What Is the Price of Perfect Equality?

Jonas’s realizations about the constraints of this rigidly organized life come gradually, but they are nearly all foreshadowed very early in a single symbol loaded with deep economic resonance. One day, Jonas takes an apple out of the common snack basket and, instead of eating it, tosses it around with his friend Asher. Later on, the voice of God—the announcer whose task it is to subtly shame good behavior into community members—reminds him that “snacks are to be eaten, not hoarded.”

The reason that Jonas took the apple home instead of using the resource for its intended purpose—why he engaged in the cardinal sin of a planned economy, in other words, where there is exactly enough for everyone, if everyone is responsible—was because it changed color when he was tossing it in the air. Or, rather, it went from black and white, like everything in the community, to having a color that Jonas cannot yet name. So Jonas takes it home to investigate it further, but is unable to get it to perform the trick again.

He holds this incident back from his family, who usually engage in a mandated share time right before dinner that starts charmingly enough but becomes increasingly creepy over the course of the novel, as our understanding of the ubiquitous surveillance the community employs to keep their Marxist utopia running increases. Jonas will come to spend a lot of time not telling his family the things that are happening to him as he trains to receive the memories of the community, in all of their Technicolor horror.

There is want and suffering in these memories, even violence. But there is also, well, color. When she was interviewed about the movie release, Lowry articulated the trade-off when asked about the devolution of the egalitarian utopia into dystopia: “People do things that turn out badly, often for the most benevolent of reasons. But this community in The Giver lost everything as a result—literature and music and art and all of that.”

The apple, the quintessential Christian symbol of the loss of paradise and automatic, divine plenty, is highly loaded in the context of the book. It represents the transition from a life that is essentially fair and equal for all, both in expectations and outcomes, to one that is colorful and uncertain. And it’s not just that the community lacks literature and music and art and all of that: One of the other resources that ends up in short supply when relationships are engineered for community standards is a surplus of compassion. [More spoilers:] Jonas ultimately runs away because he discovers that the community’s solution for babies who might fail to thrive is lethal injection. Egalitarianism here is a myth literally enforced by the blood of infants. (This part of the book is perhaps less subtle than earlier portions.)

As for “blood” in the metaphorical sense of the familial relations that the community attempts to erase to ensure perfect equality, they have their own strange way of outing. Jonas, The Giver himself, and the baby that Jonas rescues from “release” all have the same pale eyes, unique in the population. Lily suggests that they might have the same “birthmother,” which is the Atwoodian way that reproduction is arranged here. The romantic implication is that all of the social engineering in the world will not erase this ambiguous patrimony, from grandfather to son to grandson.

The Giver inspired many subsequent kid lit dystopias. It’s possible to trace the influence of its interest in aesthetics and inequality in Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, for example, where 16-year-olds receive mandated governmental plastic surgery to correct any flaws that do not precisely conform to their society’s definition of beauty—which turns out to involve the blandness of symmetry, a kind of perfection in mediocrity. Philip Gough, who wrote his dissertation on the series, points out that the lack of an alternative renders the concept of beauty meaningless.

While the economic reason for all of this facial engineering is never really explicitly revealed, the fact that all of the citizens of dystopian Seattle receive a second surgery right before they get jobs may point to the desire to eliminate another source of potential inequality: our tendency to favor the beautiful over the ugly in employment relations.

The argument, then, is that perfect equality engineers a certain trade: guaranteed equal outcomes entail the forfeiting of art, music, literature, spontaneity, passion, even color itself. Trading anxiety about the future (who you will marry, who your friends will be, what you will do) for certainty about it cuts short the thrills and excitement—we might say the plot—of youth and exploration, which is why this trade seems of such particular interest to dystopian young adult writers. Likewise, obtaining a hard-won independence from family ties seems less impressive if the family was engineered for you to achieve the desired result by a computer algorithm in the first place.

* * *

It is Lauren Oliver’s bestselling Delirium trilogy that takes this trade-off to its final and revealing logical extreme. It does this not by trying to eliminate inequality directly, but by taking out “passion” itself. In an echo of the sci-fi element of the Westerfeld series, 18-year-olds undergo an operation. The effect of this operation is to remove their capacity to love, which is declared a dangerous disease, delirium nervosa, in need of eradication (“The most dangerous diseases are those that make us think we are well”).

A number of surprising consequences follow from this decision, including the occasional parent-child killing, the failure for a mother or father “to bond normally, dutifully and responsibly” with a child. All families must be engineered, of course, and spouses assigned after a personality inventory where teenagers of similar rankings are allowed to choose from among four or so pre-selected candidates, as assortative mating takes on new meaning. Jobs and educational tracks, needless to say, are assigned.

But the truly astonishing thing about this world where love is a mental disease and passion a dirty word is that nobody can rouse themselves to do much of anything. Ordinary decisions are difficult, so commerce, as undertaken by people who wish to sell their labor for the things that they want, is slight. There’s some economic inequality, but the entirety of Portland, Maine, seems to be in a slow state of crumbling to the ground. Books and literature don’t really exist: Nobody would read them, even if they weren’t banned for all of those pesky themes of delirium nervosa. One longs for somebody to express a desire for one of those accoutrements of middle class life that are so suspect and eminently mockable in a Jonathan Franzen novel, just to bring a little life and trade to this gray—if not literally colorless—world.

Commerce and trade, it turns out, are just as dependent on the passions as the passions are dependent on commerce and trade in The Giver. The true nightmare of a dystopian world is that all of these things are interconnected, and that by losing one or the other, by engineering it away socially or medically, nightmarish unintended consequences will ensue.

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Shannon Chamberlain

Shannon Chamberlain is doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. She has written for Slate and Persuasions, the journal of the Jane Austen Society of North America. 

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