Thoughts on Reading: The Giver by Lois Lowry

Mrs. Ritter read us The Giver in 1993 when I was in fifth grade. She gave us these little coloring sheets and we’d work on them after recess while she read. It was always my favorite part of the day and I have to give that lady props for being ahead of her time. Twenty-five years later, when adults want to relax, they work on the intricate designs in their coloring books while listening to a podcast or audiobook.

The book is about a community that has given up their cultural memory—including pain and war, but also love and happiness, even color and weather—in lieu of a detached, vanilla existence where things run smoothly and without question, but also without enthusiasm, passion, or even those delicious emotions like anger and grief. The Giver explains this “Sameness” to Jonas:

“We relinquished color when we relinquished sunshine and did away with the differences.” He thought for a moment. “We gained control of many things. But we had to let go of others.”

(Later Jonas observes, much to his frustration, “If everything’s the same, then there aren’t any choices!”)

Their families are stitched together through a clinical selection process, and they go through the motions of life together. Each year brings a new ceremony, wherein the children move up through the rungs of their childhood—losing their ribbons, acquiring their first bike, being chosen for their occupation. They move through the days pleasantly enough, never quite coming to the surface of any real emotion, until they are old enough to move away from their families. They rarely see each other again, and this is a no-muss, no-fuss affair.

One special person remembers the community’s memories for them. Jonas, rather than being selected to nurture children or collect garbage, is to become the next Receiver of memory. It is a great honor, even if no one really knows what the hell that even means, least of all Jonas.

I remember that I really liked the book, and nearly thirty years later I could still remember the first memory Jonas receives–sunshine. He runs the gamut of memory reception, having to deal with more difficult concepts, first a sunburn, but later on a broken bone, then hunger, then war.

What I didn’t catch on to, or didn’t quite recall, was how much this community was bent on language.

He had been trained since earliest childhood, since his earliest learning of language, never to lie. It was an integral part of the learning of precise speech. Once, when he had been a Four, he had said, just prior to the midday meal at school, “I’m starving.”

Immediately he had been taken aside for a brief private lesson in language precision. He was not starving, it was pointed out. He was hungry. No one in the community was starving, would ever be starving. To say “starving” was to a speak a lie. An unintentional lie, of course. But the reason for precision of language was to ensure that unintentional lies were never uttered. Did he understand that? they asked him.  And he had.

***

Upon receiving a memory of snow and sledding:

There was no way to describe to his friends what he had experienced there in the Annex room. How could you describe a sled without describing a hill and snow; and how could you describe a hill and snow to someone who had never felt height or wind or that feathery, magical cold?

Even trained for years as they all had been in precision of language, what words could you use which would give another the experience of sunshine?

Here the availability of language is rendered impotent in the dearth of human experience. Jonas wonders, “Didn’t life consist of the things you did each day?” Apparently, there’s more to it than just that. Our memories, personal and cultural, color so much of it in. Unless of course, you’ve done away with color…

***

When he describes the color red, which he can see.
“It was so—oh, I wish language were more precise! The red was so beautiful!”

 

I don’t think Jonas is alone here, trying to adequately describe a color and finding his words fall short. Poets have been working on it for a while. I was immediately reminded of that dratted wheelbarrow:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

***

And so, while Jonas has always been clear and precise with his language, as he acquires more memories, he begins to question their adherence to linguistic purity. After all, if they haven’t experienced anything, what are they articulating?

Words fall short when faced with the breadth and depth of human memory, human feeling, human experience.

Okay—that’s arguable. The argument can be made that it’s what every conversation, every piece of literature, grapples with. It’s easy to be precise with your words when you’re discussing your day over dinner. But how can you find a way to describe something you feel so deeply it shifts the tectonic plates of your being? How do you put into words those fate-bending altercations you face in life?

Naturally, Jonas becomes a fuller human being by virtue of his “remembered” experiences.

Although he had through the memories learned about the pain of loss and loneliness, now he gained, too, an understanding of solitude and its joy.

After “remembering” a child celebrating his birthday party…he understood the joy of being an individual, special and unique and proud.

Finally, he tackles the murkiness of love, admitting that the families he observed in the memories were, as the Giver (of memory) supplies, “a little more complete”.

But he understands the problematic nature of love, and why it could not be sustained in the community:

“…it’s much better to be disorganized the way we are now. I can that it was a dangerous way to live.”

He’s right, it is dangerous. He could feel that there was risk involved.

Oh, isn’t there?

That, right there, is what the whole book is after. Eradicate all the things. Make it safe, painless; liveable. But is it liveable without color, sunshine? Without love?

He asks his parents if they love him, and the scene is nearly comical in its self-righteous awkwardness.

Jonas! You of all people. Precision of language, please!” His father says.

His mother tries to explain a bit further, “…you used a very generalized word, so meaningless that it’s become almost obsolete.”

The parental units (the clinical term is best, since they are in no way biologically responsible for him) end up explaining to him that they *enjoy* him and take pride in his accomplishments. Those are the things that mean something. Not something frivolous and imprecise like love.

Oh, and isn’t love just that? Frivolous and imprecise? How delicious!

It’s a lovely book, and Lois Lowry keeps us turning those pages to learn more about this curious, bleached world, particularly as Jonas turns the sun and colors back on.

Only a few eye-roll moments—the favorite memory being Christmas (gag) and the image of Jonas weeping while his friends played “good guys and bad guys” and pretended to shoot each other. They hadn’t known the horror of war like he had. Listen, kids all over the world, growing up in war-torn countries are shooting each other with the crumby toast they’ve bitten into the shape of a gun. So, ugh. But sure, I’ll take her point.

 

One last thing—super spoily if you haven’t read it:

 

One of the first memories Jonas receives, and one that the Giver builds on from joy and exhilaration to bone-wrenching pain, is the sled. So, at the end of the book when Jonas and Gabe are approaching the Christmas town—he knows he’s going to find the sled because he *remembers* that it’s there.

 

Huh? Is it like, some sort of world on a reel?

He was the one on the sled all along?  And he’s heading toward the Christmas house that he also “remembered”?

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