Those who know me well, or those who read this blog often know that I am a fond reader of dystopian literature . Today, I happened to watch a stage adaptation of “The Giver,” and it was well done. It had everything a play about a dystopian teen novel should have, deep philosophical questions, a powerful secret, and a flirtatious redhead. It also had an element that is a common element in literature devoted to young people, and something I would like to comment about at least briefly today, is the question of why so many dystopian novels focus on the question of choice and identity, and the way in which societies seek to fit everyone into a box, until someone doesn’t fit in entirely, causing immense troubles. Given that this is a quality that happens over and over again in such novels, it is almost certainly not an accident.
The question of identity is a serious one. Many people identify based on their jobs, on their relationships, and their passionate interests. We identify based on our accomplishments and our personalities and our aspirations. In most dystopian novels, identity seems a much more constricted matter. In “The Giver,” for example, the small communities have very stereotypical jobs, where the population is kept limited and hunger is kept at bay through the use of chemical injections. At other times, as in Divergent, the identity is less narrowly focused, with five groups that divide the necessary tasks of society between them (which is similar to the division that takes place in Brave New World with the alphas and betas and all of that). At still other times, as in “The Lottery” or the Hunger Games, the choice of identity is made for a sacrificial figure who is intended to die. In all of these cases, identities are not a matter of personal choice, and because they are coerced, they have as a matter of course a matter of resistance, which is what tends to drive the plot in large part in such stories.
We are not always very skilled or very wise at choosing our own identities, and yet we are all very fierce about defending our right to choose those identities for ourselves. Most of us have a wide variety of identities that is in some respect context-dependent. For example, when I last visited Pennsylvania it was for the funeral of a close relative of mine, and that that particular funeral my identity which no one would say to my face but a lot of people said behind my back, was “Johnny’s Boy.” I certainly did not choose that particular identity, but it is one that I had nonetheless. In the same part of the world, my identity with a different group of people is “Pimp Daddy Albra,” a name that I also did not choose, and one that is ironic to a high degree, but an example of the way one is named and viewed by different people. One of the main reasons why dystopian novels are dystopian is that identities are so rigid and so static and that fail to have the immense variety that our real identities have. It is that rigidity that prevents them from being able to hold people of a fantastically diverse character and personality, and complexity in what they do and why they are.
Given the way in which identity is of vital importance in our lives and in our worlds, it remains for us to strike a lot of complicated and difficult balances about it that are often scarcely even discussed. We have to wrestle with the identities we choose and the repercussions that those identities have in different aspects of our lives. We have to wrestle with the identities that we do not choose but that can threaten to drag us down like having a millstone chained to our legs. We have to wrestle with how to define our identities across many different fields and many different realms of life where our lives may seem somewhat contradictory. We also have to wrestle with the fact that our identities (and the roles within those identities) change over time, as do the identities of those around us. Our identities are like a river, ever shifting with the time, and to try to make that rigid is only an invitation to great tragedy and immense violence, one of the main sources of tragedy that happen to take place within the genre of dystopian literature.
 See, for example: