“When people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong” – Chief Elder
While most young adult dystopian films have a clear distinction between what is good and evil from the start, The Giver (2014) directed by Phillip Noyce introduces a world which could be considered either utopian or dystopian depending on the perspective one adopts. The film features a world where there is permanent peace and no conflict. This is achieved through the establishment of a homogeneous society that has eliminated choice in all aspects of life and daily medicines that curb emotions. Everyone in the society has their memories of the past wiped, except for one, who is tasked to be the Receiver of the Memories. As said by an Elder (government representative), “When people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong”. The ability to choose is deemed to be the root cause of conflict, and as a result, without the ability to bond emotionally, meaningful human connections are being denied from developing in the Society.
Noyce traces the protagonist Jonas, who is a teenager assigned to be the next Receiver of Memories. As he receives the memories of the past, Jonas is educated about the existence of emotions and the artificiality of the peace that his Society glorifies. The essence of the movie becomes apparent as it reaches its climax where Jonas makes the key decision to rebel against all odds, escaping and returning all memories to the society. The concept of a youth hero may not be novel one, but its central presence in teen youth dystopian films is undeniable. Due to the aggrandizement of these youth heroes, it is often rather convenient to oversimplify these movies into its ‘good triumphs evil’ trope where the youth hero, selflessly sacrifices himself for the good of humanity. In The Giver, Jonas’ act of rebellion could hence be considered as a heroic attempt to re-establish the “right” state of society. However, assuming the heroic tendency of the protagonist obfuscates complexities of the situation these youth heroes are in that points to their actual motivations of their heroism. One such aspect is the social alienation of the protagonist which is a commonly used trope in many dystopian films. Though it is often used as a way of establishing the uniqueness of the protagonist, its utility as a reason for the protagonist’s actions is often overlooked. I will therefore be using The Giver as a case-study in better understanding the role of social isolation in influencing the protagonist’s actions. In The Giver, the lack of meaningful human relationships in the backdrop of Jonas’ growth leads to his alienation in society. I argue for the vital role that social isolation plays in influencing Jonas’ final act of rebellion. Instead of his heroic qualities, Jonas’ rebellion therefore stems from a desperate yearning to negate the negative emotions that rise from his isolation.
Jonas’ Social Isolation
Jonas’ social isolation in the film is prevalent and is experienced in multiple aspects; from society, parents, teacher (the Giver) and friends (Asher and Fiona). Through these sources of isolation, we can better understand why At the beginning of the movie, Jonas confides to the audience how he always felt like he saw things differently (referring to the occasional glimmers of light he sees) but refrained from voicing it out. As he puts is, “I didn’t want to be different. Who would?”. He sees himself as inherently different but refuses to focus on it as he wants to fit in with his peers. However, the Elders recognised this difference and awards him the honourable role of the Receiver of Memories, one for which there was only one candidate selected every few decades. Not only is Jonas alone in this job, he is also not allowed to disclose what he learns to anyone else, and therefore society simultaneously elevates his societal status and draws attention to his uniqueness that highlights his inherent difference from his peers.
Jonas experiences abandonment from his parents as they do not fit the expectations set by his memories. He lives in a world where adults do not protect the children; anyone who is deemed a misfit in the community will be “released”, in other words, killed. Abandonment occurs in a social level as “adults generally are unconcerned about children and unwilling to put them first” (Gross, 1999). Jonas’ parents are portrayed as devout believers of the Community, with each holding important roles serving the Elders. Hence, their priorities lie in the doctrine of conflict-prevention as opposed to taking care of their children’s welfare. This is pertinent in Jonas’ mother’s perpetual nagging reminders to watch his language whenever he brings up his emotions, disrespecting essentially what he claims to be feeling. It can be also seen the daily “Feelings” talk the family has during dinner is disguised as a familial bonding session where they monitor the status of their children and report back any anomalies to the Elders to correct. Through these actions Jonas feels abandoned as his parents do not function the way families do in his memories.
Recognising the rigidness of his parents, Jonas turns to others around him, only to be systematically rejected again. Following the graduation ceremony which allocates their jobs, Jonas’ friendship with Asher becomes tense as Asher stops playing along with Jonas’ mischiefs, signalling Asher’s transition to adulthood, leaving Jonas behind. Though Jonas finds some connection with Fiona, she is unable to empathize with his point-of-view. Jonas is in a position where no one understands him, driving him deeper into the abyss of isolation. Though Jonas’ relationship with the Giver is meaningful, the Giver takes on a more pedagogical role (Roozeboom, 2017) of a mentor who requires a successor, seeming almost business-like in their “transactions” thus failing to significantly alleviate Jonas’s mounting feelings of social alienation.
This feeling of alienation builds up, reaching its breaking point when the infant, George, that Jonas cares for is to be “released” due to problems with its immunity. Jonas is immediately galvanised and makes the crucial decision to escape the Society. On top of the obvious moral dilemma of infanticide, Jonas simply could not risk losing his one important connection in a world where everyone has rejected him, fuelling his rebellion to its completion.
Social Isolation and Jonas’ Rebellion
Jonas’s rebellion acts as the means for him to assimilate back into society as it removes the fundamental difference between him and the rest of his society. With the fundamental difference between him and society being memories, removing it and normalizing what he knows with everyone else will mean that he will finally be able to return to a place where he is understood and accepted. As Jonas says in the movie’s ending, “It would lead us all home”, as he looks at the house that is decorated by Christmas lights which he only saw before in his memory. This ending line shows Jonas’ most inner desire: the want for family love that he was repeatedly denied (Gross, 1999). This was especially apparent in the scene where Jonas asks his father, “Do you love me?”. Instead of finding reaffirmation, he is faced with indignation from his mother who exclaims, “Jonas has used the word so inadequately that it no longer has any application” while his father explains that they “enjoy him” and “take pride in his accomplishments”. Hence, by returning the memories will help Jonas attain the family love that he was sorely missing. By extension, normalising the memories will mean he gets accepted by the rest of society as well which serves as further reason to release the memories.
Furthermore, Jonas’ social isolation likely resulted in him relying more on emotions than logic, resulting in the rebellion. A study on the role of emotions on adolescent decision-making revealed that “Negatively charged self-evaluative emotions over failing to act morally were the strongest predictor for moral choice in antisocial behavioural contexts” (Krettenauer, 2011). In Jonas’ case, his decision to rebel is morally right as it means saving George’s life. Yet, it is directly opposed to what his society’s doctrines are, characterising his actions as antisocial. However, from Jonas’ perspective, coupled with a lack of outlets to express his views, his knowledge of the truth of the happenings in his society simultaneously alienates him from others and causes him to adopt his own individual sense of morality through introspection (Roozeboom, 2017). Since this heterodoxy is derived primarily from his memories, it would likely lead to Jonas feeling the self-evaluative emotion, guilt, if he fails to prevent the “release” from happening as he would be indirectly murdering George if he were to not intervene. This is further exacerbated by these memories which highlights humanity’s most emotional moments, influencing him to experience a more extreme form of guilt. Hence this guilt charged by his social alienation results in the moral, yet antisocial choice of rebellion as predicted by Krettenauer.
Social Isolation versus Heroism
Owing to the complexity of the situation Jonas is in, it is necessary to consider other competing factors that could contribute to Jonas’ actions. The most popular view in this matter is that Jonas’ intrinsic qualities of courage, selflessness and a strong moral compass leads him to act the way he does. We can certainly see how he is made out to be special. One such example is in the start of the movie when the Chief Elder praises him to have “all four attributes: intelligence, integrity, courage and [the capacity to see beyond]”. Though these characteristics could have contributed to his moral decision of rebelling, Jonas is inconsistent in embodying these qualities throughout the movie. One such instance is when Jonas overtly tries to share the memories he receives with his sister and his friends which can potentially endanger him, as the Elders are in constant surveillance of his home. Another example occurs when Asher attempts to stop him from breaking curfew as Jonas initiates his rebellion. In the disagreement that followed, Jonas punches Asher, despite Asher not being aggressive in his actions at all. In his attempt to feel less alienated, he discards any consideration of the danger that he poses to them by sharing these memories to the extent that he even resorts to violence (in Asher’s case). Therefore, in these aspects we see the way the need to re-integrate back into society takes precedence over any exemplary qualities he may possess.
Though Jonas’ rebellion is made heroic by the sacrifice he makes by risking his life for the betterment of society, I am inclined to believe that his actions were not selfless. Instead, I believe the rebellion sparks from a selfish desperation to preserve a rare and important connection he has with George. Owing to the systematic social isolation he experiences, Jonas’ world has shrunk down to himself and George, with whom he feels the strongest connection with. George bears a similar birthmark to Jonas, revealing that the baby shares Jonas’ ability to view memories. Furthermore, unlike the rest of society that shuns him when he tries to share memories, George instead calms down to the memories that Thomas shares with him, strengthening their bond. Jonas’ motivation for his rebellion is evident in examining the exact trigger that energizes him into action. On the day of his discovery of what “release” truly means, Jonas carries on with his normal life, conversing with Fiona and even goes back home for dinner despite appearing horrified. However, Jonas was energised to act only upon hearing the news of the baby’s upcoming scheduled release. Though his initial lack of action might be reasoned to be the need of time to process this information, it nevertheless downplays his moral compass in his hesitation to act unless it specifically affected him. Hence, Jonas fleeing the community is not an act of selflessness but a fight-or-flight reaction to protect what he cares about most. From Jonas’ perspective, the society itself is the hostile enemy to his world, and therefore escaping is the only realistic option he saw fit.
In conclusion, the complex situation we find Jonas in requires us to view his intentions with a critical eye. Though the leading explanation aggrandizes Jonas’ qualities, I believe the social isolation he experiences plays a much bigger part in his decision-making due to the need to protect his own world, his yearning to assimilate back into society and the lack of an outlet to express himself. Unlike how we view a youth hero as someone special who is motivated by righteousness and morality, The Giver challenges us to consider a world where the youth hero is a normal teenager fighting for what teenagers are usually most concerned with: acceptance.
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