-character/villain development (or lack thereof)
Stephen King’s annual doorstopper, The Institute, was released this past September. The book begins with Tim Jamieson impulsively deciding to take a flight attendant’s offer of a voucher to give up his seat on a plane to NYC. In no apparent hurry, Tim decides to hitchhike there instead, but on the way ends up taking a job as a “Night Knocker,” the equivalent of a night-shift cop who’s not allowed to carry a gun, in the tiny South Carolina town of DuPray. We learn Tim in fact used to be a cop in Sarasota, Florida, but left after a warning shot he fired ricocheted and killed an “innocent” bystander who was phone-recording the altercation Tim was trying to handle; his wife also left him because he didn’t want to have kids due to the world being too evil.
We then switch to Luke Ellis, a twelve-year-old kid in Minneapolis with an off-the-charts IQ. Shortly after Luke takes the SAT and gains admission to both MIT and Emerson, he’s kidnapped in the night by a team of three people who kill his parents. He wakes up in a room that looks identical to his former one, but is in the Institute, hidden deep in the woods of Maine (where else?). Luke was not kidnapped because of his prodigious intelligence, but rather for his minor telekinetic abilities; the rest of the kids in the Institute are either telekinetic or telepathic, or in rare cases, both. Luke befriends other Institute prisoners where they currently reside in “Front Half”–Kalisha, Nicky, George, and Iris, who give him the lay of the land; they’re shortly joined by a new arrival, an even younger boy named Avery who has stronger telepathic abilities than most of the residents. We meet the utilitarian Mrs. Sigsby, who runs the Institute, and her sinister head of security, Trevor Stackhouse. Although they present an intimidating front, the Institute has been around for several decades and is in a state of disrepair, since it’s hard to hire repair workers and keep the place a secret.
The Institute doctors subject the (pre)adolescent residents to regular tests, including one apparently designed to make them see “dots,” which the kids refer to as the “Stasi Lights” and seem to appear when their abilities are functioning. Some kids have worse reactions to the tests than others. It turns out the aim of some of the tests is to enhance the kids’ abilities, and when Luke lies about having gained some telepathic abilities from one, he’s subjected to the “immersion tank” and tortured, but still manages to keep his new enhanced abilities a secret. One by one, his friends start disappearing to “Back Half.” Kalisha telepathically beams Luke some images of what goes on there, revealing that the kids watch movies that revolve around some individual that they’re being conditioned to use their collective abilities to remotely assassinate. Participating in such collective psychic efforts strips the kids of their cognitive capacities to the point that they’re no longer themselves, the stage at which they go to the back half of Back Half and are eventually killed and incinerated. (Sinister.)
Luke befriends an Institute housekeeper named Maureen who’s known to be friendly to the kids, but who’s really just been posing to report any secrets they tell her to Mrs. Sigsby. But then Luke is able to do enough research on an Institute computer to help Maureen out of her ex-husband’s whopping credit-card debt so that she’s able to use her savings to send the son she gave up for adoption to college, and with the added factor that she’s suffering from some kind of terminal illness, Maureen decides to help Luke escape. Avery also uses his telepathic abilities to help, Maureen silently giving him instructions for how Luke can get out and where to go once he does. Luke manages to dig and squirm under a fence, almost getting stuck but inadvertently using his telekinetic abilities to lift it enough to free him. (He also has to cut off his earlobe with a paring knife Maureen left him to get rid of the tracker they implanted in it when he first arrived.) He follows Maureen’s directions and makes it through the woods to a docked boat, taking that downstream to a train yard, where he boards a train that will make several stops, including DuPray, South Carolina.
Due to the Institute’s general deterioration and the removed tracker, it takes Sigsby and Stackhouse longer than it should to catch on to Luke’s escape. Both want to handle the situation on their own without having to call their higher-ups (specifically the “lisping man” who will answer the phone line Sigsby has for emergencies), as they fear it will mean the end of their careers, and possibly their lives. Figuring out how Avery communicated with Maureen from surveillance footage, they use their “zap-sticks” to torture him, and he reveals where Luke got out of the boat he took, but not that he got on a train. When another girl, Frieda Brown, gleans and rats out the train part, Avery is subjected to the immersion tank, but in their rush they neglect to first give him the regular shots to stifle his powers, and the torture ends up increasing his already powerful abilities. Meanwhile, they send out people to wait at all the stops Luke’s train will make. Luke jumps the train in DuPray and runs into a signpost right in front of Tim, who’s gotten a second job at the town’s train yard. Unfortunately, another person present when Luke jumps the train is a stringer for the Institute (they have lots of people on their payroll) and lets them know where Luke is. Sigsby gets a team together and goes with them to DuPray.
Meanwhile, Luke shows Tim and some others a flash drive Maureen gave him with footage she took of the back half of Back Half (also referred to by residents as “Gorky Park”) with the catatonic kids, which helps them believe his wild story. Sigsby and her team infiltrate the police station and there’s a shootout that kills a lot of people, but with the help of some DuPray residents, including the homeless conspiracy theorist Orphan Annie, Tim and Luke are able to take custody of Mrs. Sigsby, who took a minor bullet wound to her ankle. They call Stackhouse, who stayed behind at the Institute, and Luke makes a deal to exchange Maureen’s flash drive for his friends, who with Avery’s help figure out how to combine and channel their powers to overcome some of the staff and free the residents of Gorky Park. When Stackhouse manages to remotely lock them in an access tunnel as they try to leave Back Half, they call out to Luke for help. Stackhouse concocts a plan to poison them with a gas made from bleach and toilet cleaner.
Tim and Luke return to the Institute with Mrs. Sigsby in tow. Sensing a trap, Tim manages a bait-and-switch where he makes Mrs. Sigsby put on his backwards cap and take the wheel of their van so that she’s mistaken for him when Institute staff open up on their van with a hail of gunfire. Sigsby is killed, but Tim and Luke, lying in the back, survive. At the same time, in the tunnel Avery uses his telepathic “big phone” to call to kids at other Institutes all over the globe to join their power to his, and sends his friends out to the playground, sacrificing himself. He channels the combined power to lift the Front Half building off the ground, destroying the other buildings in the process. Almost all of the Institute staff is killed except for Stackhouse and a couple of others, who surrender to Tim.
Tim keeps the group of Luke’s friends who escaped, who then get sent off to their closest living relatives one by one with fake stories of how they were kidnapped and released. The lisping man visits before Nick and Kalisha leave to warn them to keep their mouths shut about what happened and to try to justify the mission of the Institute, which was built off of research done by Nazis. The lisping man claims to believe that the assassinations carried out by Institute children have saved the world from annihilation over 500 times, revealing that they have a handful of “precogs” who can tell the future to a point that they can pinpoint who needs to be killed to prevent nuclear apocalypse. Luke disputes the veracity of the precogs’ predictions based on statistical analysis, and can tell from his mind-reading powers that the man is not as confident in his claims as he seems (including that the world will soon end and it will be Luke and Tim’s fault). Tim convinces the rest of the kids not to believe the man’s rationalizations, and Luke says goodbye to Kalisha. The End.
For probably the first half of The Institute I found myself less invested than I was in the first half of King’s doorstopper from last year, The Outsider, but the payoff at the end plot-wise was far better in The Institute. As always, King manages to keep the reader in “cracktastic” suspense throughout with a highly action-based plot, compensating for what by literary standards is fairly lacking character development. (For me what this usually amounts to is being engrossed while I’m reading the book but forgetting most of it once I’m finished.)
The characters might not end up being all that developed, as we will see, but King’s ability to rove points of view across a wide range of characters and capture their distinct (if at times clichéd) worldviews remains impressive. He’s the king of the ensemble cast, among other things, a probably not insignificant factor in the success of his movie and television adaptations. He can drop us into any character’s mind at any time, and maintains a pliable narrative psychic distance that allows him to tell us things characters don’t actually know:
[Luke] was asleep at once. He slept through the stop at Portland and the one in Portsmouth, although the train jerked each time a few old cars were subtracted from 4297’s pull-load and others were added. He was still asleep when the train stopped at Sturbridge…
King is also able to use point-of-view switches to generate suspense–we get to simultaneously see what’s going on with the good guys and bad guys, meaning we get to know what each side doesn’t know. We know how close Institute personnel are on Luke’s trail when he’s on the train. We know how close the bleach-and-toilet-cleaner gas is to going into the vents of the tunnel where Luke’s friends are. Were we simply stuck in the position of the good guys, knowing the bad guys are up to something but not in a position to know exactly what, we might identify strongly with their fear being exacerbated by the unknown, but it turns out actually knowing some of the specifics of that unknown is a richer experience of the potential horror.
In terms of character development, let’s start with Tim, whose decision to get off the plane to NYC starts the book. Tim gets the first part of the novel (out of nine parts). His book-opening decision is later cited as a possible precog flash, based on the idea that everyone has some low-level precog powers. Logically it seems a good starting point for the plot, since if Tim hadn’t gotten off the plane the fate of Luke and the Institute would have necessarily taken a different course. Tim’s chronic tension would seem to reside in a decision he made before the one that starts the book, the decision that led him to be on the plane in the first place, which involves the incident that caused him to have to leave the police force (a lot of the tension in the first part stems from the slow reveal of why Tim is so aimlessly drifting, potentially answering the question of why King didn’t start the book with an actual scene of the altercation that got Tim kicked off the force and only has it later recounted in dialog when he’s applying for the Night Knocker job in DuPray). The wife-leaving-him chronic tension is fairly undeveloped and random and seems more designed for thematic overlap with the question at the heart of the Institute’s existence–is the world (ir)redeemable? Eventually Tim will start dating a colleague from DuPray, but how the failure of his marriage informs his behavior in his new relationship is completely unexplored. You could say that another way Tim’s chronic tension comes into play is that the man who didn’t want children because the world was too evil ends up with Luke as his pseudo-child at the end, the one kid who probably knows more than anyone else about how evil the world really is, which would probably be more satisfying if Tim’s belief in the evil of the world had actually been developed rather than just stated once:
…ten years on the force had made him cynical. Sometimes he brought those feelings home (try often, he told himself when he was willing to be honest), and they had become part of the acid that had eaten away at his marriage. Those feelings were also, he supposed, one of the reasons he had remained so closed off to the idea of having a kid. There was too much bad stuff out there. Too many things that could go wrong.
The lack of development of this aspect means that by the end it ends up feeling like Tim has impacted the plot, but not that the plot has impacted Tim. Pacing-wise it felt to me that the first part went into too much detail about Tim’s Night Knocker routine in sequences that did not adequately develop any of his chronic-tension issues. Of course most of this first part is designed to introduce characters who will play a pivotal role in the climactic shootout, but again the characters seemed more designed to express certain ideas or serve a plot function rather than feeling like actual people–primarily Orphan Annie, the homeless woman who seems like a nut for believing in conspiracy theories but whose beliefs are revealed to be more on point than anyone would have thought.
It seems possible King opens the book with an extended section on the adult Tim before moving on to the real main character, Luke, to keep the book from feeling like it’s YA. One of the more interesting aspects of Luke’s character, his initially defining trait–his prodigious intelligence–is not the reason the Institute is interested in him, but it will be the reason that he is the one who is able to take them down. The introduction of Luke’s minor telekinetic abilities before he’s kidnapped felt a bit clunky:
Luke got up with some relief and tossed his lunch sack in a trash barrel by the door to the gym. He looked at the pretty redhead a final time, and as he went in, the barrel shimmied three inches to the left.
Luke later thinks about the trashcan moving once or twice, but there’s no other instance of his telekinetic powers before he gets to the Institute. In a way this makes sense because his telekinetic abilities are supposed to be fairly minimal, and it seems that he doesn’t even recognize that it’s actually him causing the movement. So maybe you could justify the clunkiness of the telekinetic introduction, which means the real issue here comes back to character development: Luke has none. If he potentially struggled to manage his towering intellect and so part of this journey was him learning to appreciate it, that might be one thing, but the one scene that shows how Luke’s affected by his intellect and how it has the potential to turn him into a fish out of water, when he’s with the older kids taking the SAT, doesn’t show this to be a real or recurring issue; he’s able to joke with the older kids and gain acceptance fairly easily. (This scene really seems like it should have been developed in contrast to his interactions with the others at the Institute rather than as similar to it.) If he was potentially scared of going off to college as a kid who’s barely hit puberty, then what he has to do in the acute tension of overcoming the Institute could have given him the confidence to proceed into the adult world while he’s still a child, and there’s almost lip service paid to this idea when, early in the novel, Luke admits he’ll need his parents to move to Boston with him to go to college, but this is merely a passing reference rather than a developed issue; Luke seems more or less fine with the idea of going off to college as a twelve-year-old before he’s kidnapped and taken to the Institute. Yes, by the end we understand he’ll now have to go to college without his parents because his parents are dead, and we probably understand that he has been pushed into early adulthood by his ordeal and so he will be able to manage college without them, but this aspect of the narrative isn’t really emphasized or reinforced. In the end, Tim pretty much accurately sums up Luke’s character development:
He wanted to tell Luke that he was brave, maybe the bravest kid ever outside of a boys’ adventure book.
The book’s two main protagonists, Tim and Luke, are white males. The main person of color in the cast, Kalisha, is (shockingly) relegated to a supporting role. Kalisha is the fulcrum of a love triangle between Luke and another Institute boy, Nicky, that ends up being of absolutely no consequence to the plot, even though King leans on it in a (cheesy) attempt to bring about emotional closure at the very end.
Another white male, Avery, actually seems to have more character development than Tim or Luke along the way to setting him up as a pivotal plot device. Avery has a more developed chronic tension that’s emphasized repeatedly–he did not have friends in his life before the Institute. The dynamic among Institute children is of course quite different than in a normal school environment, which means Avery won’t be ostracized there like he used to be, even if he still is, predominantly, an oversensitive crybaby. Avery is so grateful for the friendship of the others that he’s willing to help Luke escape at risk to himself; the crybaby withstands torture, and at the end stays behind to call the “Big Phone,” knowingly sacrificing himself to enable his friends to escape. This aspect of his character development becomes heavy-handed in the final moments of Avery’s arc:
They maintained their circle until the end, and as the roof came down, Avery Dixon had one final thought, both clear and calm: I loved having friends.
The irony that Avery is actually in a position to enjoy some aspects of life more at the Institute than outside it is echoed in the character who actually manipulates him to give up Luke: Frieda Brown, another child who’s been kidnapped for the Institute. Frieda is mentioned a handful of times before she comes to play her pivotal role in the plot, one instance seeming to emphasize a certain likeness to Avery’s defining trait:
[Luke] waggled his fingertips in the free air outside the Institute for a moment or two, then got up, dusted off his bottom, and asked Frieda if she wanted to play HORSE. She gave him an eager smile that said Yes! Of course! Be my friend!
It sort of broke his heart.
This defining trait might potentially lead both Avery and Frieda to prefer life at the Institute to life outside it, a surprising and ironic development, but it leads them to act in different ways: Avery to sacrifice himself so his friends who don’t prefer the Institute can escape it, and Frieda to take action so that Luke’s escape will enable her to stay there rather than leave, and so she gives up the critical info about Luke’s escape that Avery had managed to withhold even through torture. This development is of course necessary to keep the rising action going and thus create a more nail-biting plot. The book can’t end with Luke simply crawling under the fence, hopping a train, and making a clean getaway. There have to be more obstacles to complicate that process, and there has to be a more direct confrontation with Institute personnel, a confrontation King has set up with one of the book’s epigraphs invoking the biblical story of Samson:
And Samson said, Let me die with the Philistines. And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein.
Over the course of the novel Luke specifically brings up or thinks about this story of Samson bringing down the temple roughly four times (which also ends up feeling heavy-handed). One of these passages early on specifically indicates that Luke will not be content to just get away, that this cannot be the narrative’s endgame:
This was no dream, it was really happening, and to get out of here no longer seemed enough. That hard thing wanted more. It wanted to expose the whole kidnapping, child-torturing bunch of them, from Mrs. Sigsby all the way down to Gladys with her plastic smiles and Zeke with his slimy rectal thermometer. To bring the Institute down on their heads, as Samson had brought the temple of Dagon down on the Philistines. He knew this was no more than the resentful, impotent fantasy of a twelve-year-old kid, but he wanted it, just the same, and if there was any way he could do it, he would. (emphasis mine)
Now let’s talk about the character development of the villains, those who run the Institute. With this reckoning Luke is about to bring crashing down upon their heads, they might have the most potential to actually face their wrongs and grow as people–since we seem to be dealing with people as our villains here, and not some kind of demon from an evil dimension that I only recently realized was a connecting thread through a lot of King’s work.
We get very little detail about our primary antagonists Sigsby and Stackhouse, though the latter is occasionally softened by being the only one to call the former by her first name, Julia, an implicit reminder of her humanity. They both think at different points that their jobs are basically their lives, so the stakes are certainly higher for them when their jobs are threatened by the novel’s acute tension, but what this also means is, again, lacking character development. The most we seem to learn about any Institute staff members’ past is that they are some form of ex-military, which would seem to be a commentary on the ethics (or lack thereof) of our country’s military-industrial complex. Maureen gets a posthumous monologue about the torture she witnessed during the Iraq War, making an explicit connection to how this enabled her to witness the torture of children without resistance, but these things we learn about her past again feel more like character being used for thematic development rather than the other way around.
The fact that the villains here are human beings instead of interdimensional demons allows for a complication of their motivations–despite the fact that they are torturing children, they believe they are doing this to save the rest of the world from destruction; thus, they are not pure evil in the way that so many monstrous incarnations of Satan in other King narratives are.
(On a side note, I’m currently in the middle of the first season of the King-inspired and -produced Castle Rock on Hulu, in which the main villain is a guy some characters believe to be an incarnation of the devil, and, whoever he is, causes a lot of violence and chaos wherever he goes; when my partner keeps demanding why he’s doing these things, the only answer is, well, he’s the devil, which is not a satisfying explanation. A force being evil simply because they are evil is just not that dramatically interesting. The show’s good enough in other ways that I’m hoping there is in fact a more complex explanation, but that remains to be seen.)
Sigsby’s uppity self-righteous attitude, not to mention her being the one to actually issue official Institute torture orders, has her marked for destruction from the novel’s outset, not unlike Cersei from Game of Thrones. (King pays explicit homage to Martin twice in this novel by having Tim read A Song of Ice and Fire after he moves to DuPray and by referring to his wife Tabitha as his “sun and stars” in his Acknowledgments.) Sigsby at least gets a less disappointing death than Cersei being crushed by rocks when Tim pulls his clever trick that ends up getting Sigsby shot by her own henchman. This could be an apt symbol of her being engulfed by a mess of her own creation, but nothing about Sigsby’s experience during the showdown in DuPray or her return to the Institute as a hostage seems to come close to actually changing her attitude about the things she’s done. Her change is merely a surface one, from alive to dead. She doesn’t change or develop in any other meaningful way. She’s simply a Bad Guy, designed for the reader to derive maximum pleasure from her death. (Cersei’s general attitude may not have changed by the end of her arc, at least not in the TV version, but we definitely got more significant insight into her motivations along the way in a way that made her feel developed.)
Stackhouse would seem to have even more of an opportunity to change or reflect on his actions, since he’s one of the very few taken alive after the Institute is destroyed, but we learn nothing about how this affects him either. Here’s the last mention we get of Stackhouse:
Tim decided not to pursue the Stackhouse question. It was obvious he wouldn’t get anywhere with it, and besides, Stackhouse was old news. He might be in Brazil; he might be in Argentina or Australia; he might be dead. It made no difference to Tim where he was.
There’s also the potentially weird fact that Sigsby is the one who accompanies the team to DuPray while Stackhouse stays behind to look after the Institute–it really seems like it should have been the other way around, but ultimately it doesn’t matter, because even though they technically end up in very different places (dead v. alive), they end up in the same place, character-wise, with the loss of this place that was their life not actually making them rethink their priorities or motivations.
Interestingly, the character who actually has to deal with the moral reckoning the most is the lisping man, the initially faceless higher-up on the other end of Sigsby’s Zero Phone. But again this is less character development than thematic development (verging into proselytizing) as the lisping man lays out the rationale behind the Institutes, which we’ve by now discovered dot the globe, with his ends-justifies-the-means logic, the monstrosity of which could be fit for Catholic propaganda. The lisp is a good trait to show him getting flustered in the course of the conversation as Luke challenges him, though also seemingly unnecessary if Luke can read his mind, as Luke does to specifically point out the man has doubts about some of the claims he’s making with such seeming certainty. The debate comes to a head with the hypothetical of if what they were doing would be worth it if it could be definitively proven they actually had at least once saved the world, and Luke says no. So I guess we’ve all learned a moral lesson here. I still know nothing meaningful about the lisping man as a human being.
King has been an outspoken critic of Trump on social media, and people have noticed the parallels between the situation of the kids in the novel’s Institute and the kids being detained at our country’s southern border. King told the hosts of The View that the parallel was inadvertent:
I try to keep my politics separate from the stuff that I write. People like story. People want story and if they want the news…they can go on and get [it].
Others seem convinced the commentary is more intentional, but the writing process as King describes it would be more optimal; trying to write a book with a particular (political) message is basically narrative suicide. King says he really had in mind old CIA and Nazi experiments, which makes sense. The issue is that he did seem to be writing with a message in mind about how wrong those were even if they were ostensibly for good reasons, so there’s still a certain didacticism that saturates the reading experience a little too much for my taste, even if I did appreciate his probably most overtly political comparison:
They were stronger together, yes, but still not strong enough. No more than Hillary Clinton had been when she ran for president a few years back. Because the guy running against her, and his supporters, had had the political equivalent of the caretakers’ zap-sticks.
Sounds like he’s really keeping his politics separate from his storytelling…
The most moving part of The Institute doesn’t come until after its ending, in King’s Author’s Note, in which he recounts how Russ Dorr, the man who has been his research assistant since the 70s and who was originally his children’s pediatrician, recently died. (I particularly enjoyed the passage about how Dorr was the only one aside from his wife who got to see King’s fiction “before it was fully dressed and ready for its close-up.”) The details about Dorr’s contributions to specific plots over the years (in particular the climax of Under the Dome; and one of his final contributions was The Institute‘s bleach-and-toilet-cleaner gas) really brings home a relevant aspect of King’s unparalleled productivity–he’s had a significant amount of help.