I am afraid that our society is settling for a drab existence, finding our excitement vicariously through movie and tv instead of actually doing interesting and daring things- like living well.
23 March 2008
John R. Shirley
On The Giver by Louis Lowry
1. What values and practices of the modern world does Lowry show in The Giver to be potentially dangerous when pushed too far?
Certain values are commonly believed to be useful in modern society. These values are not necessarily new values, but they are conformist. These conformist tendencies help an individual fit into a society, but when taken to an extreme, they lead to an unquestioning obedience to the will of the group, regardless of the potentially murky righteousness of the action. Extreme conformism also tends to suppress individual identity and goals, and when evolved to the nth degree, as Louis Lowry has displayed in The Giver, the reduction of individualism and individualistic thinking and behavior produces a shallow and individually meaningless existence. Lowry also takes many modern trends and deliberately uses them in the most extreme way possible, with the goal of showing how utterly conformist her society has become.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs shows basic needs such as sustenance to be on the bottom of the pyramid. These things must be satisfied before higher-order needs such as personal satisfaction are considered. In the utopian/dystopian universe of The Giver, all the basic needs such as shelter, food, and reproduction are easily met. Such a society has much more time to fill with meeting psychological needs and entertaining itself. The Giver’s society takes the modern goal of nonpolluting, sustainable society, continues that trend, and uses it in the form of bike-riding as a means of control, in addition to a healthful means of transport around a small community. The age at which children can ride bikes is dictated (though this is one of the few societal rules that is often flaunted, and every nine-year-old seems able to ride a bike the first time they publicly attempt it) as a means of control, but the true reason bikes are used as personal transport by everyone is that they are slower than more modern vehicles, and therefore using them takes more time. Less idle time means less time to contemplate the emptiness of this life, or contemplate anything else that might lead to their dissatisfaction.
Volunteerism and community activism is a valued choice in our time. In The Giver, there is no true volunteerism. Jonas and Fiona may volunteer at The House of the Old, but since there are a “required number of volunteer hours” (28) to be given an occupational assignment, and these hours are scrupulously documented, there is no true altruistic motivation and intrinsic reward on the part of children. What is currently supposed to be a selfless gift of time and labor has become a means to occupy growing children and test their skills and interests.
Schooling or at least reasonable use of language is prized by everyone in our society, whether the language skills consist of learned erudition, or a mastery of popular terms or skill in storytelling. Lowry’s society insists on precision of language, which at first thought seems like a positive thing. In usage, this precision may seem like an almost inconsequential characteristic of the society, as when Asher confuses “distraught” with “distracted”. Later in the book, the reader understands by Jonas’s parents’ refusal to say they love him in favor of “Do you enjoy me?” and “Do you take pride in my accomplishments?” (127) that this supposed precision is a means to suppress and hide real emotion. This society forces an occupation with the means of communication instead of the actual intent, leaving society members with a shallow message to match the shallowness of every other part of their existence.
Current society often shows a preoccupation with “talking things out” as a means to resolve misunderstandings, illuminate hidden aspects to a problem, and find consensus. Lowry’s society talks about feelings at dinner, and also reports dreams every morning at breakfast. Suppressing feelings can lead to a number of ill consequences, but what should be healthy and healing has become sinister to this group. This form of group therapy has instead become a means of control as it deprives individuals of privacy.
Adoption is a way for people in current society to accept a child into a home that has no children, or that wants more children. It is also a way for children whose parents have died, or become incapacitated or otherwise incapable of caring for them, to find parents who can love and protect them. Lowry has used some terminology of this group. Birthmothers are no longer mothers who have children they give up for adoption, in the traditional sense. Lowry’s birthmothers instead are low prestige women who deliberately bear and deliver the children for the entire community. This dystopia no longer allows “parents” to actually bear a hand in the creation of their children, as far as the reader can ascertain. In this world, all children are adopted. What should be a beautiful way for couples who are unable to physically create their own children to gain them has become the only way to have a child in the home. This contributes to the top-down control of the community, since there are no biological ties to deepen feelings between “parents” and “children”.
Even before Freud, sex has been known to be one of the greatest complications of the human race. As with virtually every other male-female species on earth, competition and violence are associated with the struggle to find a good mate. The society of The Giver resolves this by using chemicals to eradicate the “stirrings” of the sex drive, as soon as it becomes apparent through the enforced telling of feelings or dreams. When Jonas relates his mostly innocent sex dream to his parents, he is assured the feelings are natural and normal, and then he is given a daily pill to chemically neuter his sexuality. Sexual feelings are part of the great spectrum that lets us as humans feel our humanity. Lowry has deliberately removed the emotional highs and lows from her society. Stability is usually positive and healthy, but when taken to this extreme, humans are left with the semblance of living. Ultimately, Lowry’s characters have been “protected” into a flavorless, almost riskless, and very literally colorless world.