describing it in almost slow motion with tasteful word choice. In fact, there is a scene in the story where Ms. Sidley, a teacher and the main character in the story, goes into the bathroom, to check the paper towels, after being rattled by a little boy in her classroom who can turn into an alien. She overhears two little girls giggling about her in the bathroom, and then hears them “change,” or turn into the same monstrous form. The text states,

The voices changed, no longer girlish, now sexless and soulless, and quite, quite evil. A slow, turgid sound of mindless humor that flowed around the corner to her like sewage. She stared at the hunched shadows and suddenly screamed at them. The scream went on and on, swelling in her head until it attained a pitch of lunacy. And then she fainted.

Wording like

mindless humor that flowed around the corner like sewage

and

The scream went on and on, swelling in her head until it attained a pitch of lunacy

make the scene tangible, the pain tangible, the atmosphere tangible.

Another aspect of King’s style would be his use of figurative language. Phrases like,

The look wouldn’t leave her mind. It was stuck there, like a tiny string of roast beef between two molars – a small thing, actually, but feeling as big as a cinderblock

give the reader such a vivid description of Ms. Sidley’s emotions. This clip of figurative language is placed in the story when Ms. Sidley was reflecting over a little boy’s dirty look he gave her in class. This simile works so well because everybody, some time or another, has had irritating, residue food wedged between their teeth to the point where they can’t get it out. Soon, this minor annoyance consumes them, just like Robert’s look in class consumed Ms. Sidley. Using this comparison in the context of the story made perfect sense and related the reader to the emotions of the main character.

One last style element King weaves into his piece is preciseness and grittiness, which lead to relatability. One example would be when the story is discussing Ms. Sidley’s instincts:

They knew Miss Sidley’s deadly instincts too well. Miss Sidley could always tell who was chewing gum at the back of the room, who had a beanshooter in his pocket, who wanted to go to the bathroom to trade baseball cards rather than use the facilities.

The specificity gives the reader a clear image and helps us relate more to the precise, gritty details of Ms. Sidley’s instincts. The beanshooter and the baseball cards are all details that remind us of our elementary school days. So, when King drops such details in there, it grapples our attention and we’re loured into this beautiful story, simply because he used specific and realistic details to describe things. Things that don’t seem so fake with his stylistic touch.

Point of View

Geniusly, King wrote in a magnificent point of view, to guide us into Ms. Sidley’s progression to insanity and to show us what was most important about the story–Sidley herself. One point of view technique he used was incorporating Sidley’s thoughts into the text often. One place the writer has done this is, again, when the little girls are in the bathroom gossiping about Sidley, and she believes that they know she is listening. The story states,

Another thought crawled up out of her mind. They knew she was there. Yes. Yes they did. The little bitches knew.

By illustrating the main character’s thoughts, yet so suddenly switching back to an agreeing narrator, we automatically trust Ms. Sidley’s thought process. After all, our narrator is narrating her thoughts and is agreeing with them, so why wouldn’t we trust her? We 90% of the time trust our narrator, and always just a little bit, if not fully for the other 10%. Trusting our narrator, and her faith in Ms. Sidley, produces a complete shocker when she murders the children. We don’t expect that to be done by someone we trust, and yet it is done anyways.

One, small, very specific part of King’s point of view would be one line, a line of Sidley’s thoughts, told through the narrator that instructs us of so much. The line is,

Stop that! she told herself sternly. You’re acting like a skittish girl out of teacher’s college!

This one line sheds light to Sidley’s age, Sidley’s paranoia and in a sense her pride. By using terms like “teachers’ college” we can tell that Ms. Sidley is slightly out of date and still sees things in an old-fashioned lense, using the older jargon. The part that read “skittish girl” really relayed how jittery and unnerved she is by this classroom setting, teeming with alien-children, especially since it implied that this is out of her nature. Also, just by implying that she doesn’t act like a “skittish girl out of teacher’s college” when in her normal state, King already lends us a sniff at her self-satisfaction with her experience in education. She thinks that she is a better teacher than the “skittish girls” who are younger and have just finished university. All these details are very important, fed to us with the nutrients of this one delicious line.

Ending

The ending of the story, “Suffer the Little Children” is really the pinnacle of all this build-up of Ms. Sidley’s mental health episode. At the end of the story, Ms. Sidley decides that she must take her brother’s gun to school and kill all the monsters inside her students, thinking that killing the children will actually be murdering the monsters and not harming the children at all. One by one, calling it a “test,” she leads the children to a sound-proof room and shoots them all, even when she realizes (with Robert’s shooting) that she was killing both the child and the monster. I think the gun is symbolic of Ms. Sidley’s change from a stern teacher to a psychotic murderess. By using her brother’s gun, a gun previously used for good things in the past, she is changing the function of the gun from good to bad, but also changing her role from loving instructor to crazy teacher.

After killing twelve children, Sidley is relieved of a trial and is sent to Juniper Hill, a psychiatric facility in Augusta (wherever Augusta is). At the hospital, she is heavily medicated and sent into intense therapy.

The final scene is Ms. Sidley in a highly-supervised environment where she is put with “retarded” children (as King describes them). She is gentle with them and loving, until she reaches a point of disturbance. Suddenly, she requests removal, without any vocal tone. They take her from the room with the kids, her psychiatrist bewildered by this. He takes a look at the children and “never stopped looking.”

Some of this confused me greatly. Were the children actually monsters? What did Sidley and the psychiatrist see? Was it the same thing?

I think part of the charm of this story was that we never figured the answers to the question or the extents of Sidley’s psychosis–was she just seeing the monsters or were they real? Although, maybe for my own writing, I can choose a blurry route or a clear route, not the “somewhere in-between route” that King inflicts on the story. With my writing, I will either put more grounding details in, or pull more out.

What I Can Learn From This Story

In terms of style and point of view, this story has taught me a lot.

Stylistically, I’ve learned how to connect to my reader. Using specific, real-life figurative language and description I can make them understand more of what I’m trying to convey, what my characters are like, and more.

Now, discussing point of view, how to apply that to my writing, I have learned how to manipulate narrators and their voices to focus on a certain part of my story. King used his narrator to focus on Sidly’s process to insanity and to persuade us that she wasn’t too insane, so the murders came at us as a surprise and shocked us the way they should have. I mean, I’ll probably focus on other aspects in my stories, but it’s nice to know how to focus and how to use point of view to accomplish the goal.

Obviously, there are a lot of things in “Suffer the Little Children” that have taught me well and will continuously aid me in developing my own writing.

Class Discussion Questions

Why do you think the author puts in the scene with the other girls in the bathroom near Ms. Sidley? Why not just focus on the class’s students or Robert? Why aren’t those girls murdered too? What effect does the bathroom scene have on the rising action, other than the faint, that could happen in another scene?

Do you think the author intentionally leaves it unclear whether the children are actually monsters or not? And what the psychiatric doctor sees too?

Caroline W’s Analysis:

In the short story “Suffer the Little Children” by Stephen King, there are many factors that work towards the overall quality of the story. He demonstrates many unique traits in his writing that make it sound recognizable and unique. The two main things that I noticed in his writing are the way he describes the passage of time and his descriptive language.

The way he transitions between time periods notable because of how smoothly he does it. He manages to sum up the occurrences of an entire year in a paragraph and still make it feel complete. Even if the amount of words he uses in minimal, he makes every one count towards the overall goal of conveying the message. It still feels like a full scene despite the fact that in was all summarized in one paragraph. When it shows how time has passed since she shot her students, there’s a paragraph that wraps up the year’s contents briefly, but completely. It feels full, but quick.

The description used was very unique and contributed to the eerie mood. The way King describes the actions and the scenery that take place over the course of the story really helps the reader visualize and connect with Ms. Sidley. The lines where she’s describing how Robert’s face morphs into the monster is described in perfect, creepy clarity-

His face suddenly ran together like melting wax, the eyes flattening and spreading like knife-struck egg yolks, nose widening and yawning, mouth disappearing. The head elongated, and the hair was suddenly not hair but straggling, twitching growth.

The subtle things he draws attention to make you feel uneasy as the plot grows. He paints a picture with the wording he uses, and it’s both beautiful and unsettling.

Questions-

If the story was about a younger teacher instead of an older one, would the story be as creepy?

Why does King add the ending part about the psychiatrist? What does it add to the story?

Christian’s Analysis

The short story “Suffer the Little Children” by Stephen King features a main character protagonist, Ms. Sidley and an antagonist, Robert who each compliment the story.

Ms. Sidley

Ms. Sidley is a schoolteacher who has a cold demeanor, is feared by her students, and suffers from a bad back. One day she is teaching class and a troublesome student named Robert transforms into a terrifying beast. Ms. Sidley thinks she’s hallucinating but soon realizes that it’s all very real. Throughout the story Robert hints that “Something bad will happen.” And that he and “others” are out to get Ms. Sidley. While the meaning of some of his dialogue is unclear it unnerves the teacher.  In the girls’ bathroom Ms. Sidley overhears two children gossiping about her and internally refers to them as “bitches.” This is important to her character because it shows us what kind of attitude she has concerning her students. The next interaction she has with Robert is during detention where he makes vague, Sidious remarks and Ms. Sidley replies with

“Little boys who tell stories go to hell. I know many parents don’t tell their… spawn that.”

Sidley’s character traits are reinforced here as the comment reflects how traditional and unfeeling; she is. We can infer that she did not have children because she refers to them as “spawn.” Robert suddenly changes and Sidley runs out of the room screaming. She is almost ran over by a bus, (which serves as a rising action) and decides to take further precautions. The next day Ms. Sidley brings a gun to school. This action is seen to be a tipping point in her character arc because she has gone from strict, unkind teacher to ruthless killer. She is being driven to her wits end by insane demon children, and is losing her sanity. She kills Robert and is taken to court. Eventually she is put in rehab and is forced to work as a babysitter for retarded children. While taking care of them she “sees something she doesn’t like and looks away.” Hinting at a child turning into a monster. Later that night Ms. Sidley slit her throat with glass.

Ms. Sidley goes through a character arc without changing her major character traits. The only conflict she faces that morphs her is Robert and the rest of the demon children. They make her lose her calmness, sanity and eventually will to live. The falling action seemed positive for Ms. Sidley but alas she begins to see the demons again and decides out of fear or exhaustion that she’d rather die. She is a character than we can all imagine because of popular culture and her drastic measures at the end of the story shock the reader.

Robert

Robert is the story’s antagonist. Less is known about him since he is not given a point of view and his expression is unclear at times. His transformation is far faster than Ms. Sidley’s. In the beginning of the story, Robert is introduced as an odd, quiet, student who annoys the teacher. He is asked a question and replies with

“Something bad will happen tomorrow.”

This clearly gets him in trouble. After his comment he is revealed to be a sort of monster/demon child as he physically changes into his true form during class. Ms. Sidley catches him, and he gets a lunch detention. While at detention Robert simply smiles at his captor because he knows inside that he will win their little game. Robert’s motives are unclear but he says

“There are more of us now. Eleven at this school.”

Implying he could hurt Ms. Sidley. After this Robert once again turns into the creature he truly is. As the story does not shed light on what exactly he is, Robert explains to Ms. Sidley that the “real” Robert (monster) is trapped inside of him and wants to come out. After a month she comes back to school and meets Robert at recess where he again indirectly threatens her. This leads to Ms. Sidley bringing her gun to school the next day. The next day Robert is then taken into a room and shot by Ms. Sidley along with 12 other children. In the end he transforms back into a human just as another teacher comes onto the scene. Ms. Sidley is arrested for the murder of her students.

Robert’s character doesn’t change at all during the story. Only his physical appearance, which is described in the text as “alien-like.” Although his deeper motivations are unknown Robert seems to get what he wants in the end as Ms. Sidley is put into a rehabilitation program with retarded children who turn out to be monsters just like him. Robert’s death is avenged when Sidley commits suicide.

Robert is an excellent character because we are intrigued by his mysteriousness and horrified by his secret. His introduction foreshadowed the events of the story and his eerie remarks drove Ms. Sidley into insanity.

 

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