Week Four – The Giver

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“‘Or what if,’ he went on, almost laughing at the absurdity, ‘they chose their own jobs?’”

Maybe it’s due to the weighty topics and harrowing events in The Giver, but I remember the novel seeming a lot thicker at age 10 than it apparently is. In fact it’s a quick read at 179 pages, but manages to make quite the impression.

Unlike last week’s choice, I could tell you the basic plot of The Giver before cracking it open once again. Jonas is about to turn 12, with everyone else in his year, and will receive his “assignment” or career. It’s a dystopian future, where Sameness is revered. People are assigned a spouse, a job, and children (one male, one female) to form perfect family units. It’s a world without choice, but also without pain. And in the beginning, it doesn’t seem so bad to be honest.

One of the most jarring features of the book is how slowly author Lois Lowry reveals all the details of this world. As a reader, and especially I think as a child, you impose your own experience on the community until you’re proven wrong, which is why at first, they seem happy. Jonas has a great childhood – parents with successful careers, a sister who he gets along with, friends he likes to play with. Even though they don’t get to choose their own career, they get assigned a role they fit, and as Jonas’ father tells him “there are very rarely disappointments.”

So everything seems all fine and dandy until Jonas gets his assignment as Receiver of Memory. Basically there’s one guy in the society who holds all of the memories of the past – life as we know it now. Horrible memories like war, physical pain and loneliness, but also memories of sledding, sunshine, and colours. Jonas lives in a black and white world.

While colours are perhaps not the most heartwrenching loss his community faces without even realizing it, I think it’s the best example of how the reader makes false assumptions about the society based on their own life. I don’t think many people would picture a colourless society when they begin the book. So even though the reader likely knows about all these things that are new to Jonas, they can take the journey with him to discover what he’s missing.

(Sidenote: this is why books are great. How could you do that in a film? You couldn’t. But apparently there is a film being made from this book, which I just found out and is why I chose The Giver as this week’s book.)

So colours, weather, any sort of choice really, are all missing from Jonas’ life. He’s been spending every day with the current memory holder, The Giver, who passes along the memories of all these things to Jonas. And he’s understandably a little dumbfounded. Then he receives the Giver’s favourite memory. A Christmas scene complete with tree, lights, food, family, warmth, happiness and a word that Jonas can’t quite grasp – love.

Without entirely giving away the ending, Jonas eventually comes to see that the way he’s been living is no real way to live and devises a plan with the Giver. Throughout it all though he continues to recognize some of the positives in the life that he had. And I think that’s the real key to the story. If life had been a daily struggle with incredible suffering, then Jonas would have no desire at all to maintain the status quo. Abandoning his way of life wouldn’t have required a decision, just an opportunity.

But instead the initial impression that his society isn’t so terrible sticks with you. They do live without pain, hunger, fighting, and loneliness. But is living in such a safe bubble worth missing the most beautiful parts of life? Frankly, some people would probably say yes. But I don’t think so. And as Jonas learns, there are those who suffer for it.

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