My school teacher read Lois Lowry's The Giver out loud to our class more than two decades ago. And though I haven't revisited it since, the pathos of it has stuck with me. So on a whim, I decided to reread it and see if it holds up.
It does, and surprisingly well. Although it's a young adult novel, The Giver is a solid and affecting take on what makes us human, and it's just as powerful and timely now as when it was published.
The Giver is set in a culture designed to banish anything unsafe and distressing: uncertainty, agency, pain, emotion, and individual difference. The state chooses your romantic partner, your job, your children, and your time of death. All adults take daily pills to mute their sex drives. And through genetic control, all citizens have the same skin color.
Most citizens conform to the rules and are happy to do so. Anyone who doesn't conform, or who errs too gravely, is "released" from the community.
At his career assignment ceremony, our protagonist Jonas is assigned a rare and honored role: to be his community's Receiver and inherit the memories of his predecessor, the eponymous Giver.
Here a fantasy element reveals itself: Jonas can experience each memory he receives as vividly as if he had lived through it himself. And these memories are not always kind ones. Among sled rides and blissful holidays with family are war, famine, and all the horrors his society had tried to banish.
The aged Giver is stooped with the burden of memory, and he regrets what he must do to Jonas; but he passes on his pain anyway, as duty requires.
The pathos of the book is in Jonas' slow awakening into his human birthright, which in turn reveals how barren his society is. For much of his life, Jonas has noticed that objects look strange sometimes. He later learns that this strange appearance is color, and that the rest of his community sees only grayscale. And like Grant Achatz recovering his sense of taste, Jonas gradually fills out his inventory of human experience: snow, which reveals the hermetic steritily of his climate-controlled town; hills, which were bulldozed away centuries ago; animals, which his community has never seen.
Despite the painful burden of memory, Jonas becomes more contemptuous of the robotic vapidity of his world, and he desperately tries to lead his friends and family to see the world as he does. But without a common frame of reference, Jonas cannot say anything they could understand.
The Giver is not without flaws. Its dénouement is anticlimactic and mechanically contrived. Perhaps because of the genre, Lowry barely discusses romantic and sexual love, even though suicide is discussed much more directly.
But despite these limitations, Lowry has still created a worthy book. The Giver nails the fundamental points over and over where lesser works would falter.
The first fundamental point is that there is no clear villain in the story. A lesser work would contrive a villain or mastermind, but Lowry gives no easy out. All that can be blamed is the system itself.
The second is that Jonas' community is happy, if blandly so. There is no undercurrent of fear or paranoia in Lowry's characters, no latent human spirit waiting for the right hero. Instead, the community forges its own chains and is happy to wear them.
And the third, and most profound, is that the burden of memory is not a saccharine positive. Many of Jonas' memories are painful and traumatic. A previous Receiver candidate explicitly takes her own life rather than live on with the trauma. And Jonas is not obviously happier than he was at the start of the novel.
Instead, Jonas is more alive. Though deprived of his friends, his family, and everything he has ever known, his life is rich beyond reckoning.
Rereading this as an adult, there's a palpable subtext here.
Our hero lives in a system that has optimized itself for crude and banal values and sacrificed the richness of the natural and interior world to do so. Nobody he knows designed this system, and yet he and his community live within its grasp. At times he sees flashes of what lies beyond his narrow routine. And eventually, through a radical awakening, he encounters precious and transformative things that his society no longer esteems or understands.
The Giver ends with a bit of plot contrivance: if someone with received memories leaves the community, all of those memories will return to the community. So Jonas saves the one person he can — a toddler who, like him, can receive memories — and leaves behind everything he knows and loves.
His future uncertain, he wanders on in search of something rich and true.