Thursday, May 2, 2013

Review: The Giver, by Lois Lowry

Lois Lowry slowly and steadily builds up to the startling revelations in The Giver that adult readers know are there, but will take younger readers by surprise. One can't help but feel a sense of unease when reading about a utopian society: what they offer comes at a great cost to the individual. While the individuals in The Giver live a life free from bad things such as physical and emotional pain, it comes at a cost of their freedom to choose, their freedom to feel. Of course, the citizens have no idea what they are missing; they have been trained to have such a precise vocabulary that extremes don't exist. When the main character, Jonas, says he is starving, his elders correct him. He can never starve, because food is always provided for him, but he can be hungry. On the surface this sounds like a wonderful place to live, however Lowry demonstrates that in order to live in a world with the greatest amount of good, there must also be evil.

Jonas has grown up with the same childhood as every other child in his town. At the age of one he was named and given to both of his parents, and every year after that he achieved a new milestone: at age nine he receives a bike and at age twelve he is assigned a job for adulthood. Beyond that, he foresees being assigned a spouse, being assigned a couple of kids, moving on to the center for Childless Adults and then the House of the Old, before being "released." It's a safe life, and nobody seems to question it. They are trained not to be "rude," which means asking the types of questions that would dig at the essence of their life. They are also trained to share their "feelings" with their family, so all feelings can be analyzed and reduced to nothing.

All of these details are laid out in a nice, steady fashion, providing a nice picture into the small community Jonas and his family reside. Then when everyone is comfortable, something interesting happens. Jonas's nice future vision for himself unravels when he is selected (not assigned) for a job of high honor. This job is the most important there is, because it ensures the peace of the community: The Receiver of Memories. This Receiver holds memories of intense pain, as well as memories of love, but they are memories meant for the Receiver only. Thus these memories, transferred to him through the Giver, provide Jonas with a new perspective on his life and the world he lives in. While Jonas is at first excited by the wonderful memories transferred to him, he quickly realizes the horror of living the life of the Receiver. Not only does he hold all of the nice memories of the world, but he also holds the most terrible memories of the world.

The Giver, like 1984 before it, focuses on the importance of language to control a community. Words can only take on meaning if we have learned or experienced that meaning. When the Giver first tells Jonas about snow, Jonas is confused because he has never heard of nor experienced snow. Jonas, after experiencing the memory of snow, cannot then tell of his experience to the community because the word, and the thing, does not exist in their memories. Similarly, color does not exist, and so there is no concept of red or green or yellow or white and so on. Even in their feelings, the people of the community are trained to know only the less severe of feelings. When Jonas feels that he is frightened, it sounds wrong to him until he realizes it isn't fear he feels, but anxiety. Fear, like starvation, can't exist in a world where terrible things can't happen.

Also similar to Orwell's concerns of totalitarian communism, Lowry has concerns about societal "sameness." This sameness is what creates the most secure world, as it's only in differences that danger lies. Citizens aren't allowed much in the way of personalities. Of course, the system does account for those inevitable differences that people have. People are tracked into certain jobs based on their unique traits. But to call these differences personalities might be a stretch. It's difficult to have a personality when you're not allowed to lie, for example, or when you must robotically accept every apology thrown at you (and those are quite frequent). The ideal society that Lowry sees is colorless and consists of a nuclear family of a mother, a father, and two children. Think of the scenes from Edward Scissorhands where all houses look the same and everyone leaves for work at the same time. The sameness Lowry fears is not something in a communist nightmare, but a modern, capitalist society. She asks, how far is a society that's not allowed to think for itself willing to go to protect its perceived sense of security?

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