What are some euphemisms for death in our society and how does this relate to The Giver?

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litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

We use euphemisms for death such as “passed away” and “put to sleep” and the community uses “released.”

A euphemism is a word used by people instead of the word they mean, usually to spare the feelings of someone.  We use euphemisms for difficult concepts in our society all of the time, such as saying someone "passed away" instead of saying the person died, and in The Giver they also use a euphemism for death: "release."

When a person dies in our society, we often avoid discussing death directly.  There are uncomfortable aspects of discussing death, and for this reason we engage in euphemisms.  For example, you might say that a person “passed away” or has “gone to a better place” when the person dies.  These words help us avoid saying the harsher truth that the person has died, but everyone knows what they mean.  When an animal is euthanatized, or killed, we often use the term “put to sleep,” even though we know that the creature will never wake again.

In this book, the community never discusses death.  In fact, they seem to have carefully structured their society to avoid facing the concept completely.  For a society that regularly kills its members, the idea that they do not understand the concept of death is disturbing.  When a person is released in the community, most members of the society have no idea what it really means.  They think that the person has gone to a better place: "Elsewhere."  Elsewhere does exist, but that is not where people go when they are released.  "Elsewhere" just becomes another euphemism for death.

It is clear from Jonas’s description in the beginning of the book that release is seen as serious and irreversible, but that no one really knows what it actually means.

There were only two occasions of release which were not punishment. Release of the elderly, which was a time of celebration for a life well and fully lived; and release of a newchild, which always brought a sense of what-could-we- have-done. (Ch. 1)

So we know that people are killed in three circumstances.  First, if they break a severe rule or three smaller ones, second, if they are considered too old, and third, for infants.  All of these circumstances seem incredibly wrong times to just kill someone, but euthanasia is regularly practiced in the community.

Until Jonas begins his training as Receiver of Memory and learns through the memories about war and death, he has no idea what release actually means either—just like everyone else in the community.  When Jonas sees his father “release” a newborn baby, he is filled with shock.  He now knows that release means death, and he realizes that his community is regularly killing its members.

When Jonas realizes that the community members blindly follow orders without knowing the consequences, he is horrified.

"I will take care of that, sir. I will take care of that, sir," Jonas mimicked in a cruel, sarcastic voice. "I will do whatever you like, sir. I will kill people, sir. Old people? Small newborn people? I'd be happy to kill them, sir. Thank you for your instructions, sir. How may I help y--', He couldn't seem to stop.” (Ch. 20)

Jonas learns that not only does his father kill infants without understanding what he is doing, but Fiona also has learned how to release the elderly.  This knowledge horrifies Jonas.  He realizes that everything he thought he knew about his community was wrong.  The euphemism of release is only the beginning.  He watched his father kill a baby and throw it down a garbage shoot without any sign of remorse.  Jonas has seen the dark side of a life without emotions.

Euphemisms are used in societies to protect people from fully facing the truth.  Unfortunately, sometimes the truth must be faced.  When you have gotten to the point where you not only do not talk about death but have no idea what it means, it can get dangerous.  Killing a person becomes a sterile, meaningless act.  While emotions, such as those felt at a death, are hard to deal with, they are also necessary.  Without them, people can do unspeakable things like killing babies.  By protecting the people from their emotions, the community has created  a dystopia.


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The Giver

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