The Giver: On “Nice” Dystopias and the Dangers of Bliss

the-giver

Lois Lowry’s The Giver was my first introduction to the genre of dystopian fiction, and for that, it holds a particularly special place in my heart. I am thrilled with the recent resurgence of conversation surrounding the story, which is largely due to the long-awaited release of the movie, and my eager-to-eavesdrop ears perk up at the mere mention of it. Not long ago, I overheard an especially interesting comment on The Giver, between two young women who were sitting near me at a coffee shop.

One of the women said to her friend: “Am I wrong to think it wouldn’t be so bad to live in The Giver? I mean, there’s no war, no prejudice, and everyone gets a job and a house; it sounds pretty nice to me.”

However much of a joke the comment was intended to be, there was a telling honesty to it. The Giver presents a world vastly different than the worlds of many other well-known dystopias, in that it is, for all intents and purposes, conceptually “nice”. The Giver takes place in a society, referred to only as “the community”, where an order of ‘Sameness’ has existed for countless generations. Under Sameness, everyone is inherently equal, as there are no social or economic disparities, no hunger, no war, no pain, and yes – everyone is guaranteed a job and a house.

This is the “nice” part, no doubt, but it comes with a price: for the community’s widespread lack of conflict, prejudice, and poverty, there also exists a profound lack of choice and individual agency. Every decision – from a child’s name to a person’s spouse and occupation – is made by a Council of Elders. There are no individual birthdays, no privacy (not even in dreams), and all behavior is tightly surveilled and policed, lest it sparks a deviation from the established Sameness. Such control and surveillance are more familiar elements of the dystopian genre, but what the young woman in the coffee shop’s comment showcased – and what I really want to talk about here – is the disturbing quickness with which people are willing to surrender all agency and control if it means living in a world that feels “nice” to them.

Not unlike other popular dystopian stories, the world of The Giver is wholly dependent on the censorship of knowledge in order to maintain itself. What is different here, however, is that the people in the community, including the Council of Elders, have no knowledge of anything before or beyond Sameness. Only the ‘Receiver of Memory’ holds this knowledge, and it is through 12-year-old Jonas’s training sessions to become the new Receiver (a position chosen for him by the Elders) that we become aware of all the knowledge the community has given up for the sake of its Sameness. It is in these sessions that the current Receiver (the “Giver”) transmits to Jonas memories of everything from war, blood, hunger, and pain, to sunlight, snow, color, and music. None of the other members of the community have these memories, and so they live at peace with what they do have, purely on the virtue of not knowing anything else.

It is the epitome of what we mean when we say “ignorance is bliss”, and there is no doubt that the people in the community do live blissfully. But they also, by extension, live in ignorance, and it forces them to be content with their own brand of dystopia because they have no idea that anything else is possible. It is a comfortable life, but not very exhilarating, or even happy.

While the philosophical nature of “bliss” versus “happiness” is up for neverending debate, “bliss” is often understood as a divine state of being, a perpetual state of having nothing else left to want or crave. “Happiness”, on the other hand, refers more to what is felt when a particular want or craving is met. The person who is happy achieves this feeling only after a period of wanting, while the person who is blissful wants nothing at allBased on these definitions, many could argue that we should strive to become “blissful” over becoming “happy”, but I disagree. There is tremendous value in wanting – it is what drives ambition, training, and endless exploration of all the world has to offer. Bliss, or not wanting, can breed only more of the same, as there is no desire for things to be any different. While the security of being content is appealing, not much ever really comes from it.

This is why the community in The Giver has been able to exist for longer than anyone who lives in it can remember – if there is no desire for things to be any different, they never will be. A blissful world is a most dangerous dystopia because there is no desire to question or change it. Such desire can only come from the knowledge that another way of living is possible, and we see this happen in The Giver only as Jonas continues to receive the memories of the time before Sameness.

The desire for change is fueled as the memories quickly tear apart Jonas’s world of bliss and, in turn, begin to isolate him from his family and childhood friends. This is shown in an especially pivotal passage in the book, leading up to the novel’s climax:

His childhood, his friendships, his carefree sense of security–all of these things seemed to be slipping away. With his new, heightened feelings, he was overwhelmed by sadness at the way the others had laughed and shouted, playing at war. But he knew that they could not understand why, without the memories. He felt such love for Asher and for Fiona. But they could not feel it back, without the memories. And he could not give them those. Jonas knew with certainty that he could change nothing (pg. 135).

Of course, Jonas does find a way to change things, but if not for the memories, the knowledge, and his bubble of bliss being destroyed, he would have never realized there was space for things to change, and certainly would not have realized the need. 

This is exactly what the promise of “bliss” does – the idea of living in a world so effortlessly perfect and shielded from sadness is so attractive, so comfortable, that not only do we not realize there are other ways of being to strive for, we begin to not want to engage with or challenge the world around us for fear that it may not feel “nice”. It is actually a brilliant tactic of social control – to make people feel so comfortable that they don’t care to ask for more – but as we see through Jonas’s growth and revelations, such pristine bliss makes for a really awful way to live in the long-run.

The characters in The Giver had no choice but to live in a bubble of bliss, but we do, and that is why the young woman in the coffee shop’s comment disturbed me in the way that it did. For all the pain and confusion caused by the memories, Jonas comes to see that eliminating the knowledge of the bad will also eliminate the knowledge of the good, and ultimately concludes that without our ability to know, feel, and even want, we really do not have much at all.