For Hamlet, death was the great equalizer: kings and slaves decay just the same. But for Lois Lowry, in her regimented community of The Giver, it’s life that’s the leveler of men.
The Giver peeks into a hermetically sealed life, one lived entirely, to use today’s jargon, within a safe space. The Giver shows us that the results of strict equality and protected contentment are extraordinarily far from the imagined kumbaya.
There is the Community, and across the river there is Elsewhere. The Community decides when a girl loses her hair ribbons, when its citizens eat their meals and what its adults will pursue as professions. The Community ensures homogeneity through close regulation. Elsewhere is the world as we know it.
Lowry is a cunning storyteller: she hoodwinks her readers so as later to emphasize the utopian lie.
The ritual of sharing feelings at mealtime is, by novel’s end, a laughable and bitter farce. The Community doesn’t know anger or happiness or sadness, not in the true sense. The frustrations and achievements of its citizens are petty, the kind of variations to complacency felt only by the chronic depressive who’s long since forgotten emotion.
But like Jonas, Lowry’s 12-year-old protagonist, we buy into it.
Jonas learns at the Ceremony of Twelve, the ritual during which a child is assigned his future job in the Community, that he will become the new Receiver of Memory. In the coming years of his training he will receive from a man whom he calls the Giver memories banished long-ago for their uselessness and superfluity; for their violence; for their color and their individuating qualities; for their ability to create any kind of difference.
An understanding of love requires an understanding of hate. Hate does not exist in the Community and as a consequence, neither does love. For the Community this was just a necessary loss in erasing the bad things in life. We learn that the color of utopia is a uniform gray.
Jonas, 12 years old, learns the banished memories of love, war and everything else. The fleeting bits of color he’d noticed earlier in his life are now vivid and permanent. The Community is populated with generations of people who’ve never known anything of color, love, war and “everything else”; this gray-hued life has been in effect for so long, and they have no frame of reference. Everything down to the climate complies with the rules of the Community, and its people don’t miss such things as the warmth of sunshine or the exhilaration of a sled ride. They don’t know love: the Community assigns spouses and allots children – one boy and one girl – making the matches through assessments of compatibility.
Thank you for your childhood.
The Giver is a school of hard knocks. Though marketed as a children’s/young adult novel when it was first published in 1993, Lowry’s novel hits the tough age of 12 with a mentality of mixed proverb. “Life sucks and then you die” but then, too, “life is what you make it.”
More than the pills Jonas and others his age take to tamp down desire, The Giver is a hard one to swallow. We have to grow up. We have to leave the comfort of childhood. We have to learn that, maybe, our fathers lied to us.
We have to accept hate and know war so we may enjoy love and recognize peace.
We have to feel in order to find purpose. We have to experience difference in order to progress.
The Giver is a novel that dishes out the burden of experience without holding back. From the first sexual urges to teenage angst and disillusionment to youthful idealism to keeping your first secrets and breaking from Mom and Dad, The Giver cants every which way in the turgid waters of “growing up.”
And there’s also the suicide of a girl who couldn’t bear it.
The directness of Lowry’s writing makes The Giver a compulsively readable novel, whether we are 12, 22 or 62. Her 12-year-old hero reminds us when he picks up the fallen standard, the banished memories, that the future, however ugly, still holds promise – we just have to fight for it. Sometimes, it takes a child to show us the way.
The Giver · Lois Lowry · 1993
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014 · 225 pages, paperback