I really thought that I had read this book in school. Turns out that I hadn’t, or else I would have been expecting the disturbing scenes in the film and remembered the storyline.
Like many books on school reading lists, The Giver by Lois Lowry is one of those stories that one learns the vague premise through popular culture. It is set in a seemingly utopian community (with vague paranormal overtones) wherein all memories of anything that made people different from each other have been collectively erased, save for one person and his apprentice who act as keepers of these memories. Even colour has been eradicated, which is beautifully portrayed in the film.
Naturally, the plot of the story is a typical young adult coming-of-age tale: young person is introduced to injustice and strives to make right society. Jonas is selected to be the new Receiver of Memories and struggles with the inherent contradictions in his society. Eventually, he conspires to destroy the system and give people back their memories.
Despite this predictable premise, the film is beautiful and powerful. I had no expectations from the book, so I was pleased with what I later discovered were changes: Jonas’s age was raised, a romantic plot was added, and the role of the Chief Elder was expanded. The raised age made much more sense, as having the members of a society reach adulthood at 18 is more believable than 12. I was able to relate to Jonas and his struggles, as well as those of his friends, whereas at twelve, his behaviour would be obnoxious and precocious. The romance was understandable as it befitted the increased age of the protagonist: eighteen-year-olds told to stop taking their hormone-suppressants would undoubtedly take a strong interest in sexual matters. Finally, the expanded role of the Chief Elder (a nuanced performance by Meryl Streep) added multiple dimensions to the community and gave us some insight as to the motivations behind why the society is the way that it is. She is the relatable character for us adults.
The main theme of this book is memory and choice. Both are intrinsic to the human condition. One is essential for the other – it is hard to make choices with no memory or basis for them. The society of The Giver is one that makes choices for all individuals to make perfect families and a harmonious community. It is primarily a Council of Elders who make said decisions, although from the film, it appears that a lot of the choice of the Elders are based on computers and machines as well. In other words, the people of Jonas’s community live in peace and harmony, but they have no real basis for living. The Chief Elder wants to maintain order at all costs because she believes (or has been led to believe) that if individual persons were left to make their own choices, they would always “choose wrong”. Her understanding of the past is that constant bad choices led to disaster. What she cannot comprehend is that good choices are what get people through disasters, and that “good” choices can lead to as much disaster as bad ones. Choice is a rather neutral concept: good intentions lead to choices that can lead to good outcomes or bad outcomes (as clearly the community was set up with the good intention of preventing further destruction), while bad intentions lead to choices than can lead to bad outcomes or good outcomes.
Yet the freedom to experience both the good and the bad is what makes us human. We are not machines, nor are we simply animals going about our instinct. Emotions, arts, conflict, dissent, criticism, inquiry, and nuance are all important to humanity – without them, there is no point to existence. Yes, they can lead to disaster, but they also can let us overcome it.
Jonas decides that he cannot live in a society that does not love, nor remember it. However memories have been wiped away (perhaps through some type of machine-induced hypnotism), he sets out to return them.
What, however, is the first memory that leads him down this path? That of Christmas music. Religion is seen as something dangerous – and rightly so. Religion even today is seen as something that violates our standard belief that humans are the same. It is seen portrayed as something artificial that divides us, but at the same time, the feeling of peace that comes from remembering a childhood Christmas carol is universal. Yes, many of us do not have childhood memories of Christmas (and those that do have thousands of songs that may be attached to our memories), but we all have memories of peace. They may not be long, permanent, or relating at all to a holiday. Thousands of children have lives plagued by war, but even they have memories of something peaceful, even if it is hard to define.
Back to the story. My point is this: religion is one of the many things that causes discord in humanity, but it also is something that is essential to our understanding of ourselves. Moreover, without conflict or discord, there can be no harmony, because there is nothing to define it. There is no point of human existence.
Essentially, we must remember conflict and it must happen, and we must honour and remember those that have striven to overcome it. Without memory of war, there is no peace.