I am not one of the fans of dystopian theme, but after The Hunger Games, I try to keep myself updated with all the significant literary works on the topic. The Testing, the first book of Joelle Charbonneau’s trilogy, which is largely a derivative of everything that has already come in this genre, still offers some interesting points and ideas to contemplate. The main trial of the story, the Testing, is the government’s program to choose the brightest graduates of all the colonies of the United Commonwealth (what is left of the United States after The Seven Stages War) to attend the University to become future leaders of the slowly revitalizing post-apocalyptic world. The intention is good, but, after being chosen, sixteen-year-old Cia Vale discovers the Testing to be not only an academic competition of knowledge but also a violent and brutal survival test. The Testing is not the most effective way to identify the best possible candidates for the University as it mentally traumatizes the candidates, does not give them a possibility to choose their destiny, and puts at the head of the nation the most adaptable graduates non-regarding their moral qualities and principles.
The Testing is a severe trial for every candidate’s mental health, which leads to serious consequences for a person when he/she is unable to withstand the pressure. The stress from passing numeral exams on history, math, and the other fields of knowledge is hard itself when the result determines the future. When Cia’s roommate, Ryme, committed suicide because of being unable to handle this stress, Dr. Barnes finds her death practical for the Commonwealth as she proved to be weak and thus was no use as a leader: “This event is unfortunate, but The Testing served its purpose” (Charbonneau 29). However, it is nothing in comparison with the survival skills challenge that the candidates still have to pass. Given the description of the practical part of the examination, finding a way back to Tosu city through the non-revitalized part of the country, Cia is very scared: “Terror. That’s the only word I can think of to describe what I feel” (Charbonneau 38). It is obvious that the losers will pay for the lack of these skills with their lives. Nobody is allowed to remember what he or she has undergone not only because the process is so secretive but because it can make people mad. The memories about the Testing are erased, but even after many years have passed, successful candidates still have vague dark memories about it that cause nightmares. As Cia’s father tells her the night before leaving, after meeting a guy resembling his roommate from the testing center, Geoff Billings, he started to have so horrible nightmares that even pills did not help. In his dreams, he saw what possibly happened to Geoff, and the third girl from their team, Mina, and that kept him restless and guilty for years. Most of the University graduates must remember something, and that is the explanation for their “haunted look” (Charbonneau 15). They do not wish anybody else to undergo this experience as Cia’s father did not want her and the former head of the Five Lakes School did not want her graduates to do. Whatever it is, just “false memories to replace the ones that were taken” (Charbonneau 15) or the real ones, successful candidates must have a hard life trying to convince themselves that the events from these dreams have never happened. During the Testing, Cia is deeply shocked by the death of Ryme: “Awake, I am having trouble keeping Ryme’s lifeless eyes out of my head. Asleep, I will be defenseless to stop her from haunting me” (Charbonneau 29). She was lucky to forget this as her memory was erased, but, after listening to the recording about what happened during the Testing, she will have to live with her memories of everything that occurred during the Testing. She will know that the students and her friends smiling at her in the hallway were ready to kill each other in a hard competition to enter the University. On a physical level, a scar on Cia’s hand that will never heal even despite the fact that the survived candidates who are cured of all the wounds represents the hardships suffered during the Testing. Neither her body nor spirit will be the same. She will never be that naïve sixteen-year-old girl ‑ the horrible experience has changed her forever.
The existing system of the Testing does not give candidates a chance to choose their future themselves. Only the candidates with the best academic performance are approved for the Testing. The post-apocalyptic conditions of the world partly justify the necessity of such a rigorous selection as the society lacks skilled scientists, government officials, doctors, and teachers. Still, the method is not optimal as any citizen with the desire and motivation should have an opportunity to pursue higher education. With the existing system, many willing graduates do not have a chance to follow their dream and enter the University. However, not everybody from the best students wants to operate under such intense pressure of competition in order to become the nation’s leader. Some of them, like Zandri, are artistic persons who prefer just to live simple happy lives. Nevertheless, as the government controls every step of the candidates and the refusal to present oneself for the Testing is a form of treason, punished by death, she cannot avoid the Testing. Zandri understands that cannot change the policy, so she finds her way to rebel – to create a performance from her arrival at the last second without apologies: “The wind teases Zandri’s gauzy multicolored skirt and peasant blouse as she strolls unhurried through the square…She’s showing that while she can be required to perform, she cannot be controlled” (Charbonneau 18). With her passion for painting and her inclination for symmetry and balance, Zandri could have become a great architect and thus a helpful member of the society, but the testing officials decided her destiny differently, and she has died during the fourth round of the Testing. Ignoring the graduates’ personal inclinations does no good for the future of the United Commonwealth as the unhappy persons will not be strong leaders.
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The main mistake of the Testing is the very criteria of choosing, which bring to the leading positions the most adaptable and ruthless candidates ready to murders, betrayal, and anything else to achieve their goals. This makes me seriously wonder what characteristics the testing officers considered crucial for a leader. It seems that knowledge, intelligence, and talent are secondary abilities necessary to survive. The Testing teaches graduates to trust nobody and rely only on their strength. The following is the advice that the main heroine got from her father, “Cia, trust no one” (Charbonneau 18). On the one hand, it is good, as after the trial, they will be independent, but, on the other hand, they will subconsciously avoid others’ help and will never be team workers: “Leaders are supposed to inspire trust. They’re not supposed to actually believe in it” (Charbonneau 76). The Testing teaches candidates to compete against each other, reward betrayal and the lack of moral principles, and let the murders happen. When the fourth round is over, Will, who tried to kill Cia, tries to excuse his behavior. In his opinion, the true aim of the Testing is to force people make bad choices in order to reveal whether the candidates can live with the decisions they have made. It is difficult to imagine that Will, who had betrayed and killed so many of his companions during the Testing, will demonstrate mercy or humanity in the future. Probably, these qualities are more important to regenerate the earth than the cold calculation and cruelty. Darwinism claims that all organisms (including people) experience natural selection during which only the fittest survive. Nevertheless, in the society, this theory is not sufficient to decide who can live and who must die. Cia understands this perfectly, and she is not sure she wants to be a leader anymore: “Not if my country values murder above compassion” (Charbonneau 76). Some of the testing officials (including Cia’s mentor Michal Gallen) also do not agree with the brutality of testing procedures. They believe the Testing is wrong and want to change the rules though it is not easy. They hope that Cia can transform the system from inside. That is why the unknown man helps her giving supplies and a vial with the liquid to counteract the interview drug. Compassion and mercy are the feelings that define humans and no Testing should take human lives. Moreover, the system takes the best graduates, most prominent and able to contribute to the society, and kills most of them, which is a pure insanity, considering the small population that survived the war. If Cia had died without that man’s help (as well as Tomas, whose unconscious body she pulled last meters to the finish line), it would not have proved that they were weak or incapable leaders. It would only prove the fact that the testing system failed one more time.
In conclusion, while not perfect, Joelle Charbonneau’s dystopian novel The Testing is very realistic and believable. It also raises important questions, namely how far can people go in a struggle to save the civilization and how to identify who should become the next leaders of the nation. Theoretically, the Testing is designed to choose the best possible candidates for the University and the promising future leaders for the United Commonwealth, but it appears to be an ineffective system. The Testing does not give equal rights for all the motivated persons to compete for education and sometimes chooses those who do not want to participate. The Testing leaves the remaining candidates with nightmares about the experience and physically murders the rest. The Testing encourages and rewards the unfair methods of competition, sabotage, betrayals, and even murders of the competitors, and brings to the leadership the most adaptable and ruthless candidates who are often lacking compassion and human qualities.