A Modern Morality Tale
Lois Lowry, The Giver (Houghton Mifflin,1993; Ember Books, 2006)
When I first read The Giver as a middle schooler, it made me think, in a different way from the way other books did. It tells the story of Jonas, whose life is completely structured by the rules of his utopian community, from his daily routine, to the way he expresses himself at dinner. For in this society, human emotion has been outlawed. The story opens with a tinge of fear: Jonas feels nervous about his coming of age ceremony, in which he will be assigned his first and only adult job. There is an irony in this fear at the start of the story: a hint at the impossibility of suppressing every negative feeling, of creating the ‘perfect’ society absent from pain.
Jonas is awarded the role of Receiver. He reports to the Giver, an old man who begins to transfer memories of the past. In Jonas’ world, the wealth of human knowledge, history, and experience has been suppressed by the community’s Elders and is known to only two members—the Giver and the Receiver. Through memories, Jonas now begins to feel, really and truly for the first time in his life, emotions with actual depth. Along with these emotions he sees color. He experiences pain. These experiences set him apart from the community he once accepted without question, until he is thrust into contact with the dark truth behind the structure that supports their daily lives. He sees no other option but to run.
The plot is simple, not much action occurs. The story's strength is in the journey of Jonas from complacent and unreflective community participant to enlightened Receiver. The reader is lulled into Jonas’ sense of security for the first half of the book, only to have this ripped away alongside him: to be shown that the ‘peace’ of this community is founded on a lie. None of the characters, even Jonas, are particularly memorable—the interest of the story comes from the community itself, its structure, rules and norms.
Though children often ignore rules, they have an intuitive grasp of them, even a fascination with them. The first part of The Giver becomes a game for younger readers—rather than evaluate the community’s way of life, they accept the structure in the same way as they accept rules in their own life, as something beyond themselves, taken for granted and not often understood. The story’s tone contributes to this initial acceptance, with minimal hints that this community is indeed flawed, and the reader believes with Jonas that all is well, this is good and things have always been so.
Then comes the awakening. Jonas is given memories. The most striking aspect of his first experience of color is that there is no indication that he was not seeing color before. Color was not mentioned; Jonas simply did not know what he was missing. This generates a shock for the reader, who assumed that Jonas’ life was at least in this basic faculty similar to the reader’s own.This prompts the reader to wonder, as I wondered staring at that tree as if for the first time, not just what would the world be like without color, but what it would be like to live without even knowing you are missing color.
The book compels us to recognize the beauty of what we take for granted, from our experience of color to our freedom of choice, exercised from the smallest personal encounters, to lifelong commitments to career or spouse. This autonomy has been stripped from the inhabitants of Jonas’ world, and they do not know what they are missing. We readers, on the other side, experience this wealth of freedom and do not often dwell on or appreciate what we have.
Furthermore, in a haunting scene The Giver dramatizes the inhuman reality of institutionalized evil. A grave injustice has been given a pleasing euphemism by Jonas’ community and is regarded as a good in most cases. The scene in which Jonas discovers the true nature of this act—I do not want to give away any spoilers here—is masterful in its use of dramatic understatement. The action is described as casually as it is done, part of the daily routine in the community, and Jonas the spectator is left just as horrified as the reader.
Jonas risks starvation and hypothermia in the outside world to escape this seemingly safe but twisted society, both to free himself and to protect a small child who has become his companion. This act of love and self-sacrifice, foregoing his safety on behalf of the boy, is the antithesis of everything the community stands for. Jonas gives everything for the weak and defenseless, and nearly dies because of it.
Yet the book ends in ambiguity. We are given a slight trace of hope; after miles and miles of journeying at last they see a hint of light. Jonas hears a whisper of music. He recalls a memory of a happy family at Christmas, the memory where he first learned love. There the story ends. We do not know if Jonas and the child ever reach safety, or where that safety, this so-called Elsewhere, is actually found.
Simple almost to a fault, the novel makes its point passionately and drives it home with relentless precision. Humans have emotions, memories, see color, and though often causing difficulty, these experiences are unquestionably worthwhile. What the story doesn’t answer adequately is why they are worthwhile. It remains a bit too abstract. The characters understand that the weak must be saved and good prevail, but it is unclear how this might be done. The character of the Giver is presented as possessing all the wealth of human knowledge, yet he spends his life in extremities of pain. One wonders about joy, hope, mirth—memories of the past have become a sickening burden rather than an uplifting liberation. Surely the Giver would have wondrous reserves of wisdom to draw upon, to help him through difficult present times. Isn’t this the reason why we want to preserve memories in the first place? In the story, love is not expressed through a person: it remains a mysterious feeling. If The Giver reads like a modern morality tale, it is perhaps no surprise it ends in ambiguity.
But the book’s presentation is riveting and will not leave the reader indifferent. Deeper themes such as the reality of evil, and how we might work to oppose institutional oppression, will strike older readers as themes for discussion. For younger readers, the experience of wonder and contemplation that the book provokes is enough to award it a place on any recommended reading list. Questioning the bleak tone of the story, as well as its somewhat mysterious ending, could add to the conversation. The Giver is a book to read and discuss, not just to read and drop. For parents and children alike, the experience of The Giver begins when you finish the story: once you reach this point, it will be hard not to have a discussion about it.
Tom Longano recently graduated from the University of St. Andrews with a degree in philosophy, and is currently teaching third grade at the Heights school in Potomac, MD.