Genre: Utopia/Dystopia (I cannot decide)
Main characters: Jonas
Time and place: the far future
First sentence: “It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened.”
Verdict: Four and a half stars.
Jonas is a eleven year old boy who lives in a society where everything is regulated. The quality of life is high, and if one would ask them the people there would say they do not lack anything.
As Jonas turns twelve, he is chosen to become a Receiver of Memory, the most honored role in their society, one that implies having access to all the memories of their forefathers. It is this way that Jonas gets to find out about how things once were, and realizes how not-so-utopic the society he lives in actually is.
I have no idea what I was expecting this book to be, but it took me completely by surprise. In a good way, of course. It’s one of those books that made me think, and I love those. I am quite looking forward to reading the sequels (although I understand that they are set in totally different worlds).
For me, the world building was the best part. It had elements that are unmistakably 1984-esque, such as the speakers in everyone’s homes, speakers that could not be turned off and that chastised children/people who did something untoward. And, of course, the feeling that someone, somewhere, is always watching.
There are also some main differences though, because this world is, at least on the surface, quite friendly to its inhabitants, or at least those of them that do obey the rules. Lying to one another is forbidden, and children are taught from an early age not to be rude with others. People’s path in life (their jobs, their marriages, their kids) is assigned to them by the Elders, but great care is taken for these choices to fit the individual they were imposed on (“Matching of Spouses was given such weighty consideration that sometimes an adult who applied to receive a spouse waited months or even years before a Match was approved and announced. All of the factors — disposition, energy level, intelligence, and interests — had to correspond and to interact perfectly“). There are also mandatory rituals that are supposed to relieve people of their daily stresses: the evening ‘telling of feelings’, when people shared their feelings with their ‘family unit’ and were helped to deal with them, and the morning sharing of dreams, which was pretty much the same.
Everything is very well regulated. A ‘family unit’ always has a mother, a father, one boy child, and one girl. There are precisely 50 babies born and entrusted to families every year. The children are all given names that are unique in the community (only when someone dies his or her name may be used again; unless the person did something particularly reprehensible so the name is forbidden to reuse), but they also have numbers, according to their age and the number they had on the list on the day they were ‘assigned’ to their families. And so on and so forth.
The obvious question that this raises is: would building a carefree life like that justify the loss of choice? The answer, in the context of the world in a book, is a resounding yes. And that is because those people (with the exception of Jonas later on) had no idea they were missing anything, as no one had ever told them there could be such a thing as free will. It takes one of us, people living under a different regime, to be horrified at the immensity of their loss. Although to be fair I do think that the idea of having someone always making the best decisions does have its merits for the society as a whole (a society where no one makes the wrong choices has no way to go but up, right?). However, from an individual point of view this would be nothing short of a catastrophe — we grow by learning from our mistakes, we gather strength by surpassing obstacles; it is this very growth that makes us who we are.
But I digress. Back to the book :)
This is a short book with plenty of world-building, so the characters are not developed beyond a few basic brush strokes. We don’t even know most of them’s names.
I liked Jonas a lot. I thought his transition from a child of his own society — taking things for granted, playing by the rules, and never thinking for himself beyond the basics — to the one who knew and understood things was quite believable and well done, albeit a bit short in pages (it did take about a year in ‘real-time’). I liked the way he found some answers to the questions no one ever thought of — such as what are animals (they used the word, but had no idea of its actual meaning), what the children’s plush toys represented (each ‘newchild’ was given a plush ‘comfort object’, with a strange name — hippo, elephant, bear — and shape), or what some of their games had their roots in. Even deprecated words, like ‘love’, become full of meaning for Jonas. The memories change him irrevocably, and for the better.
I feel like I should say something about the Giver too, but I only see him as a means to an end. Basically he is there to provide the information Jonas needs, we rarely if ever get any insights in his own mind. We know his task is very brave, taking on everyone’s memories and relieving them of their burden, but I do not know whether to read too much into that since it was a task imposed on him and not one he chose himself. I imagine him as an older version of Jonas, with the same courage and same willingness to do the right thing.
That is also an interesting part. People are no longer capable of love, or perhaps they have just discarded it as unnecessary. Since a ‘family unit’ is brought together by the authorities, they have no real blood ties and no actual attachment to one another, other than mere familiarity. Sure, parents are proud of their children’s achievements, but only because they reflect on themselves and their parenting style. Children are well cared for, but that is because this is the way things are supposed to be done. The parent-child interactions are stilted and formulaic, using pre-established sentences. A far cry from the way Jonas interacts with the Giver himself, asking all the questions he needs and being given answers, even when those answers are not easy ones.
The most obvious example of the general lack of feeling is Jonas’ family reaction to baby Gabriel: they took him in, because if he didn’t make it it would reflect badly on Jonas’ father performance as a Nurturer. They all took care of him for about a year, and yet they never bonded, they were absolutely indifferent when told they have to let Gabe go.
What I liked
My absolute favorite thing by far was the part related to colors.
I also liked the way the author has imagined the childhood stages of the people in that community.
First, there is the Ceremony for the Ones:
Each December, all the newchildren born in the previous year turned One. One at a time — there were always fifty in each year’s group, if none had been released — they had been brought to the stage by the Nurturers who had cared for them since birth. Some were already walking, wobbly on their unsteady legs; others were no more than a few days old, wrapped in blankets, held by their Nurturers.
There is a similar ceremony for each age up to twelve, marking the passing from one particular stage to another.
For example, when one became a Seven one was allowed (requested actually) to wear a front buttoned jacket for the first time.
Fours, Fives, and Sixes all wore jackets that fastened down the back so that they would have to help each other dress and would learn interdependence. The front-buttoned jacket was the first sign of independence, the first very visible symbol of growing up.
At Eight, one got another jacket, “with smaller buttons and, for the first time, pockets, indicating that she was mature enough now to keep track of her own small belongings“. At Nine, each kid got a bike (the only means of transportation allowed), “the powerful emblem of moving gradually out into the community, away from the pro-tective family unit“. At Ten their hair was shortened, and at Eleven they got new clothes again, “different undergarments for the females, whose bodies were beginning to change; and longer trousers for the males, with a specially shaped pocket for the small calculator that they would use this year in school“. The last important step was becoming Twelve, when one was assigned to their future job. After that, people usually no longer kept track of their age.
I think nothing makes more obvious the Sameness of everything than the idea of these stages. Everyone wore the same clothes, everyone wore their hair the same way, and so forth. I find it quite an original idea and I salute the author’s imagination for thinking about it.
What I did not like
Not a fault of the book’s per se but I was confused to find out that there still was snow and animals still existed in that world. Seeing that no one knew about them other than the Giver, I would have expected them to be long gone/extinct. And they weren’t even that far away, since Jonas only had to travel a few days to find them. Although now that I think about it, this too — the fact that people had no idea of the things in their vicinity — could be a sign of how isolated, closed, and self-sufficient the community was.
Thoughts on the title
“The Giver” is one of the central characters of the book, so the title is very apt. I also like how it comes with a touch of mystery — I used to try to imagine what exactly is that the giver in the book is giving. I never had a satisfactory theory about that, but even if I did I don’t think I would have guessed in a million years what the actual answer is :)
Thoughts on the ending
I can’t stop thinking about it.
Recommend it to?
Anyone. It is an interesting read and also quite short (I read it in a single sitting).
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