Dolores Claiborne

by Stephen King

Dolores Claiborne, an opinionated 65-year-old widow living on the tiny Maine community of Little Tall Island, is suspected of murdering her wealthy, elderly employer, Vera Donovan. The novel is presented as a transcript of her statement, told to the local constable and a stenographer. Dolores wants to make clear to the police that she did not kill Vera, whom she has looked after for years, but does confess to orchestrating the death of her husband, Joe St. George, almost 30 years before. Dolores's confession develops into the story of her life, her troubled marriage, and her relationship with her employer.

She begins by describing her relationship with her employer, which began when Vera and her millionaire husband purchased a summer home on Little Tall Island in 1949 and hired Dolores as a maid. Able to cope with Vera's brutally exacting standards, Dolores rises from maid to housekeeper at the Donovan home. After her husband's death in a car crash in the late 50s, Vera spends increasing time at her island house, eventually moving in permanently. After Vera suffers a series of strokes in the 1980s, Dolores becomes Vera's live-in caretaker and reluctant companion as the wealthy woman slips into dementia, combatting Vera's mind games and power plays when she is lucid and comforting her from terrifying hallucinations of a force she calls "the dust bunnies" when she is not. Dolores further reveals that at the time she began working for Vera, her marriage to Joe St. George was already showing signs of distress due to Joe's drinking and his penchant for verbal and physical abuse. Their problems come to a head one night in 1960 when Joe viciously hits Dolores in the small of her back with a piece of stove wood over a perceived slight. In retaliation, Dolores smashes a ceramic cream pot over his head and threatens him with a hatchet, swearing she will kill him if he ever strikes her again. This confrontation is witnessed by their teenage daughter Selena, who does not realize her mother was acting in self-defense. Joe stops beating Dolores, though she allows him to let the island community believe he continues to do so in an effort to save face, but leads to a rift between mother and daughter.

In 1962, Dolores notices that Selena has become increasingly withdrawn, frightened and unsociable. After speculating that she has met a boy or become involved in drugs, Dolores finally confronts her daughter as they return home on the island ferry. She explains the truth of the hatchet incident, which Joe has used to gain sympathy with his daughter, and Selena unwillingly confesses that her father has molested her. A hysterical Selena nearly jumps off the side of the ferry, but Dolores prevents her and comforts her, vowing to protect her. That night, she considers murdering Joe on the spot, describing the urge to kill him as the opening of an "inside eye". Instead, she confronts him, promising to have him arrested if he ever touches Selena again. Dolores resolves to protect her children by leaving Joe, but when she attempts to withdraw her children's savings accounts to fund their escape, she discovers Joe has stolen everything she had saved. In despair, she breaks down crying at work, forcing her to confide her troubles in Vera. An unusually sympathetic Vera reveals she has had some sort of experience with Dolores' "inside eye", and casually remarks that men like Joe often die in accidents, leaving their wives everything. As she departs, she implies that she arranged the car crash that killed her husband and advises Dolores that "sometimes, an accident can be an unhappy woman's best friend." Dolores begins plotting Joe's death, but does not find an opportunity to put her plan into action until the summer of 1963. Vera becomes obsessed with a total solar eclipse that will be visible from the island, convinced the event will convince her estranged children to visit her. She plans a massive viewing party on the island ferry. Knowing that the island will be mostly empty as a result, Dolores ensures Selena is sent to camp and her sons, Joe Jr. and Pete, are sent on a trip to visit family, and marks the location of a dried-up stone well in a patch of brambles on the edge of their property. When it becomes clear her children will not be joining her, Vera becomes despondent and lashes out at her hired help, calming only after Dolores confronts her over the unjust firing of one of the maids. On the day of the eclipse, Dolores buys Joe a bottle of fine scotch and makes him a sandwich, getting him drunk and comfortable, and they share a moment of physical affection for the first time in many years. As the eclipse begins, Dolores has a vision of a young girl in the path of the eclipse who is at that same moment being sexually abused by her father. Reminded of what she has set out to do, she deliberately enrages Joe by claiming she has recovered the money he had stolen and provokes him into attacking her. She flees into the brambles, leading Joe to the well and tricking him into stepping on the rotted boards that cover it. The planks break and he falls into the well, but is not instantly killed. He calls out for help for some time before eventually falling unconscious. Dolores returns to the house and falls asleep, but has a nightmare and forces herself to go outside to check the well. She arrives to discover Joe has regained consciousness, and has managed to nearly climb out of the well, grabbing at Dolores and attempting to pull her in with him. She finally kills him by hitting him in the face with a rock, and he falls back into the well.

Dolores reports Joe missing, and his body is found after several days of searching. Dolores is suspected of killing her husband, but Joe's death is ruled an accident despite the suspicions of the local coroner and the rumor mill of Little Tall Island. Dolores is free of Joe, but her actions damage her relationship with Selena, who suspects her mother killed her father.

Dolores finally comes to the circumstances of Vera's death, which have led her to tell her story. She confesses that Vera, in one of her hallucinations, managed to get out of her wheelchair and fled in terror from "the dust bunnies", falling down a flight of stairs. As Vera falls, Dolores has a terrifying vision of Joe's ghost covered in dust. Somehow alive and lucid despite her injuries, Vera begs Dolores to help her end her suffering. Dolores fetches a rolling pin, but Vera dies before she can use it. The incriminating scene is discovered by the local mailman, who clearly suspects Dolores of killing the old woman, and forces her to call the police. That night, Dolores begins to be harassed and threatened by members of the island community, who already believe she has gotten away with murder. The next day, Dolores receives a phone call from Vera's lawyer, who informs a shocked Dolores that she has inherited Vera's entire fortune, which amounts to nearly 30 million dollars. Dolores attempts to refuse the money in favor of Vera's estranged children. She is dumbfounded to learn that they were killed in a car crash in 1961, and Vera had spent the last 40 years of her life pretending that they were still alive. Knowing that the inheritance would have given her a motive for murder and worsen the case against her, Dolores convinces herself that the only way to clear her name is to confess everything. Feeling at peace with herself at long last, she ends her statement. Several newspaper articles provide an epilogue to the story, revealing that Dolores was cleared of any blame in Vera's death and that she anonymously donated Vera's entire fortune to the New England Home For Little Wanderers. The final article implies Dolores and Selena have reconciled and that Selena will be coming home for the first time in twenty years.