Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety. – Benjamin Franklin
“The Giver” is a book full of questions. It sets up a situation that demands questions, and thought. The author expertly builds the situation slowly, so little by little more is revealed about the ‘community’. She does this without exposition, weaving each reveal into the narrative skilfully. The protagonist Jonas lives in a community that is very structured. Everyone lives in family units of four, parents and two children. The children do volunteer work after school, and the reader learns that Jonas and his age group are all at the end of the year going to be assigned to their future roles in life. They won’t have any choice in this, an assignment will be made based on their temperament and aptitude. We are told no mistake can be made.
Quite early on it is brought up that people are ‘released’ from the community in certain circumstances. Babies who have problems such as failure to thrive are released, as are elderly people. Others might be released If they have done something wrong. The child Jonas naively believes they are simply sent to another community. It is obvious to the reader that ‘release’ means death. So once that is apparent it means that babies are killed for trivial reasons that make them inconvenient, and the elderly are killed because they are no longer valuable. The elderly must surely realise what is happening but are accustomed to believe that it is right for them to be disposed of in this way. Even those guilty of so-called crimes could conceivably be executed for repeated failure to be polite.
As the story progresses more is revealed about how the people live. There are copious lists of rules that must be memorized and obeyed. Everyone dresses the same, garments varying only to show the age of the child or the occupation of the adult. Even the family groups are constructed – the parents have been assigned to each other. They do not have children. All children are born by ‘birth mothers’ (another assigned job) and reared communally by nurturers before being assigned to a family. The concept is of ‘sameness’ – everyone must be the same.
When the children are assigned their jobs, Jonas discovers he has been selected to be the ‘receiver of memory’. This is where the story takes a new turn. The structure of the community is such that people live in an eternal present. History is not discussed or even remembered. Children know about animals but believe them to be fictional. However, those who set up the communities must have realised that eliminating history altogether could present its own problems. The Receiver is a psychic person who receives memories, centuries worth of memories, in order to have the knowledge of the past in case it needs to be consulted. This one person passes on those memories to a new Receiver, himself becoming the ‘Giver’ of the title. As Jonas learns about beauty, hunger, war, weather, and so forth, we learn something else about the Community. The only books Jonas has ever known contain rules and instructions. Only the Receiver has access to other books – history and literature. There is no art in the Community. Jonas discovers a gift he had that he did not understand, and which the Giver calls ‘seeing beyond’ is seeing colour. The people of the Community can only see in black and white.
So, the Community is safe and secure. There is no hunger, no crime or war. The climate is controlled. There are no sexual urges because a daily pill takes care of those. No one goes without, and there is medical care when needed for all.
“The life where nothing was ever unexpected. Or inconvenient. Or unusual. The life without colour, pain or past.”
However, there is no passion, no love or hate. There is no colour, no music, no art or poetry. There are no strong feelings, either positive or negative. The people wouldn’t recognize strong feelings, and even a small disruption to the day to day can cause fear. The Community is so balanced that it would struggle to adjust to major change.
“For the first time, he heard something that he knew to be music. He heard people singing. Behind him, across vast distances of space and time, from the place he had left, he thought he heard music too. But perhaps, it was only an echo.”
This is the magic of “The Giver”. The author doesn’t preach here, gives no speeches to sway the reader. She lays out the society bit by bit. The reader learns, along with Jonas, what has been given up for the sake of security. The Community is very secure and safe. The question the reader must ask is this – is it worth it? Would you give up your choices, your individuality, everything that makes you unique, for the chance never to be unsafe again? Would you give up privacy and trust your life to the decision making of others? Is it worth it?
“Our people made that choice, the choice to go to Sameness. Before my time, before the previous time, back and back and back. We relinquished color when we relinquished sunshine and did away with difference. We gained control of many things. But we had to let go of others.”
The reverse question, of course, also needs to be asked. What will you risk, for freedom? When can you be sure that you know best how to conduct your life? What will you give up, because the price is too high? Jonas faces this choice. He has learned to love, and now has to choose to turn his back on everything he has ever known, to save a life. That’s tough for anyone, let alone a youngster.
“It’s the choosing that’s important, isn’t it?”
The book also illustrates another point that is very important. To make a choice, requires knowledge. Jonas can make choices because he has been granted understanding about the world around him. He recognises that the people of the Community have lost the capacity to choose. The old saying that ‘you don’t miss what you’ve never known’ is very true here. They cannot choose other than what they have because they don’t know that there is anything else. The construction of this safety has trapped them. The system becomes self-maintaining. There is no authority to oppress them because they are oppressing themselves. For that reason I hesitate to call this a dystopian book. There’s no tyranny to fight against, just the need to burst a very powerful bubble that the people have wrapped themselves in.
In life these questions are always important. In the societies we live in the questions will arise over and over. “The Giver” is an important book. I highly recommend it.
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