What Is the Price of Perfect Equality?

Other aspects of family life are similarly scripted for fair economic outcomes. Spouses are chosen by the same committee. The pairing of Jonas’ parents—high status mother, relatively low status father—suggests that further egalitarian social engineering is occurring combinatorically, with a view to the whole arrangement of the community. 

And indeed, it must be working, for there is little want or apparent suffering here. Children are cared for in special centers until families can be found for them. The elderly likewise, until they are “released.” Everything is practical, sensible, eminently gentle from an economic perspective.

* * *

It’s a tribute to Lois Lowry’s great skill and delicacy that the exact moment when all of this solid complacency and good order fades into a dystopian nightmare isn’t exactly clear. Sure, our first glimpse of Jonas is of our eleven-year-old protagonist trying to come up with the correct word to describe his mental state, which turns out to be “apprehensive.” But compare to The Hunger Games: By the end of the first paragraph, we have learned that something called “the reaping” is about to occur later that day. “Apprehensive” seems not quite to cover it.

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.

Presented by

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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