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September's Literary Gem: The Giver - Who is Worthy of Receiving?

The Giver by Lois Lowry explores a dystopian world that showcases the dangers of censoring qualities that define the human experience. Limiting the truth of the past to a designated "receiver" raises the question of who is worthy of receiving knowledge. This question of the worthiness of receiving the full scope of experience, facts, history, emotions, colors, and beyond is extraordinarily pertinent in American society today where works of literature and historical facts are actively suppressed in educational curriculums in numerous states and school districts across the nation. The Giver is one of the many banned books that have recently been pulled from curriculums and school libraries.

Jonas is the protagonist of the novel, a twelve-year-old who has recently been selected to be society’s next Receiver. The position of Receiver is considered a great honor and is extremely selective. There is literally one Receiver for the whole of society, and the responsibility of the Receiver is to receive and contain the entirety of the world’s history, literature, and human expression. The collective memories of Jonas’s society have been wiped clean. No one remembers emotions, historical events, or even colors. The color red, like all other hues, has been dulled to an indistinguishable shade of grey; likewise, emotions stronger than contentment are quelled, such as the daily dinnertime family discussions of feelings. As Jonas receives the memories of human experience from the Giver, he discovers for the first time in his life the brilliance of what makes life worth living.

Who is worthy? According to society, the Receiver should possess intelligence, integrity, courage, wisdom, and a capacity to see beyond. Society decided to limit the knowledge to a single Receiver because memories of the past would hurt. As the Giver explained to Jonas, “Once, everyone had access to memories. It was chaos. Everyone suffered.” Jonas did suffer, learning firsthand the pains of hunger, war, devastation, fire, agony, and so on, as part of his training. Society recognized that there was value in the memories, hence the need to contain them and access them periodically, but they didn’t want to feel it. Tapping into the experience of humanity is simply too threatening. As Jonas asked after a particularly painful lesson, “Shouldn’t everyone shoulder this pain?” The governing powers did not give people the choice, nor did they “shoulder the pain” of the past, only tapped into it should the need arise with an unfamiliar problem.

The Giver has frequently been challenged because of its society’s euphemistic practice of “releasing” citizens. The word “release” isn’t explicitly defined in the novel until Jonas watches the recording of his father releasing an identical twin (because identical twins would be an ironic aberration from societal sameness), but even before this pivotal scene, the reader can conclude that a released individual is killed. The opening scene of the novel describes Jonas’s memory of a misdirected pilot who was released for crossing forbidden airspace. The speakers announced with urgency for citizens to go inside, and then presumably when the pilot was captured, the speakers announced that citizens were free to go about their business. Jonas knew, “For a contributing citizen to be released from the community was a final decision, a terrible punishment, an overwhelming statement of failure.” Yet, the practice of release is also celebrated, such as the euthanasia of elderly citizens. The elderly are celebrated for their contributions to society, recognized and honored by the entire community, and released behind closed doors.

Perhaps what makes the practice of release so disturbing is the idea of a greater power (in this case, the government officials led by the Chief Elder) to determine the duration of life for its citizens. I would argue that this topic is, by far, the least concerning issue in The Giver, just the most convenient thematic scapegoat as grounds for banning. Unlike other banned books, there are no explicit scenes, no sexual or violent images that have been used as grounds to ban other books. Instead, the real concerns raised in The Giver are far too spot on as real-life parallels. It’s easy to say that The Giver is an inappropriate book for middle-grade children because of the murder of released people (including infants who either fail to thrive or possess some defect that challenges the norms of society). It’s harder for the proponents of banned books to admit that their actual intentions in banning books like The Giver are to mold a parallel society of sameness, one where schools, libraries, and homes are gutted of books that challenge the perspective of those in power.

You can pick your own dystopian label (divergent, defective, aberration, underground, miscreants, and other fragmentations of society), but the community depicted by Jonas while he was a still blissfully ignorant child valued sameness. Differences were only valued by its contributions, such as the various career paths assigned to citizens at the Ceremony of Twelve. From age three to twelve, children are educated in bland uniformity starting with language acquisition. At the age of three, children not only learn words as a means of communication, but they also learn the concept of “precision of language.” This concept is first introduced with the misguided pilot memory when Jonas initially thinks he feels “frightened” about the upcoming Ceremony of Twelve, but realizes that it’s too strong of a word.

“Now, thinking about the feeling of fear as he pedaled home along the river path, he remembered that moment of palpable, stomach-sinking terror when the aircraft had streaked above. It was not what he was feeling now with December approaching. He searched for the right word to describe his own feelings. Jonas was careful about language.”

Halfway through the novel, when Jonas learns about love through the memories he received, he asks his parents if they love him. Both of his parents are taken aback by his question, initially deflecting with exclamations of “precision of language, please!

His parents, recognizing the seriousness of his question, attempted to answer in a way that would be acceptable and understandable to Jonas. It reminded me of trying to explain some abstract and uncomfortable topic to a preschooler.

“‘Your father means that you used a very generalized word, so meaningless that it’s become almost obsolete… And of course, our community can’t function smoothly if people don’t use precise language. You could ask, ‘Do you enjoy me?’ The answer is ‘yes.’… ‘Or,’ his father suggested, ‘Do you take pride in my accomplishments? And the answer is wholeheartedly ‘Yes.’”

But these parental explanations fail to explain to Jonas why love is meaningless, why love is obsolete, why love is suppressed in the same manner as history or the colors of the rainbow. It makes me wonder who would want to live in a world devoid of human expression. Would people choose to live in a world devoid of the full spectrum of colors, one where love is obsolete, if they had known what love could be? Even extreme negative emotions serve a purpose in the collective unconscious of humanity. In the words of Solomon in Ecclesiastes, “There’s a time to love and a time to hate… To all things, there is a season.”

Around the age of 12, many children in Society begin to experience the “stirrings.” The stirrings are the emotional changes that accompany puberty. Although Society may have wiped clean all memories of the human experience, they are unable to completely erase the biological transformations of maturity. In addition to the physical changes of puberty, such as growth, there is also the surge of hormones that lead to attraction.

Jonas first experiences the “stirrings” after he begins his training with the Giver. For the first time, he felt a pang of longing for his childhood friend, Fiona. He didn’t understand it, but he felt something ineffable, incomprehensible. He shared this feeling with his parents and his mother explained that Jonas was now experiencing the “stirrings” and once this began, he would be expected to take a pill daily to suppress them. This was a normal practice expected of all adults. Stirrings lead to attraction which leads to passion which leads to love and love is the most dangerous emotion of all.

Because love is deemed meaningless and obsolete, love is not what binds the family unit. Adult members of society can request a spouse (except the few who are deemed unworthy such as the birth mothers who provide three children and then are reassigned to labor, an assignment that is generally considered as lacking honor or prestige since these mothers are selected because they lack other skills for contribution beyond fertility). If approved, spouses are matched and assigned. Once partnered, these couples can request children. Each family unit consists of a mother, a father, a boy child, and a girl child. There are no deviations from this family unit; once children are grown and no longer under the care of their parents, the adult members move to the childless adult center and they remain there until they are no longer able to contribute professionally to the needs of society. There are no extended family members such as grandparents, nor do they celebrate holidays or birthdays. Given the explanation from Jonas’s mother that all adults (including Jonas’s parents) take medication to suppress the stirrings, it is evident that these marriages are nothing more than a business arrangement for raising children and once this task is complete, there is nothing to bind these couples together. These marriages are not bound by love or passion; they are bound by societal obligations.

Yet, because members of the society lack the background knowledge or the freedom of free will and choice, they neither know nor want anything else. Why would they? Most people are content to blindly follow the expectations of their society rather than question or deviate from the norm. Perhaps this is why books are the target of such censorship efforts. The act of reading is an active practice and even the laziest and most reluctant of readers will begin to make connections and draw inferences with enough practice. That is why the proponents of book banning are so intent on ridding school libraries and other venues of books that deviate from their perspective of sameness. Censorship as a means of control is far too close to a parallel to today’s book-banning efforts for any astute observer.

“‘But why can’t everyone have the memories? I think it would seem a little easier if the memories were shared. You and I wouldn’t have to bear so much by ourselves, if everybody took a part.’

“The Giver sighed. ‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘But then everyone would be burdened and pained. They don’t want that. And that’s the real reason The Receiver is so vital to them and so honored. They selected me—and you—to lift that burden from themselves.’”

Personally, I don’t believe that the motivation for banning books is to contain the knowledge for a select person or group of people. Instead, I think the motivation is to suppress the memories entirely. It is easier to control a society that would prefer to delegate original thoughts to artificial intelligence. It is easier to control a society that is directed to shun and blame a scapegoat for societal woes (such as LGBTQ+ or BIPOC) than it is to examine experiences that may not mirror those approved by whatever entity has claimed that power.

I believe that The Giver is a cautionary tale of what society could be if proponents of banned books get their way. Who in our society today is worthy of receiving? Should the receivers of knowledge be limited to age restrictions or personal qualities? Should educational institutions or parents make that decision? At what point should people of any age be trusted to discern wisdom for themselves? Whether banning, burning, closing, or censoring, the suppression of contradictory thoughts and ideas is the foundation of a totalitarian society, the antithesis of what the founding fathers drafted in our Constitution. Even if the adage “history is written by the winners” pervades, the stories, history, and perspectives of everyone have value and deserve to be read and available for anyone who wishes to do so. I believe anyone has the capacity to see beyond if given the opportunity.


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