Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Reflections: The Giver

As an incurable idealist, I have often imagined a futuristic Utopia, where civilizations will coexist harmoniously in a society that offers both equality and individuality. As I keep getting older, each little brick defining this imaginary castle is being taken down. I am coming to terms with the inevitable reality of human existence, reconciling with the fact that it is perhaps unrealistic to hope for Utopia, for there are too many unanticipated eventualities in the process. Many essays and books have been written on how the path to Utopia can turn devious and lead us into Dystopia, but this book is one of the first that explores how the extremes of Utopia can erode some of our fundamental elements. It makes us question if it's worth sacrificing the essence of humanity, for a harmonious life which guarantees peace, equality, and resources for all.

Jonas is a young boy awaiting his eleventh birthday with a bitter-sweet anticipation. On his b'day he will know what his future career would be, and how it would change his life. The momentous day arrives. Based on meticulous monitoring and survey of his potentials and skills, he is assigned the society's most honorable, unique, yet incredibly demanding and challenging job.

He is assigned? Does he have any say? How was he monitored? These are the pivotal questions. Every person in the community gets monitored - their every action, every utterance, and sometimes even thoughts. The Chiefs in the community decide the apt role of every individual in the society, and on their eleventh birthday, assign their future roles/jobs and begin training them. It is an optimal strategy which utilizes every individual's fullest potentials, thus guaranteeing growth and profit to both the community as well as the individual. A picture perfect model of resource allocation, isn't it? Individuals are also mostly content with their assignments. But Jonas's assignment is one of a kind. There is only one person in the entire community who takes up the job and he often gets burdened with intolerable pain and grief. His job is to hold centuries worth of human memories all to himself. Jonas realizes the bitter truth of how his community functions, and the more secrets he unravels, the more convinced he is that his community needs to revert to the days where people could feel emotions such as love and empathy, despite the prevalence of poverty, wars and inequality. Humanity was too heavy a price to pay for Utopia.

Jonas' guide calls himself the Giver. The people in the community have no access to books, have no means of knowing the history of humanity, and the causes and consequences of the evolution of their existence. The keeper of memories shields the people of any kinds of pain - physical pain, pain of losing, pain of hunger, pain of death. Everything in the community is regulated and controlled, such that people are never exposed to any kind of discomfort, let alone pain. Regulated and standardized meals were always provided, any physical pain was immediately pacified through sophisticated drugs and any cause of turbulence was instantly identified, crushed and terminated. Families did not form by themselves. "Family units" were formed based on the capabilities and personalities of males and females. Babies were assigned to those family units which demonstrated good parenting skills, and who seemed compatible with the baby's personality and needs. When people aged, they were sent to special retirement homes, where based on the supply and demand of resources, the aged were provided for, or they were "released" painlessly. A delicate balance of resources was diligently calculated and maintained. Equality, or "sameness" was exemplified. With advances in genetic engineering, every person was born with the exact same traits - skin, hair, eyes, and all other features. Discrimination based on any kind - caste, color, creed, was eradicated. The cones in the eyes were manipulated and the meaning of colors was obliterated. Weather and temperature were minutely controlled - no one knew what rain or snow meant. A world in monotones, where everything worked like clockwork, nature controlled, animals eradicated, history eroded, memories locked up, emotions diluted, individuality meaningless, and humanity -- was lost. Here is a flip side of Utopia when we try to perfect, equalize, standardize and normalize everything.

The tone of the book is reminiscent of Orwell's 1984, although here is a Utopian society of perfectness with nothing to depress one. Too much perfectness perhaps. An automatized society that churned out rational decisions according to relentless numbers. An interesting discussion that Lowry brings out is the importance of memories in helping us gain wisdom and learn. I have discussed this before, but devoid of memories, we are emptied of our precious experiences which help build our wisdom. But memories don't just end with our own. Imagine if we didn't have any means to learn about the world around us, no permission to books that stimulate thinking or to learn what happened in the past, and how they are playing into the future, how appalling would our ignorance be? The memories of humanity's past is equally important to our growth. While the community's motto was "ignorance is bliss", the lack of wisdom heads the Utopian society  to an unstable future.  Besides, pain - be it physical or emotional, also helps us grow (however unpleasant it is to grow through them). A pampered society oblivious to pain, learns very little about life. The keeper of memories attempts to provide the society guidance on their decisions but it turns futile.

Lowry's writing is simple but powerful. I appreciated how she strings the details on the community without any explicit narration. There is an element of mystery and the pieces on how the society functions slowly fall together. But I have to mention that this books is lauded with the Newbery medal, meaning it is a literary children's classic. It is my personal opinion that the topic of discussion is a trifle too heavy for children to comprehend or come to terms with. It will probably offer a good introduction to young adults to ponder on idealism in society. Lowry definitely reinforces the importance of our core values and she beautifully brings out the true meaning of humanity, and being a human.

1 comment:

SecondSight said...

This reminds me of some of my favorite science-fiction stories! :)

It's rare to find someone who writes about such issues well for a younger audience.. but then again, its harder for a younger audience to comprehend these things too, isn't it? Unless they're John Connor ;)