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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Stephen King's "Revival": An Analogy and a Symbol = Theme

copyright 22014 by Gary L. Pullman

     Stephen King's novel Revival begins with an analogy in which the narrator compares “our lives” to “movies.” There are parallels between the main cast, the supporting cast, bit players, and extras. Moreover, the cast of “our lives” also includes “the fifth business,” or “change agent,” a “joker who pops out . . . at odd moments over the years, often during a crisis.” In Revival, the fifth business is the Reverend Charles Jacobs, who makes his appearance on the seventh page of the 403-page novel.

     Each chapter is told in chunks, each separated from the next by spacing. These chunks of narrative are connected by transitions, and the structure of each chapter is indicated by phrases that summarize the parts. For example, the heading for chapter one consists of three phrases, separated by periods: “Fifth Business. Skull Mountain. Peaceable Lake.” These phrases may also indicate the important bits of the story—those which are central to characterization, theme, or plot. The chunks are sometimes complete scenes, but not always.

      “Fifth Business,” comprised of two paragraphs, is entirely expository, establishing the importance of the “change agent” and setting the theme.

      “Skull Mountain” consists of three scenes. In the first, the protagonist, Jamie Morton,” receives a gift from his sister Claire. In the second, 17-paragraph, which is comprised of about half-exposition and half-dialogue, the rest of Jamie's family—Mom, Dad, and older brother Conrad, are introduced, amid sibling rivalry. In the third, which is made up of an eight-paragraph chunk and a 74-paragraph chunk comprised, again, of about half-exposition and half-dialogue, the “change agent” is introduced as he advises Jamie as to how to create the caves in a dirt hill that the boy wants to make and gives him some tips on military strategy.

      “Peaceable Lake” makes up the remaining 10 pages of the 23-page chapter and is served up in two scenes: in the first, Jamie accompanies Charles to his house, the church's rectory, to see a model landscape; in the second, Charles' wife Patsy and their son Morrie arrive. The transitions connect the action or the dialogue in one chunk of story to a subsequent chunk. For example, the protagonist's brother Conrad Morton predicts that Jamie will soon set aside his sister Claire's birthday present, an army of “two hundred green plastic soldiers,” and forget about them, as he tends to do with all of his other presents (3). The next chunk begins with the sentence, “But Con was wrong about the footlocker with the army inside” (4).

      The same strategy is repeated throughout the novel. Chapter 2 is divided into three chunks: “Three Years. Conrad's Voice. A Miracle.” The chapter begins with foreshadowing that also establishes the time during which the story takes place: “Reverend Jacobs got fired because of the sermon he gave from his pulpit on November 21, 1965.”

      To attain a level of thematic depth, King uses a couple of techniques early on. In the first chapter, he suggests that, unlike movies, the script that human lives appear to follow may be merely an illusion; the analogy may not, on careful analysis, accurately reflect the truth about the nature of human existence; life may be merely the unfolding of chance events. Jamie hopes that this is, in fact, the case, because the alternative is, for him, even more terrifying, suggesting that life is governed by an indifferent, if not a sadistic or demonic, “fate,” despite his family and his community's belief that a wise, loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful God controls human affairs:

. . . But who is screenwriting our lives? Fate or coincidence? I want to believe it's the latter. I want that with all my heart and soul. When I think of Charles Jacobs—my fifth business, my change agent, my nemesis—I can't bear to believe his presence in my life had anything to do with fate. It would mean that all these terrible things—these horrors—were meant to happen. If that is so, then there is no such thing as light, and our belief in it is a foolish illusion. If that is so, we live in darkness like animals in a burrow, or ants in their hill.
      And not alone (2).

The idea of divine providence, the very premise upon which the Christian faith of the characters' lives is founded, is threatened by the sense that human existence is either a matter of the operations of blind chance or an indifferent and perhaps evil power. The evil, in a metaphysical sense, is this doubt and insecurity concerning the origin and nature of human existence and the future toward which, for good or ill, it hurtles.

      Along the way, King reinforces his metaphysical theme by showing that the new minister himself, has doubts about the efficacy of his faith. The model landscape, Peaceable Lake, symbolizes the world. It is a sort of paradise wherein nature is subject to divine rule. For example, a figure of Jesus walks on the water, showing God's power to govern nature. However, this is merely a “trick,” as Jamie observes: Jesus follows a submerged electrified track. Jamie sees the “magic trick” as being similar to such illusions he has seen on The Ed Sullivan Show and to those he received in a birthday gift. In other words, Jesus' apparently miraculous feat may be nothing more than an illusion, an effect of electricity and technology:

“It's a magic trick!” . . .
“That's right.”
“Like Jesus walking on the water to the ship.”
“Sometimes,” he [Charles] said, “that's what I'm afraid of.”
he looked so sad and distant that I felt a little scared again, but I also felt sorry for him. . . (22).

      Using the model landscape as a symbol for the possibly mythological nature of Christian faith, King reinforces his theme that, in reality, human life may be nothing more than coincidental incidents erupting through blind chance. If they are not, the “horrors” that sometimes accompany such incidents points not toward a benevolent and loving, but a monstrous, God. This is the true bogeyman behind the physical embodiments of such fears, which King expresses, thematically, through the use of analogy, dialogue, and symbolism. There is much at stake—a whole understanding of life that gives one confidence, security, courage, lending some philosophical and theological depth to a narrative that would otherwise be just a story of a bogeyman.