I’ve read a lot of dystopias; I enjoy reading the authors’ “what if” speculations, and I value the repeated reminder of the power of the individual, the value of the individual. Maybe it helps to empower me? Or value others? The Giver was my first and favorite dystopia. I’ll always treasure the story’s value to not only me as a person but also as a reader. However, Matched by Allie Condie took a perspective on dystopias I hadn’t yet seen in other similar books: It harped on the importance of history, poetry, and just plain old words. Condie used Cassia’s character to remind me of the value of written words by personifying books and using Cassia to show someone starved of the written word.
One of the most interesting things I picked up on while reading through this story was the personification of books. In this society, the officials (government leaders) keep only 100 of pretty much everything—poems, songs, pictures, etc. They burn everything else in incineration tubes, including anything that could be written on. There is no paper. People are supposed to burn napkins. Everyone types on electronic scribes.
Condie describes a scene where Cassia witnesses a book burning—an obvious nod to Fahrenheit 451. The author writes, “[Cassia] stand[s] and watch[es] until all the books are shoved into the incineration tubes, until all the words have been turned into nothing.” The reader can feel the loss Cassia experiences as she witnesses the words disappear. She doesn’t seem to notice the pretty bindings or covers or even the paper turn to ash. She notices something she can’t see—words turning into nothing. Later, Condie writes, “The book’s backs are broken; their bones thin and delicate fall out…Their bones crackle under their boots like leaves…My mother always lamented the waste of leaves the officers picked up because they can be good fertilizer.”
I’ve never thought to compare books to people, but this comparison made me think about how words are our fertilizer. They help us learn, grow, and enjoy life. If we are books, we are filled and fed by words we hear and read. We even center our faiths around words. As Christians, we treasure the Bible, God’s Holy Word. What would we be without words?
A typical YA book, Matched centers on a love triangle among Cassia, Xander, and Ky. Cassia is matched with Xander and, therefore, expected (if not required) to marry him. At first, it thrills her; Xander and Cassia are close friends. Following the match, their friendly love turns into more. However, the night of her match, there is a supposed glitch that causes Cassia’s port to “mistakenly” show Ky as her match. After this moment, despite her developing love of Xander, she grows interested in Ky and develops a crush for him. We see this love grow as Cassia learns more about Ky.
Condie cleverly matches Cassia’s increasing feelings for Ky with Ky’s sharing of words with Cassia. It whets her appetite for words when Ky shows her how to write cursive and gives her stolen napkins with writing on them, telling Cassia of Ky’s past. Continuously and increasingly, we see Cassia long for more time with Ky and his words. The first time we see Cassia grow jealous is when she sees Ky with another girl, drawing in the sand. Her first concern is he is sharing his knowledge of writing, something he only shared with Cassia. Cassia is not jealous of his attention, but thinks, “How can I learn how to write? How can I get more of his words?” with her sitting so near Ky. Her concern is with his sharing something so intimate as written words. She fears that if he’s sharing with someone else, she will no longer learn how to create words—a vital, desperate resource for her.
This idea of words being a vital resource and commodity is furthered when Ky asks Cassia to share more of “her words,” a poem her grandfather secretly shared with her. She refuses, thinking, “He didn’t have any words for me. Why should I give him some of mine?” The words she knows are too precious to give away with nothing in return. Their relationship is only restored when Ky tells Cassia he was only drawing in the dirt, not writing. He did this to keep this other girl getting suspicious of their secret messages and writing. Ky and Cassia continue to trade words with each other, and Cassia feels Ky’s words are “a piece of him.”
The officials who control the society starve Cassia and her world of words. There’s a clear power to them, and when we see Cassia and Ky learn more and more words, we see them grow and flourish beyond the control of this society. I think it no mistake that Condie uses these simultaneous feeding of words and growth in Cassia to show the readers how powerful access to words and books is. This message is something young adults—Condie’s audience—need to hear, and it’s a good message for us adults, too. Words give us knowledge, and as Francis Bacon (and Thomas Jefferson and others) said, “Knowledge is power.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ashley Yarbrough is a writer, mother, teacher, gardener, and many other things. She writes about it all here: https://mamahoodmemoirsblog.wordpress.com. Feel free to take a look!