Why did the utopian society not work out for Jonas in The Giver?

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litteacher8 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Jonas's community is a dystopia because the people have no freedom of choice, and he slowly realizes this once he begins his training.

Jonas’s community tries to make things perfect, but perfection is impossible to accomplish.  This is how a utopia becomes a dystopia.  Often when communities try to create completely safe spaces, they do so by taking rights away from their members.  That is what is happening with Jonas’s community.

When the book begins, Jonas is just like everyone else in his community.  He thinks his community is perfect.  He often comments on how organized it is, and how enjoyable it is.  To him, all of the rules and the tight control are positive things.  These are designed to keep everyone safe and happy.  He has been indoctrinated, or you could say brainwashed, to believe this since he was a small boy.  He does not know anything else.

Jonas often makes comments about things that raise red flags to the reader that he or other members of his community may not notice.  One example of this is the release of newchildren and the elderly.  To the reader, these things may just appear odd at first.  We do not yet know what release is, although it is pretty easy to guess, so we may wonder where the old people and babies are going.  Jonas seems to think Elsewhere is a place.  He does not know the concept of death yet.

When Jonas describes the release of newchildren, it foreshadows the fact that the community is carefully controlling every aspect of the citizens’ lives, from birth.

Jonas and Lily both nodded sympathetically as well. Release of newchildren was always sad, because they hadn't had a chance to enjoy life within the community yet. And they hadn't done anything wrong. (Ch. 1)

Release of infants who do not sleep through the night, or do not grow fast enough, seems crazy to most of us.  We would not consider killing babies an aspect of a perfect world.  Jonas and most of the other members of the community do not realize what is happening, but there are plenty of people who do, on some level. The Nurturers who take care of the infants and the Caretakers at the House of the Old have to know that they are killing those in their charge, even if they do not really have an understanding of what it means when the body stops moving.

Jonas, however, is different.  He sees his community as perfect, a utopia, until the day he begins his training as Receiver of Memory.  Then he is introduced to the way the world used to be before Sameness.  At first, he sees only happy memories such as sledding and sailing.  He starts to wonder why the community would take those things away from their people.

As Jonas’s training continues, he starts to see the world as it once was, including war and death.  No one in his community knows pain.  They have never known real suffering. Jonas realizes that they have never known any real emotions.

On this unexpected, casual holiday he felt happy, as he always had on holidays; but with a deeper happiness than ever before.  Thinking, as he always did, about precision of language, Jonas realized that it was a new depth of feelings that he was experiencing. Somehow they were not at all the same as the feelings that every evening, in every dwelling, every citizen analyzed with endless talk. (Ch. 17)

The community makes a great effort to ensure that no one has strong feelings.  This is the purpose of the rituals that seem to be linked to emotional purging, such as the telling of feelings and dreams.  Jonas realizes that no one is really sharing a true emotion, because no one ever has one. Only Jonas’s emotions are real.  When Jonas asks his parents if they love him, they respond by laughing at him because he used a funny old word with no meaning.  They have no idea what love is.

The turning point comes, however, when Jonas finally learns what release means. He knows what death is because he has seen it in the memories.  He has seen bodies stop moving, and it makes him feel terrible.  He tries to convince his friend Asher not to play war games, because he knows what war is like, but Asher just gets frustrated and confused.  When Jonas asks The Giver about release, the old man shows him one.  He has Jonas watch a video of a newborn twin’s release, and Jonas reacts with shock and horror.  His father killed a defenseless newborn, and then dumped it down a garbage shoot.

Jonas has a breakdown, unable to cope with the realization of the choices his community has made.  As a compromise in the name of Sameness, they have given up every liberty.  No one is capable of independent thinking, and that includes compassion.  The Giver reminds him that his father really doesn’t understand what he has done.

"Listen to me, Jonas. They can't help it. They know nothing."

"You said that to me once before."

"I said it because it's true. It's the way they live. It's the life that was created for them…” (Ch. 20)

This information changes the way Jonas views his community.  He and The Giver decide that the only way that they can change things is for Jonas to free the people from the oppressive nature of the community.  They will never free themselves, because they do not understand what is missing since they have no access to emotions.  Jonas and The Giver decide that Jonas will escape on his own, and the memories will return to the community.  The people will then know love, and realize what war and death really are.  After that, they will not be able to so callously kill old people and babies.

Throughout history, many people have attempted to create a perfect world.  When this goes wrong, we call it a dystopia.  That usually involves a community that has tried to control its citizens sufficiently to ensure that everyone leads a perfect life.  You can’t lead a perfect life when you have no freedom.  In a dystopia, freedom is the first thing to go.  Jonas’s people have almost no freedom.  Every choice is made for them, from the day they are born to the day they die.

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