Unlike children’s fantasy novels, the characters in dystopian young adult and adult novels are urged to break the expectations and multitudinous rules of their oppressive societies, by instead acting on their intrinsic ethical principles and moral understandings. This motivation from personal morality at an older age is consistent with Kohlberg’s post-conventional level of moral development.
The post-conventional level includes the last two stages of Kohlberg’s model in which people are driven to obtain their individual rights, as they grow to achieve the final stage of moral development in which they are driven by their own moral principles and values. The development of this final stage can be seen within Jonas, the main character of The Giver, by Lois Lowry. The Giver is unique because it is a dystopian novel written for pre-teens whereas most dystopias are intended for more mature readers.
Additionally, Jonas is twelve years old, the same age as the readers and therefore the book works with the transitional stage between childhood and coming of age. Jonas lives in very regimented society that is controlled by a vast series of rules, and the governmental structure has taken measures to ensure “Sameness” between all people. Animals, race, colors, and love are all erased from the society; people are not allowed to touch those outside of their family unit, choose their spouse, job, or birth their own children.
Additionally, precision of language is exceedingly important to the citizens as using the wrong word counts as lying which is the community’s greatest offense. As a young boy at the beginning of the novel, Jonas follows all of these rules without question, acting upon a pre-conventional model of morality. He apologizes for his unintentional rude behaviors, chooses his words carefully, and is embarrassed when his friend, Asher, fails to follow the rules. On the first page of the novel, Jonas is beginning to prepare the ceremony where he will receive his future job assignment.
At this point Jonas tries to discern how he feels about the upcoming ceremony, he contemplates that he is “beginning to be frightened. No. Wrong word, Jonas thought. Frightened meant that deep, sickening feeling of something terrible about to happen” (Lowry 1). Lowry clearly shows how carefully Jonas follows the rules by beginning the novel with his internal conflict as he chooses the correct word to describe his feelings. Even within his own mind, Jonas is deliberate. Finally, after much thought, Jonas decides that he his apprehensive, worried that he will be assigned to a job without honor.
Jonas, however, is not assigned, instead he is chosen to be the “receiver of memory,” and become an elder of the community, a highly honorable job, and he is determined to fulfill his role as an upstanding member of his community. Upon this surprising ruling, Jonas is given a new list of rules that contradicts many of his previous, beloved laws. Jonas learns that as “receiver in training,” he is “exempted from rules governing rudeness” meaning that he can ask any question of other, and that he is allowed to demand an answer (Lowry 68).
Additionally, he is prohibited from discussing his training or participating in dream-telling during nightly discussions that all other citizens are required to share. Most importantly, Jonas is given permission to break the most important of the many rules in his world: he may lie. At this point in the story, Jonas begins to question his entire society, wondering how many other adults are given that terrifying freedom, and he realizes that even if he asks, he has “no way of knowing if the answer he receive[s] [is] true” (Lowry 71).
As a pre-adolescent individual at the conventional stage of morality, Jonas does not yet know how to make decisions for himself without the help of authority or rules, and therefore he is temporarily lost he realizes quickly that he is “not ready to lie, not willing to tell the truth” (Lowry 88). Jonas slowly begins to explore his new boundaries and recognize flaws within his life. Soon Jonas begins to break out of the conventional level of morality into the post-conventional when he questions the value of “sameness” of his society (Lowry 84).
By using the word “sameness,” Lowry highlights that there is no personal decision making process within the community, and that individuality is frowned upon. Jonah quickly realizes that he “wish[es] they would change. But they don’t want to change. Life [in his community] is so orderly, so predictable—so painless. It’s what [his community has] chosen” (Lowry 103). At this point in the novel, Jonas wishes that he had the ability to make his own decisions. Through memories, he learns that things as simple as candles were banned from Jonas’s society due to the danger of fire.
And although Jonas understands why candles, colors, and loves were removed from the culture, he craves the reality of “wak[ing] up in the morning and decid[ing] things” (Lowry 97). Small decisions like the color of a tunic seem harmless to Jonas, but, at the same time, Jonas understands why choices including a person’s job, spouse, and children were controlled by the government: individuality is dangerous to a culture of “Sameness,” and each person has the vast capacity to choose wrong.
Jonas no longer accepts the decisions of his elders lightly. Instead, he challenges the structure of the society, and he attempts to make his own judgments about what emotions and ideas should be shared with community members. At this point in the novel, Jonas is starting to enter Kohlberg’s post conventional level of moral development. Jonas’s curiosity and refusal to accept rulings blindly within his system highlights the importance of a healthy transition between stages of development.
This unique dystopian novel is written for children, which presents young audiences the rare opportunity to view a level of ethical maturity that they have not yet reached in their own lives, and readers can take the step into post-conventional morality with Jonas. A pivotal moment for Jonas is when he receives a memory that forces him to experience the feeling love for the first time. The intensity of this feeling changes the way that he perceives himself, his relationships, and his society. Following this memory, Jonas is challenged by a new understanding of his cultures shortcomings.
He asks his parents if they love him, and they scold him, reminding him the vitality of precision of language and explain to him that they “enjoy” him and are “proud of him,” but that they do not “love him” (Lowry 127). Jonas knows that the community has removed his parent’s capacity to love, but yet, he understands that love is an important emotion for success. At this point in the novel, Jonas begins to rely on his own believes and the values that he has found within the memories; he disregards the expectations of other people, including his parents and the elders of the society.
This propels Jonas into Kohlberg’s post conventional stage of morality, and he accepts not only the possibility but the necessity for change in his own life. He knows that by sharing the wisdom from the memories “things [can] be different […] there must be some way for things to be different” (Lowry 128-129). Jonas finally makes the full transition between conformity and individuality following this realization. He begins to lie, he stops taking his mandated pills that suppress feelings, and he asks questions.
He quickly becomes increasingly comfortable with breaking the rules realizing that “it [is] a new depth of feeling that he [is] experiencing” (Lowry 131). Utilizing his new range of emotion, Jonas has the perspective to recognize the absurdity and unsubstantially of his family’s feelings when they share that they felt “worried” or “angry” during their days. Jonas becomes upset because “he [has], in the memories, experienced injustice and cruelty, and he [has] reacted with rage that welled up so passionately inside him that the thought of discussing it calmly at the dinner table [is] unthinkable” (Lowry 132).
Jonas is distressed when his mother expresses sadness and is quickly consoled by the rest of the family unit. Jonas’s mother quickly discards her sadness and forgets about it. Jonas, however, knows the sustained impact of true sadness and emotional pain, and “he [knows] that there [is] no quick comfort for emotions like those. These [are] deeper and they [do] not need to be told. They [are] felt” (Lowry 132). Jonas’s newfound emotional maturity helps him made decisions based on feeling rather than rules. His actions are contrived from both logic and emotion especially once he learns final truth of his community.
At the end of the novel, Jonas watches his own father perform the ceremony for a New Child’s release, and he learns that the infant is killed, not simply sent away comfortably as society most members believe. Jonas is horrified and realizes that his associates do not understand the finality of death. Jonas is sickened by the thought that his father kills children who “[haven’t] had a chance to enjoy life” (Lowry 7), and that his friend Fiona kills citizens once they reach a certain age, and new meaning is given to the well-known practice of “releasing” those who break important community rules more than three times.
Still, Jonas knows that his fellow citizens conformity is not entirely their fault because “[f]eelings are not a part of the life [they’ve] learned” (Lowry 153). Unlike Jonas, they are incapable of viewing moral decisions between right and wrong from an emotional standpoint because they do not possess the wisdom memories that Jonas holds. Jonas, however, understands the magnitude of this death sentence for so many of his associates, and he allows himself to make ethical decisions based upon the experiences found within his memories.
Jonas decides that he wants to release the memories to the public, and with the help of The Giver, he makes a plan to leave the community and go Elsewhere, returning the memories of love, pain, happiness, and war to the people. Jonas decides to give others the opportunity to realize the evils that a life of Sameness has perpetuated, just as he has, and he does this because he thinks it’s right, not because he wants to follow the rules.
Jonas acts with post-conventional morality because he is determined to make a difference; he is no longer willing to live in a world “where nothing [is] ever unexpected. Or inconvenient. Or unusual. [A] life without color, pain, or past” (Lowry 165). Jonas has transcended into Kohlberg’s level of post-conventional morality because he uses his own understanding to make careful decisions based upon his own beliefs and values. Jonas values emotions such as love and sadness, and he knows that his community has lost sight of the ability to care which is “the meaning of everything” (Lowry 156).