Decoding the Newbery is a monthly column in which Newbery Medal winners are examined and deconstructed by regular contributor and author Catherine Faris King. This month, Catherine reads The Giver, the Newbery winner for 1994.
“… He had been taken aside for a brief private lesson in language precision. He was not starving, it was pointed out. He was hungry. No one in the community was starving, had ever been starving, would ever be starving. To say “starving” was to speak a lie.” (The Giver, pg. 70)
Lois Lowry’s The Giver has been, in many ways, the shadow looming over my column these many months. It touched me as a young reader, and as an adult writer, I deeply admire it. It is widely assigned, and so has a large audience, plus a film adaptation, which I have not seen. And as you see when we break it down, it is very nearly the distilled essence of Newbery.
In a Small Town that is only ever called The Community, there lives a Kid Hero named Jonas. On the cusp of the Ceremony of Twelve, the communal day of graduation, Jonas is unsure about his future. It is to the surprise of everyone, especially himself, that at the Ceremony he is actually brought forward and given a very rare, little-understood vocation. Based on his capacity for “Seeing-Beyond,” he is named the new Receiver of Memory, meant to train under the Giver of Memory.
His Hands On Training with his Wise Mentor (the Giver himself) consists of the telepathic transfer of memories, all of the memories of the world that was. These memories – multifarious, rich, and painful – allows The Giver to touch on multiple Social Issues, while making the book itself a longer meditation on free will and choice versus security and limitation. Lowry’s writing gives the book an open-ended sort of Applicability, meaning this text could be read as a justification of any number of political viewpoints.
As he receives more and more memories, Jonas’ view of the world he lives in changes. Everyone seems placid and shallow, from his family to his Love Interest, Fiona. This tension reaches a breaking point, when Jonas forcibly realizes how meaningless life in his Community truly is.
There is a Death at this point in the novel – and quite a shocking one, too – but it, by itself, is not the catalyst for maturity that defines a Death By Newbery Medal. Death By Newbery Medal seems to hinge on death being experienced as something immediate and very personal. The Giver does not feature that kind of death.
Instead, this book occupies a small list of Newbery winners – including The Graveyard Book and Hitty: Her First Hundred Years – where instead of suffering the loss of one particular dear, our hero must leave behind everyone that they know and love. Forever. I guess that’s one way to signify adulthood…
In short, Jonas decides he has to leave the Community, and leave all the memories he’s gained to be loosed in the collective unconscious (somehow) and this will rescue the Community from the Sameness they’ve chosen. The book ends ambiguously, and I cling to that ambiguity, even though I have read all three sequels – Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son. I liked none of them so well as the idea that, at the end, Jonas travels in a great big circle and returns to a Community transformed by love and history. Hey, it makes as much sense as the memories getting loose in the first place. This work is not a hard sociological exercise, but more like a moral fable.
Maybe it’s all the Newbery winners I’ve been reading, but I see something almost metafictional about Jonas’ gradual learning process. Receiving memories makes a clear metaphor for reading. Books, in addition to memories, are the property of the Giver, but forbidden to any other citizens. The given memories lends new dimension and color to Jonas’ existence, allowing him to live other lives and experience empathy – often by confronting the worst aspects of human choice head-on. The process does not become as self-referential as, say, Jonas experiencing a memory of owning a scrappy little dog, only to witness that dog’s sudden and death. But it’s close.
This metaphor has a merciless quality. Anyone who does not have access to memory – who does not read, or think about their history or future – is a cheerful, shallow drone who doles out death with a smile. In this dystopia, life is the Community and the Community is life, and any differentiation beyond that is pointless.
I am not normally a fan of dystopian fiction. So often, they’re cartoonish. The world that the writer creates is exaggerated from our own, but the characters who populate it seem to exist purely to show off the world. Consequently, whatever point the writer wants to make has the subtlety of a freight train.
The Giver is anything but cartoonish. The characters are subdued, open, but appear totally functional. In fact, initially the Community seems like a pretty good place to live. Though less openly tyrannical than the planet Camazotz, from A Wrinkle In Time, it nevertheless embodies the ideal of “equality” spoken of by the Man With Red Eyes. Everyone there is equal, and alike. Equal because they are alike, like interchangeable parts in a machine.
A Wrinkle in Time and its planet of Camazotz was shaped by the Red Scare and banal happiness of the Sixties. But how was The Giver shaped particularly by the Nineties?
I’d argue that Lois Lowry was affected by the debates about “political correctness” raging on in the 90’s American culture. “Political correctness” is an idea whose very definition is polarizing. To some, it was the first culture-wide attempt at tolerance in language. This was the era when “Inuit” replaced “Eskimo,” when “sanitation worker” replaced “trash man.” Other commentators – people right of center – saw “being PC” as an omen of the end times. They thought that this kind of language indicated weakness, and betrayed America’s virile tradition of straight talkin’. PC became an insult, and then a joke.
But PC isn’t dead. It has left a powerful legacy in American discourse. Political correctness – and its descendent, “inclusivity” – brings to light the power of language to hurt, and the way that language shapes the world that we live in.
Language creates the world of The Giver, and not just because it is a prose work with no illustrations. The narrator gives very few visual descriptions of the setting. Instead, the language that the Community uses is what shapes them as a peculiar society. Language includes the ritual of apology and accepting, the grieving process of saying a lost one’s name over and over again until their memory is gone (a task which can be finished in one sitting), the trading of names from the departed Old to the Newchildren, and the strict precision of language.
The precision of language only underscores the horror of the Community’s euphemisms at work. Anyone who’s read the book will remember the phrase “Released to Elsewhere.”
Officially, it means being excused from the stratified Community and sent to live somewhere else, someplace nice – but not as nice as the Community. I first read this book at just the right age, because I completely believed the term and was shocked by the truth: “Release” is lethal injection for anyone who fails to fit in, from the Old who have served their use, to people who break serious rules three times, to babies who fail to meet their developmental milestones.
On later readings, when I was older and less wise, I wondered how I could have ever fallen for such an obvious red flag.
On this reread, I think I unpacked a new and, if possible, more frightening aspect of this whole ugly process. On page 136, Jonas asks his father, a Nurturer who cares for Newchildren, how he Releases a Newchild. The father’s answer is entirely in line with what Jonas already knows about Release, which is to say, it’s a simple relocation.
[Jonas asked,] “And somebody else comes to get him? Somebody from Elsewhere?”
“That’s right, Jonas-bonus.” (The Giver, pg. 136).
I wondered why Jonas’ father lies to him so. Now that he’s past the age of twelve, Jonas is old enough to know what Release really is. Granted, Jonas’ younger sister is in earshot, but if Jonas’ father respected his son’s curiosity, he could take Jonas out of earshot and tell him the truth. The father could decide that it’s not his role to educate his son about Release – it’s the role of Jonas’ teacher. That’s pretty cold, but also consistent with the fairly detached family units of the Community.
Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone, in their book Deconstructing Penguins, tackle The Giver in chapter 8, and they think that they’ve really hit on the key when they point out that “People only lie if they know they are doing something wrong” (pg. 125). That’s… true enough, but I really did not like where they took that analysis. Besides, lies can be benevolent (ask Santa). Lies can also be unwitting. You aren’t lying if you think you’re speaking the truth; you’re just wrong. Lies go by many names, some more socially sanctioned than others. Fiction is another name for a lie. So is myth. So is metaphor.
The conclusion that I reached is, Jonas’ father told a factual lie, but an emotional truth… from his point of view. There was nobody “from Elsewhere” to collect the baby. But whether the baby was taken to another place, or was killed, all that really mattered was the impact on the Community. If the baby doesn’t fit into the Community, its life is meaningless.
Life is the Community, and the Community is life.
In a culture that prizes precision of language, talk of “Release to Elsewhere” is just a simple metaphor. It’s not an euphemism, because there is no one to be hurt by the truth. To the Community, there is nothing hurtful in the idea of “we just kill people who don’t fit.” Execution is as casual as throwing out a cog that doesn’t fit in your machine. The people of the Community have convinced themselves – deprived of history, and choice, and emotions – that individual life is meaningless. “They know nothing,” says the Giver (pg. 153). And, as Jonas realizes to his horror, everyone – from the Chief Elder to Fiona, the Caretaker-in-training – is complicit.
That is why Jonas has to leave. The Giver is too embedded in the Community: his best role is to stay and guide the people in the wake of the memories. Jonas is just free enough to get out and seek his own fulfillment – although I will agree with the Goldstones, when they say that the Community does need Jonas there, needs him desperately. That’s why I prefer my take on the ending, where Jonas finds his way back. With his gift for Seeing-Beyond, I like to think that Jonas found his way back.
Phew… So… what’s next?
Next, we are entering the Aughts, when I officially outgrew the Newbery winners but kept onreading them. In particular, I love the 2008 Newbery Winner, Laura Amy Schlitz’s Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Prepare yourselves for copious poetry, comparisons to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, and probably some crying, because this is on the list of books that will always make me cry.