Shutter Island Summary

Dennis Lehane

Shutter Island

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Shutter Island Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane.

Shutter Island, a Dennis Lehane novel published in 2003, is modeled after the turn of the century American Gothic style novels and pulp fiction. He wrote it so the main characters would not have access to twentieth-century communications, such as radio, and created an otherworldly atmosphere for the story.

The year is 1954 and US Marshal Edward “Teddy” Daniels and his partner arrive at the psychiatric hospital, Ashecliffe Hospital, on Shutter Island, a facility for the criminally insane. They are there to investigate the disappearance and presumed escape of Rachel Solando, who was incarcerated for drowning her three children.

In Rachel’s room they discover a code. When Teddy breaks the code, it leads him to believe there is a sixty-seventh patient at the facility. We also find out that Teddy is looking to avenge the death of his murdered wife and that her murderer, Andrew Laeddis, is a patient at the island as well. As he is investigating, Teddy remembers the moments he liberated Dachau. They continue to search for clues.

A hurricane rocks through the island, and once it is over, Teddy and his partner, Chuck, investigate Ward C. It is believed that the government conducts experiments on patients there using psychotropic drugs. He gets separated from Chuck and meets a patient named George Noyce. George tells him that nothing is real, and everything is an elaborate game created for him. He tells him not to trust Chuck.

They return to the main hospital, but again, they are separated. Teddy discovers a woman living in a cave who claims to be the real Rachel Solando. She tells him that she was a psychiatrist, but when she tried to reveal what the government was doing on the island, they made her a patient. She tells him not to eat the food because it is laced with psychotropic drugs.

He returns to the hospital to find Chuck, but everyone tells him that he has no partner. He escapes and tries to find Chuck by going to the lighthouse where the experiments really take place. At the top of the lighthouse, he finds only the hospital administrator, Dr. Cawley.

The administrator tells him that Teddy is the real Andrew Laeddis and that Rachel Solando is his wife Dolores Chanel. Both their names are anagrams. Teddy is the one who killed his wife when she killed their three children, and he has been living under the illusion that it was someone else. The entire investigation is an attempt to allow him to follow his delusions to the end to come to the truth.

Teddy tries to shoot Dr. Cawley, but it is only a water pistol. Chuck enters revealing himself to be Teddy’s psychiatrist, Dr. Lester Sheehan. His options are to accept the truth or to undergo a radical lobotomy. Teddy/Andrew finally accepts that he is the killer of his wife and that his US Marshall service ended long ago.

At the close of the novel, it is unclear what is real and what is not. It is also unclear if Teddy has truly regressed again or if he simply wishes to receive the lobotomy so he does not have to live with the knowledge of what happened to his family.

A major theme of the novel is that of appearances. In the beginning of the novel, we are presented with a clear set of characters, but as it progresses, it becomes more and more unclear. The investigators are patients and doctors. The woman they are investigating does not exist. Are the patients being experimented on, or is this another elaborate ruse?

It is difficult to know what is real by the end, and we are left wondering at the state of Teddy/Andrew’s mind. It is unclear if the “investigation” was a failure, or if he just cannot live with the truth. The story offers no real ending, and we must decide what his choice really means.

There are other motifs of death surrounding the investigation. The inmates at the hospital remind Teddy of the inmates at Dachau, a camp that Teddy liberated during the war and that haunts him now. He sees their helplessness, and also, his inability to save everyone. The experiments at the hospital echo the experiments carried out by the Nazis on the Jews during the Holocaust and Teddy weaves this into his investigation.

Other clues that Teddy is not whom he seems, and that he does remember, are things like the continual appearance of the three logs in the lake. He does not recognize them at first, but they symbolize the bodies of his dead children. He also dreams that the people in his life are in the kitchen with him, and though he knows they are dead, he is haunted by these dreams.

The novel is a thrilling adventure into what the mind is capable of during times of great stress. It highlights the things we do to survive trauma and loss. Ultimately, we must decide what Teddy’s final decision will be and what that means as he deals with the reality of what has happened to him.