Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Reading Stephen King's Under the Dome: Final Installment

Last week, I finished listening to Stephen King's Under the Dome on my way to work, which was good--the CDs were due back at the library, and I had maxed out the number of times I could renew them.  It was also good, because I finally knew the ending of one of the most enjoyable, thought-provoking novels I've ever read.

Today, I'm going to share with you my thoughts about the ending of the novel--if you haven't read it yet, please know that there are spoilers after the jump.  But if you haven't read the novel, what are you doing here, anyways?  Go get a copy for yourself!

First of all, when I found out that the dome was the result of alien technology, I was initially a little disappointed.  So much of the novel was about the evil things that humans would do to other humans, given the chance--Julia Shumway, the newspaper editor in the novel, even says something to that effect, namely, that while the aliens put up the dome, everything else that happened, the residents of Chester's Mill did to themselves.  I wondered whether or not it would fit better with the overall idea of the book if the dome had actually been created by humans.  And I still do like the idea of the dome being an inadvertent result of Big Jim's meth manufacturing operation, with the Christian radio antennae helping to amplify the signal that created it somehow.  But perhaps that would be too heavy-handed.

Having aliens be responsible, though, enabled King to develop an additional theme near the ending of the novel--the insignificance of humanity.  He spent quite a while drawing a comparison between the residents of Chester's Mill and ants--those in an ant farm, those burned by Rusty Everett and his friend with a magnifying glass when then were kids--and the shift between the intense focus on one small town in Maine and the infinite possibilities of where in the universe these torturers are was a juxtaposition that drove this point home for me, much like the final scene from the movie Men in Black:

The ending of Under the Dome also struck me as being a secular humanist version of Tolkien's eucatastophe--that is, what he describes in his essay "On Fairy-Stories" as, "the joy of the happy ending...the sudden joyous 'turn'" (153).  For Tolkien, this joy is "a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth" of the world, "a far off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world" (155)--in other words, a glimpse of Christian truth.  King's novel definitely has this sudden turn toward joy, the wresting of the story out of the grip of sorrow and destruction, but rather than pointing to a greater power or truth, the narrative uses this moment to celebrate basic human life.  Much of the novel has been spent calling into question the existence of the divine, both in the hypocrisy of Big Jim Rennie, as well as through the figure of Piper Libby, the pastor of the First Congregational Church in Chester's Mill, who no longer believes in God and who addresses her prayers to the great "Not There."  But the turn of the novel toward joy at the end is still real, still powerful, still incredibly moving, thus demonstrating how the eucatastrophe can continue to be a useful way to talk about the ending of fantasy novels, even in a world where religion no longer plays as important a role.

I could keep talking about this novel for days, but I want to end with one final point--a discussion of what happened to Big Jim Rennie.  He is such an evil character for so much of the novel, and I spent a lot of my time wondering how he was going to get punished.  Would Barbie kill him?  Would he get thrown in prison?  Would he and Cox have a showdown?

In the end, though, none of these things happened.  Big Jim died, by himself, and no one at the end even gave him a second thought.  Everyone was so joyous, and he was left to rot, by himself, in the ashes of the town that he destroyed.  And what's more--I didn't even recognize that he wasn't part of the ending until much later, after I had finished the novel.  Personally, I think that's a much more fitting punishment for a man who fancied himself the center of everything.  A big trial or inquest would have kept the focus on him, but oblivion--now that's a fate worse than death for someone like Big Jim Rennie.

Works Cited

Tolkien, J.R.R.“On Fairy Stories.” The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 2006. 109-161. Print.  

By Jen Miller