Monday, November 19, 2007

The Giver Asks: What Does It Mean to Be Human?

Imagine a world in which all of your choices were made for you, from your daily wardrobe to your family members to your career to your spouse. Think of a world in which you were entirely safe, where you were permitted to take no risks, and where physical pain could be erased with a single dose of medicine. Picture dwelling in a whitewashed world where everyone lives and thinks in exactly the same way, and questioning the rules leads to public chastisement and even "Release" from the community.

Jonas, star of Lois Lowry's The Giver, lives in just such a community. For 12 years, he has dwelt within its borders, attending school, mingling with friends and abiding by the strict rules that make his town the peaceful place it always is. Like all of his classmates, Jonas is looking forward to the December Ceremony when he will receive his "Assignment." This will be his career, which could be anything from Laborer to Doctor to Road Crew Maintainer. To his shock, Jonas learns he will be the new Receiver. The position comes with great honor, but even greater secrecy. Jonas receives a list of rules that will govern his training period, which allow him to do two things which are strictly prohibited in his community: to ask questions of anyone and to lie. Disconcerted, Jonas begins his training with The Giver, an elder who sags under the weight of his responsibilities. The Giver explains Jonas' new responsibilites: he must carry all the memories of the world - from sunshine, to sledding, to war, to starvation - so that his community will be free to live their peaceful, doubtless lives. In essence, he will feel all their emotions for them. As The Giver transfers his memories into his new apprentice's being, Jonas' dull world explodes into a dazzling array of color, sensation and emotion. Some of the memories Jonas receives are terrifying - war, loneliness, abandonment - but others are so powerful - love, family, warmth - that he realizes how empty his real life is. Now that he is able to ask questions freely, Jonas finds himself questioning the life he has been leading - why is he not allowed to have choices? Why can't families have more than the 2 children allowed by the Elders? And what does it really mean when someone is "Released" from the community?

As Jonas ingests this new knowledge, he knows that he can never again be satisfied with his dull, flavorless life. Together, he and The Giver hatch a plan to open the peoples' eyes. When their plans go horribly awry, Jonas suddenly finds himself on a terrifying journey to find "Elsewhere," a place that may or may not exist. Without the promised memories of courage to bind him up, Jonas must rely on his own wits and bravery to save himself, his future and the one person he truly loves. That's the story in a nutshell, but this book isn't really about the main story. As one reviewer put it, "The simplicity and directness of Lowry's writing force readers to grapple with their own thoughts" (Booklist, Starred Review). Lowry's story is so unadorned that it provides the perfect canvas for infinte thoughts, opinions and analyses. Lowry, herself, says,

...The Giver is many things to many different people. Peoplebring to it their
own complicated beliefs and hopes and dreams and fears and all that.
At the very least, it's a story about what it means to be human. To me, its message is that without choices, experience, risk and passion, we are not fully human.

I don't know if Lowry meant for the book to have any religious applications, but to me The Giver symbolizes Jesus Christ, at least to some degree. When he accepts memories for other people, he swallows some of their pain, leaving them comforted. Their pain still exists, but only dimly. This is what Christ does for us. Our suffering weighed on Christ (as it does on The Giver), as evidenced by his tortured cry, "O my Father...let this cup pass from me" (Matthew 26:39, KJV) in Gethsamane, but He knew His duty and thus carried our burdens for us. Like Christ, The Giver desires that all men have their agency so they can learn wisdom through their choices. And like Jesus, The Giver knows he must help his people through the pain that knowledge and agency can bring. Like Lowry said, we bring our own convictions to the book and this is the interpretation to which I kept returning. The one issue I had with this book is the very ambiguous ending. I'm a reading simpleton, who loves endings which neatly wrap up all of the story's loose ends. Paradoxically, I hate predictable endings. Anyway, The Giver ends in a way that leaves it VERY open to interpretation. Lowry calls it an "optimistic ending," but insists that the true ending exists only in the mind of the reader. As aggravating as that is for a neat-endings-junkie, it's also a sign of a truly great novel - one that makes you think long after you've closed the book.

Grade: A+

This review is also posted on my blog, Bloggin' 'Bout Books

1 comment:

JK said...

I loved this book, except for the ending which I merely... appreciated? I try to read children's lit w/out critiquing it too much as an adult (make sense?) and I can see how this ending will lead to a lot of thoughtful interpretation and discussion, as will the the entire book. So it's a "lady or the tiger" for 6th -8th grade, and a quality, quality book I would recommend to everyone.

great review, too!