There was an awkward silence for a moment. Then Father gave a little chuckle. “Jonas. You, of all people. Precision of language, please!”
“What do you mean?” Jonas asked. Amusement was not at all what he had anticipated.
“Your father means that you used a very generalized word, so meaningless that it’s become almost obsolete,” his mother explained carefully.
Jonas stared at them. Meaningless? He had never before felt anything as meaningful as the memory.
“And of course our community can’t function smoothly if people don’t use precise language. You could ask, ‘Do you enjoy me?’ The answer is ‘Yes,'” his mother said.
“Or,” his father suggested, “‘Do you take pride in my accomplishments?’ And the answer is wholeheartedly ‘Yes.'”
“Do you understand why it’s inappropriate to use a word like ‘love’?” Mother asked.
Jonas nodded. “Yes, thank you, I do,” he replied slowly.
It was the first lie to his parents.
* * *
This excerpt from The Giver by Lois Lowry comes just after Jonas receives a memory of Christmas and family. It’s the first time he’s ever experienced real love, and it transforms him. This passage gives me chills–to think that such a society could exist with the absence of love.
In case you’ve been living under a rock and have never heard of this book, I’ll give you a brief summary. This novel takes place in a dystopian society in which every citizen conforms to the same concept of Sameness. As each child approaches the Ceremony of Twelve, he or she is given an assignment–a career choice, if you will, although a committee decides for each child based on his or her aptitude and interests. Jonas is chosen as the Receiver of Memories. He alone will receive the collective memory of society (collective unconscious, anyone?). He must carry the burden of all the emotions–happiness, love, pain, fear. He experiences poverty, war, hunger, sunshine, snow, Christmas, family, joy. No one else in the community ever knows that such extremes existed.
This is a world with color. Without art. Without music.
It’s chilling in its portrayal. The novel beautifully explores notions of freedom. It made me realize that freedom of choice–in what I’ll wear, in where I’ll go to school, in whom I’ll marry–is something I often take for granted. What if that choice were taken away from me? Would I miss choice if I’d grown up without it?
I re-read this book this week because I was working on a paper for adolescent literature on how to use literature to teach social justice to secondary students. I chose this book and The Knife of Never Letting Go as examples of dystopian literature that can be used in the classroom. Dystopian literature is so intriguing and thought-provoking because it shows the extremes to which society could go if preventative action isn’t taken. Will we fight against those who remove choice? Will we fight for the oppressed? Can we make a change and avoid a bleak future?
Something to think about.