‘We really have to protect people from wrong choices,” says Jonas, the main character in The Giver, a novel by Lois Lowry that will hit the big screen on August 15. In just nine words, he summarizes the entire philosophy of progressive paternalism, the idea that animates everything from Obamacare’s health-insurance mandate to New York City’s effort to ban Big Gulps.
As he speaks the line, Jonas feels troubled by what he has said, and even more disturbed by the world that surrounds him. Jonas doesn’t know it, but he inhabits one of those young-adult dystopias that are so popular right now as book-and-movie franchises. The Giver is the latest to reach theaters, yet the book came out in 1993, long before Katniss picked up a bow in The Hunger Games or Tris joined a faction in Divergent.
From the start, The Giver has enjoyed critical and commercial success, winning the John Newbery Medal, the most coveted award in American children’s literature, and selling millions of copies in bunches of languages. Middle-school teachers commonly assign it. Lots of students actually read it, too, even on their own. And here’s the best part, at least for conservatives: The book may contain the most stirring culture-of-life message in any piece of fiction aimed at a young audience. It remains to be seen whether the film will be faithful to the book — judging from the trailers, it takes a few liberties with the story — but one of the production companies behind it, Walden Media, satisfied fans of C. S. Lewis when it adapted three of his Narnia books.
Fictional dystopias have deep roots, going back at least half a millennium to Thomas More. He invented the word “utopia,” which we moderns associate with social or political perfection. In 1516, More borrowed from Greek to formulate “u-topia,” meaning “no place,” as well as its homophone “eu-topia,” meaning “good place.” A person trained in classical rhetoric would label this “paronomasia”; the rest of us would call it a pun. More’s point is that utopias may be good, even perfect, but they don’t really exist, perhaps because they can’t.
A “dystopia” is the opposite of a good place — it’s a very bad place, and very bad places definitely exist, often because of overbearing efforts to protect people from supposedly wrong choices. As a genre of political writing, dystopian lit flowered amid the horrors of the 20th century. In 1921, Soviet author Yevgeny Zamyatin wrote We, a Russian-language novel that describes an oppressive future dominated by the “One State,” which seeks to crush human individuality. “To be original means to somehow stand out from others,” says a character. “Consequently, being original is to violate equality.” The Soviets recognized We as a subversive threat and censored it. The book circulated as an early instance of samizdat literature, and Zamyatin eventually went into exile.
Translated into English, We went on to influence the two best-known examples of dystopian literature: Brave New World (1932), by Aldous Huxley, and 1984 (1948), by George Orwell. These books are so familiar that their titles have entered the vernacular. “Orwellian” has become a common adjective, describing systems and conditions that Orwell despised. The dystopian genre also produced a second tier of excellent works, including the novels Fahrenheit 451 (1953), by Ray Bradbury, and A Clockwork Orange (1962), by Anthony Burgess, as well as “Harrison Bergeron,” a 1961 short story by Kurt Vonnegut. Taken together, these works form a sustained and compelling critique of totalitarianism, one more potent than any collection of political manifestos because they draw on the unique power of art to tell stories that ignite imaginations. Today we’re at least as familiar with Big Brother as we are with Stalinism.
The Giver follows in this line — and if you want to avoid spoilers, stop reading now. The book begins, as dystopias often do, by describing a neat and orderly society. There’s no war or poverty. Everyone has a job. The weather is always nice, and bike paths go everywhere. On first glance, “the community” — it lacks a proper name — looks like a utopia. At the very least, it seems like a pleasant place to live.
Yet there’s more to it. The rulers of the community possess an astonishing amount of social control. Every marriage is arranged. Children don’t live with their biological parents but rather with artificial “family units.” When they reach the age of twelve, as Jonas does in the early chapters, they receive their occupational assignments — the work they’ll do for the rest of their lives. As they move into old age, they approach their time of “release.” Few in the community know exactly what this entails, but they all celebrate it, like a graduation ceremony or a retirement party.
The community also strives to achieve “Sameness.” People aren’t supposed to brag about their accomplishments or talk about personal distinctions, not even the color of their eyes: “No one mentioned such things; it was not a rule, but was considered rude to call attention to things that were unsettling or different about individuals.” Later in the book, it becomes clear that the community is so serious about enforcing this code of conduct that the entire population has undergone genetic modification to eliminate the ability to see color. Everyone observes that eyes vary from light to dark, but they have no concept of blue or brown.
In addition, there’s almost no historical memory in the community. People know what happened yesterday, but they don’t know what happened a generation ago or how their ancestors lived — including, for example, the fact that they once could see in color. Everything has disappeared down the memory hole, to borrow the term Orwell made up in 1984 for a device that erases inconvenient truths. Without historical memory, of course, the conservative force of tradition can’t function — and something else must fill its vacuum.
Lowry’s account of life in the community is unsettling from the get-go, but she paces her story. Readers don’t immediately hate the community. It’s full of domestic tranquility. There’s no conflict or sorrow, and hardly any physical pain. This slow-motion narrative approach forces readers to confront difficult questions. Would you sacrifice the ability to see color if it meant an end to personal quarrels? Would you sacrifice music — there is no music in the community — if it meant an end to war? The way people think about these questions will say a lot about their views on human nature and social organization. If nothing else, they can make for great conversations in eighth-grade English class.
Lowry, like all the great dystopian writers, believes in the law of unintended consequences. “We gained control of many things,” says a character in The Giver. “But we had to let go of others.” The community hasn’t simply given up color and music. It has also forfeited freedom and equality — and even life itself.
At the moral center of The Giver is Gabriel, a baby whose name is fraught with meaning. He falls under the care of Jonas’s father, who is a “nurturer,” a person charged with looking after infants before they’re assigned to family units. “He’s a sweet little male with a lovely disposition,” says Jonas’s father. “But he isn’t growing as fast as he should, and he doesn’t sleep soundly. We have him in the extra care section for supplementary nurturing, but the committee’s beginning to talk about releasing him.” As Jonas learns more about the community and its strange ways, Gabriel fails to develop as the committee would like. So he’s scheduled for release.
By the time this happens, most sophisticated readers will have figured out what “release” means. It’s a euphemism for murder, taking the form of euthanasia and infanticide. For younger readers who haven’t picked up on the clues in the text, however, the revelation that the community kills babies can hit like a sledgehammer. Suddenly, the lies of totalitarianism sit in plain sight, from its wicked distortions of language to its utter disregard for human life. For these readers, The Giver can leave a permanent mark on the moral imagination.
The Giver suffers from a few flaws. It might benefit from a little more exposition. The last chapters feel rushed, as if Lowry were trying to finish her tale within a certain number of pages. And readers frustrated by ambiguity won’t care for the conclusion. Yet the book also possesses a special power to shape the minds of children who so often must be “awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity,” as C. S. Lewis puts it in The Abolition of Man.
At one point in The Giver, Jonas manages to experience candles and fireplaces, which the community has snuffed out because of the wrong choices they enabled. “They had fire right there in that room,” he says. “I can see that it was a dangerous way to live.” Yet he also feels a sense of loss, and experiences a gentle epiphany: “I did like the light they made. And the warmth.”
— John J. Miller is director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College in Michigan and national correspondent for National Review. This article is adapted from the August 11, 2014, issue of National Review.