Literary Analysis

Thinking about books I’ll assume we’ve read. Here there be spoilers.

Neutering Humanity: Atrocity and The Giver

→ This isn’t a book review; it’s me musing on a book. That means there’ll be spoilers up, down, and sideways. So if you haven’t read Lois Lowry’s classic YA dystopia, The Giver, now’s the time to navigate away! (But I don’t discuss the sequels.) ←

In my past life as a literature professor, I had a number of opportunities to teach young-adult lit. I always put The Giver on the syllabus. It’s a marvelous novel, far richer and more subtle than I realized on my first reading. Take, for instance, the pivotal scene where The Giver, an old man, passes a memory to the book’s young protagonist, Jonas, for the first time. The boy must take off his shirt and lie face-down on the old man’s bed. He is nervous and has no idea what will happen. The two are alone together. The Giver approaches, places his hand on Jonas’s bare skin, and transmits to him the memory of sledding down a snowy hillside.

For Jonas, the memory is momentous. All of its main features—coldness, snow, hills, exhilaration—are new to him. At some point in the unknown past, his culture embraced “sameness.” The weather is always warm and pleasant. The land is flat. People look the same. They feel no powerful emotions. They don’t remember such things exist. They have no history. They see in black and white—literally. Their lives are without notable suffering. All memories of what people used to be resides with The Giver, and it is Jonas’s job to take them on.

The scene of Jonas’s first memory has tones of the Christian fall, but in The Giver, the transgressive acquisition of knowledge is figured as powerfully good, potentially salvific. And yet, there are hints of danger. Readers may feel a little uncomfortable as the Giver approaches the half-naked, anxious boy lying on his bed. What happens when man touches boy is a loss of innocence, but of the mind instead of the body. The slightly creepy tension preceding the memory is picked up later, when The Giver gives Jonas his first memory of pain—again a sledding scene, but this time the memory culminates in a fall and a broken arm. Lowry doesn’t shy away from suffering.

As  Jonas takes more and more of the memories his culture has left solely in The Giver’s keeping, he comes to understand that his people have been neutered. Every possible source of conflict and tension has been removed from their lives. Their sexuality is chemically suppressed. They have been genetically engineered to look the same. They are not permitted imprecise language. They are not permitted choices or emotions. Everyone must fit the mold—the old and the difficult and the uncanny are euthanized. Eventually, Jonas realizes this stripped-down version of humanity is unacceptable. People are so much less than they once were, and in their ignorance, they commit evil. He flees, releasing his powerful memories back to the community. One assumes the knowledge they convey will change his people forever, just as it changed him.

Jonas’s choice is portrayed as essential. If he had not fled when he did, his baby brother, Gabriel, would’ve been euthanized. (The biblical resonances of the brothers’ names are hard to ignore.) And, of course, his people had to be freed from their shadow-lives of sameness.

Or did they?

Was the state of Jonas’s people truly a wrong crying out to be righted? Presumably, in the book’s unexplored past, people like us sat down and decided to neuter themselves. They decided that “sameness” was the way to go. Why?  I’d ask my class. Why would people like us decide to become people like them?

There’s a Wikipedia page I’d visit at this point in our discussion: “List of wars and anthropogenic disasters by death toll.” The page is just what it sounds like—a list of the times our species has managed to kill the most of itself. It offers a quick, harsh look at the kind of things that might motivate a species to neuter itself. The Mongol conquests: 30 million dead (possibly as much as 7.5% of the planet’s human population at that time). World War II: at least 41 million dead. Famine during China’s Great Leap Forward: at least 15 million dead. Native American deaths during European colonization of the Western Hemisphere: at least 2 million.

What shocks me most about the list is that most of the events’ death tolls are only estimates. Ranges. Did World War II kill 41 million or 70 million? The famine of the Great Leap Forward: 15 million or 55 million? Native American deaths: 2 million or 100 million? Obviously, some scholars’ estimates must be wildly wrong. That’s not the point. The point is that we killed so many of each other during these events that counts can be off by tens of millions.

At what point do you decide, as Jonas’s ancestors apparently did, that your species is too murderous to continue in its current state? At what point do you decide that a life of reduced vibrancy and feeling for all is better than one of profound suffering for many?

But they kill old folks and babies! my students would say.

Yeah, they do. But they kill because Lowry built that into them. They’re literary creations, not real people. So the question becomes, Why is euthanasia such a prominent part of Lowry’s dystopia?

Maybe she put that in there because if she hadn’t, it’d be a lot harder to believe Jonas is making the right choice. Maybe readers would look at Jonas’s people and think, Slavery, the Holocaust, the Gulags, the Belgian Congo … maybe we need neutering. Maybe we deserve to lose the memory of snow.

For me, The Giver asks the same question Kurt Vonnegut does in Galapagos: Would we be better if we were less? Lowry says no. Vonnegut doesn’t.

I might be with Vonnegut on this one.