Book Review: The Giver

I did end up reading The Giver, which I borrowed from another teacher at around three in the afternoon and read to the end, because he needed it back and I wasn’t going to be at school until late. So I was sitting on my counter in my classroom until it got dark, then on the couch in the teacher’s lounge reading this book. It’s about a three hour read. I would recommend it, I think. It’s thoughtfully and well written, and fairly easy as well. The message seems to be that suffering, especially shared suffering, is necessary for freedom and joy and love. Risk is also necessary. Without suffering and risk life becomes bland and tepid. I wish, though, that the protagonist hadn’t run away at twelve going on thirteen. Of course, plot-wise, he has to: it would be a precarious business trying to compound reasons for him to stay on another decade or so, and by then perhaps the old Giver of Memories would have died or retired, or at least become useless, which would be good — the plot needs both of them to work.

Still, I’m discontent with that arrangement. I’m discontent, I think, because it confuses what’s at issue in the book, and therefore confuses whether I wish for Jonas to succeed or not, and whether the memories have indeed taught him wisdom, or simply hubris. On the one hand, Jonas’ community, devoid of Love and Joy and Memory, is appallingly dull; tending toward non-being, as theologians are wont to say. So when Jonas judges it as such it’s hard to disagree. All the same, his youth confuses this, because it’s part of youth — when a young person first experiences feelings (not just sexual, but any feelings) that he or she didn’t know existed before — to suffer a bit from delusion, “high-mindedness” (the feeling of being particularly special and more important; the reason young people should not read Nietzsche, or too much Philokalia), and the thought that nobody else feels, sees, things, knows, or understands whatever it is the young person is experiencing. Yes, I do this too sometimes. Individuation and whatnot. Well, in the world of The Giver, these feelings are not simply internal perceptions, but are actually true. The other people really don’t feel pain or love. They really don’t see colors. They really don’t love beauty. Nobody except Jonas’ mentor, the Giver of Memories, who shares the burden of all the community’s forgotten memories.

Most of us (I expect) eventually, gradually, through speaking and listening and reading and getting to know other people, grow out of our “nobody has every felt as I feel” stage. As in the movie Shadowlands, “we read to know that we are not alone,” and learn that, no matter how little it may be a topic of daily conversation, we are truly not alone. We get to know people whom we understand and who understand us. In The Giver, however, Jonas does not — instead he learns that he is supposed to carry a burden alone and rebells. In the way, he never gets to complete the process of maturing within his community, and whether or not he will do so in Elsewhere is left to the imagination.

I would that, rather, he were to learn that even his creepily subdued former friends and neighbors contain whole worlds. I would have rather he had learned that even in such a life people are not simply paper cut outs devoid of true personhood. Or, if not, I wish he would have had an opportunity to begin to know himself better, and see those aspects of himself that were shallow and blinded, even with the memories, and had to learn some humility and caution. I suppose that’s part of the point of the story: his society is organized to make such self-knowledge impossible, but then it would be all the more a victory. Then he could go off to Elsewhere, but not as “the only person who truly knows and feels.”

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One thought on “Book Review: The Giver

  1. I love that you would just sit down and read through such a gentle read as well to know it better. We are much alike there. I’ll keep your review in mind. I don’t assign much typical lit style reading, but if/when I am asked about this book being a good choice to read for another class if will consider what criticism you have wisely shared. Not a bad book, but hardly the greatest of coming of age stories ever penned.

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