Emotional Rescue

The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993): This solid little Young-Adult-targeted dystopia has sold a gajillion copies and spawned three more novels set in the same fictional universe. Lowry’s dystopic model is far more Brave New World than 1984, though not entirely either.

Neil Postman suggested that dystopias tend to fall between the two poles of pain-based (1984) and pleasure-based (Brave New World) control of the citizenry. Lowry’s citizens are taking something a lot like Huxley’s Soma, only moreso: they feel nothing strongly, and some things they feel not at all. It’s a dystopia of emotional and physical subtraction: no pain, no pleasure, no problem.

The trade-off for the full range of human feelings is a peaceful, well-ordered existence in which even physical pain and accidental death are almost non-existent. But our young protagonist Jonas will soon learn both the secrets of his community and the secrets of himself.

The Giver is a dystopia, not dystopic science fiction: many of the qualities of Jonas’s world fall apart when examined too closely. The same can be said of a number of classics of dystopian literature that include Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Orwell’s 1984. A dystopia may be an allegory about a condition that already exists and/or of a condition that could exist if things keep on going the way they’re going (The Handmaid’s Tale satisfies those criteria). It doesn’t necessarily hold together as a plausible imagination of a workable society (again, The Handmaid’s Tale satisfies that criteria: it really isn’t science fiction).

Figuring out what the conditions are that Lowry sees in the here-and-now as deeply disturbing enough to imagine a dystopia around them is part of the enjoyment of reading the novel. It’s concise and moving and possessed of appealing characters. Its only real problem is that it ends in a rush. It doesn’t overstay its welcome. Recommended.

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