Pedro Tiago Ferreira
In Under the Dome, a long and thrilling book, Stephen King caricaturises several problems which are transversal to all human societies. The environmental question posed by the greenhouse effect, the economic problem of scarcity of resources, the crumbling of law and justice before rhetorical demagogy, which is connected to the perversion of political power for personal rather than public use, are some of the issues King cleverly engages in this well-written and well-structured novel.
On October twenty-first of an unspecified year, a Saturday, according to the narrator, an invisible and impenetrable barrier sets imperceptibly over the boundaries of Chester’s Mill, a small town in Maine. Because of this, two events take place almost simultaneously: a woodchuck, resting on one of the Chester’s Mill borders, is severed in two before former Army Lieutenant Dale “Barbie” Barbara’s astonished eyes; seconds later, a plane, piloted by Claudette Sanders, the wife of Chester’s Mill’s first selectman and drugstore owner Andy Sanders, crashes against the dome, killing her and her instructor instantly. Chaos ensues as a result of the latter occurrence, as no one is able to account for the accident. Only gradually do people start to acknowledge the strange phenomenon that isolates their town from the rest of the world: a man who is driving into town is prevented from crashing his vehicle against the dome by Barbie, who successfully signals him to stop (the man, however, not understanding what is going on, tries to run into town as he looks at the plane wreckage, smashing his nose against the dome); police chief Duke Perkins’s pacemaker explodes in his chest killing him instantly as he approaches the dome, which interferes with electronic devices; a series of other dome related incidents occur on other borders of the town, killing or maiming several people.
“Big” Jim Rennie, second town selectman and car-dealer who runs a drug operation on the side, believes he is the leader the town needs in such a dire crisis. He takes control over the police force by appointing a new chief who is no more than a puppet in his hands and by recruiting some of the town’s young hoodlums as deputies. The various crises that arise in town help Rennie’s bid for power. Those crises can be grouped under two headings: the greenhouse effect problem created by the dome, as it prevents rain from falling in Chester’s Mill and causes all of the smoke, exhaust, and particulate matter to start collecting inside of it, and the economic problem of resources which are not only scarce, but will inevitably end if the dome never disappears.
By playing on people’s fears, Rennie enacts a phenomenon known as “faction mentality.” As James Madison (1) aptly puts it:
By a faction I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community. (p. 161)
Madison uses the term “faction” to denote a disruptive concept, a phenomenon that impedes a community from living harmoniously; in this sense, “faction” does not mean the principled debate of different ideas within a free polity, but the imposition of some group’s interests on other groups, whether by rhetorical demagogy or, if necessary, by physical force. This is exactly what Rennie does in his bid for power throughout the novel: he has no qualms about killing people when that, in his mind, proves necessary, he demonizes his enemies (for instance, he frames Barbie for the murders both he and his son, Junior, commit), and uses Christianity to his advantage by claiming that the dome is an act of God aimed at punishing all of Chester’s Mill’s sinners.
Events convey the impression that Rennie would become a dictator if almost all of the town’s inhabitants had not died in an explosion caused in a confrontation between, on one side, Sanders and Phil Bushey and, on the other side, Rennie’s police force. Sanders and Bushey are in possession of a considerable quantity of propane formerly used to cook crystal meth as part of Rennie’s drug operation. They decide to make it explode in a situation which they perceive as one of self-defence, as the police force, on Rennie’s orders, attempt to retake control of the propane, with license to kill both Sanders and Bushey if necessary. Because of the dome, the explosion turns into an implosion, killing almost everyone. The only survivors are Rennie and one of his cronies and the members of a small resistance group composed by people who had realized Rennie’s true intentions. The members of this group had, prior to the explosion, fled to a part of the town in which they had found a device suspected of being of alien origin and responsible for the dome.
After the explosion, Julia Shumway, a member of the resistance against Rennie, successfully establishes contact with the alien life form and convinces it to lift the dome. Before this happens, however, some of the group’s members die due to the lack of oxygen. The others hold on until the dome is lifted by standing near the border as small quantities of air, provided by giant fans placed outside of the town by the government, seep through the dome. Rennie also perishes before the dome is lifted as the fallout shelter where he is hiding is not near any of the borders of the town.
It may be argued that this is a science-fiction novel, as the eponymous dome, which is set over the town of Chester’s Mill, is the result of extra-terrestrial agency. I would say that this circumstance makes the novel, at best, a science-fiction work only formally, that is, it is a science-fiction novel because the plot trigger, as well as its ultimate resolution, has to do with acts of alien life forms. The plot, in terms of substance, however, has nothing to do with outer space phenomena. Not even with the supernatural, which is another of King’s favourite genres. If one overlooks the nature of the event which occasions the citizens of Chester’s Mill’s plight, as well as the salvation of a handful of its people, one sees clearly that King’s story is this-worldly through and through.
King’s caricatural purposes are in fact served by a clear division of characters into “good guys” and “bad guys,” the first represented by Barbie, Shumway and the other members of the resistance group, and the latter by Rennie and his posse. The only character whose life most resembles that of a regular human being is Sanders. Distraught by his wife’s death, Sanders starts out on Rennie’s side but gradually understands that Rennie’s policies are self-subservient and destructive. Sanders is the character who represents humanity, as his life is coloured by shades of grey; all other characters are representations of the ideas of “good” and “evil.”
This does not mean that the novel’s characters are shallow; quite the contrary, there is a good deal of character development and self-discovery throughout the story, as people find out what they are truly capable of doing under a situation of extreme crisis. What there is not is the conventional type of redemption, the kind where someone is lost in life due to the many mistakes they have made and ultimately atone for their sins by rising to hero status. In Under the Dome, good guys and bad guys are always good and bad respectively, with the already noted exception of Sanders, who enjoys a hybrid moral character; the plot’s events are no more than occasions for every character to reveal their true colours. Good guys develop their character by performing good deeds, whereas bad guys develop their character by gradually becoming more and more evil.
This marked division between good and bad people serves King’s caricatural purposes, as I mentioned above, because it allows an analysis of societal dynamics in a closed off community under extreme duress. King’s strategy is, in a sense, the same as Socrates’s strategy in the Republic: Socrates aims at the construction of a city in order to find where justice lies in it. If that can be done, then it will be easier to identify where justice lies within every individual human being, as the city functions like a big scale model of the human soul. In Under the Dome, the scale is reversed: King takes the world’s dynamics and plays them out inside a small town. Just as Plato’s ideal city amplifies the scale at which the human soul’s workings can be observed, Chester’s Mill contains all the world’s problems scaled down to its size. This reduction in size, however, rather exacerbates societal problems: less space means more trouble, so King’s effect is the same as Plato’s, as both create a place in which the individual can be better observed both in their inner workings and in their relations with their peers.
The environmental setting of Under the Dome allows King to show what will eventually happen in the planet at large: besides other well-known effects, temperatures will become too high to sustain human life and pollution will be too heavy to admit of comfortable breathing. The destruction of the town and the death of almost all of its inhabitants foreshadows Earth’s likely destiny if the environmental situation does not change soon for the better. Whether it is through an explosion – which will become an implosion due to the greenhouse effect – or some other circumstance is immaterial: King’s message is that life will gradually lose its comforts because of the way humans treat the environment.
As for the political situation created in Under the Dome, I would like to call attention to the fact that there seems to be a tendency for democratic government in primitive societies, as observed by J.L. Gillin (2):
It is very interesting to observe that democracy has its roots in the far-distant past. (…) A long series of world-wars, incident to the building of states, obscured the democracy of primitive societies. (…)
If we remember that primitive societies are small groups of people bound together by blood ties rather than by political ideals, or residence in a common territory, we shall have little difficulty in reconstructing the life of that early period and seeing at the fountainhead democracy at work and evolving among the early types of societies. All of them were tribal groups. Either in fact or in fiction the members of these groups were related to each other. The largest social groups in these times were composed of a few hundred, or at most a few thousand, individuals. (p. 705)
I call attention to this quote because there is some propensity to regard post-apocalyptic societies as primitive societies. What happens in Chester’s Mill is an apocalyptic event. It may not feel like one, because the rest of the world goes on unchanged, but from the perspective of Chester’s Mill’s inhabitants everything they knew prior to the coming of the dome, including the foundation of law and order, suddenly vanishes de facto, although, psychologically speaking, only starts to vanish gradually and slowly. This means that, contrary to what one may suppose, apocalyptic events do not plunge their survivors into a primitive society, or in groups of primitive societies. King, in fact, has dealt with this subject before in his novel The Stand (3), where there is an exchange between characters Glen Bateman and Stuart Redman that clearly shows that, for King, the survivors of an apocalypse do not go on to form primitive societies. Bateman is the first to speak:
“Suppose we have Community A in Boston and Community B in Utica. They are aware of each other, and each community is aware of the conditions in the other community’s camp. Society A is in good shape. They are living on Beacon Hill in the lap of luxury because one of their members just happens to be a Con Ed repairman. This guy knows just enough to get the power plant which serves Beacon Hill running again. (…) So in Boston, the juice is flowing. There’s heat against the cold, light so you can read at night, refrigeration so you can have your Scotch on the rocks like a civilized man. (…)
Sociologically speaking, such a group would probably become communal in nature. No dictatorship here. The proper breeding ground for dictatorship, conditions of want, need, uncertainty, privation… they simply wouldn't exist. Boston would probably end up being run by a town meeting form of government again.
But Community B, up there in Utica. There’s no one to run the power plant. The technicians are all dead. (…) A strongman takes over. He sends someone to Boston with a request. Will they send their pet technician up to Utica to help them get their power plant going again? (…) So what does Community A do when they get this message?”
“They send the guy?” Stu asked.
“(…) no! He might be held against his will (…). [M]aybe they threaten the Boston people with a nuclear warhead.” (pp. 344-5)
After Stuart points out how far-fetched it seems that a community that cannot power up their power plant would be able to use a nuclear missile, Bateman concludes the point he is trying to make:
(…) there are plenty of conventional weapons around. That’s the point. All of that stuff is lying around, waiting to be picked up. And if Communities A and B both have pet technicians, they might work up some kind of rusty nuclear exchange over religion, or territoriality or some paltry ideological difference. Just think, instead of six or seven world nuclear powers, we may end up with sixty or seventy of them right here in the continental United States. If the situation were different, I’m sure that there would be fighting with rocks and spiked clubs. But the fact is, all the old soldiers have faded away and left their playthings behind. (p. 345)
These passages from The Stand relate to Under the Dome because, in the latter, the conditions for tyrannical government mentioned in the former do exist, but especially because the post-apocalyptical scenario of The Stand, which is worldwide, allows for one of its characters to think that post-apocalyptical societies will be everything but primitive in terms of mentality and technology. This is what happens in Under the Dome, and this is why the society that would form within Chester’s Mill’s borders if most of its inhabitants had not been killed and if the dome had not been lifted would not be primitive, and therefore Gillin’s considerations would not apply (the exclusive blood relations mentioned by Gillin within a primitive society also do not exist in Chester’s Mill). Politically speaking, Under the Dome shows us two centrifugal forces that simply do not occur in primitive societies: the force that struggles to keep some form of democratic government, probably a direct democracy due to the number of inhabitants, is pitted against the force that urges toward dictatorial government because conditions are hard and someone needs to make hard decisions whose effect must be immediate. Rennie does his best to thrive under these conditions. Whether he would ultimately succeed remains a mystery, but King gives every indication that he would if the explosion, allied to the environmental problems, had not killed the community in the meantime.
(1) James Madison – Writings. 1999. Jack N. Rakove (Editor). New York: The Library of America.
(2) Gillin, J.L., “The Origin of Democracy.” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 24, no. 6, May 1919. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 704-714.
(3) King, Stephen. 2012 [1978, 1990]. The Stand. New York: Anchor Books.