Mutual Disregard in Neal Shusterman’s Thunderhead

For my summer reading, I chose Scythe by Neal Shusterman, and I enjoyed it so much that I got the second book, Thunderhead. The novel takes place in a dystopian future where issues like death and poverty have been eliminated. In order to keep the population under control, “Scythes” are appointed to “glean” (kill) a certain quota every year. The story follows Citra, a Junior Scythe, who finds herself in the middle of increasing turmoil within the Scythedom. Although she despises her responsibility of ending people’s lives for good, she knows she must keep her role as a Scythe in order to quell the corruption emerging around her. Like “Escape from Spiderhead,” if not more, the premise of this story is highly absurd. However, that doesn’t mean it fails to relate to Benjamin’s theory of mutual recognition.

In this novel, society has lost all respect for individual life. With no such thing as death, the lives of people seem to have little value. In this world, it is apparent that no one thinks about anyone else. In fact, when a Scythe is finished gleaning someone, their family cares more about receiving immunity for a whole year than their recent loss! This is the complete opposite of mutual recognition.

Additionally, I find it crazy to think that the heroin of this story takes pride in the fact that she, unlike other Scythes, gives her unfortunate victims a month to decide how they wish to die: “Of course, this method of gleaning [creates] double work for her – because she [has] to face her subjects twice. It [makes] for an incredibly exhausting life, but at least it [helps] her sleep at night” (31). That is how low the bar is!

I take this book as a warning as to what can happen if we, as a species, completely lose sight of Benjamin’s theory. She says that in order to establish healthy identities/relationships we need to not only see ourselves as worthy entities, but also others. If we can’t value each and every person as a unique and important story, then perhaps we will find ourselves gleaning one another someday…

3 thoughts on “Mutual Disregard in Neal Shusterman’s Thunderhead

  1. TIARA O

    I absolutely loved this book! I really enjoyed how you related it to mutual recognition because I never thought about the message behind the story from that perspective. After thinking about the story with mutual recognition in mind, I feel like I have a deeper understanding of how bleak things could appear without mutual recognition. It is important that we as a society improve.

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  2. Max L

    While I never read this book, your description of it reminds me of a novel I read in 8th grade, called Unwind, which is also by Neil Shusterman. Unwind involves a similar lack of regard for human life, but instead of the evil of the story being gleaning or killing, the evil is unwinding. Unwinding is basically where a child can be unwound when he or she turns 13. Being unwound is almost like being dissected, and the various organs of the child’s body are used as transplants for other people. The main difference is that the child’s spirit continues to live in the various body parts, even if they are on completely separate people. I also like your connection of this story to mutual recognition, and although this dystopia is probably not going to happen in the near future, I find it important that we continue to value life.

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  3. Abby S.

    I also read Scythe for my summer reading book, and really enjoyed it! I am reading Thunderhead now, and I definitely agree that this series has deeper themes on the importance of human life. It was also crazy to me how low society had become, that individual lives don’t have much meaning now that people can live forever. I wrote a blog post about the comparison of the inner conflict of good/evil aspect of this series and Escape from Spiderhead.

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