The Giver

December 27, 2007 at 9:17 pm 4 comments

A late merry Christmas to the two or three loyal people who still bother to check back here in spite of my month-long silence. I haven’t posted for several weeks, but that hasn’t stopped me from thinking about topics to post about. Now that the semester is over and I can write for pleasure (!), here goes the first of all my backlogged ideas…

One of the gifts I got for Christmas was the Newberry award-winning novel for young adults entitled The Giver. One of its major themes is the relationship between love, freedom, and pain.

The story centers on a young boy named Jonas, who grows up in a carefully controlled, essentially perfect community. All choices about spouses, jobs, and children are made by a committee of elders; there are no choices left to the citizens, and no individuality or freedom. The benefit of such strict control, however, is that there is also no pain or suffering.

thegiver.jpgAt age 12, Jonas is selected by the committee to receive special training from the Giver, the only member of the community who holds the memories of real pain and pleasure. Through his relationship with the Giver, Jonas comes to realize that the life he knows is not all there is, and he wants to know why his community has been deprived of freedom and its attendant joys and sorrows. Speaking about the foster child his family is currently caring for, Jonas asks:

“What if we could hold up things that were bright red, or bright yellow, and he could choose. Instead of the Sameness.”

“He might make wrong choices.”

“Oh.” Jonas was silent for a minute. “Oh, I see what you mean. It wouldn’t matter for a newchild’s toy. But later it does matter, doesn’t it? We don’t dare to let people make choices of their own.”

“Not safe?” The Giver suggested.

“Definitely not safe,” Jonas said with certainty. “What if they were allowed to choose their own mate? And chose wrong?

“Or what if,” he went on, almost laughing at the absurdity, “they chose their own jobs?”

“Frightening, isn’t it?” The Giver said.

Jonas chuckled. “Very frightening. I can’t even imagine it. We really have to protect people from wrong choices.”

“It’s safer.”

“Yes,” Jonas agreed. “Much safer.”

But when the conversation turned to other things, Jonas was left, still, with a feeling of frustration that he didn’t understand. (98-99)

As the novel develops, a clear relationship is established between pain, freedom, and love: Love necessitates freedom, and freedom necessitates the possibility of pain. Since Jonas’s community has chosen against pain, they have necessarily deprived themselves of freedom, and by extension have also deprived themselves of love. Hence, when Jonas asks his parents if they love him, they do not even know what he means, stating that the word is “so meaningless that it’s become almost obsolete” (127).

The implicit question posed by the book is whether or not the trade-off is worth it. After all, the people in the community think they are happy: they don’t actually know that they lack freedom and love, so is it all bad? Jonas eventually demonstrates his conviction that the trade-off is not worth it (a position I have elsewhere agreed with), but the question is a complex one that I find perpetually interesting.


Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jake A. Smith  |  December 28, 2007 at 12:15 pm

    Good review there. I read the book many years ago and enjoyed it, but I don’t think I was quite old enough to fully grasp the point of the book at the time. Thinking about it now, the whole thing makes a lot more sense! Thanks for that.

  • 2. David Ketter  |  December 28, 2007 at 1:06 pm

    It was indeed a great book…I’ve read it a few times. I love books/movies that bring those sorts of questions to the forefront. In a paper I wrote for school, in evaluating Frankenstein, the conclusion I reached was that in order to be human, one must have the freedom to choose the moral thing to do (assuming an absolute).

  • 3. Matthew  |  December 28, 2007 at 6:17 pm

    C.S. Lewis has a masterful quote on the interplay between love, pain, and choice:

    “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless–it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

  • 4. Stephen  |  January 1, 2008 at 2:43 pm

    I haven’t read The Giver. But your post resonates with me because of my interest in Buddhism.

    The Buddha says that suffering arises from desire. To eliminate suffering, then, we must become eliminate desire. Very much like the C.S. Lewis quote, above.

    Stated another way: the Buddha taught that all things are in a constant state of flux. If we form an attachment to anything, it will be taken away from us — and we will suffer. Therefore, we are advised to forgo all attachments.

    I admire a great deal of what the Buddha taught, and how it works in practice. Despite a teaching that seems to undermine love, and inculcate fatalism, the Buddha made compassion a core value. In that respect (and others), the precepts of Buddhism are not so different from the sayings of Jesus.

    But ultimately the tradeoff — eliminate all attachments and cease to suffer — is one that I can’t embrace. Jesus would no doubt say that I don’t love enough, and I’m sure that’s true. I need to love more, not less — Christ have mercy.


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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

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