SummaryJust as the family practices a telling of feelings at night, they tell their dreams in the morning. Jonas usually does not have a dream to tell, but this morning he has a vivid one: he dreamed that he was in the steamy bathing room at the House of the Old, trying to convince his friend Fiona to take off her clothes and allow him to give her a bath. He remembers feeling a strong “wanting.” After sending his sister off to school, Jonas’s mother tells him that the feelings he is having are his first Stirrings, something that happens to everyone when they get to be Jonas’s age. She gives him a small pill as “treatment” and reminds him to take his pill every morning. Jonas recalls that his parents take the same pill every morning, as do some of his friends. He also recalls hearing announcements made over the loudspeakers reminding children to report their Stirrings for treatment as soon as possible. Jonas is pleased to have grown up enough to have to take the pills, but he tries to remember the dream—he liked the feelings it gave him. However, the pill works quickly, and the pleasures of the dream are gone.
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On the first morning of the Ceremony, Jonas and his mother and Lily discuss some of the milestones that children achieve each year—at age seven they get a jacket that they can button themselves, at Eight they begin to volunteer, at nine they get bikes and girls no longer need to wear hair ribbons. At the first Ceremony, the Naming, Jonas’s father sits with the other Nurturers, holding the newchildren to be named that year. Gabriel, although he does not weigh enough or sleep through the night well enough to be assigned to a family, has not been released yet—Jonas’s father has gotten a year’s reprieve for him because their family is taking care of the faltering newchild. In order to do this, each member of the family signed a statement promising not to get attached to Gabriel.
One of the babies named at the Ceremony is a “replacement child” named Caleb. He has been given to a family whose four-year-old son Caleb was “lost” in the river. When he died, the community performed the Ceremony of Loss, chanting his name more and more softly until it seemed to fade away. Now, welcoming the new baby, they chant it louder and louder in the Murmur-of-Replacement Ceremony, which is performed only if a child is lost, not if it is released. The other ceremonies proceed—on the second and final day of the Ceremony, the Nines get their bicycles (everyone cringes when a clumsy child knocks his into the podium, since his clumsiness reflects on his parents’ guidance), the Tens’ hair is cut. At lunch the Elevens discuss their upcoming Assignments, speculating on what they will do if they get an unsatisfactory Assignment. If a citizen feels that he or she does not fit in with the community, that citizen can apply for Elsewhere and disappear, but Jonas cannot imagine a person feeling that he or she did not fit in, because the community is so well ordered. The Committee of Elders weighs each decision carefully, painstakingly matching adults who applied for spouses to the appropriate spouse and placing newchildren with the appropriate families. Jonas trusts the Committee to give him an appropriate Assignment.
Jonas’s mother’s reaction to his Stirrings and the Murmur-of-Replacement ceremony for the baby Caleb are strong examples of the society’s rejection of strong feelings. Jonas’s parents recognize the wanting in his dream about Fiona as the first stirrings of the sexual urges that accompany adolescence, and his mother gives him a pill that puts a prompt stop to them. Notice that there is no real shame attached to sexuality in Jonas’s society. His dream troubles him because it is unusual, but he is so used to being entirely honest with his family that he tells them all the details of the dream right away, without thinking twice. However, this kind of honesty is only possible because of the limited information each member of the community possesses about life: Jonas has no reason to be ashamed of his sexual feelings because he knows nothing about sex. No one in his society has sexual urges, since they take the pill, so there is no possibility of perverse sexual desires or sexual misconduct. Topics like sexuality, represented by Stirrings, and death, represented by release, are not mystified in Jonas’s society as they are in our own. Instead, they are dealt with so simply and directly that it does not occur to the citizens to think about them. This probably helps the community to run more smoothly, since the passions that sex and death inspire—lust, jealousy, frustration, and grief—would distract the citizens from their daily work for the community and lead to more selfish relationships or even conflict.
The Murmur-of-Replacement Ceremony is similar to the treatment for the Stirrings. The emotion of grief is subdued in an artificial ceremony in the same way that human sexual urges are subdued by an artificial medication. Instead of allowing Caleb’s parents to experience real sadness and pain at the loss of their son, the community encourages them to accept another child named Caleb as a replacement, as if the two children were entirely interchangeable. Note that there is no mention of the word “death”—Caleb has only been “lost.” It is possible that the word death is unknown in the community. On close examination, we realize that the Murmur-of-Replacement Ceremony serves the community in the same way that the repression of sexuality does: it de-emphasizes relationships between individuals in the interest of strengthening the individual’s ties to the community. If the community thinks of individuals only in terms of their contribution to the community, ignoring the loss of a particular child, citizens will be less likely to form intensely close ties to other individuals. Ties like these could cause citizens to act in their own interests or the interests of their loved ones if those interests ever came into conflict with the interests of the community as a whole. Sexuality can sometimes function this way, too, forging strong, irrational ties between sexual partners.
The Murmur-of-Replacement Ceremony is also noteworthy because of its ritualistic, cultlike qualities. Jonas’s community, while it relies highly on logic, precise language, and technology, also relies heavily on ceremony and figurative gestures. The Murmur-of-Replacement Ceremony is based on the metaphor of the community receiving the name of Caleb back into its collective memory, almost as if the citizens were engraving the child’s name onto their group consciousness. The experience of many people chanting together with one voice has a powerful psychological effect: it becomes much easier for those people to think of themselves as indistinct from the community. Throughout history, group chanting or singing has been an effective tool to maintain individual loyalty to a group and to prevent dissention. Examples are saying a pledge of allegiance and speaking in a group prayer, and the technique is a hallmark of totalitarian regimes. In analyzing the Murmur-of-Replacement Ceremony, we realize that the members of the community are tied to each other not only by their common goals and interests, but by powerful, pseudo-religious ceremonies and traditions.
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Also noteworthy is that Caleb drowned in the river. Early, unplanned deaths of children are exceedingly rare in the community. Few things seem to be beyond anyone’s control, but Caleb’s death was an accident in a community that does not tolerate accidents (like the Pilot’s accidental deviation from his course at the beginning of the novel.) The Murmur-of-Replacement Ceremony helps the community to feel that it has gained some control over the situation, but the accidental drowning remains a powerful event in the book and one that shapes Jonas’s ideas about the community’s power. The river becomes a symbol of escape from Jonas’s society’s omniscience and omnipotence, and also a symbol of the strong emotions and desires that the society cannot totally restrain.