Jonas lives in a community which seeks order, conformity. The Elders of the Community call it Sameness. Sameness, it is thought, will protect the community’s citizens from pain, hunger, fear, violence, mistakes, wrong choices. It is extended to all parts of the community – the weather (which is climate controlled), the physical surroundings (variations, like hills, are ‘landscaped’ out), people’s dwellings, their furniture, even their food.
The Sameness extends to the people living in the community too. Babies that don’t develop according to pre-determined milestones are ‘released’ from the community, life partners are matched meticulously by the Elders based on disposition, energy levels, interests and intelligence. And in the same way, all citizens are given their Assignment, their job, when they reach the age of twelve, again after much consideration by the Elders, who observe the children, take notes and meet together. Even the language that is spoken is controlled – it is precise, devoid of possible misinterpretation. For example, on one occasion Jonas announces, just before a meal, that he is “starving”. Immediately he is taken aside and given a private lesson in language precision.
“He was not starving, it was pointed out. He was hungry. No one in the community was starving, had ever been starving, would ever be starving. To say ‘starving’ was to speak a lie. An unintentioned lie, of course. But the reason for precision of language was to ensure that unintentional lies were never uttered. Did he understand that? they asked him. And he had.”
On the surface, it appears to be as near perfect a world as is possible. Nobody experiences pain (or at worst, pain relief is available quickly), hunger (food is delivered to all dwellings, the remains collected later by the Food Collectors) rudeness (it’s just not allowed in the rules), crime (citizens who commit three serious rule transgressions are ‘released’).
We meet Jonas as an Eleven*, in the lead up before the Ceremony of Twelve when all children born in the same year as Jonas become a Twelve and are given their Assignment. Some of his peers already have a good idea about what their Assignment might be; they are already demonstrating talents in particular areas such as nurturing or caring, engineering or recreation. Jonas, however, hasn’t the slightest idea what his might be and is eagerly and nervously waiting to find out. But while his peers are chosen to be doctors, teachers, caretakers of the Old or Birthmothers, Jonas is sent to receive daily training from an old and tired man, one of the Elders – The Giver. And it is during these daily sessions with The Giver that Jonas begins to discover that the world in which he and his community lives is far from perfect.
As the story progresses and as Jonas continues his training, many questions are raised about the nature of society and what it is to be human. If you remove sunshine because of the danger of sunburn you also remove the pleasure of warm sunshine on your shoulders; flatten out the landscape because of the inconvenience of navigating over hills and children can no longer play that wonderful game of rolling down hillsides or sledging down them in winter. When life partners are selected for you, when you have to apply for children born of Birthmothers, there can be no concept of family, no understanding of love.
The Giver will stay with the reader for a long time. It raises many questions about what it is that holds society together. And what makes people special and unique and why that’s important.