About a week ago I finished reading The Giver by Lois Lowry. It left me feeling the way books of this kind generally do — empty, listless yet restless at the same time. I am grateful I went through that only for a few hours. I have had it happen to me for days. Dystopian stories have always been the kind I try to avoid as much as I can, but once in a while I pick one up unsuspecting of what it is about, and then once I’m into it, there is just no putting it down and leaving it aside until I am finished with it.
The Giver came into my radar only because I found thirteen copies of it lying in our school stock room, a neat little perch for a very kingly looking frog that sat upon this pile of books and stared at me malevolently. I got one of the helpers to clear him and get the books down before I rushed them to the library to have them catalogued.
This is where you don’t ask me how that could ever have happened in the first place! And I won’t tell you.
But, to get back to the point, there was our library with thirteen copies of a book on the one hand, and an idea that struck while taking one-on-one English classes with a colleague on the other hand that merged together into a Staff Book Club idea. Many teachers got on board, and we decided to make The Giver our first read for the club — easily accessible to even the most skeptical of the lot of us.
I am grateful, now, for having read this. Much as I dislike that apathetic feeling at the end of a dystopian novel, I am looking forward to the discussion we are to have for the scope and the reach of this novel is vast.
We find ourselves in a community that has no name. It is a community that is made up of perfect little family units — a father, mother, son and daughter — and everything is so sterile and serene. Jonas is an Eleven on the brink of becoming a Twelve, and this is a turning point for him and others his age. This mean they are becoming adults with new roles and responsibilities. We are slowly but inexplicably drawn into this world that reveals its layers bit by bit, secretly, as though afraid that if it dumps all its aspects upon you in one go, you will refuse to step into it. And so it lures you in with curiosity and perhaps puzzlement. But once you are in, the Sameness of it all settles uncomfortably upon you, clawing at you deep inside as it begins to suffocate you, and you sense that bit of hope as Jonas is given a role so rare — that of Receiver. You begin to understand that the role is something you are familiar with, and you watch as Jonas begins to discover what to you is so ordinary and is taken a great deal for granted.
It is a very deep book, with so much to ponder over. Let me, at this point, allow my reader to know that I am moving into spoiler territory. For me, this post is not a review; it is more a process of getting the thoughts and ideas that held me during this reading out into the open. A catharsis, if you will. So, unless you have read this book before or are not the kind who is bothered by spoilers, please do not read any further.
Now, if you will note, I mentioned that Jonas is to be the Receiver. And if there is a receiver then surely there is a giver. The Receiver is the holder of all the memories, from generation to generation, in the community. The previous Receiver of the memories becomes The Giver when handing over those memories to Jonas. While reading this story, I got the sense that the Giver is a God-like character. I doubt if Lowry intended for this book to be some sort of allegory or even one with a religious tone, so please understand that my reading of this book is coloured strongly by my faith and beliefs, and not by anything the writer might have intended or unintended.
As I was saying, The Giver, and the Receiver for that matter, appear to be god-like characters. Their role is one of wisdom acquired from the memories they posses. They are called upon by the Elders of the community to help with decision-making on very rare occasions when the latter are unable to understand something. Otherwise, they leave the Receiver out of most things. The Giver expresses his desire that they sought him out more, for there is so much he could show them and tell them, so much wisdom he has to share that would bring about good changes.
“Do you advise them often?”
[…] “Rarely. Only when they are faced with something that they have not experienced before. Then they call upon me to use the memories and advise them. But it very seldom happens. Sometimes I wish they’d ask for my wisdom more often — there are so many things I could tell them; things I wish they would change. But they don’t want change. Life here is so orderly, so predictable — so painless. It’s what they’ve chosen.” (pg. 134)
This brings to mind, as a Christian, the times so many of us often turn to God only when we need something. At other times we are content to relegate Him to the background and do as we please for we are too afraid of the change that having Him constantly steering our lives could bring about. It’s what they’ve chosen. And this brings up the whole matter of choice in this book.
While The Giver and The Receiver might appear god-like, the Elders of the Community are the ones who play ‘God’. The Community has chosen the Sameness of their existence and ruled out choice completely from the lives of its citizens. We get a glimpse of what life would be like without free will, without the ability to choose. And we could better appreciate a God who allows those He loves to make their own choices, no matter how much He could wish they would choose otherwise.
“… We don’t dare to let people make choices of their own.”
“Not safe?” The Giver suggested.
“Definitely not safe,” Jonas said with certainty. “What if they were allowed to choose their own mate? And chose wrong?
“Or what if,” he went on, almost laughing at the absurdity, “they chose their own jobs?”
“Frightening, isn’t it?” The Giver said.
Jonas chuckled. “Very frightening. I can’t even imagine it. We really have to protect people from wrong choices.”
“Yes,” Jonas agreed. “Much safer.” (pg. 128)
But, Jonas does not really agree. We watch and see as memories flood him, how he grows restless, impatient and quite upset that he cannot share his new found knowledge and wisdom with his friends and family. He also learns that, while others making choices for you might be safer, it sucks the life out of living.
After a life of Sameness and predictability, he was awed by the surprises that lay beyond each curve of the road. He slowed the bike again and again to look with wonder at wild flowers, to enjoy the throaty warble of a new bird nearby, or merely to watch the way wind shifted the leaves in the trees. During his twelve years in the community, he had never felt such simple moments of exquisite happiness. (pg. 215)
It is sad that the community requires the Receiver to keep their memories for them while they go through a life of grey that leaves them ignorant of pain on the one hand and love on the other.
“Do you love me?”
There was an awkward silence for a moment. Then Father gave a little chuckle. “Jonas. You, of all people. Precision of language, please!”
“What do you mean?” Jonas asked. Amusement was not at all what he had anticipated.
“Your father means that you used a very generalised word, so meaningless that it’s become almost obsolete,” his mother explained carefully.
Jonas stared at them. Meaningless? He had never before felt anything as meaningful as the memory. (pg. 162)
Such a cold, cold world. Uniformed and grey — literally. There is no colour in this world. Only the reigning Receiver can see colour. Birthmothers are considered expendable. They have the babies that they never see and are then thrown into labour without family units of their own. Adults take pills when they begin to have the Stirrings. A pill everyday that keeps them from feeling. There are no books, save for rule books, no art and no music. And we re-explore our world of feelings and free will while Jonas steps into it. He experiences the horrors of his world from the knowledge he gains, and we root for him in breathless anticipation as he makes his escape into Elsewhere.
There is so much in this book to think and talk about. I have barely scratched the surface with this post. But I hope to be diving into a deeper discussion with my colleagues next month. I know, this has become a book I would dearly love to read in class with our children as we discuss the themes of the story. I am seriously looking at suggesting this for next year. I am on the look out for more!