Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Dangers of Conformity, According to Lois Lowry's The Giver defines conformity as “action in accord with prevailing social standards, attitudes, practices, etc.”  In our society, uniqueness and individuality is emphasized and encouraged, as long as it stays within the social norms.  Lois Lowry’s hit young adult novel The Giver gives readers a glimpse of what life can become if we focus too much on fitting in and making everyone the same.

Just a little bit of background for those of you who are unfamiliar with the novel.  The Giver follows Jonas, a 12 year old boy who lives in an unnamed futuristic society.  In this society, everything is decided for you, your job, your spouse, your children, even the day you die.  Memories of the past and the freedom that people used to enjoy are kept solely by an old man simply called “The Receiver”.  The Receiver is getting old though, and he needs someone else to take on his job of holding on to all the memories, both good and bad, from the past.  This is where Jonas comes in.  He is given the prestigious job of becoming the new Receiver and holding on to all the memories of the past.  As this happens, Jonas begins to question the world around him and the life he has.

In Jonas’ world, everything is monitored to ensure conformity.  Sometimes this is done covertly under the guise of daily tasks, other times it is more obvious.  Every morning, families sit together, share their dreams and discuss possible meanings.  It is assumed that these are monitored.  Sharing dreams also allows for “Stirrings” to be caught and quashed.  Stirring are essentially wet dreams.  Once a child reports to his that he has experienced a Stirring, they are given a pill every day to destroy sexual desire and ensure that procreation is only done by the designated women to prevent over population.  While it is never expressly stated what would happen if someone stopped taking “the pill”, it is implied that there is an underlying desire by children to start taking “the pill”, just like the rest of his friends.

Conformity is even stated bluntly by The Director, the woman who is in charge of Jonas’ community.  In a speech, she states how important it is to “curb any impulse that might set you apart from the group.”  Everyone in the Community agrees with this statement.  In their minds, it is better to fit in than stand out and be different.  Even standing out in the slightest way, for a good thing, is seen as awkward, uncomfortable, and unnecessary.  Through his training with the Giver, Jonas witnesses a birthday party.  Birthday parties are a foreign concept to Jonas, they make one person stand out from the crowd.  After seeing one, however, Jonas “understood the joy of being an individual, special and unique and proud.”  This is the beginning of Jonas questioning the world around him.  He begins to understand that being an individual isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if it worked in the past, why can’t it work now?  This is a concept we’ll come back to momentarily.

Conformity isn’t called “conformity” in Jonas’ world, but rather, the term “Sameness” is thrown around and has the same meaning.  The Elders spin Sameness in a way that makes it sound like it is absolutely necessary, and without it, the whole world would fall apart.  For example, hills and weather are done away with, all in the interest of Sameness.  Hills made it difficult to travel long distances, and weather made it difficult to grow crops year round and have enough food for everyone.  While these can be seen as positive results of Sameness, there is also a dark side.  The Giver talks about a time when people’s skin used to be different colors, but when Sameness came around, they got rid of the different races.  Basically, this society when through some sort of racial cleansing , although the Giver doesn’t go into detail.  This Sameness is terrifying and further pushes conformity on Jonas and the people around him.

Once Jonas starts receiving memories from the Giver, he starts to feel alienated from the people around him he used to think were his friends and family.  Jonas outright thinks to himself that “he couldn’t go back to the world of no feelings he had lived in so long.”  Later, Jonas finds that he can’t discuss his feelings at the end of the day with his family, which is a requirement in Jonas’ world, just like sharing dreams every morning.  He “experienced injustice and cruelty, and he had reacted with rage that welled up so passionately inside him that the thought of discussing it calmly at the evening meal was unthinkable.”  Jonas could no longer participate as a member of society.  The Giver attempts to explain it to Jonas, stating “the [everyone else] know nothing.”  Jonas and the Giver are the only ones (aside from the Elders who make these decisions) who are aware of feelings and how they are suppressed.

The Giver is one of my favorite books, I’ve read it at least three times and learned something new every time.  It has several poignant messages about the importance of individuality and warnings about future.  When I first read the book, I was 13.  Now, 10 years later, I can look at it with newfound knowledge and understanding.