Thursday, December 17, 2009
And The Ones That Mother Gives You Don't Do Anything At All. . .
“It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened.” Thus begins The Giver, Lois Lowry’s Newberry award novel about a futuristic world of fragile perfection where there is no pain or suffering, no hunger or cold . . . no pleasure, color, or choices to be made.
During Banned Books week I made a commitment to read as many banned and challenged books over the next year as I could. I’ve recently finished The Giver, and I have Jemi Fraser, writer and teacher of the talented and gifted and Jean Oram, writer and chat moderator over at Agent Query here to discuss this complicated, brilliant novel about what it means to be human and how easily we can be molded and conditioned into “sameness”.
All memories of the past are retained for the community in one person, the Giver. He appears very old, but is he really that old, or is it just that the burden of memory has aged him? At the beginning of the book he is about to be rid of some of these burdensome memories. At the age of twelve Jonas is singled out to be the new Receiver. Do you think Jonas’s relationship with the Giver is dangerous after what happened to Rosemary, the prior “receiver”?
JEAN... I kind of wondered about that, too. Has the burden of all that knowledge prematurely aged him? Or is he actually that old?
JEMI...I think the memories have aged him, although he must be middle aged at least. It takes years for him to become the receiver, then years to do it before training Rosemary 10 years before. I don't know if the relationship is dangerous or not - Receivers have been doing this for generations. But because both Jonas & the Giver are questioning the status quo it becomes dangerous for both of them.
JEAN... It is definitely dangerous for Jonas's innocence and naivety. I did get the impression that the Giver had learned his lessons with Rosemary and that he was a lot more careful with Jonas. I didn't fear that the same thing would happen to Jonas, although it did seem that Jonas had fears that he would follow Rosemary.
The death of Rosemary is never really explored but she evidently asked to be “released” and then injected herself. The Giver watched. She was his daughter. But was she his biological daughter? If so, how could that have been possible?
JEAN... I doubted that he was her biological daughter. I think in a way, everyone was family and everyone was biologically connected, but I didn't get the impression that she was a direct descendant. They never did say where they got the males for reproduction though, did they? He didn't take his pills--maybe he's everyone's father. :)
JEMI... I think the eye colour strain is very dominant in the genes. Because they all have similar eyes, they probably are all related, although that's never really explained. We also don't know how the birthmothers are impregnated - I would assume sperm donors because of the pills to eliminate the stirrings. In that case, they could assume Rosemary is his daughter & Jonas is his son.
What was the meaning of the opening flashback when the jet overflew the community? What is this greater power that everyone is afraid of? Something or someone holds sway over the community. Does the community itself have a military? It seems they had the capability to shoot the fighter jet down, but the Giver advised them to wait.
JEMI... I think the opening was a way to set the scene - make it obvious from the beginning how different this society is from ours. My students always look around at each other for reactions when I read that part. They're wondering if it's just them realizing it's different. I think they are afraid because it is against a major rule - and they worry the status quo is being changed -jets would be a rarity. They have advanced technology, but there would be very few trained to build/fix etc. They've eschewed it to go to sameness. I don't believe the community has a military at all - war is too far removed. But there is never a satisfactory explanation for why they have planes at all.
JEAN... I think the community feels vulnerable. There is a primitive fear and awareness--an instinct that is still alive--to protect the ones they care for. I think there is also a natural reaction to lash out at things we don't understand. And things that we don't understand can feel threatening.
The sterile nightly conversations at Jonas’s dinner table and the “sharing of feelings” really irritated me. I wanted to reach across the table and shake them. I suppose this was Lowry’s intent, that we would realize how important it is to the human psyche to have real emotions. To feel real feelings. My impression of the family unit was that the mother is the enforcer…should father ever slip she’d have his head. What do you think? They don’t use the word love. “Do you love me?” asks Jonas at one point. Jonas’s mother corrects him. “It is much better to ask, do you enjoy me. Yes,” she says, “I enjoy you.” Why is it so important for the community to have what they call “precision of language”?
JEAN... I think if people become too real or feel too much, then things have the capacity to get messy. They also are not allowed to touch, something that is a basic human need. It builds connections, too. If they are to create real, deep, meaningful connections, then everything could come down like a house of cards. People might question things. Couples may fight to stay together instead of be separated and placed in the home for the old.
JEMI... There is no reason for love in their society. The parents do what they do to produce capable citizens. They are just following community expectations. Jonas' first experience of love is through the Christmas memory. All real emotions are eliminated because of their desire for sameness. They must have wanted safety in order to choose sameness. Emotions aren't safe, so they've been eliminated. The rituals are to ensure the children grow up and fit in, to ensure their reactions are acceptable.
JEAN... As for language, emotion is difficult to put into precise language. Just look at any little kid. They know happy, sad, angry. But try something more fuzzy like self-conscious, or even embarrassed. I would argue that 'love' is actually, a rather general word in the English language. For example: I loved that movie. I love chai tea. I love it when snowflakes fall on my tongue. I love you. Those are all different contexts for love, and we feel different degrees of emotion in those contexts. It isn't precise. True emotions often aren't. I think that keeping language precise is way to keep the citizens in their numb boxes, to keep them from those confusing emotions that cannot be fully (precisely) expressed.
When the first receiver (Rosemary) died and memories were released into the community, the Giver called it chaos before the memories were assimilated. What I wondered is that if one, say Jonas’s father, received memories, even fleetingly, then how could he not retain some of that knowledge about death and pain and sex and all those things related to the human experience?
JEAN... Good question. I have no idea, because The Giver didn't get them back. You would think they'd have retained some of it.
JEMI... They wouldn't retain them because they didn't want them. They would pretend they didn't exist. They would have been terrified of anything causing them to feel. They would have been desperate to return to sameness. Remember Jonas' memories of colour take a long time before they become permanent. One memory isn't anywhere near enough. I think it would be like understanding a small phrase of an foreign language, but having no context, no way to interpret it. You'd have a very slim chance of remembering it for long at all. These people are cowards. They would push the memories away as quickly as they could. One of their greatest worries is that they won't be like the others. They want to be part of the whole, and you can't if you're unique. Every ritual is geared towards being like everyone else.
Imagine how different we’d be without our memories. “People know facts,” the Giver says, “they know scientific things, but without memories, they know nothing.” Once a memory is given, it is lost to the Giver. Why is that? Like the first time Jonas gives a memory to the child Gabriel to get him to go to sleep, he can barely recall it himself. And why does Gabe have such a hard time sleeping? Could he have been born with memories? Is a child like Gabe, one who can’t or won’t conform to their narrow expectations of behavior, a danger to the community?
JEAN... I was curious about that, myself. Reincarnation? Just a colicky type who needs that connection with others, that attachment, etc? Some babies need a lot of holding to be happy. They need a connection that isn't viable in that community.
JEMI... I think Gabe is of the same genetic strain as Jonas & the Giver. They are all aberrations/throwbacks. There is something "wrong" in them that causes them to ask questions, to wonder. Even before the training, Jonas is questioning sameness. I think memories need to be repeated, built upon in order to be kept. The Giver probably wants to give them away - can you imagine being burdened with generational memories? You wouldn't have room for your own thoughts. We understand blue because we've seen it, heard it called blue and connected the colour/word over and over again for years and years and years. They don't have that advantage.
JEAN... Yes, it breaks their idyllic little scene. They might have to think and feel and try. Despite the sameness, everyone is very individualistic in that they are insular and in some ways, independent. They aren't to depend upon each other emotionally. They are not to lean on each other, ask difficult questions or question things. Someone who is on the fringe threatens their world. Look at a conservative person with rigid attitudes when they face a skinhead. They don't know what to do and feel uncomfortable. It threatens their 'world' views. They might have to question things.
Shortly after this, Jonas stops taking his “pills”. How did you feel about that?
JEAN... Rock on, Jonas!
JEMI... Not taking the pills is one of the reasons Jonas is able to perceive emotions. The pills are emotional suppressants. These people never go through emotional puberty. They never mature. They are stuck at the preteen emotional stage - the importance of rules, the stress on sameness (equal not fair).
Jonas has a gift…the ability to see colors. At first I didn’t realize that that was what it was—I think when he was tossing an apple back and forth to his friend, Asher—then I realized that no one sees colors. How much are our perceptions and feelings formed by colors? At what point does sameness become unbearable? No blue sky….no red apples….
JEAN... If you know nothing else, how can it be unbearable? I think for Jonas, the more he knew, the more unbearable it became. Plus, it isolated him. He couldn't share color or discuss his new world and experiences. People who are colorblind do see shades and tones, so I imagined it would be the same for the people in this community.
JEMI... I love the way the book has no color words until that point. What an awesome concept! Hard to even imagine. My students spend a lot of time discussing how this could happen. Same with the sun - how do they not see it? Are they in a dome - nope, unless it's big - the jet. It's a powerful message about the human capacity to only see/believe what we want. How we can ignore something until it no longer exists. I think the human brain is incapable of staying in this mode for long. We could retreat there for safety, for escape, but our desire to really live would pull us through. It reminds me very much of Hitler's desire for sameness in the world, and I believe Lowry used this as her basis for the story.
With his first memory of pain, Jonas automatically asks for the release-of-pain pill, but it is refused Jonas by the Giver. Is this part of his “lesson”?
JEMI... Definitely - again, these folks want no emotions at all. They don't want to learn from experience, they don't want to experience. Jonas must learn to deal with small pain before he takes on so much more.
JEAN... I think it was. He wanted to numb himself from the truth, but the whole truth is important to being the one holding the memories. How would be become a good consultant for the community if he blocked the true feelings with the memories he was holding?
There is a ban against books in the community. Only the Giver is allowed to have books and if Jonas were to decide to apply for a spouse, they wouldn’t be able to live together because the spouse could not have access to books. The community would collapse into chaos if people read books. So many things in this novel saddened me, but is that what Lowry intended? To make us think about the value of pain and suffering? This ties into the religious idea of suffering for redemption though oddly enough no religiosity is mentioned in this novel.
JEMI... Yes!!! Lowry wants us to fear ignorance. She wants us to embrace diversity and emotional growth. I can't comment on the religious aspect (no knowledge in that department). I think people need to suffer (hopefully in small doses) in order to enjoy the joys as well. We can't block off one part of the spectrum without blocking off its opposite. That's what this society has done - reduced the pain, therefore reduced the joy, until there is no rollercoaster of emotion - just a plain boring highway. No chance for growth or maturity at all.
Jean… I think youth often feel overwhelmed by the world and its sadness, its truths (heck, adults too) and the idea of making everything fair, even, and the same is a tempting thought. I think by showing how different life would be and how things we take for granted would be taken from us can serve as a real eye-opener. If you want sameness, then you have this whole cascade of effects. No books is one of them.
A turning point for Jonas is when he watches his father release a newborn. As father inserts the needle into the soft spot in the head, Jonas realizes that his father is killing it. Why do you suppose they always released one of a set of identical twins when they celebrate sameness?
JEAN... Because people would confuse the two and cause them embarrassment and other feelings.
JEMI... I think they would regard twins as an aberration. They don't want anything outside of the usual pattern.
The Giver and Jonas plan for Jonas’s escape to find the Elsewhere they both are sure exists. He lies to his parents and they lie to him the night before this is to take place, but then the plan goes awry when Jonas finds out that the child, Gabe, is set to be “released” the next morning. He leaves that very night and takes Gabe with him. Herein lies the biggest question for me. As the landscape changes and Jonas starts to see wildlife and birds and then rain for the first time and then snow, does he or does he not really get to a better place where there is love and music and people waiting? With the special knowledge deep inside him he finds the waiting sled he’s dreamed about and starts down the hill to reach those waiting for him. Or does he? Is Jonas only reliving the memory imparted to him by The Giver? Is the sled real or is he simply hallucinating as he falls into unconsciousness?
JEAN... I don't know. That's the beauty of the ending. You can imagine that he has escaped and found a family. Possibly even people he 'knows' or is related to. Maybe there is a higher order at work. Or maybe he passes out. Maybe he freezes. Maybe he's caught and released. It is a bit fishy that this is a memory that he is reliving. Unless The Giver has memories of the future that are to be lived/fulfilled and those to be avoided/unfulfilled.
JEMI... I love this ending - and my students almost always hate it! They want a cut and dried answer. They want to know - and they want to know NOW!!! I love the "what if' aspect of it. If you haven't done so, you must read Gathering Blue, then The Messenger. Although I didn't find the 3rd one as strong and more than a little weird, it's interesting to watch where Lowry takes us.
In the end, what answered this question for me was when the word "baby" is used for the first time...when Jonas becomes aware that the people at the bottom of the hill are waiting, not just for him, but for the baby too.
JEMI... Yes, it's a powerful image. I don't know if most people catch it. Many of Lowry's messages are hidden in nuances of her writing. She is a master!
JEAN... What does it answer for you?
I think it tells me that there is an Elsewhere and Jonas and the baby find it. I think this is what Lowry herself believes.
The book received awards for Best Book for Young Adults and Notable Book for Children, yet as an adult I enjoyed it, so it has a wide range of appeal. I was interested, Jemi, in how your students received it. Wow….there’s an unintended pun.
JEMI... LOL :) My students can't wait for me to read more. We are just past the point where Jonas learns of war. Complete and utter silence in the room when I read that part! Students generally don't like the book right away. Most of them would probably put it down if they were reading it alone. Older, more mature students might continue - they'd have to be strong readers. It entices them slowly with its bizarre society. They can't understand why anyone would want to live like that. They tend to get more interested during the ceremonies. There is limited discussion during the first few days when I read. Now, they groan when I stop, but keep talking about it during lunch and recess. It's very powerful. I think it's great for kids 10 and up - mostly if someone reads to them for the younger kids. Kids of this age are obsessed with fairness. My very first talk of the year is about how equal is not fair, and fair is not equal. By this point in the year, they are beginning to understand it. This book really helps them make connections and grow as people.
I also get caught up and can ramble on when I'm passionate about something. I am passionate about this book and its themes. Hopefully I didn't bore you to tears :)
On the contrary, this discussion has given me a deeper understanding of the book and all its subtleties. I want to thank you both for joining me in this conversation. I love talking about serious books and their hidden meanings, and I look forward to future discussions about other banned and challenged books on your respective blogs.
And to all my readers, thanks for staying with us during this indepth discussion. Now do yourselves a favor and check out Jemi's blog here and Jean's here.