“What if we could hold up things that were bright red, or bright yellow, and he could choose. Instead of the Sameness.”
“He might make wrong choices.”
“Oh.” Jonas was silent for a minute. “Oh, I see what you mean. It wouldn’t matter for a newchild’s toy. But later it does matter, doesn’t it? We don’t dare to let people make choices of their own.”
“Not safe?” The Giver suggested.
“Definitely not safe,” Jonas said with certainty. “What if they were allowed to choose their own mate? And chose wrong?"
“Or what if,” he went on, almost laughing at the absurdity, “they chose their own jobs?”
In Jonas' utopian world, adult males and females are matched to be a couple based on their traits so that their dispositions balance out. If their 'marriage' works out for three years, then they can apply to bring home a child. There are separate birthing females who deliver children, and these children are sent to be cared for by couples who have applied for a child. Each couple can have only two children - one male and one female. In December, there is a two-day ceremony during which each child between the ages of one and twelve celebrates the milestone of completing another year. Depending on their age, a child is given a bicycle, assigned volunteer hours, gets his/her hair cut, or given a life career. Jonas himself is approaching twelve years of age, the age at which he will be assigned his career, and he is feeling apprehensive about it. What if they assign him a career that doesn't fit him? But then, the committee gives him the highest honor of being the Receiver - the one person who receives all the memories of the past (including all the horrible things that happened - hunger, pain and war, and the good things like color, snow, happiness and love) from the previous Receiver (who is now the Giver). Except, now Jonas feels strange about the life that he took for granted thus far.
This past weekend, I drove to my friends' place in Raleigh, which is just a little less than 3 hours from my home. As I always do on those drives, I popped in a Newbery Medal winner in my car CD player and settled in to listen to the one book I was most reluctant to read, for reasons I don't remember any more. But as the narrator started reading the first few passages, I was hooked. For the first time since I started listening to audiobooks (or rather the second time - Dracula would have the honor of first place), I began to find ways to lengthen my drive, especially on my return - driving through tiny towns en route or taking unnecessary pit stops. Just as Kira-Kira (another Newbery Medal winner) wowed me, The Giver also had me intrigued from the first page.
Lois Lowry creates a very utopian world in The Giver - a world where the concept of "Sameness" has been adopted. In this world, everyone is same - they have the same skin tones, same hair color, same eye color and have their decisions made for them by a higher authority. Since there are no differences to exploit, there are no competitions. It's easy to see the appeal of such a world, where you get your perfect career, where there is no bigotry or racism since everyone has the same basic physical attributes, where the old are taken care of in a housing by professional people whose job is to do that, where couples move in with other childless couples once their own (assigned) children move on to their careers, where rudeness, bragging, and wrong use of language are all punishable offences. For someone who has tasted freedom (people like us), we can immediately spot the failings of such a community - while it may be a great idea never to have to worry about your career, the fact that people don't have freedom of choice would be a huge put off for us. But, for people like Jonas and his parents and friends, who have not known any other world, the idea of choosing one's own career is a hugely laughable and impossible idea.
I loved this book! I've been a huge fan of dystopia for many reasons, but mostly because I stop taking things for granted when I come across great dystopian literature. While most of the worlds explored in such books will probably never come to pass, they explore ideas that are ostensibly the solutions to today's problems or ideas that are extreme versions of the troubles of the world. The Giver envisions a world where no one starves, everyone has equal opportunity, there is no pain and there are no bad feelings between people. Accidents don't happen, and everyone lives to a ripe old age. But to make a utopia, there would always be some sacrifices - to lock up all the badness in the world, the people were forced to also lock up the goodness as well. The people don't feel pain, but they also don't feel happiness and love, and family isn't a concept that's understood at all. There was a scene where Jonas experiences the memory of Christmas, and I was terribly moved by that moment, realizing that Jonas and his people don't celebrate life and living. All these good and bad memories had to be held somewhere - that is the Receiver's (Jonas) job. Ultimately, we begin to see that there can never be a utopia without an accompanying dystopia - a yin for a yang, heads for tails. Even for a book like The Giver, targeted to an audience far younger than me, I was hugely impressed by the depth of this novel, by the questions it raises, by how it makes the reader actually think about the consequences of wishing for utopia.
Although this book is slim and a fast read, Lois Lowry gives a well-etched description of Jonas' world. There were some aspects that weren't explained all too well, but they didn't bother me. The ending of the book was very ambiguous, but I don't want to give it away. It was an ending that's fitting in so many ways, and I could see two possible interpretations - one somewhat dismal, the other very optimistic, but however I chose to see it, the message is a happy one and I liked how the author left it to the reader to decide what could have actually happened. As I understand it, the question is resolved in the third book - Messenger, which makes me eager to go grab the next books right away from the library.
And there's a lot more about this book I want to keep talking about, but then I'll find it hard to stop. I was thrilled to discover that this book has two more sequels and there's a fourth book coming out next year. Mostly I loved how it becomes obvious that you cannot live in a world in any way than how we live in ours - would you rather live in a perfect world with no wars, hunger and famine but no happiness, sadness, family or love; or would you live in the world as we know it with all the horrible evil but with the ability to have feelings, appropriate or not.
I borrowed this book from my library.