Monday, November 1, 2010

Reader Response: The Giver

I can remember reading this book when I was about twelve years old myself, the same age as Jonas when he is selected to become the next “Receiver of Memory,” in his community. I really enjoyed reading the novel as an adolescent and I think that this helped me to appreciate it even more while reading it for a second time as an adult. I think however, that as a young reader, I was reading this book mostly for it’s entertainment value, but now as an adult, the story holds more meaning than I was able to perceive before.

The concept of a world where no one feels pain of any kind – neither physical nor emotional is on the surface, an attractive one. No one likes to be sad, or feel hungry, or suffer from an ulcer or some other physical ailment, and one imagines a world in which the people are protected against these things would be a favorable one. This “utopia” is revealed to be instead a “dystopia” however, because along with being protected from all of the negative feelings one may have, the people in Jonas’s community are also unable to experience the positive, healthy emotions that make us truly human. They cannot feel attachment to anyone or anything, they cannot feel joy, or love, and this makes for a colorless world – literally in this case, because the people in Jonas’s community are unable to distinguish between colors, and see everything in black and white. The reader is prompted to imagine a world without any suffering, but is also prompted to awareness that you cannot pare feelings apart, good from bad. They coincide in us all, and it isn’t possible to rid humanity of the bad without also sacrificing the good.

While reading this novel, I kept thinking back to the popularity of the yin yang symbol in the early nineties when this book was published. This of course isn’t the only time period when the symbol was popular, but it stands out in my memory as having been very commercialized during the time period this novel was written. The yin yang represents how opposite forces are interconnected and interdependent, and how they give rise to each other in turn. The novel really adheres to this symbolic concept in terms of uplifting and painful human emotions, and addresses the inability to have one without the other. In turn, good feelings, such as love, can lead to pain and suffering. They are interdependent, and give rise to each other in turn. It kind of goes along with that old adage about how you must know suffering to experience true joy. It makes me wonder to what extent the author was influenced by these ideas when she was writing the novel.

The message embodied in the novel is so weighty, and an understanding of the coexistence and codependence of opposite forces (such as good and evil) plays such a large role in our every day lives, but it isn’t something we seem to be conscious of on a daily basis. These things lead to the reasons behind why this novel is an exemplary piece of literature not only in it’s genre, but as a piece of literature in and of itself.

Another thing that makes The Giver such an outstanding piece in its field (“soft” science fiction), and as a novel in general is that it is accessible to all readers. One can read this as a child, an adolescent, or an adult and enjoy it, while also discerning varying degrees of purpose within. Although the setting, and many of the plot elements fall under the category of science fiction, the author manages to blend these with realistic characters that the reader can really identify with. She succeeds in providing the reader with the tools to “suspend their disbelief” and imagine that Jonas, Gabriel, the Giver and his daughter Rosemary are people just like us. It really makes it clear to the reader how much our memories and emotions are integral to what makes us human.

My favorite part of the book is how it ends, and I think that this too has made this novel a stand-out in comparison to its contemporaries. The reader is left unsure as to whether Jonas truly found “elsewhere,” a place where people experience all emotions, see things in color, and have music in their lives, or whether he is simply imagining it, hallucinating as he freezes and ultimately dies from exposure. I think it can be imagined either way, but I tend toward the interpretation that he and Gabriel don’t actually make it to elsewhere, but die together on the hill in the snowstorm. In this, Jonas has made the ultimate sacrifice – he gave his life so that his people could live. Not the way they have been “living” but truly LIVE, experiencing the varying degrees of emotion and color and hearing the beauty in music and sound, and making choices for themselves based on what they think and how they feel. Again, I imagine that this ambiguous ending allows for greater popularity of the novel, as the reader is allowed to draw his own conclusions as to how the story end.

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