I finally finished the 1,072-page Stephen King novel, Under the Dome, published in 2009. I started it over a year ago and lost interest about 400-pages in. I started watching the television show, which seemed nothing like the book and did not inspire me to continue reading. However, I am one of those people who cannot stand to abandon a book unfinished, so I recently picked it up again and started over from the first page. I am so glad I did, and I am glad that it was in the midst of this ridiculous election season that I completed it. I had no idea that it was a political commentary of the 2008 election season, and King’s criticisms are even more apt in this election year. Fair warning, this review contains spoilers, so read at your own risk.
The super-short synopsis, just enough to paint a backdrop for this review, is that an inexplicable and impenetrable (except for a reduced air flow) dome descends suddenly over the small town of Chester’s Mill, blocking them off from the outside world. In a matter of a week, all hell has broken loose as one egomaniacal character decides, against democracy, to lead the people his way, which happens to be evil and corrupt. While some fall in line out of a false sense of security, others passively stand by, and a few actively resist.
Immediately, it struck me that King was influenced by two very classic tales and one dirty election season to write this novel. The first classic tale is William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, wherein, a group of boys are marooned on an isolated tropical island with no adult supervision. Quickly, the island descends in to chaos when the democratically elected leader of the boys, Ralph, is challenged by a thug who decides he wants to be the leader, Jack. Ralph represents Barbie in the novel. Barbie is given leadership by the military leaders, who are monitoring things from outside the dome. Barbie cares about the people and is reluctant to take the leadership role, but takes on the responsibility for the good of the people. Jack represents Big Jim Rennie in the novel, an over-bearing egomaniac, who lets baser instincts rule and enjoys bullying weaker people around him, much like Jack bullies and finally kills Piggy with the help of his newly developed cult followers.
And this is where it begins to mirror the 2008, as well as the 2016, elections. In the novel, Barbie represents civil and intellectual leadership (President Obama), and Big Jim Rennie represents the Evangelical Republican Right. Throughout the novel, Big Jim Rennie talks disrespectfully about that president with the middle- eastern middle name and how he does not recognize his authority over Chester’s Mill. Sound familiar? Additionally, Rennie is a fundamentalist leader in the radical right wing church in Chester’s Mill. Rennie is corrupt, running a meth lab for profit, and justifies it by the good he does for the community and the church. Rennie thinks he and his cohorts are the only ones with a direct line to God and going to heaven, despite their heinous acts, including rape and murder. To Rennie, the ends justify the means, and he is able to excuse all his racism (his views on immigrants sound just like Trump’s), sexism (he treats women exactly like Trump does), and his disdain for the poor (sounds just like Romney and Trump). Oh, and Rennie makes fun of the handicapped and hates homosexuals too. Of course.
In Chester’s Mill, there are three main groups of people. The religious fanatics that resemble the Westborough Baptist Church. These people include Rennie and his misled and amoral followers. The next group are the members of the First Congregational Church of Chester’s Mill (the Congos, they are called in the community). This group is the “normal” religious folk, the ones who go to church and kind of believe, but are not dogmatic in their beliefs. They believe live and let live. The pastor is a woman who doubts the existence of God, but she continues to pray anyway. She is of one the good people, who eventually sides with Barbie against Rennie’s group. Also, in this group are the citizens who go to church outside Chester’s Mill, but are not fanatics. These include the Catholics. This is an obvious commentary on the Religious Rights’ influence on politics and their insistence on legislating based on their own beliefs, while the “normal” Christians are not so dogmatic, question their beliefs, and do not think they should force others to live by those beliefs. The non-fanatical Christians in Under the Dome, eventually side with Barbie.
The last group is the non-believers, of which Barbie, the protagonist, is one. The people who claim no religious beliefs and think the rules should be based on democracy and reason are the leaders on the moral side in Under the Dome. As a secular humanist, I really appreciated this divergence from mainstream stereotypes and its connection to recent politics. Barbie represents fairness and reason in the novel.
Julia Shumway, another protagonist and journalist, is the token “good Republican.” Barbie continually says to her, “You don’t seem like a Republican.” And she does not. She is reasonable, fair, and represents journalism. She backs Barbie and fights Rennie from the beginning. I believe she represents fiscal conservatives, who have reasonable views on social progress. Perhaps, she even represents Independents.
Rennie is willing to do anything to be in charge, and engineers smear campaigns to discredit Barbie and his followers over and over, and eventually resorts to violence. Finally, climate change and the environment become an important part of the novel after a fire breaks out, and the dome prevents the smoke from getting out and clean air from getting in. Throughout the novel, Rennie wants to keep the dome up because he likes his reign of terror and control over the people and does not want it to end, even though it’s killing them. He continues to deny that their environment is not sustainable.
Barbie constantly works toward solutions to conserve energy, maintain order and civility, and solve the environmental problem of the dome. These are obvious allusions to climate change deniers on the right. Rennie even talks about God delivering them and not allowing them to die from bad air. Barbie relies on science to work on the problem with Julia and another protagonist in the novel, Joe, a young sciencey teen. Do you think I’m imagining these political statements? No, they are very clear in many passages in the novel, but check out this one:
When Rennie is held up selfishly in a fallout shelter while people are dying all around him, one of his cohorts says, “’What if the air doesn’t clear. The TV said—?” and Rennie responds with a tirade of right-wing vitriol:
“’Oh, dear, the sky is falling, oh dear, the sky is falling!’ Big Jim Rennie declaimed in a strange (and strangely disturbing) falsetto. ‘They’ve been saying it for years, haven’t they? The scientists and the bleeding-heart liberals. World War III! Nuclear reactors melting down to the center of the earth! Y2K computer freezes! The end of the ozone layer! Melting ice caps! Killer hurricanes! Global warming! Chicken-dirt weak-sister atheists who won’t trust in the will of a loving, caring God! Who refuse to believe there is such a thing as a loving, caring God!’
Big Jim pointed a greasy but adamant finger at the younger man.
‘Contrary to the beliefs of the secular humanists, the sky is not falling. They can’t help the yellow streak that runs up their backs, son—“the guilty man flees where none pursueth,” you know, book of Leviticus—but that doesn’t change God’s truth: “those who believe on him shall not tire, but shall mount up with wings of eagles”—book of Isaiah. That’s basically smog out there. It will just take a while to clear out.’” But, of course, it doesn’t. Most of the town dies because of the air quality.
And under all this, there is another story going on, which relates to the second classic to which I referred earlier—The Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” by Rod Serling. In “Monsters” an alien race experiment on a town by isolating them, cutting off the power, playing with them by turning on and off law mowers, etc. The fear cuts through the town until they turn on each other, the town descends in to chaos, and in fear, one of them shoots one of their own people. The chaos in Chester’s Mill is much like this. People begin fearing each other and lashing out without due process. This is made most obvious when Barbie and a fellow kind and reasonable person, Rusty, are imprisoned on trumped up charges, framed for the rapes and murders that Rennie and his son, Junior, commited, are beaten, and are to be executed without due process. The townspeople go along with it because they hear Rennie’s propaganda and believe the lies even though they are concerned and doubtful.
Like The Twilight Zone episode, it turns out that the dome is caused by alien children, who are keeping them covered like an ant farm, for their own amusement. The realization of this causes Julia and Barbie and their friends to think back on times when they were once the bully and the bullied, like ants under a magnifying glass. They each recount the feelings of standing by and watching while someone else bullied someone and they did nothing, and the experience of children, pulling off the wings of flies and subjecting ants to heat under a magnifying glass. Barbie remembers stopping because he realized that the ants “had their own little lives.” Julia recounts a humiliating memory of being beaten and stripped naked by a group of girls as a child. One girl came back and gave her a sweater to put around her to cover her nakedness. Because of this, they decide to beg for mercy from one alien child looking at them through the dome. Julia convinces the alien that “they have their own little lives” and immediately the dome rises from Chester’s Mill. King ends the book by speaking of Barbie reflecting on Julia’s childhood memory of the girl who gave her the sweater: “Pity was not love, Barbie reflected . . . but if you were a child, giving clothes to someone who was naked had to be a step in the right direction.” Ending the book on this note seems to me to be a call to care for one another, to end the cruelty, the selfishness, and have compassion on one another, something characteristically absent in both the 2008 and the 2016 divisive election seasons.
So, although this book took far too long to tell the story, what a story it tells. The allegorical characters and the allusions to our current situation are all too poignant. Do we really want a Lord of the Flies political system? Do we want a society where fear and fanaticism overrule science and reason? Do we want a Big Jim Rennie bullying women and the handicapped as President Trump? Without kind, ethical, reasonable leadership, we, as humans, tend to follower baser instincts, especially if that is the group mentality. This is an important message, and I thank Stephen King for delivering it to us in palatable way without toning down his obvious frustration with the radical right. And I believe it is telling that the network version of this book happened to leave out all the political details that make this book great. So, if you’ve seen the show, but haven’t read the book, take the time. It’s well worth it. Five out of Five stars.—Christina Knowles
Originally published in 2016
All quotes are from Stephen King’s Under the Dome. Published by Scribner, 2009.