Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

31 May 2014

(Novel) The Giver by: Lois Lowry

(Reaction) Let's get rid of the messy by: Antonio Conejos

What price peace? How much would you surrender to be free of want and pain, jealousy and sorrow? A superficially utopian society is glimpsed in Lowry’s The Giver. Everything works, people are pleasant to one another, crime is nonexistent, everyone has their place in the grand scheme of things. The life where nothing was ever unexpected. Or inconvenient. Or unusual. The life without color, pain, or past.

The uniform tranquility of the community, its overarching blandness, is subtly echoed in the details we would normally associate with places and people. For one, the community has no name; neither do any of the buildings or roads. Everything is topically descriptive (Central Plaza, Annex, auditorium) but never specifically denoted with a proper name. Names of course are badges of distinction and distinction is assiduously wiped clean in the community. Where distinction simply cannot be avoided, as in the different functions needed to support any human society, care is taken to focus again on the role rather than the person (Path Maintenance Crew, Chief Elder). The town is deliberately bland.

Populating this community are humans who express themselves with precision and decorum. Etiquette here has been elevated to the high role of a fetish, persnicketily followed by everyone, ingrained at an early age. Emotions are not felt internally but expunged publicly, performed in ritualized rites for birth and death, adolescence and marriage. Yearly ceremonies are the highlight of this people who revolve their lives around routine. The people are deliberately bland.

Even the setting itself is unremittingly uniform. There are no hills, no wildlife, no variations in temperature, Jonas has never seen rain. So controlled is the environ of the community that even the memory of basking in sunlight is a treat for the new Receiver of Memory. The land itself is deliberately bland.

There are many fine details in The Giver illustrating this colorless (literally and figuratively) society as well as the depth of experiences which have have had to be excised for this safe, perfect, Sameness. Indeed, many themes revolving around society and choice, the imperfection of perfection, how conformity leads to evil; can be drawn from the novel.

One interesting theme which may not be immediately discernible is the novel’s assertion that balance for it’s own sake is not desirable. We usually see balance as a positive quality. Moderation in all things is a virtue. Yet interestingly The Giver shows that even balance, paradoxically taken to its extreme, results in an unfulfilling life.

Everything about the people and setting of The Giver is balanced. The people are well mannered, their behaviour is balanced, no one is violent or sanguine, euphoric or depressed. So mellow are the inhabitants that Asher’s mild streak of mischief is considered something out of the ordinary, a quality that the whole town knows about. Even the number of people is strictly balanced, births and families tightly controlled. The setting is balanced with no extremes of height or depth, heat or cold.

Yet there are times in life when equilibrium is not what’s needed. Jolts too are needed for maturity, as Jonas realizes when he reflects on the facile nature of the family’s morning talk sessions, no quick comfort for emotions like those.

Life is pale without the intensity of joy, the shock of grief, even the sharp sticks of sudden pain. Imbalance is also necessary for the human person and the novel illustrates this by presenting a society which is in perfect balance yet is devoid of life, human choice, agency, love. There is no ennui in the world of The Giver. No restlessness or desire; merely ignorant bliss.

Fittingly it is the moments of imbalance which one remembers most from the novel. The memories transmitted by the Giver are all somewhat tinged by imbalance. This is why the perfect community needs to be shielded from them. Love is an imbalance, as is anger and war and the wild abandon of a sled ride down a hill. One can feel in Jonas’s affinity for the memory of an elephant enraged by poachers that this too is how the young man feels about his society. They, his community, have killed a beautiful, wild thing.

Review:

Enjoyable read which makes some prescient points without being preachy. I like how Jonas’s town is much like modern America with its ethos of avoidance of pain (or remorse or suffering) at all cost as well as the desire to make everything safe. Playgrounds must be padded, guardrails installed at every point where pedestrians walk, people led by the hand regardless if they’re 5 or 50 or 100.

The Giver has spiritual descendants in later stories, such as the Truman Show (idyllic utopia founded on a lie, or at least an illusion) and Pleasantville (utopia also based on removing the messiness of life, also incidentally a film which also plays around with color as a symbol of knowledge and vibrancy).

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