Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Essay on The Giver by Lois Lowry


Summary
Eleven-year-old Jonas feels apprehensive about his upcoming Ceremony of Twelve, during which he will receive his Assignment, the job he will perform as an adult. After dinner, he and his family perform the evening ritual of sharing their feelings. Jonas' seven-year-old sister, Lily, confesses her anger at a group of Sevens visiting from another community who did not obey the play area rules. Her parents ask her how she felt when she visited a community with unfamiliar rules, and Lily confesses that she felt strange and stupid. Lily suddenly feels sorry for the visiting Sevens because they must have felt the same way in her community.

Jonas's father is a Nurturer, one of the adults who cares for new children, or infants, before they are assigned to family units in the community. One of the new children is not growing fast enough, and he does not sleep soundly through the night. Jonas's father is worried because the committee is considering releasing the new child. A new child's release is a sad event because the new child then will not have a chance to grow up within the community. Nurturers consider the release of a new child a failure on their part, so Jonas's father plans to care for the new child in their home at night in the hopes of furthering his development. He confesses that he broke the rules and looked up the under-developed new child's name: Gabriel. He thought that Gabriel would develop more quickly if he were called by his name.

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Release of the elderly is a happy event because it is a celebration of a long and fruitful life in the community. But release is also a punishment for those who disobey the community's rules. For example, a pilot broke the rules by flying his plane over the community when he got lost, and he was "released" from the community for his mistake. When Lily suggests that they might get to keep the new child, her mother reminds her that the rules allow each family unit to have only two children, one male and one female.

Jonas's mother, who works for the Department of Justice, confesses that she felt frustrated and angry today because she dealt with a second-time offender against the community's rules. She thought the offender had been punished adequately the first time. She is frightened for him because a third offense will result in the offender's release, which will bring shame and disgrace on his family.

When Jonas confesses his apprehension about the Ceremony of Twelve, his parents send Lily to bed so that they can speak privately with him. The December Ceremonies are supposed to be an exciting, happy occasion. The new children born that year undergo the Ceremony of One, at which time they are named, given to family units, and considered to be one year old. All children undergo a Ceremony every year up to the age of twelve. The Eights begin performing community service in preparation for their adult Assignments. The Nines receive their bicycles. Although it is against the rules to teach a child to ride a bicycle before the Ceremony of Nine, everyone breaks it. The committee has considered changing the rule, but changing any rule takes years of careful study and consideration. Changing important rules requires the advice of the Receiver, the highest-ranking Elder in the community.

Jonas' father assures him that the Committee of Elders takes great care in choosing Assignments. They watch every child carefully, noting what his or her interests and aptitudes are. Jonas' father was not surprised that his Assignment was Nurturing. When he was a child, he spent a great deal of his time with the new children. Very rarely is anyone disappointed with an Assignment. However, Jonas' parents warn him that after the Ceremony of Twelve, he will spend more time with his Assignment group than he will with his friends among the Elevens. Meanwhile, Lily returns to demand her comfort object, a stuffed elephant. Her parents warn her that she will have to give up the comfort object after the Ceremony of Eight.

Commentary
Jonas' community probably seems unusual and different. He lives in a world where fear is so uncommon that a plane flying unexpectedly over the community frightens Jonas badly. His community also seems to care a lot about polite courtesy. Whenever someone is rude, that person is required to apologize for his or her behavior. Moreover, everyone is required to accept the apology. An important theme in The Giver is how society deals with the conflicts between the individual and the larger community. Jonas' society makes every effort to avoid such conflict through institutionalized rules.

One means of reducing conflict in the community is an insistence on "precision of speech." In training citizens to be very clear about the meaning of their words, and by simultaneously training them to be polite, the community ensures that there will be little understanding. The idea of "precision of speech" also exposes a hypocritical underside to the community, however, such as in its use of euphemisms like the word "release." In substituting a vague, pleasant sounding word for a practice such as legally sanctified execution, the community demonstrates an actual inability to face accurate speech. The speech practices by the community may be "precise," but it is a limited precision, defined by the community.

Still, there are some benefits to the importance of "precision of speech" in Jonas's community. Jonas feels afraid because his Ceremony of Twelve will soon take place. When he analyzes his feelings in order to clearly define what he feels, he realizes that he isn't afraid but "apprehensive." Often, when someone cannot quite define what they feel, the inability to name one's feelings causes anxiety and fear. Jonas feels more in control once he can define his feeling about the Ceremony as "apprehension."

Similarly, there are benefits evident in the community's daily practice of sharing and analyzing feelings, which seems to minimize interpersonal conflict and avoid the possibility of lingering anger or aggression. As can be seen in the example of Lily, the ceremony allows Lily and others to deal with their anger in a constructive way. However, once again, there is a dark side to the seemingly positive sharing sessions. Just as the "precise speech" actually hid a deeper limiting of speech and thought, so do the sharing sessions push Lily and others into a particular mode of thinking. The sharing sessions are beneficial, but they are limiting, as well.

"Precise speech" and the sharing circle embody a deeper theme that is the focus of The Giver: whether the limitations imposed to gain stability and comfort are worth the reward they reap. For example, Jonas's community is highly regulated by a large number of rules. Individuals have few choices because the Committee of Elders makes most of their choices for them. The committee chooses what career a person will have when he or she reaches the age of twelve. They also, as becomes clear, decide who lives and dies. But the community is peaceful, stable, and comfortable. Jonas' voyage through the community constitutes an exploration of the theme of stability versus the costs gained to achieve that stability, and it is also an exploration of the reasons behind Jonas' ultimate decision that stability and comfort are not worth the price.

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