Sunday, March 18, 2012

A Worthy Hero?

The Giver, Lois Lowry
Bantam Doubleday, 1993, $6.99, 180 pages

The Newbery Medal is awarded annually to “the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” For nearly 90 years, one book each year has been named a Newbery Medal Winner. The topics of these books range from the tale of a Polish family fleeing from an evil man after a family heirloom to the escapades of a girl left alone in New York while her parents travel abroad to the alliance between field mice and rats in a joint battle against humans.

Medal Winners are sometimes whimsical stories that shed light on coming-of-age scenarios. Others address mature ideas and topics in a context applicable to children. Through Newbery Medal books, children begin to understand the consequences of political turmoil, the challenges of forging into unconquered territory, and the heartbreak of family disintegration. The 1994 Newbery Medal Winner tackles another hefty issue for young readers: the possibility of a future society in which personal choices are entirely eliminated. In Lois Lowry’s The Giver, twelve-year-old Jonas challenges everything his society has ever taught him, his parents, his authorities, and his peers. He determines to break all the rules in order to better his society by reintroducing chaos. What Lowry fails to see, however, is the danger of suggesting that children break society’s rules. As a novel for young adults, The Giver plays with fire by offering a hero who bucks the system and demands societal change that fits his own perspective.

The Giver takes place in a utopian world, a place where there is no crime, no socioeconomic difference, and no fear of war, plague, or financial crisis. But it’s also a world where there are no choices. Upon each child’s twelfth birthday, he or she is assigned an occupation which will begin that year with a phase of training and apprenticeship. More menial aspects of life are dictated too. All clothing is the same, everyone rides an identical bicycle, and family units are assigned, with a mother, father, one daughter and one son, by the Elders. Even habits of speech and conversation are mandated including the required dream-telling in which all members of the family unit must participate each morning.

Jonas, a boy of twelve, is given by the Elders the unique and extremely special Assignment of Receiver. This means he will slowly become the sole possessor of all the world’s memories from before the Sameness was instituted to eliminate social classes, lifestyle decisions, colors, music, and even the awareness of death. The memories are currently sustained by the previous Receiver who is now called the Giver since he will pass down all memories to Jonas. As Jonas begins to learn about the past, however, he starts to question the Sameness in which his whole world now operates.

“If everything’s the same,” he argues, “then there aren’t any choices! I want to wake up in the morning and decide things. A blue tunic or a red one? But it’s all the same, always.” Later, Jonas starts to understand feelings of love, bereavement, and pain, feelings no one else in his culture could even define. These deep feelings are experienced exclusively by Jonas and The Giver. “The worst part of holding the memories is not the pain,” The Giver says. “It’s the loneliness of it. Memories need to be shared.” With this goal in mind, Jonas and The Giver hatch a scheme to release the memories back into the society at large.

In one respect, Jonas has the right idea. In a world where choices are utterly absent, his resentment toward the societal leaders who have restricted his freedom, eliminated differences, and deleted his culture’s past is justified. Young people should be taught history, should welcome variety, and should be free to make personalized choices. But Lowry presents a society that will never be. We live in an age when nearly all personal choices, even poor ones, are applauded. Our culture broadens its arms daily to willingly accept every manner of diversity. And our libraries are thick with books that tell of national and international history. A society in which all differences, choices, and memories are eliminated is simply not plausible.

Lowry’s fans will argue that her book is fiction and meant not to warn against concrete possibilities but to open young readers’ eyes to the concept of a dystopian future. Certainly, today’s children should be aware that adults sometimes make bad choices and that society may erect barriers that unnecessarily limit certain choices. But for today’s young readers, arousing such resentment toward authority breeds only disrespect and distrust, sentiments young people are more than capable of developing on their own.

Lowry’s hero chooses rebellion in the absence of oppression. He does not struggle against a society that demeans, undermines, or persecutes its members. In fact, no one but Jonas and the Giver know that life could be anything other than perfect. But like Eve enticed by the serpent’s promise of greater knowledge, Jonas feels compelled to bring the knowledge of good and evil to his ignorant society. Is this rebellious conspiracy-theorist to be the hero for a generation of young people? If we are to idolize a rebel, perhaps we should choose one who fights a worthy cause against a genuine threat. Not one who brashly seeks to defy authority and destroy peace out of passionate bitterness. Although critically evaluating one’s society is a worthy undertaking, giving children the green light to question authority is unwise.