When we read the book Scythe, by Neal Shusterman, we see a world that is very conflicted as to what the morals really are—the Scythes are immortal killers that apparently have to kill (?) to keep the population down.
However, if you dig deeper, this is not the struggle. The real struggle that Shusterman creates is how should the scythes best use their power—in this case, immortality. In other words: do we use our superiority and power to our advantage by publicising it as yourself (therefore labeling yourself as self-centred) to gain others fear reverence of you… or do you respect the power you have and try to empathize with the people of less power—to do what they do and feel what they feel—to gain more valuable things like their trust and respect?
Neal Shusterman makes the use of power a conflict by separating the community of scythes into two groups (spoiler alert): the new-order and the old-guard, who take their power and immortality in completely opposite ways.
Firstly, the new-order. They are always trying to publicise themselves and what they do (killing so many people at a time, coming to an event with the most attractive attire and car, etc), and even making people adore them (fear them, more like) by what they say.
At one point, we see this situation in the book: Then the lead scythe addressed the passengers. “Your attention, please,” he said with an unnerving smile. “I regret to inform you that this entire flight has been selected for gleaning.” And: “Attention, all! You have been selected for gleaning today. You are commanded to step forward and meet your demise.” Murmurs, gasps, cries of shock. No one stepped forward. No one ever did… (of course, why would you step forward if you were about to die?)
However, the scythe’s speech of ‘wisdom’ continues as we skip forward a hundred pages to a mass gleaning in an office building:
“I am your completion!” Intoned Goddard. “I am your deliverance! I am your portal to the mysteries beyond this life!”… “I am your final word! Your omega! Your bringer of peace and rest. Embrace me!” No one embraced him. Mostly people cowered and pleaded for mercy, but the only mercy shown was the speed at which they were dispatched. We see here that the new-order scythes are just trying to get attention by gleaning so many people—and this is how they use their power.
And lastly, it is interesting to see the comparison between the reaction of the citizens when he is gleaning them (Shusterman, 275 and 242) where Goddard is arriving at scythe meeting.
Scythe Goddard and his crew showed up in a limousine—royal blue studded with mock diamonds, just in case there was any doubt as to who was inside. As Goddard and his entourage emerged, the crowd oohed and aahed, as if their dazzling appearance rivaled a display of fireworks. “There he is!” “It’s him!” “He’s so handsome!” “He’s so scary!” “He’s so well-groomed!” Goddard took a moment to turn to the crowd and sweep his hand in a royal wave… “He’s so strange!” “He’s so mysterious!” “He’s so charming!”
You could relate this evidence somewhat to the arrival of Queen Elizabeth. However, if you glance back and look at what this scythe has done—the cards don’t match.
Skip forward a few pages and we hear some gossip about scythe Goddard from another scythe. It seems to be trying to influence others to think that way as well:
“Scythe Goddard is a visionary. That puts him on a level above every other scythe in MidMerica. Maybe even the world.” Goddard didn’t disagree.
Now, the new-order is not only trying to publicise themselves and evoke a good reaction from onlookers, but they are trying to get others to behave this way as well. In this particular case, on page 241 and 261, they try to influence Rowan, Scythe Goddard’s apprentice: “Take great satisfaction and pleasure in this, Rowan,” said Scythe Goddard, “or you’ll be nothing more than a killing machine.” (yes, a killing machine, because they are training to murder people).
There are subtler ways to do this though—take, hinting at something. Suggest it. This, in my opinion is one example of this: “Welcome to life as a god,” (Parents—maybe you can take this as a good way to make your kids eat vegetables.)
Want to distill all this evidence? Let’s just say that new-order scythes try to be known as ‘innocent’ or ‘like the old-guard scythes’ by saying they are to make themselves seem like something others would want to seem like their ‘hero’, but they are actually just being selfish and want attention (and yes, this does mean participating in mass gleanings and coming in limousines studded with diamonds).
Speaking of subtle, the old-guard scythes behave this way, always trying their best not to show their immortality and power, and always killing (or gleaning) people quietly. Afterward, they regularly hold a dinner with the killed person’s family or pay their respects in some way:
Rowan led the way, passing other kids in the hall—students who, like him, were late, or were just on an errand. They all gawked and tried to disappear into the wall as he and the scythe passed. Somehow, walking through the hall with a scythe became less and less frightening…(Shusterman, 20).
Ok, why do you think walking down a hallway with a person who could kill you right then and there is not at all frightening for Rowan? It’s because he puts himself at the same position as Rowan, the same height. In fact, he even asks him to lead the way, just before this.
There are other examples of putting yourself at the same level as other people lower than you, and one of the ways scythes do this is paying their respects. I bet, when you hear the sentence you think of a funeral, a place…you hopefully don’t go to often. This particular scythe, however does:
“You two shall present the letter to her family at the funeral.” [said Scythe Faraday].
“Wait,” said Citra. “We’re going to her funeral?”
“I thought you said it was best not to linger,” said Rowan.
“Lingering and paying respects are two different things. I attend the funerals of all the people I glean.” (Shusterman, 63)
Now, it is also in the behaviour of old-guard scythes that they don’t attract attention to themselves by using and showing really fancy and expensive (though I do see scythes buying things for free) and this is also a way to have empathy, because the people below you certainly do not have these things:
“Maybe we should have taken a limo,” Citra said. “At least that way we wouldn’t have to fight our way through.”
“That’s always been a little too elitist for me,” Curie said…
As she and Citra climbed the white marble steps, someone to their left shouted, “We love you!”
Scythe Curie stopped and turned, unable to find the speaker, so she addressed them all. “Why?” She demanded, but now, under her cool scrutiny, no one responded. “I could end your existence at any moment; why love me?” (Shusterman, 48).
So, which one of these sides is the author trying to tell us to use?
How should we best use power in our lives?
The answer can be summed up with three pieces of evidence: On page 67-68, in the diary of one of the scythes, it is pointed out that: Thou shalt beholden to no laws beyond these….Of all the commandments, number ten gives me the greatest pause for thought. For to put oneself above all others is a fundamental recipe for disaster.
The same scythe also points out to her apprentice that: “There are more and more scythes who think like Goddard,” Scythe Curie said quietly to Citra. “They’ve slipped between the cracks like snakes. Infiltrating our ranks. Supplanting the best of us like weeds. The killers are rising to power,” [Scythe Curie] said, (Shusterman, 279) “and if they do, the days of this world will be very dark indeed.”
Shusterman puts a lot of passion into these quotes that show us that we should definitely use our power the old-guard way: to use power in a responsible, empathetic way. Only then will people be connected and look up to you for comfort, advice and understanding, because otherwise, if the opposite occurs, as Scythe Curie said (and this is an opportunity to learn to listen to your elders), the days ahead will be dark and (spoiler alert of the next book, Thunderhead) filled with chaos.