Lois Lowry’s The Giver is only one in a huge series of classic “dystopian” literature. (Think “utopia,” then think Third Reich.) What makes it stand out from novels like 1984 or Brave New World – aside from the iconic grizzled-old-man cover – is that you might have memories of reading it already in the fourth or fifth grade; in this sense, you could put The Giver in the same category as Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” a deceptively uncomplicated dystopian short story that many of us read in junior high school. Aside from the fact that this has probably done some serious damage to your formative years, the real shame here is that these stories are often considered so “easy” to read that they don’t merit revisiting in high school or college – you know, when you might actually understand them. To put these wrongs to right, let’s compare both stories for some literary I’ll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours.
The world of The Giver centers on a strictly controlled society known as The Community. Its members live in a sort of self-imposed stasis, meaning that their population, behavior, speech, activities, and emotions are all regulated by a select group of elites known as The Elders. Just to be safe, though, humanity’s collective memories – which include pre-reform experiences of things like love, lust, hate, fear, fun, pleasure, envy… hell, even color – are all stockpiled into one guy known as “The Receiver of Memory,” who keeps everyone from having to make choices that could be dangerous. Let’s hope he never falls down the stairs or anything. On a more cryptic note, The Community keeps healthy by “releasing” all its sick children, old geezers, and misfits to the land known as “Elsewhere.” Remember when Mom told you that Socks went to a ranch where she could frolic in a field as big as the sky? Well the difference here is that when Mom said it, she wasn’t the one doing the killing.
On the plus side, living in The Community takes all the hassle out of job hunting, since everyone’s lot in life is... well, just that: each person is allotted a certain occupation at age eleven without question or complaint. That is, until young Jonas is selected to replace the ridiculously old man currently serving as The Receiver of Memory (who’s scheduled to make a little “day hike to Elsewhere” of his own); things run afoul when the transfer of the old man’s memories enables Jonas to feel things like love, pain, fear, and “holy crap! – where are you sending my sick adoptive kid brother?!” Having learned that “releasing” entails nothing more than a lethal injection and a short drop into a trash chute, Jonas decides to run away with little baby Gabriel, leaving the safety of The Community to experience the freedom of independence, self-direction, nature, and, oh yeah, starvation. The story ends with a malnourished Jonas and Gabriel sledding down a hill in the snow. Or dying – the book isn’t exactly clear on that. (What’s with ambiguous sled endings, anyway?)
At first glance, this couldn’t be more different from the beginning of “The Lottery,” which is set in small-town America where everything seems just average enough. We get a chance to meet the townspeople’s key families, like the Hutchinsons and Summerses, as the community gathers around the post office for some kind of annual lottery drawing. The adults chit-chat, the couples bicker, and the children do children-ey things as everyone waits for the latecomers to arrive and the drawing to get started. In the meantime, we learn all about the appearance and history of the lottery box from which lots are drawn. At long last, a representative from the Hutchinson family selects a marked slip of paper from the box, indicating that his entire family is to re-draw lots amongst themselves. What we don’t realize until the very end is that whichever family member receives the “winning” lot (in this case, Tess Hutchinson) is then stoned to death by the other townspeople – including her own family.
What makes “The Lottery” so much creepier than The Giver – aside from the whole children stoning parents / parents stoning children thing – is that while society in The Giver seems to operate by some kind of magic, society in “The Lottery” operates by good ol’ fashioned social conditioning, which we have no shortage of in the real world. Worse yet, while The Community at least pretends to be looking out for its own, the townspeople in “The Lottery” never give so much as a sorry-but-we’re-super-crowded excuse as to why the drawing is held or how it ever got started; people participate voluntarily and without the need for a reason. The fact that almost a third of the story describes the tradition and procedure of the lottery emphasizes how social ritual obscures all understanding of what’s really going on – for readers and lottery-goers alike. And while the particulars of this story may sound a little far-fetched, keep in mind that Jackson published this story in 1948 – just as the world was still coming to grips with the full tragedy of the Holocaust. Still seem implausible?
Think “utopia,” then think Third Reich.
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