Dystopian Utopia: The Giver and the Sanctity of Human Life



At just under 200 pages, The Giver by Lois Lowry is about a one- or two-day read. The novel tells of a society that seeks perfection at the expense of human liberty and human life as well. The Giver is widely read in public schools (including by this writer) and also widely challenged for its disturbing content, particularly in how this society maintains its small population by killing infants and the elderly. For those who understand that The Giver is criticizing this activity, not advocating it, the novel is a great parable of not only the value of human liberty but also human life.

The plot revolves around Jonas who has just turned 12 and will thus be assigned to his job by the community. Before we arrive at this point, we gradually learn more and more about this society. Jonas' parents are not his biological parents; in fact no one's are. The only people who reproduce in this community are those assigned as birth mothers by the community. The children are then raised by “Nurturers” for a year before they are assigned to parents who are in turn only allowed to have two children — one boy, one girl. We also get the sense that this is a very small community. Only 50 children are allowed to be born per year. Everyone in the community can fit in an auditorium, and the community elders (essentially the government leaders) talk about each individual child in almost familiar detail, like that of a parent. Excess newborns and the elderly are “released” — sent to “Elsewhere” which is always spelled with a capital E. In the beginning, Jonas is not aware of the darker reality behind this euphemism. At the ceremony of 12, Jonas is assigned to be the receiver of memory. Unlike everyone else in the community, he will have memories of the past transmitted to him by the elder known as The Giver. As Jonas receives these memories, he learns more about what has been lost in his community's goal to seek perfection. The people have no sense of color, for if they did they might want choices in what types of clothes they wore, and such desire for choices might even make them want to choose what type of jobs they want and so on and so on. Most saddening of all, when Jonas asks his parents if they love him, they state that love is too imprecise a word, with no real value. In suppressing the irrational aspects of themselves, they suppress a part of their humanity.

Jonas also learns the truth about “releasing,” that it doesn't mean that people are sent away from the community, but instead killed via lethal injection. This is revealed in a disturbing passage where Jonas sees his father, a “Nurturer,” lethally inject an infant in the skull and dispose of him down a trash chute. Why this is done can be inferred from the community's two child policy. In order to control these people, the community must be kept small. Thus human beings at the beginning and end of life are seen as disposable if there are too many of them. The allegory for abortion and euthanasia is obvious.

What makes “releasing” so interesting is how it's cloaked as an act of compassion. Before old people are “released,” they are given a celebration ceremony as if it is merely a going away party. Jonas later learns that a gentle girl who he has feelings for is actually being trained to “release” the old. This odd inner contradiction between the gentility of the “releaser” and the horror of the act itself is also exemplified in Jonas' father who is introduced as a very affectionate father telling how much he enjoys bouncing newborn babies on his knee. Yet he also engages in killing children. Such can also be said of the community as a whole. That on the outside, it's seen as a gentle and caring place yet underneath it all is a willingness to use homicide to achieve its ends.

This is also part of the abortion and euthanasia allegory. The euphemisms of “death with dignity” and “reproductive justice” are much like the term “releasing” in that they sound compassionate and enlightening, yet these euphemisms still cloak the violence being done.

The horrors of war are also a theme in the book. One of the painful memories given to Jonas is that of soldier seeing someone fatally wounded battle. This is even connected to the act of releasing, when Jonas sees a child released, he is reminded of the dead bodies from his memory of war.

Consistent life ethicists are to some extent seeking a utopia. We want a world that no longer uses homicide to solve its problems. The Giver reminds that there are other utopian visions that, while similar to the consistent life ethic, still carry a fatal flaw. They value perfection over the human person and are thus willing to destroy human persons to reach their goal.

Picture credit: The Giver Book Cover http://goo.gl/KaeCJN

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