When I picked up Lois Lowry’s Newbery-winning novel The Giver for a re-read, I was reminded of something that C.S. Lewis once wrote: “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty.” I am often struck by the truth of this statement when I re-read classic works of children’s literature, especially when I return a book that I haven’t touched in at least a decade. The memories of a novel come rushing back; the significance that the story held for me in my childhood intermingles with my “adult” reactions, adding layers to the experience of reading the book. Lewis’s quote came particularly into my mind as I re-read The Giver, since I have actually experienced the death of loved ones and wrestled personally with some of the questions in the book since last reading Lowry’s novel. Now, The Giver is no longer just a well-written work of dystopian fiction, but a reflection on events that are personally significant.
I remembered the basic plot of the novel: twelve-year-old Jonas is living in what seems to be an ideal society where no one experiences pain of any depth, but once he is chosen to be “The Receiver of Memory” for his community, he begins to learn the price of that idyllic existence. While his friends and peers start training for their new occupations as Doctors, Teachers, Nurturers and Recreational Assistants, Jonas begins to meet with the previous Receiver. The elderly man’s job is now to pass on the memories to young Jonas – and so the man becomes The Giver of the novel’s title. Through Jonas’s relationship and work with The Giver, he begins to perceive many new things about the world around him – both beautiful and painful things, the emotions and experiences that make us fully human.
But as Jonas learns about these many exciting, wonderful experiences, he realizes that his family and members of his society are completely unaware of them. They do not understand the depth of both affection and sexual love that human beings are able to feel for one another because they are medicated to remove sexual urges. His society has sought to eliminate the horrors of physical pain and emotional anguish, but have also robbed themselves of the emotions at the opposite end of the spectrum – joy and passion. But The Giver must teach Jonas about physical pain and death in its many forms; the knowledge and experiences of these things will now be his burden to carry in order to shelter the community from such horrors. But once Jonas realizes how the people of his society have handicapped themselves, he wants to devise a way to restore memories and emotions to the individual members of the community so that they can once again experience human passions.
The society that Lowry has created is becomes more and more obviously insidious as the novel progresses. “Sameness” stretches across all aspects of their community: the society dictates acceptable behaviors, occupational choices, spousal selection, family planning. Everything is masterfully controlled – even climate, genetics and death.
As I re-read the novel, I was particularly fascinated to notice the community’s use of language; there is often a prescribed script which the members of this society must follow and so it is through language that the people police themselves and control is maintained. As someone who loves words and phrases and stories, I noticed more and more the ways that the social and individual narratives were controlled: the use of a number instead of a name when a child misbehaves, a name designated as “Not-to-Be-Spoken” if a person of that name has been a particular disgrace, the prescribed apologies and standard responses for every social situation, the required family ritual of dream-telling, the importance that is placed on the precision of language – and Jonas’s resulting preoccupation with the accuracy of his expressions. All of these things create parameters for the individuals of this society, which shows just how powerful language and narrative can be. The creators of this society felt that they must standardize even a simple apology in order to ensure safety and happiness.
It is obvious that while this “sameness” was intended to provide safety and happiness, it has removed people’s free choice and the vibrancy of their lives – yet upon re-reading The Giver at this juncture of my life, I must admit that there were certain aspects of this society that appealed to me. Last year, I watched both of my very special grandparents rapidly deteriorate physically, then die – and so it seemed somewhat attractive to me that in this society, the elderly were treated with so much respect, cared for so diligently and made so comfortable, then “released” before they started to suffer. Euthanasia is a touchy subject – one of many in The Giver. Reading the novel again, I have realized just how complicated many of these issues can be.
But The Giver does not attempt to preach – it simply presents these very complicated social issues in a context that readers can see the trade-off. There are reasons that this society has relinquished many of their rights – and in certain ways, they are better off. I don’t think that they just seem to be better off – they are better off. It is not a total illusion. But ultimately, we have to ask ourselves, is the illusion worth it? The answer to most of us, even with all the attractive aspects of this society, is still a resounding “no.”
This post participates in Presenting Lenore's Dystopian February Reading Challenge.