In the early pages of The Giver, life in “the community” sounds almost pleasant. Jonas and his family share warm, convivial meals; they live neat and ordered lives. The community’s rules seem firm, but reasonable.
Jonas is happy. His family and neighbors are happy. He is a Twelve this year and looks forward, nervously, to The Ceremony, where the Committee of Elders will announce the vocations of the community’s Twelves. But after Jonas receives his assignment—an unexpected, once-a-generation or so assignment—he begins to see his life differently, and our understanding of the community shifts as his does.
We notice, now that Jonas mentions it, speakers in each home that must remain switched ON. And as he learns more about them, the rules start to seem less and less reasonable. We begin to see, beneath the seemingly tranquil surface of the community, the faintest current of fear.
If we tried to eliminate suffering, what would the world look like?
I think it would look a lot like this community: comfortable, ordered, predictable, but also colorless and controlled. Shallow. To avoid the lows, the community must also erase the highs, so while they manage pain and eradicate grief, they must also erase love, joy, and beauty. To make everyone truly equal, they must erase even the concept of history, so that all that is is what is right now. There is nothing before this, they say. And we see how much the community has truly lost.
Only Jonas and his teacher, The Giver, understand anything about life outside the community. The question before them is: What will they do with that knowledge?
This is a challenging read—absorbing and well-written but definitely one to discuss, as it shows by subtraction some of what makes us most human. What would life be like without suffering or discomfort, without pain and grief? They are terrible things to be sure, but they denote an absence of good and wonderful things: Love. Peace. Pleasure. Delight.
By the end of this book, I found myself grateful that we live in a world that has the one, even if (for now) it must also have the other.
Lois Lowry (1993)