The Giver Utopia and Dystopia in Literary and Historical Context

Utopia and Dystopia in Literary and Historical Context

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Ever since Sir Thomas More wrote his 1516 book Of the Best State of a Republic, and of the New Island Utopia, the term "utopia" has been used to describe apparently perfect societies that have attained an ideal social and political structure that protects the people from the worst ills of humankind. Like many such works before his and after his, More's book featured many aspects of communalism, such as a lack of private ownership, an equitable distribution of work, and an emphasis on order over chaos. In addition, just as in many accounts of utopias, More's book features some details that could be interpreted as satirical. More's influence on future utopian and dystopian novels such as The Giver is evident, as such novels often emphasize socialist values as a key aspect of their societies while showing the thin line between an orderly society and a repressive, dystopian one.

Historically, many communities that were founded as experiments in utopia tried to honor socialist values such as egalitarianism and the common good, both of which are reflected in the beginning chapters of The Giver. Jonas's society has no class divisions; even though Jonas's mother refers to the position of Birthmother as lacking honor, all citizens are born from these Birthmothers whose role is consequently recognized as an essential, if less desirable Assignment in society. In addition, the people in Jonas's society do not seem to have any concept of greed because they lack a currency and are all distributed food and other items according to their needs. Jonas is taught from a young age to share and treat others equally, and his society seems at first to be close to utopian.

Many novels that portray dystopian societies such as George Orwell's Animal Farm and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World join The Giver in showing how fine the line often is between the ideal and the repressive. Brave New World depicts a highly ordered society that has achieved world peace and stability, but they have to resort to machinations such as drug use to reduce the desire of the society's citizens to revolt and otherwise ruin their artificial utopia. Similarly, the "fairy story" of Animal Farm begins as an allegory of the Russian Revolution and subsequent Bolshevik Revolution in Imperial Russia in 1917, as the idealist farm animals seek to throw off the imperialist rule of their human farmer. However, they quickly find that although they enumerate such values as the equality of all animals, the leaders of the revolution become corrupted in their success and resort to harsh measures to repress the other farm animals.

The corruption in The Giver is more subtle than that in Animal Farm or in its less allegorical counterpart, Orwell's 1984, but it nonetheless shows how an initial desire for safety can turn into the fear of change, the rejection of the past, and outright repression and oppression. By removing their memories and giving them all to The Receiver of Memory, the society refuses to acknowledge human emotions and consequently its own humanity. As a result, members of the society such as Jonas's father and his friends show unthinking disregard for the value of human life to the point of accepting forced euthanasia, which becomes increasingly difficult for Jonas to accept. When Jonas leaves his community, he rejects the seemingly ideal characteristics of his society and recognizes that dystopia and stagnation can be insidious developments that come quietly and without warning in the name of some other alleged value.