How the Individuals’ Rationalization of Knowledge Prompts Different Responses in The Giver
by Ashley Low
In 1993, Lois Lowry published The Giver. Set in a near-perfect society, it follows the protagonist Jonas’ life. While initially idealistic and utopian, the reader, along with Jonas, discovers the truth of the dystopian society Jonas lives in, wherein everything is carefully constructed and controlled by the Elders. With the new information he obtained, Jonas decides to escape from this community, committing a deviant act. Hence, I analyze the reasons behind this and compare the character of Jonas to the titular character, The Giver (“TG”), and Rosemary, two other people who had access to the same information yet acted differently. I aim to use two theories to do this. The first is a theory on human motivation proposed by William I. Thomas between 1915 to the late 1930s, while the second is the structural strain theory on deviance proposed by Robert K. Merton in his 1938 article titled “Social Structure and Anomie”. Using these sociological theories, I hope to examine the motivations behind each character’s act of deviance to understand how it is the individual’s rationalization of the same information that prompts them to respond in different ways.
Thomas introduced the “Four Wishes” theory on human motivation, which he believed applied to everyone. As cited in Corey J. Colyer’s “W.I. Thomas and the Forgotten Four Wishes: A Case Study in the Sociology of Ideas”, the theory describes the “wish for: new experience, security, response, and recognition” (2015, pp. 260-262). These wishes tap into different human desires – freedom and knowledge, protection from the unknown, love and to love, and status. Thomas noted that specifically for the “wish for new experience”, “[w]hen this wish is frustrated, ‘unadjusted’ (or delinquent) behaviour follows” (cited in Colyer, 2015, p. 260). To further understand deviance in society, we refer to Merton’s structural strain theory, which asserts that deviance occurs when tensions arise between two aspects of social structure, namely the societal ideals and the means to achieving them (1938). This manifests in differing responses, namely Conformity, Innovation, Ritualism, Retreatism and Rebellion (Merton, 1938, p. 676). Using this theory, we realise that Jonas, TG and Rosemary were deviant, even if not always outwardly so. By combining these two theories, we have a framework through which we can analyse these three characters to understand what motivated their deviance.
The Giver presents a utopian community where order is maintained through various methods of social control. Every aspect of a citizen’s life is planned out, from their jobs, spouse, and even the child-to-family allocation. The Elders also maintain order through “Sameness” – an eradication of diversity such as climate control and genetic editing preventing the seeing of colour.
Citizens are further socialised into viewing anything other than the communities like their own as “Elsewhere”. As TG explains how he had to “transmit… the memories of the whole world to Jonas”, Jonas responds:
“The whole world?” he asked. “I don’t understand. Do you mean not just us? Not just the community? Do you mean Elsewhere, too?” … I don’t know what you mean when you say ‘the whole world’ or ‘generations before him.’ I thought there was only us. I thought there was only now.”Lowry, 1994, pp. 77-78
Jonas starts to realise just how controlled life is when he is selected to be the Receiver of Memory (RoM), a role which entails receiving all the memories of the past from TG, the previous RoM. This role exists to bear the pain that comes with certain memories, and to advise the Elders on important decisions which may require wisdom from the past (Lowry, 1994, pp. 111, 113). Through these memories, Jonas learns what true feelings are and realises the diversity that used to exist in the world, which he craves in his own life. Eventually, Jonas escapes from the community after he learns that Gabriel, a newchild whom his family had taken in temporarily in hopes of expediting his development, was due to be released (the community’s word for euthanasia). Now able to feel compassion and love, Jonas escapes with Gabriel to save him from being released.
Analyzing the Characters
In trying to understand Jonas’ act of deviance, we turn to the framework established earlier. Out of the five categories in Merton’s theory, Jonas falls into “Rebellion”, mainly because he does not just reject the society’s goals and means of attaining them, but actively seeks to change it by introducing new ones. This was shaped by the memories he had received which changed the way he viewed his society. For example, when TG explains the reason for the RoM role, Jonas expresses anger, questioning how fair the decision was and wanting to change it (Lowry, 1994, p. 113). He grapples with this concept of “fairness” more than once, as evidenced by his anger at the lack of colours in his perceivable world (Lowry, 1994, p. 97) and when he first learned what “release” entailed (Lowry, 1994, p. 152). From these reactions, we see Jonas actively rejecting the Sameness that governed the community and the ways in which this was brought about – through tight control by the Elders. These memories also led to Jonas’ “wish for new experiences”, which Thomas notes, “can be destructive to tradition and order” (cited in Colyer, 2015, p. 260), clearly seen in Jonas act of leaving the community. Furthermore, Merton explains that “rebellion occurs when emancipation from the reigning standards, due to frustration or to marginalist perspectives, leads to the attempt to introduce a ‘new social order’” (1938, p. 678). As such, Jonas’ desire for freedom and diversity for both himself and his community pushed him to escape so that all his gained memories could be returned in hopes that it would change his community.
However, Jonas’ choice to run away instead of other methods of escape (he was disallowed from seeking release) is linked to his strong “wish for response”, which is “related to the individuals deep seated need for love (as a giver and receiver)” (Thomas, cited in Colyer, 2015, p. 260). Jonas first learned the concept of love through a memory of a Christmas celebration amongst family. This eventually characterised his escape – to the newchild, Gabriel, whom he wanted to save, and to his community, whom he wanted to see changed. Jonas says it himself too, when he reflects that if he had stayed in the community, “[h]e would have lived a life hungry for feelings, for colour, for love” (Lowry, 1994, p. 173). Jonas chose to forsake his original escape plan and brought it forward to prevent Gabriel’s release out of love and compassion towards him, bringing him along even though it made the journey harder.
TG was, comparatively, a more passive character. Though he did not actually carry out change, according to Merton’s theory, he is still considered a deviant and would be “Retreatist” as he rejects both the societal ideals and means of achieving it, but does not go further than that. TG is “in the society but not of it” (Merton, 1938, p. 677, emphasis original), as can be seen by the physical alienation of the RoM, which is seen when TG recounts his own experience:
“You’ll be able to apply for a spouse, Jonas, if you want to … Your living arrangements will have to be different from those of most family units, because the books are forbidden to citizens. You and I are the only ones with access to the books.”Lowry, 1994, p. 102
Additionally, the RoM also experiences emotional alienation, which is seen by how TG and Jonas are forbidden from talking about their work with anyone else, leading to an emotional distance from their family and friends. Hence, the deviant attitude exhibited by TG was very much a product of the society itself, as the rules imposed treated him as a deviant, which led to a real manifestation in his attitude towards society. Yet, TG does not do any outwardly deviant acts, instead operating within the boundaries imposed on him. In fact, he only plots one after he meets Jonas, to help him escape from the community. Perhaps, the best explanation for this change of heart is also the “wish for response”. TG loved Jonas, which he clearly states when he had finished planning Jonas’ escape with him (Lowry, 1994, p. 162). Additionally, he also said that “[his] work will be finished… when [he had] helped the community to change and become whole” (Lowry, 1994, p. 161), showing his love for the community. This shows that both Jonas and TG were similarly motivated by love, yet the difference in their actions were due to their individual desires. For Jonas, his strong desire to experience freedom for himself pushed him to seek “Elsewhere”. For TG, he wished to see the community become whole, much like how Thomas explained the “wish for response” as “knit[ting] people together” (cited in Colyer, 2015, p. 262). As such, it was up to the individual character’s rationalization of their desires that prompted them to take up different actions.
In contrast, Rosemary presents a unique perspective. She was the RoM chosen ten years before Jonas, but requested to be released after five weeks as she could not handle the emotional pain. Rosemary believed in both the societal ideals and the ways of achieving it, yet she still chose to deviate. She identified with the blissful life she lived in the community, and accepted the ways this was achieved, shown by how she chose to request for release instead of escaping the community like Jonas. However, her act of deviance is clear because the community refrains from talking about her, much like how they treat other rule-breakers who have been released.
This is not covered by Merton’s theory; hence the best explanation could be her “wish for security”, which Thomas explains is “anchored in fear” (cited in Colyer, 2015, p. 261). After learning about pain on a magnitude she had never experienced before, there was likely a fear of what else she had to experience, leading to a “selfish” desire to escape. However, Thomas believed that this wish “tended to avoid death” (cited in Colyer, 2015, p. 261), which directly contrasts Rosemary’s actions. Perhaps, her actions are best understood as an interplay between her wishing to fulfil the role set out for her, but also fearing that which she has not yet experienced, culminating in her desire to escape. More importantly, if we contrast the motivations behind Jonas’ and Rosemary’s actions, we realise that they differ in terms of how they processed the same information and its subsequent manifestation. Jonas chose to manifest it outwardly in desiring to see change in his society, whereas Rosemary chose to internalise it, desiring her own escape. This shows the autonomy of the individual in making choices when given the same experiences.
I have shown how these three characters can be analysed using the framework of Merton’s and Thomas’ theories. While this is only a brief analysis, it can already be seen how the choices made by each of them were very much motivated by their own desires, given the same experiences. Jonas encapsulates the most extreme take on deviance, strongly motivated by his desire to experience freedom. On a more subtle note, TG represents an altruistic deviant, one separated from society yet still desiring to see it made whole. Lastly, Rosemary is an interesting case of one who idolizes the societal ideals, yet still chose to deviate, pushed by forces that our theories do not fully explain.
I acknowledge that there are some limitations to this analysis. Firstly, the theories of Merton and Thomas are very antiquated. As such, they may not be able to properly encapsulate the characters created by Lowry in 1993. Additionally, my analysis only focused on the characters themselves and what motivated them to commit different acts of deviance, but not other factors. As such, future analysis can focus on an all-rounded view of how the society in The Giver may have influenced these 3 characters.
Colyer, C. J. (2015). W.I. Thomas and the forgotten four wishes: A case study in the sociology of ideas. The American Sociologist, 46(2), 248–268. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12108-014-9251-8
Lowry, L. (1994). The Giver (93) [Mass Market Paperback (2002)] (56247th ed.). Laurel Leaf, Paperback (2002).
Merton, R. K. (1938). Social structure and anomie. American Sociological Review, 3(5), 672–682. https://doi.org/10.2307/2084686