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Psychological, Sociological, and Organizational Influences on the Main Character in "The Giver"

Psychological, Sociological, and Organizational Influences on the Main Character in "The Giver"

Author: Joyce Bott

The objective of this tutorial is to take concepts learned from the course and apply them in a way that people can easily relate to.  This tutorial will look at Jonas, the main character from Lois Lowry's fictional book,"The Giver", and deconstruct his identity through psychological, sociological and organizational lenses.


This tutorial was created for the partial fulfillment of the requirements of EDUC 5P65 - Constructing an Administrative Identity (Faculty of Education, Brock University). 

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This analysis is based on Lois Lowry's fictional book, "The Giver", and will take a close look at the main character, Jonas, in order to deconstruct his identity through the following lenses:

  1. Organizational Lens: How Jonas is influenced by rules enforced by the Elders
  2. Sociological Lens: How Jonas is influenced by language, culture, and by his mentor, the Giver
  3. Psychological Lens: How Jonas is influenced by his own personality and inner tendencies

Through each of the three lenses, a literary review of the various influences on Jonas will be discussed, followed by a commentary on how the different influences encourage change and growth in organizations of today.

In each section of this tutorial, a supplementary video will be provided for optional viewing to help illustrate the theoretical concepts. 

Background Information

"The Giver" is a futuristic story about a 12 year old boy named Jonas.  He lives in a tightly controlled society where humans have been genetically modified so there are no minorities.  In this society, climate is optimally controlled to produce conditions favourable for growing vegetation and crops, and the temperature stays the same all year round. Ultimately everything is controlled to the point where there is no pain, hunger or suffering, and everyone is, for the most part, safe.

Decisions are made primarily by "The Elders", the older leaders of the society. These decisions include: What toys you are allowed to play with as a child, what age you are allowed to ride a bicycle, what job you will be assigned for life, who you will marry, which children will be assigned to your family unit, and when you will be "released" from the community (later in the story Jonas learns that being "released" really means being terminated by lethal injection). As part of the strict rules of the society, everyone has to take their daily pills. Unbeknownst to the general members of the society, these pills actually suppress any sense of anxiety, fear, sexual desire, or any strong emotion whatsoever.  It also seems to dull people's sense of colour so most people can only see in black and white and shades of grey.

When Jonas turns 12, due to possession of several special traits such as intelligence, integrity, courage and wisdom, and the "ability to see beyond", the Elders select him for the most honourable role of "Receiver of Memories".  This means that all the memories of the community, present and past (through the history of time), will get transferred to him from the previous "Receiver", who is now  referred to as "The Giver". Memories are seen by the society as a source of grief and instability and so it is the job of the Receiver to hold all these memories in order to remove this burden from the community.  However, the Elders recognize that in order to make important decisions for the society, there are times when they will need information from the past to inform their decisions about the future. So it is also the duty of the Receiver to advise the Elders when called upon, based on his knowledge of the past.

Throughout the story, through memories that are transferred to him from the Giver,  Jonas learns about things that existed in the past like: colour, race, snow, animals, birthdays, music, sadness, hunger, pain, war, affection and love.  Jonas discovers his own feelings of love towards a baby, Gabriel, who is labeled by the community as "uncertain" and assigned to the care of Jonas' father as a last resort before being "released".  Jonas learns about how this "comfortable society" that he lives in, is really achieved at the expense of people's individuality, freedom of choice, respect for life, and ultimately - true happiness. "The Giver" is a story about Jonas' fight to bring human dignity and life back to society.

1.0 The Organizational Lens: How Jonas is influenced by the Elders

The Elders are the group of people who control and enforce the strict rules of the society that Jonas lives in. Jonas is influenced by the Elders through these rules and through various mechanisms of control. One of these mechanisms of control is the use of community loudspeakers to shame people in public. Jonas experiences this shame when trying to take an apple home from school. Lowry (1993) writes:

Everyone had known, he remembered with humiliation, that the announcement ATTENTION. THIS IS A REMINDER TO MALE ELEVENS THAT OBJECTS ARE NOT TO BE REMOVED FROM THE RECREATION AREA AND THAT SNACKS ARE TO BE EATEN, NOT HOARDED had been specifically directed at him, the day last month that he had taken an apple home. No one had mentioned it, not even his parents, because the public announcement had been sufficient to produce the appropriate remorse. He had, of course, disposed of the apple and made his apology to the Recreation Director the next morning, before school. (Chapter 3, Para. 20)

The Elders rely on close observation and public shaming to get members of the community to conform to their rules.  This aligns with Foucault's concept of normalizing behaviour, where the organization attempts to change people through repeated corrections until they eventually fit into their idealized norm of conduct. Foucault (2007) writes, "One must understand everything that is capable of making children feel the offense they have committed, everything that is capable of humiliating them" (p. 566).  By announcing Jonas' crime in front of all his friends, it humiliates him enough that no other punishment is necessary to get Jonas to conform to the rule.  Although this control mechanism teaches Jonas obedience, it demoralizes him at the same time and hinders his capacity to grow by reducing his self-esteem.

A second method of control used by the Elders is seen in how they address people by their category or group.  Generally, children are addressed by their age group, and youth and adults are addressed by their job title or assignment group. In the public shaming example above, Jonas is addressed in the following way, "THIS IS A REMINDER TO MALE ELEVENS..." (Chapter 3, para. 20). This is aligns with Kumar and Mitchell's (2004) concept of Effacement of Face, where administrators purposefully avoid associating a face with an individual so that tough decisions and rules are easier to enforce.  Kumar and Mitchell (2004) state, "Such a relationship serves as a "process of dehumanization", wherein a human being is seen not as an identifiable individual but as a faceless entity" (p. 132). By not addressing Jonas by his name, as well as not letting him see the face behind the ominous voice on the loudspeaker, the Elders are able to enforce the rule without having to feel any moral commitment to him as an individual.  This mechanism removes any sense of individuality from Jonas and limits his capacity to grow by making him feel like a person of little significance.

A final method of control used by the Elders is in how they make all decisions for the sake of stability.  This includes controlling the number of babies born into the community as well as controlling the number of older people who are "released" from the community each year.  Members of the community that pose a threat to the stable, normalized environment are also "released" (eliminated) from the community, and so conflict is rarely seen or is dealt with swiftly.  Lowry (1993) writes:

Release of new children was always sad, because they hadn't had a chance to enjoy life with the community yet. And they hadn't done anything wrong. 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 new child, which always brought a sense of what-could-we-have-done. (Chapter 1, para. 51)

This example shows that even if the threat to stability is an innocent baby, they are simply "released" from the community because differences are not tolerated and are a threat to the stability of the community. This is reminiscent of Mitchell and Sackney's (2011) concept of managed system organizations, where administrators treat people like machines. They state, "If anything (or any person) did not function properly, one could simply find the broken part, repair or replace it, and thus restore the object (or person) to the expected level of functionality" (p. 23). They go on to say, "There is little room or tolerance for personal interests, human differences, or emergent structures" (p. 26).  By setting restrictions on any changes in the community, the Elders limit Jonas' growth and capacity as caring individual.  He is taught to have an “oh well” attitude towards people who are released from the community and he is made to believe that nothing else could have been done for them.

Although these control mechanisms administered by the Elders teach Jonas obedience and also gives him a sense of security, they all play a part in reducing his self-worth, individuality and thus, his capacity to grow. These influences discourage human dignity and are not effective management techniques in today's organizations.  Contrary to the society in "The Giver" which exists in a closed system environment where there are never any changes, organizations of today must adapt and grow to respond to an exponentially changing environment.

1.1 Jonas conforms to rules: Supplementary Video

Source: Noice, P. (Director). (2014). The Giver [Motion picture]. United States: Walden Media.

2.0 The Sociological Lens: How Jonas is influenced by language, culture and his mentor, the Giver

There are several sociological factors that play a part in forming Jonas’ identity in “The Giver”. One of these factors is the use of language in the community.  In general, words tied to strong emotions are discouraged. Instead of using the word frightened, one uses the word apprehensive. Instead of using the word starving, one uses the word hungry. Children are often corrected by their parents when using these strong words, with the phrase, “Precision of language please!”  Since there are no real threats in this stable community and there is always food, using the words frightened and starving would be inaccurate.  In the story, Jonas experiences love for the first time through a memory transferred to him by the Giver. He goes home to ask his father about this emotion. Lowry (1993) writes:

"Do you love me?" There was an awkward silence for a moment. Then Father gave a little chuckle.
"Jonas. You, of all people. Precision of language, please!"
"What do you mean?" Jonas asked. Amusement was not at all what he had anticipated.
"Your father means that you used a very generalized word, so meaningless that it has become almost obsolete," his mother explained carefully. 
Jonas stared at them. Meaningless? He had never before felt anything as meaningful as the memory. (Chapter 16, para. 56-60)

In this example, Jonas begins to realize for the first time that the language used in his community is a language full of empty words.  The language in the community may be descriptive, but there is rarely any depth or real meaning behind the words.  Similar to the language, looking closely at Jonas’ community, there is really no depth or real purpose behind the people either. This helps illustrate Lakoff and Johnson’s (1980) concept of language being a social construction of reality.  They write, “Primarily on the basis of linguistic evidence, we have found that most of our ordinary conceptual system is metaphorical in nature. And we have found a way to begin to identify in detail just what the metaphors are that structure how we perceive, how we think, and what we do” (p. 4). By discouraging Jonas from using words of emotion, this also discourages him from thinking and acting with emotion, thus it suppresses his emotional growth.

Another sociological factor in Jonas’ life is the community’s culture of tradition.  Most of the day-to-day decisions made by the members of the community are made based on what the status quo is. In other words, things are done the way they are done, because this is how it always has been done.  An example of the community’s reluctance to change is seen when a suggestion is made to the Elders, to change the legal age for children to receive their bicycles. Lowry (1993) writes:

There was talk about changing the rule and giving the bicycles at an earlier age. A committee was studying the idea. When something went to a committee for study, the people always joked about it. They said the committee members would become Elders by the time the rule change was made. (Chapter 2, para. 18)

This example shows how suggestions for change in the community are not usually taken seriously.  The process often gets drawn out to the point where people end up forgetting about the suggestion in the first place. This commitment to tradition could be explained by Manley and Casimir’s (2012) concept of Conscience as Memory, where some decisions by school administrators are made based on what has commonly been done in the past.  They state, “Such a voice implies a sense of history for the school administrator, a sense of rootedness in a tradition of formal education, in schools, in their history and their social context” (p. 226). This is also true for the Elders, but it’s only true because they have no choice but to make decisions based on tradition. They essentially have no knowledge of the past to help inform the future and are limited to memories of their own experience. Thus for day-to-day decisions they prefer to remain with the status quo.  This culture encourages Jonas to make decisions based on tradition, rather than on knowledge.  At the same time it discourages him from making any decisions that may involve any kind of change or risk, thus discouraging growth in critical decision-making.

A third factor that influences Jonas’ sociological identity is his relationship with his mentor, the Giver. As Jonas begins his training as “Receiver of Memories” with the Giver, he begins to build an emotional bond for the very first time.  His bond with the Giver turns into that of a real father-son relationship. In this relationship, Jonas is allowed to discuss emotions, not only his emotions, but emotions of people from generations past. When the Giver transfers a memory of starvation to Jonas, Jonas asks him to explain why this painful memory is necessary. The Giver explains this knowledge as wisdom.  Lowry (1993) writes:

“Why do you and I have to hold these memories?”
“It gives us wisdom,” the Giver replied.
“Some years ago”, the Giver told him, “before your birth, a lot of citizens petitioned the committee of elders. They wanted to increase the rate of births. They wanted each birth mother to be assigned four births instead of three, so the population would increase and there would be more labourers available. The committee of Elders sought my advice” the Giver said.
“It made sense to them too, but it was a new idea, and they came to me for wisdom. The strongest memory that came to me was hunger….The population got so big that hunger was everywhere. Excruciating hunger and starvation. It was followed by warfare." (Chapter 14, para. 23-26)

Cowen and Darsoe (2008), reframes wisdom with the following statement, “Our reframing focuses on repositioning wisdom from residing exclusively within single individuals, to residing also in network of people.  From this perspective, various people possess different parts of an overall big picture but no one person possesses the entire picture” (p. 333).  The Giver reinforces this concept of wisdom by showing Jonas that wisdom, or being able to make good decisions, comes not only from knowledge of one’s own experiences, but also from knowledge of other people’s experiences.  Wisdom entails a person to bear witness for others, while at the same time also allowing others to bear witness for them. The Giver demonstrates this wisdom to Jonas later in the book, when both of them are contemplating the idea of how the community would deal with the release of memories if Jonas were to accidentally “fall” into the river. Lowry (1993) writes:

"The only way I deal with it is by having you there to help me,” Jonas pointed out with a sigh.
The Giver nodded. “I suppose,” he said slowly, that I could—“
“You could what”
The Giver was still deep in thought.  After a moment he said, “If you floated off in the river, I suppose I could help the whole community the way I’ve helped you.  It’s an interesting concept. I need to think about it some more.” (Chapter 18, para. 56-59)

Through his relationship with the Giver, Jonas learns that wisdom is really only gained when experiences are shared. If memories are not shared with one another, then any kind of growth is really limited to the the individual person (based on their own experiences) and not extended to the rest of the community.

Through the sociological lens, Jonas becomes aware of how language in the community reflects a society full people with empty thoughts and actions. He also sees how most day-to-day decisions are made based on tradition rather than knowledge. These practices are not recommended for organizations today because they do not encourage individual or organizational growth, which thrive on wisdom and knowledge shared between people, as Jonas is made aware of by the Giver.

2.1 Jonas learns from the Giver: Supplementary Video

Source: Noice, P. (Director). (2014). The Giver [Motion picture]. United States: Walden Media.

3.0 The Psychological Lens: How Jonas is influenced by his personality and inner tendencies

Near the beginning of the story at the "Ceremony of Twelves", Jonas is described by the Elders as a person who possesses the following traits: intelligence, integrity, courage, wisdom, and the ability to see beyond. This combination of traits is unique to Jonas and is a reflection of his inner tendencies.  Tendencies which occur naturally, without sociological or organizational influences. These traits are reminiscent of people who have the Apollonian Temperment, that is, people who are are Intuitive-Feelers (NF's) as described by Keirsey and Bates (1984):

To be a grain of sand, lost on a beach with millions of other grains is to be nothing. To be lost in the crowd, to have the same meaning as others, to share a faceless identity is not to be at all. In order to make a difference and to maintain individuality, the unique contributions made by the NF in his roles as worker, friend, lover, parent, leader, son, daughter, home-maker, wife, husband, creator must be recognized.  No matter how the NF structures his time and relationships, he needs to have meaning.  He wants their significance appreciated, or at the very least, recognized as existing. Only through this kind of feedback, does the NF know that he has unique identity...Living a life of significance, making a difference in the world, does satisfy the NF's hunger for unique identity. (p. 59)

Jonas' personal temperament puts him in a constant yearning for meaning and purpose in his life and in the life of others.  It is no wonder that when he is assigned his role of "Receiver of Memories", and he learns what the role really entails - living in isolation, hoarding the memories of all humanity to himself, in order to keep the lives of everyone else in the community simple, constant and meaningless - that he rebels against society and tries to break free from it and change it. 

Despite Jonas' innermost tendencies, his sociocultural upbringing by the Elders, by his parents, and by people that surround him in the community, gives him some hesitation in bringing about change.  It is only when he is faced with losing a person he truly loves, that he is motivated to make a change in society. Lowry (1993) writes:

Father gave a rueful laugh. "That's an understatement. It was a disaster. He cried all night, apparently.  The night crew couldn't handle it.  They were really frazzled by the time I got to work."
"So,"Father went on, "we obviously had to make the decision. Even I voted for Gabriel's release when we had the meeting thi afternoon."
Jonas put down his fork and stared at his father. "Release?" he asked. 
Jonas worked at keeping his voice absolutely calm. "When?" he asked. "When will he be released?"
"First thing tomorrow morning. We have to start our preparations for the Naming Ceremony, so we thought we'd get this taken care of right away."
"It's bye-bye to you, Gabe, in the morning," Father had said, in his sweet, sing-song voice." (Chapter 21, para. 11-16)

This new information greatly disturbs Jonas to the point where he decides to take Gabriel and leave the community that night. Not only were they going to release the baby, the only person in the community Jonas truly loved, but they were releasing an innocent baby, and Jonas' father acted like it was nothing at all. It's here where Jonas realizes that respect for life was non-existent in this community. This aligns with Mitchell and Sackney's (2009) concept of "compelling disturbances", where people are more likely to take action when they are disturbed by something (rather then when they are told to do something). This compelling disturbance and renewed sense of purpose for Jonas (to preserve the life of an innocent being), is enough to give Jonas the resilience he needs to face adversities in his escape.  At the end of the book, Jonas escapes the community with baby Gabriel and is filled with certainty and joy despite being partially frozen and starved to death. Lowry (1993) writes:

Jonas felt himself losing consciousness and with his whole being willed himself to stay upright atop the sled, clutching Gabriel, keeping him safe...
Downward, downward, faster and faster. Suddenly he was aware with certainty and joy that below, ahead, they were waiting for him; and they they were waiting, too, for the baby. For the first time, he heard something that he knew to be music. He heard people singing.    
Behind him, across vast distances of space and time, from the place he had left, he thought, he heard music too. But perhaps it was only an echo. (Chapter 23, para. 32-35)

In this final scene in the story, Jonas shows an example of self actualization, where he fulfills what he set out to do. Even at the point of near death, he is able to feel joy in his suffering. This kind of resilience, the ability to press on through difficult times, can only be attained with a true sense of purpose. Gu and Day (2011) talk about this kind of resilience necessary in thriving educational institutions. They state, "Resilience in teachers is the capacity to manage the unavoidable uncertainties inherent in the realities of teaching. It is driven by teachers education purposes and moral values" (p. 18). Jonas' sense of purpose here, is what keeps him strong through this this treacherous journey.

In organizations today, not only is it important for individuals to understand their personal values and tendencies, but it is also important for individuals to be aware of the sociological influences around them, and the values and experiences that shape other people (appreciating that everyone is an expert on their own experiences). In this way, members will understand better how to define themselves and how to define others, and learn how to grow together as individuals and as an organization.  Wheatley (2007) sums this lesson up nicely with the following statement:

We notice what we notice by who we are. We create ourselves by what we choose to notice. Once this work of self-authorship has begun, we inhabit the world we’ve created. We self-seal. . . . When we succeed in moving outside our normal processes of self-reference and can look at ourselves with self-awareness, then we have a chance at changing. We break the seal. We notice something new. (p. 236-237)

3.1 Jonas and self actualization : Supplementary Video

Source: Noice, P. (Director). (2014). The Giver [Motion picture]. United States: Walden Media.

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