The Society of The Giver

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy is a Doctoral student at Virginia Commonwealth University studying media studies and cultural history

Lois Lowry's novel ''The Giver'' has aspects of utopia and dystopia, and of communism, egalitarianism and totalitarianism. But in this perfectly engineered society, things are not always perfect.

Characteristics of the Society in The Giver

On its surface, the world represented in Lois Lowry's The Giver seems like it would be a nice place to live. This peaceful society exists in an undisclosed location set off from the rest of the world and has been carefully designed into perfection. Scientists and sociologists have figured out a way to annihilate of all the bad things we wish we could get rid of:

  • Extremes of hot and cold are eliminated through climate control
  • Racial difference is eliminated through color blindness
  • Sickness and old age exist no more due to euthanasia
  • Hunger and poverty are solved by equal employment and housing assignment

Obviously, great sacrifices are made here. People can no longer see color, which means they can't enjoy things like roses, and they're euthanized when they get old or sick. Is the tradeoff worth it? Lowry seems to be saying that it's only possible to remove all the bad parts of society by taking away some of the things that make us human.

Utopia or Dystopia?

The idea of a perfect society, or a utopia, has a long tradition in literature. Since people first began forming social orders, we have struggled with how to balance the needs of the individual with those of the larger group. Perfect societies have been imagined in many forms, though most are set off from civilization and depicted as idyllic communities where people want for nothing. Literally translated, 'utopia' means no place, which suggests that perfect societies can only exist in literature or in the imagination.

Lowry's community is located in a remote part of a continent far removed from the rest of civilization. The reader gets hints of the location when the narrator describes the rare occasions when planes fly over, as well as the sense of time that passes during Jonas' climactic escape in the ending of the novel. We can assume the novel takes place some time in the future, based on the existence of advanced scientific knowledge.

A utopian society is usually set apart from the rest of civilization

In contrast, a dystopia is a society where things have gone very wrong. Sometimes dystopian literature aims to show how a utopian society is only a pretty facade and that it hides a darkness at the center - that there's no such thing as a perfect society because every benefit comes at an expense. Dystopian literature arose in the early twentieth century in such works as Brave New World (1932) and Nineteen Eighty-four (1948). Industrial development, the rise of totalitarian governments in Europe, eugenics, genocide, and world war: some scholars suggest that these developments of the early twentieth century brought with them a cloud of pessimism that made it impossible to see how society could turn out for the better.

Lowry's society could also be characterized as a dystopia, because its fictional setting reveals the drawbacks to intentional, designed communities. The society in The Giver exists to remind us that pushed to its limits, science and rationality can extinguish what it means to be human.

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