While on vacation in Maine, I came across a bookstore and thought purchasing a Stephen King novel in his home state would be pretty cool. I picked up Under the Dome and kept plunging through this doorstopper of a book until the very surprising and sort of sad end.
A small Maine town called Chester’s Mill is suddenly covered by a dome. A dizzying set of short scenes are used to demonstrate the utter atrocity of the dome. Worse than being cut off from the rest of the world are the immediate horrors of hands being cut off, loved ones dying and cars crashing into the invisible barrier.
The police chief dies when his pacemaker explodes getting too close to the dome. This presents an opportunity to Second Selectman Big Jim Rennie to lay his heavy hand on the town. Rennie has been influencing town affairs for years, happily hiding within the office of Second Selectman. He is able to manipulate the other Selectman and the new acting chief of police with an ease buoyed by his constant biblical epithets.
To Rennie’s chagrin, also trapped inside the town is form Army Captain Dale Barbara, known to friends as Barbie. When the military contacts Barbie, promotes his rank and tasks him with finding the source of the dome, he accepts despite knowing the problems Rennie will have with his role.
There are so many other fascinating characters:
Junior Rennie, who is one sick boy, in many terrifying ways
Julia Shumway, a journalist determined to keep her paper going during the crisis even if it means tacking single pages onto telephone poles
Rusty Everett, a physician’s assistant promoted due to the death of his boss
Linda Everett, Rusty’s wife and a local cop trying her hardest to protect her family during the increasing police state that Rennie builds
Piper Libby, a reverend who no longer believes in God
Joe McClatchey, a 13-year-old genius who helps Barbie search for the source of the dome
Brenda Perkins, widow of the former Police Chief who has damning information on Rennie
Sammy Bushey, oh, poor Sammy Bushey, and good for her for giving it like she got
There is so much plot that I could describe and so many characters. Instead, so as not to ruin the experience of reading Under the Dome, I will look at the themes and choices King made.
Beauty in small moments
There are a lot of tragic deaths in this novel so this example won’t give anything away.
Two women we’ve never met before are together when they realize they will die due to an incident in the dome. There is nowhere to go. There is nothing to do. They hold hands. The older woman is sad because she feels she has lived her life and the younger woman could have had so much more. The younger woman asks if it will hurt and the older woman says no. Then they die.
This may not seem beautiful in my synopsis but King is able to create a tender moment between two strangers – strangers to the reader and strangers to each other – at a terrifying time. While there are many horrifying moments in the book, the beautiful ones stand out the most.
Don’t forget the horror
What is a Stephen King novel without horror? In this novel, the horror comes from what people are willing to do to each other. Junior’s plotline will turn your stomach. Rennie’s choices will remind you of a certain dictator. Police brutality. Mob mentality. Selfishness. Violence. Fear. So many atrocious acts are committed within seven days – I repeat, seven days. The speed with which the town implodes is astonishing and completely believable.
Fear makes people hoard supplies and refuse to share. Fear makes people pick up a gun. Fear makes people heady with power. Under the Dome is a sickeningly accurate portrayal of that university experiment where half the students were guards and the other half were prisoners. The experiment degraded so quickly with the guards becoming so abusive it had to be stopped.
Good versus Evil
Without giving the ending away, Under the Dome is a story about man’s capacity for good and evil. We all have choices to make and a variety of reasons to make them. The strongest story told multiple times in the novel is about a ‘good’ act by a ‘bad’ person done out of pity. Possibly pity is the starting point for compassion. It is a rare moment when a so-called ‘bad’ person will do anything ‘good’, even out of pity, so it must mean something.
I think King wants it to mean something. I’ve read articles in which King discusses the environmental theme in the novel as well as his exploration of power inspired by the Bush-Cheney administration. I definitely see those themes in the novel but not having that information prior to reading Under the Dome, I closed the book as a meditation on compassion and humanity. The dome is a metaphor for Earth. We are all stuck here and need to make sure we take care of it and each other.
Such a lovely sentiment to come out of disturbing book.