Monday, April 1, 2013

Teaching under the Dome: Life in a Small Town, Characters, and Narrative Point of View

This semester, I am teaching a course at the University of Minnesota called Literature of the Public Life--one of my very favorite courses to teach, because it really encourages students to think about the larger function of literature and why it's so important.  I also love it because the text selection is very open--I get to teach pretty much whatever I want, and I really enjoy the freedom to bring together seemingly disparate texts.  Last fall, I mused about whether teaching Stephen King's Under the Dome would work, and when it came time to order books, I decided to go for it--we are now spending the entire last half of the semester working through the various issues presented by the novel.

With one week of this experiment under my belt, I'm feeling very good about this decision.  What I am particularly pleased with is that by focusing on one book that addresses a wide variety of issues relevant to the class (politics, structure of cities and towns, representation of difference, function of literature in general, etc.), we are also able to spend more time on the details of the text itself.  Rather than read one book that thematizes issues of gender, and another that discusses politics, Under the Dome does both--and so instead of getting immersed in a new text each week, we stay immersed in King's novel and are able to explore in much more depth how the text functions.

The first week, we examined representations of life in small towns, connecting back to D.J. Waldie's Holy Land, which we had started the semester with.  For a bit of contrast, we watched an episode of the CW show Hart of Dixie, and discussed ways in which popular representations of small towns might perpetuate or possibly challenge stereotypes about such communities.  We also delved into James McMurtry's song "Talkin' at the Texaco"--part of which serves as the epigraph to King's novel.  Take a look:

What was particularly great about looking at this song was that it gave us a chance to talk about the tone of the song--and whether or not the characters in the novel were using the lyrics in the same way that McMurtry does in the song itself.  The line, "and we all support the team," seems like a positive message of unity when taken at face value--but as my students noted, Dale Barbara, one of the novel's main characters, uses it sarcastically to emphasize the challenges of his outsider status.  And, as someone else pointed out, depending on who says it, it could definitely come across as a threat--"we all support the team...or else."

As part of our examination of the way King represents life in a small town, we looked at how the novel is narrated from the point of view of an enormous number of characters--over 20, at least.  While the novel is narrated in the third person, King uses the third person limited narrator to inhabit a particular character's mind for a few chapters at a time before he moves on to another character--thus giving us a chance to get to know key characters while also providing a flavor for the variety and range of people who live in a small town.

One technique that King uses to enhance this style of narration is free indirect discourse--that is, presenting a characters' without the mediation of quotation marks or even a phrase like, "Julia thought that..."  This happens quite frequently; an example occurs in Chapter 4 of the "Clustermug" section, right after Rusty Everett, the town's physician's assistant, hears two explosions while is at work at Cathy Russell Hospital.  The narrative continues:
Had to make this fast.  And where was The Wizard?  Doing rounds, according to Ginny.  Which probably meant snoozing in the Cathy Russell doctors' lounge.  It was where The Wonderful Wiz did most of his rounds these days.
Rusty's thoughts are presented as part of the narration, so that the boundaries between character, narrator, and reader are collapsed and the reader is given direct access to the inside of Rusty's head.  Such a technique provides a very useful shortcut for giving readers the personality of a wide range of characters in a short period of time.

Perhaps the most interesting moments in the narration are those when the narrator pulls back out of any character's head and provides an omniscient voice.  One such moment comes at the end of the section entitled "Madness, Blindness, and Astonishment of the Heart," when many of the town's residents are congregated near Alden Dinsmore's farm for a protest and a prayer meeting.  In Chapter 10, the narrator demands, "Now see this; see it very well."  My students were very interested in how this was a moment where the narrator directly addressed the reader--and furthermore, where the narrator was dictating what the reader should do.  We had a fascinating discussion about control--how the narrator controlled what the reader knew, and why the narrator was providing us with the information that he or she did.

Overall, it has been a very productive first week, and what is most encouraging is how the students are excited enough by the story to be willing to take a look at details like this.  I think that paying attention to how the theme of control is present in the very narrative structure of the book will make our later discussions of the theme of control that much richer, and I'm very pleased to have the opportunity to delve into such a rich text in this way.

By Jen Miller