The Giver is powerful. When I first read it as a middle schooler, it made me think, in a different way than other books had made me think. I remember walking out of my house and staring at a tree, wondering what it would be like to see it without color.
Jonas’ life is completely structured by the rules of his utopian community, from his daily routine to the way he expresses himself at dinner. The story opens with a tinge of fear; Jonas feels nervous about his coming of age ceremony, in which he will be assigned his first and only adult job. This fear at the start is rather ironic, already the book hints at the impossibility of suppressing every negative feeling, of creating the ‘perfect’ society absent from pain.
Jonas is awarded the role of Receiver. He reports to the Giver, an old man who begins to transfer memories of the past. In Jonas’ world, the wealth of human knowledge, history, and experience has been suppressed by the community’s Elders and is known to only two members— the Giver and the Receiver. Through memories, Jonas now begins to feel, really and truly for the first time in his life, emotions with actual depth. Along with these emotions he sees color. He experiences pain. These experiences set him apart from the community he once accepted without question, until he is thrust into contact with a dark and revolting truth behind the structure that supports their daily life. He sees no other option but to run.
The plot is simple, not much action occurs. The story’s strength is in the journey of Jonas from complacent and unreflective community participant to enlightened Receiver. The reader is lulled into Jonas’ sense of security for the first half of the book, only to be ripped away with him, to be shown that the ‘peace’ of this community is founded on a lie. None of the characters, even Jonas, are particularly memorable—the interest of the story from the beginning comes from the community itself, its structure, rules and norms.
Though children often ignore rules, they have an intuitive grasp and even fascination with them. The first part of The Giver becomes a game for younger readers—rather than evaluate the community’s way of life, they accept the structure in the same way that they accept rules in their own life, as something beyond themselves, taken for granted and not often understood. The story’s tone contributes to this initial acceptance, with minimal hints that this community is indeed flawed, and the reader believes with Jonas that all is well, that all is good, and that life is as it’s always been.
Then comes the awakening. Jonas is given memories. The most striking aspect of his first experience of color is that there is no indication that he was not seeing color before. Color was not mentioned; Jonas simply did not know what he was missing. This generates a shock for the reader, who assumed that Jonas’ life was at least in this basic faculty similar to the reader’s own. This prompts the reader to wonder, as I wondered staring at that tree as if for the first time, not just what would the world be like without color, but what it would be like to live without even knowing you are missing color.
The book compels us to recognize the beauty of what we take for granted, from our experience of color to our freedom of choice, exercised from the smallest personal encounters to lifelong commitments toward career or spouse. This autonomy has been stripped from the inhabitants of Jonas’ world, and they do not know what they are missing. We readers, on the other side, experience this wealth of freedom and do not often consider or appreciate what we do in fact have.
Furthermore, in a haunting scene The Giver dramatizes the inhuman reality of institutionalized evil. A grave injustice has been given a pleasing euphemism by Jonas’ community and is regarded as a good in most cases. The scene in which Jonas discovers the true nature of this act—which I will not reveal so as to not spoil the shock for first-time readers—is masterful in its use of dramatic understatement. The action is described as casually as it’s done, part of the daily routine in the community, and Jonas the spectator is left just as horrified as the reader.
Jonas risks starvation and hypothermia in the outside world to escape his safe and twisted community, to free himself and protect a small child who has become his companion. This act of love and self-sacrifice, foregoing his safety on behalf of this boy, is the antithesis of everything the community stands for. Jonas gives everything for the weak and defenseless, and nearly dies because of it.
But the book ends in ambiguity. We are given a slight trace of hope; after miles and miles of journeying at last they see a hint of light. Jonas hears a whisper of music. He recalls a memory of a happy family at Christmas, the memory where he first learned love. There the story ends. We do not know if Jonas and the child ever reached safety, or where that safety was, this so-called Elsewhere.
Simple almost to a fault, the novel makes its point passionately, drives it home with relentless precision. Humans have emotions, memories, see color, and though often difficult, these experiences are unquestionably worthwhile. What the story doesn’t answer adequately is why they are worthwhile. All becomes rather grave and a bit too abstract. The characters understand that the weak must be saved and good prevail, but it is unclear how this might be done. The character of the Giver is presented as possessing all the wealth of human knowledge, yet he spends his life in extremities of pain. One wonders about joy, hope, mirth—memories of the past have become a sickening burden rather than an uplifting liberation. Surely the Giver would have wondrous reserves of wisdom to draw upon, to help him through difficult present times. Isn’t this the reason why we want to preserve memories in the first place? In the story, Love is not expressed through a person, it remains a mysterious feeling. At times The Giver reads like a modern morality tale, and it’s no surprise it ends in ambiguity.
But the story should be read. The book’s presentation is riveting and will not leave the reader indifferent. Deeper themes such as the reality of evil, and how we might work to oppose institutional oppression, should be discussed with older readers. For younger readers, the experience of wonder and contemplation that the book provokes is enough to award it a place on any recommended reading list. Questioning the bleak tone of the story, as well as its somewhat mysterious ending, could provide fodder for excellent conversation. This is a book to read and discuss, not just to read and drop. Once read, it is hard not to discuss. For parents and children alike, the experience of The Giver begins with finishing the story, then continues through wrestling with its themes and the experience it presents. Ask those who have read The Giver what they think about it. You won’t be disappointed.
- If Jonas had never received memories from the Giver, would he have been happy? Why or why not?
- Can you describe what life would be like without seeing color?
- Why does Jonas’ community think it is unwise to let people make their own decisions?
- Do you think Jonas reached safety? What do you think happened to his community when he, the Receiver, left them?
- Why does Jonas like experiencing the feeling that the Giver tells him is called ‘Love’? How does this influence his decision to take Gabriel when he leaves the community?
- If you had to transfer some of the most important memories in your life to another person, which ones would they be and why?