I recently finished rereading The Giver. It’s been about 18 years since I last read it in 6th grade, so it was a welcomed revisit, much like catching up with an old friend (I have in mind a scene from Remembrance of Things Past when Marcel meets Albertine again in Paris after not having seen her since Balbec)—remembering things I had forgotten and picking up on things I had never noticed. A pleasant experience. This time I was a bit more conscious in my approach to the book (you would hope), looking for an overall meaning to the work beyond the story. I haven’t read a lot about what people say the book means, beyond the standard dystopia bit and the consequences of choices and so on. I was trying to spin something allegorical. One of my friend’s who read it with me, came up with the triumph of the West (with the assertion of the individual) over the East (with an emphasis on community that has sometimes turned to communism). I couldn’t help but noticing major themes that operate just beneath the surface of the story. This is partly why I think the novel is so successful—it touches on universal themes and yet not overtly, so that the reader is left to his worldview to make sense of these elements.
Major Themes I picked up on:
- Predestination versus free will
- Community versus the individual
- Reality versus appearance
- The power and worth of memory
Living by a metanarrative
We all live by a metanarrative, a story that we have adopted as our basic interpretive framework for reality. This metanarrative shapes our values, guides our decisions, and becomes our basic orientation towards reality. We interpret to understand, and our understanding is informed by our basic belief templates. Thus no interpreter of reality or a text enters the interpretation process completely autonomous.
Every reader, as he reads, is actually the reader of himself. The writer’s work is only a kind of optical instrument he provides the reader so he can discern what he might never have seen in himself without this book. The reader’s recognition in himself of what the book says is the proof of the book’s truth.
In every interpretation the interpreter interprets, not only the object—his text—but himself as well…
Two ways to read The Giver
I think this book could be interpreted two main ways. The first is basically a manifesto of the self. The autonomous worth and glory of the individual, rebelling against the “way it is”. In this aspect there is a strong resemblance to Ayn Rand’s works, most directly to Anthem but also to The Fountainhead (listen to John Piper discuss the tragedy of Rand’s philosophy). I think this is pretty obvious and would come across to anyone who reads it.
The second way is basically an allegory of the gospel. This is nowhere near obvious and for sure it does not represent the author’s intent, but as an interpretation it fits with the major themes operating in the story and is therefore a valid approach.
It goes like this:
The Giver is a Christian. Every Christian is a giver. He has something, reality, to pass on to others. Jonas is a person who has been selected by God (much is made about Jonas’ selection) and appointed to receive the gospel. He is a person who has received reality (in the form of memories) from the Giver. The story is really about the transition of the Christian from one community to another. Jonas’ community represents the world, which is efficient, yet cruel and colorless. It is a facade, a perpetuated lie that people cannot escape from. This community is the product of man’s own choices (a key theme) which have turned out for the worse (think: Garden of Eden). In typical Enlightenment fashion, the teleological question has been suppressed in the name of progress. Community members aren’t supposed to ask questions that would be rude or personal. This is similar to the fact that questions on religion and ultimate meaning are mostly taboo in our society and have been suppressed and banished to the private sphere, the sphere of belief not fact. However, despite the efficiency and order of the community, it fails in its most basic identity—a community. This comes out when Jonas asks his father if he loves him. The answer is no, an awkwardly explained no, a covered-up no. In the most basic unit of community, the family, there is no real community, no love. This community, the world, is a lie—it looks good and works well, but it is empty and hollow. The sharing of dreams in the morning and of feelings at night is perfunctory. The only true bond in the “family” is pragmatism—there is no biological or true emotional bond. We never even learn the names of Jonas’ parents. An appropriate verse to sum up this community is:
The heart knows its own bitterness, and a stranger does not share in its joy. –Proverbs 14:10
The second community that Jonas reaches at the end of the story represents the church, the Body of Christ. It is full of reality—color, music, warmth, love, and joy. The verse that describes this community is:
Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. –Romans 12:15
The Giver can be read as an allegory of a person with individual worth receiving reality and then entering a new community. The memories are important because they represent reality. The Giver shares this reality with Jonas and its first effect is to open his eyes. He begins to “see beyond”, aka he sees beyond the lie and appearance of the world. His seeing at first is in glimpses that he cannot quite hold on to, similar to the blind man who meets Jesus in Mark 8. But his seeing also increases and stabilizes the more that reality is transmitted into him. This is similar to the fact that we see spiritual realities incrementally. We see progressively and the heavenly vision dawns on us gradually. When Jonas tries to communicate this reality to his closest friends, they simply don’t understand. This may be similar to sharing the gospel with those who are close to us. In biblical terms, they are veiled and the gospel of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ cannot shine on them (2 Cor. 4:3-6). Ultimately Jonas leaves this community for a new one. However, his motive in leaving is not escapism but a desire is to deliver the old one. Similarly, Jesus calls us out of the world for salvation, but then sends us back into the world for mission.
The trajectory of The Giver matches the experience of an individual experiencing reality through the gospel and entering a new community of love and fellowship.