The question of what an ideal society is has always been one of ambiguity and is subjected to endless debates. Governments seek to strike a balance between discipline and freedom, security and privacy or simply harmony and diversity. Some governments view democracy as a solution, others turn to the notions of communism. Within societies itself, institutions either enforce discipline and conformity or open-mindedness. The Giver (1993) was a response to such conflicts evident in the society. It is a post-apocalyptic dystopian novel by Lois Lowry that centers around a young boy named Jonas and his Community. The society in The Giver aims to achieve “Sameness,” which is about transforming people into a uniformed entity. Jonas’ role as a Receiver is unique as only one individual is assigned this role every twelve years and it enables him to receive memories of the past from The Giver. These memories are meant to help the Elders make informed decisions about problems in The Community. However, Jonas’ unique position also comes with challenges that the young boy grapples with as he slowly becomes in tune with his emotions. The novel was published at a time when advancements in technology were taking the world by storm, from the introduction of surveillance to the discovery of genetic engineering. Such advancements were characterised by politicians as a bright step forward into a utopic world of safety and health (Booker). The film, The Giver (2014), appeared two decades later, in a completely new era where internet technologies dominated and there is increasing conversation about individuality and creating an identity for oneself, with the rise of social media and popular culture. The Community initially presents itself as a utopian society that chooses uniformity as a solution to all the problems present in society today — overpopulation, discrimination, jealousy, etc. However, it progressively reveals itself to be a dystopia. The overlap between a utopia and a dystopia in the texts challenges the role of identity, morality, memory and freedom in a post-apocalyptic world to show how mankind is either able to function with these elements, or simply crumble.
The novel completely rejects the notion of an identity to create a unified body that serves to challenge the role of identity in the ideal society. The removal of identity is facilitated by genetic scientists who have engineered every individual to be of white skin, eradicating every other skin colour. “[t]here was a time, actually. . . when flesh was many different colours. That was before we went to Sameness. Today flesh is all the same” (Lowry, 94). This uniformity raises questions about racial discrimination, an incredibly prevalent problem in our world today. The uniformity of skin colour may appear to be a solution to remove differences between people and to promote equality but the choice of white as the uniform skin colour promotes the idea that white is the preferred choice in an ideal society, also known as white superiority. By removing the concept of race, the novel also reveals the subtle implications of uniformity versus embracing diversity. In the novel, race functions as a threat to society as it acts as a form of identity for an individual. In actual fact, it is not race that is the problem but mankind’s attitudes towards race. This is why the text is set in a black-and-white world. It shows how even when we engineer uniformity, it is our own perceptions that will inevitably lead us to formulate differing opinions, which is why uniformity in vision must also exist. Identity is further stripped away from the members of The Community through the very fact that Birthmothers do not have sexual intercourse to produce babies but are simply surrogate mothers who carry the children of unknown men and women. This removes the concept of family, a key element of our society through which most of us construct our core values and beliefs, that shape us an individual. Family systems are the building blocks of a child’s identity and the removal of this further exemplifies how the Elders seek to create a society where there are no differing systems of nurturing as such creating a uniform identity where the political agenda of the council can be pursued at the expense of basic human rights. The backfiring of this system eventually shows the dangers of uniformity in a post-apocalyptic world which can be related to the increasingly homogeneous culture in our world today due to globalisation and conformity (Booker). The novel suggests that mankind’s regression from diversity will ultimately lead to its demise.
The removal of emotions from members of The Community serves to create a uniform mode of perception to support a mechanical function of society. This mechanism essentially leads to people completing their designated tasks dutifully. The removal of emotions subverts the idea that emotion is a way of knowing the proper Dos and Dont’s in our world. Emotions such as empathy, respect, love and happiness play a big role in shaping the decisions and actions of people. The way people respond towards policies may be influenced by their emotions. For example, anger towards discriminatory policies leads to strikes and rebellion which eventually leads to the re-adjustment of policies. While reason plays a big role in decision-making, humans are subconsciously influenced greater by their emotions. In the ideal world portrayed in the novel, unhealthy babies or sickly elderly are sent to be “released,” killed instead of letting nature takes its course. Reason implies that the care for a weak life is a waste of resources and putting an end to suffering is a good thing. In our world, we could apply the same logic but we do not because of our empathy towards others and respect for human life. In a situation where we remove these values, we see war-torn countries, conflict ridden societies and broken homes. As such, the novel implies that while emotion is not necessary for a people to carry out their jobs, it is a key element that makes up mankind and without it, we are simply robots. Without emotions, the ideal society may be able to function without conflict but in time, the decisions that have to be made do require emotional intelligence, hence the very existence of The Giver. This displays how in an ideal world, both reason and emotion must come together to lay the foundation for a functioning society.
The removal of memory of the past from members of The Community is a key tool to show how knowledge of past events shapes the community in the present. Government policies and social structures are created and improved on based on previous mistakes, incidents and responses. These experiences shape the future and as such, allow for a better functioning society (Booker). However, the novel also reveals that people form perceptions of past events based on their own experiences during those events. As such, different people may have varying recollections of the same event. Hence, instead of all members imparted with the knowledge of past events, only The Giver has this privilege. This is to prevent questioning of the system by other members of The Community. However, the novel also reveals the problem with this concept by exposing memory as an unreliable way of knowing as it is supported with insufficient knowledge and may not be accurately communicated. The committee had approached the Giver some years ago when a lot of citizens petitioned the Committee of Elders. They wanted to increase the rate of births. They sought advice from The Giver and, “[T]he strongest memory that came was hunger. It came from many generations back. Centuries back. The population had gotten so big that hunger was everywhere. Excruciating hunger and starvation. It was followed by warfare” (Lowry, 111). As a basis of decision making, the memory is flawed by its bias views. Starvation undoubtedly factors in overpopulation as well as food scarcity, environmental conditions and other factors that existed in that particular period of time. Different time periods create differing conditions that affects the outcomes of decisions. Such changes are not reflected in the use of past events. As such, the novel reveals how the use of the past as a benchmark for how the present society is run may not be accurate and reliable, thus challenging the sources of information we use in constructing our ideal society.
The novel challenges the role of freedom in society by implying that the control of freedom is beneficial in constructing the ideal society. The Community functions on the basis of a totalitarian society where no choices can be made independently and all rules have to be followed (Booker). Every household is equipped with the same and fixed set of purposeful furniture and there is no room for creativity. One of the components in every house is a loudspeaker that reminds people of rules such as, “ATTENTION. THIS IS A REMINDER TO FEMALES UNDER NINE THAT HAIR RIBBONS ARE TO BE NEATLY TIED AT ALL TIMES” (Lowry, 22). This portrays the Community as an incredibly rigid society where conformity is compulsory. Not only are the external traits of members controlled, but the internal complexities of the mind as well; “[t]his evening he almost would have preferred to keep his feelings hidden. But it was, of course, against the rules” (Lowry, 9), Jonas reveals. The sharing of dreams and feelings is not voluntary but imposed on the community. This is an attempt by the Council of Elders to control the thoughts of the people so that there is no challenge of their ideas and powers. This mode of control of a population is similar to the imposition of ideologies by political leaders in our own society. One example would be the Islamic Revolution in Iran during which religious fundamentalists imposed rules and laws that would punish those who did not agree with their practices and beliefs. Through the novel, it is seen that people are only willing to conform to freedom taken away from them when they have no recollection of what freedom actually feels like hence having no benchmark of comparison. As such, the novel challenges the notion that freedom is key to create an ideal society as without it, there can still be proper functioning.
The novel raises questions about what exactly an ideal society should comprise of. While the Community has enforced solutions to problems that we see in our society today, these solutions raise more problems. The text removes freedom, emotions, memory of the past and identity to reveal how uniformity may initially be a good thing for society. Upon deeper analysis, we see how while these elements can be detrimental, they play an incredibly important role in shaping the ideal society because it imparts mankind with the skills and knowledge to make thoughtful decisions. We see how the imperfections in our world today could potentially lead to an apocalypse, from war to climate change and other causes of mass destruction. In a post-apocalyptic world, these problems are prevented and yet, the world is still very bleak. This leaves readers baffled. This is also seen through the ambiguous ending of the novel in which the fate of Jonas is left to readers to decide. In this way, Lois Lowry tells us that the fate of our world is for us to decide. While advancements such as genetic engineering, surveillance and other technological developments may appear positive for humanity, the way these tools are used and the role they play could make or break our society, similar to how the portrayal of elements in the novel contribute to both a utopic and a dystopic society.
Booker, M.K. (1994). The Dystopian Impulse in Modern Literature: Fiction as Social Criticism. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood.
Lowry, L. (2002). The Giver. New York: Laurel Leaf.
Author: Pooja Bhagwan