Lois Lowry is a fantastic author. And I had to clear up two ideas, (read: TWO) ideas that I have had of Lois ever since I was a little kid. First, I didn’t read her name as Low-es, which is how it’s pronounced, but rather as Lewis, and so this fantastic author who deserved my utmost respect and love was misunderstood by me FOR SO LONG.
So Lois, I’m so very, very sorry.
And the second thing that I misunderstood about Lowry was that I always thought that she wrote happy novels. Despite having read Number the Stars and The Giver, I always had this weird idea that, “these are really sad, but the other ones are much happier.”
No, no, they aren’t. There are some people who get stuck in a genre or plot rut, and Lois Lowry is one of those who is in the rut of writing really good, but really, really sad stories.
That being said, The Giver (which is a deceptively nice title for such a sad book) is a really, really, sad book. And when I originally picked it up, my little ten year old self was not prepared for the catastrophically deep and hard lessons to be learned within these pages.
Essentially, the story is as follows: Jona grows up in essentially a perfect world. There is no pain, no suffering, no want, no needs. There is no violence, no war, no hunger, no greed. There are also no choices, but every one flows smoothly along a preordained path for their lives. For example, his “father” (babies are not “born” to families, they are given to families who apply for children to the council of elders) is a Nurturer, or someone who takes care of the babies that are born, while his “mother” is a Judge. They are also matched together by the committee of elders; as there is no such thing as love and romance (everyone takes pills to help suppress their sexual energy, referred to as “Stirrings” (I’m getting a couple of stirrings right now about Chris Evans, if you know what I mean).
Now, in the community the focus of of everything is equality and sameness. Everyone has presumably been genetically altered to be the same; same hair color, same eye color etc. Jona and the Giver he eventually meets stick out like sore thumbs, because while everyone else has dark brown eyes, they have light blue. But as it is, Jona is picked to be the next Receiver of Memory; or essentially the single person responsible for remembering emotions, experience, and the like.
I won’t ruin the whole book for you, but obviously we all eventually find out that this “utopia” is really a big fucking dystopia.
Because as I so love to quote to anyone who will listen, as my favorite author Alexander Dumas wrote,
“There is neither happiness nor unhappiness in this world; there is only the comparison of one state with another. Only a man who has felt ultimate despair is capable of feeling ultimate bliss. It is necessary to have wished for death in order to know how good life is to live.”
Can we really be happy if we are not also exposed to sadness? There is a common philosophy of pain that is sometimes found in the popular media and in some versions of Buddhism. According to this philosophy, pain is the ultimate evil. No, not perhaps the causes behind that pain, but pain itself. Which you would think is a completely natural and good philosphy, because pain really sucks sometimes. But pain is a necessary evil; because it teaches us to adapt, avoid, and overcome certain things. When we cover up or remove pain, we cannot learn from it. And with that being said, as Jona is given the memory of the sleigh for example, he feels simultaneous exultation and fear; the excitement of speed and the fear of crashing both come together to create the beautiful exhilarating thing that is a sled ride.
I don’t know about you, but I would much rather fear than feel nothing at all.