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The Giver: Children and Environment

Kelsey's picture

            The Giver, a children’s novel by Lois Lowry, was first published in 1993.  It tells the story of Jonas, who lives in a society that has converted to Sameness—everything is strictly controlled, there are no animals or colors, there is no war or fear or pain or choices.  When Jonas turns twelve, he is selected to the next Receiver of Memory, the one person in the community whose job it is to store all of the memories from before Sameness—memories of both joy and pain— and occasionally provide the Elders with advice based on those memories.  As the Giver, as the old Receiver of Memory tells Jonas to call him, transfers the memories to Jonas, Jonas comes to question whether Sameness is really as good as he’s been brought up to believe.  Eventually, when Jonas learns that Gabe, a baby his family has been caring for, is going to be released—which he discovers during his training is a euphemism for lethal injection—he runs away with Gabe, and the memories that he received from the Giver are released back into the community.  The book ends when Jonas and Gabe, near death from cold and starvation, find a sled and ride it down a snowy hill, toward a house filled with colors and love and music.  “Behind him, across vast distances of space and time, from the place he had left, he thought he heard music too.  But perhaps it was only an echo.”

            The Giver is not what would first come to mind when asked to name a book about nature, but one of the central issues raised in the novel is the relationship between children and their environment.  Many of our readings have talked about how access to unrestricted play in nature is crucial for child development—for example, in chapter 5 of Urban Wildscapes, Katy Mugford writes about how children need to be able to access the “urban wildscapes and other challenging and adventurous environments” (80) that they find in literature in real life.  Throughout The Giver, Jonas develops a relationship with his environment that could not exist under Sameness, and ultimately embarks upon a journey where he has the opportunity for unrestricted and unsupervised growth.

            Centuries before The Giver began, under the pain of hunger and war, people chose to transform their society into Sameness, eradicating pain and risk but also eradicating colors, animals, emotions, even choice.  At the beginning of the book, Jonas is a child fully integrated into this society, which means that his relationship with the environment consists mostly of feeling unrelated to it.  Throughout the first few chapters, the only mention of anything related to nature is the river that flows through the community, but it serves merely as a background—Jonas and his friends never play or explore there.  There are some remnants of nature in the society, but most of them have become little more than myths—for example, animals, which children’s comfort objects are in the shape of, are thought to be imaginary.  The only environment that Jonas really interacts with—if it can even be considered such—is the community, which everyone is expected to be fully integrated into.  However, even this supposedly idealistic and connected community is, in reality, based on a lack of connection.  Emotions are suppressed by a pill that everyone starts taking at puberty and, although people form families (albeit arranged by the Council of Elders) and work in community, no one forms any permanent connections to each other and love is considered too imprecise a word to be useful.  Ironically, in this community that emphasizes belonging and forbids individuality, people are cut off from each other and the world around them, unaware of this lack of connection because they have never known anything else.

            However, as the Giver begins to transfer the collective memories he holds to Jonas, memories of the world before Sameness, Jonas begins to question Sameness and develop connections to people and the world around him.  The first memory the Giver transmits to Jonas is of sledding downhill, the second of sunshine; under the Climate Control of Sameness, snow, hills, and sunshine have all been removed from the community.  While experiencing the memory of sledding, Jonas found himself “free to enjoy the breathless glee that overwhelmed him: the speed, the clear cold air, the total silence, the feeling of balance and excitement and peace.” (82)  This experience also provoked a series of questions that he asks the Giver: “Why don’t we have snow, and sleds, and hills? ... And when did we, in the past?  Did my parents have sleds when they were young?  Did you?” (83)  Even with only one exposure to an environment other than carefully-regulated Sameness, Jonas’ mind is opened both to joy and questioning the environment in which he grew up.  Throughout the rest of his training, as he continues to receive memories from the Giver, he becomes increasingly aware of the environment around him and continually expresses wishes that the parts of nature eradicated by Sameness were still around.  This training prepares the way for the final stage of Jonas’ development of his relationship with nature: his flight from the community.

            In chapter 5 of Urban Wildscapes, Katy Mugford discusses some common characteristics of children’s literature—unsupervised play, missing parents, surrogate parents and travelling companions, dangerous strangers, managing risk, junkyards as play areas, and a fascination with dirt.  Not all of these characteristics, which are part of a larger pattern of children being given freedom and interaction with wildscapes in literature that they aren’t allowed in real life, are present in The Giver.  However, the ones that are only appear in the last few chapters, as Jonas flees from his community with Gabe and, for the first time, is exposed to freedom and nature outside of the collective memories.  On their first morning outside of the community, Jonas stops to collect water from a stream for breakfast, and watches Gabe “investigate the grass and twigs with delight.” (167)  This scene is significant in the development of Jonas’ relationship with nature because this is the first time he has relied directly on nature to survive, as opposed to products delivered to him by workers in the community; additionally, it is the first time in the novel that a child expresses wonder at the environment around them.  This wonder continues throughout Jonas’ and Gabes’ journey outside of the community, as Jonas “slowed the bike again and again to look with wonder at wildflowers, to enjoy the throaty warble of a new bird nearby, or merely to watch the way wind shifted the leaves in the trees.  During his twelve years in the community, he had never felt such simple moments of exquisite happiness.” (171)  This journey and wonder at nature can be thought of in the terms Katy Mugford describes—Jonas, once away from his parents and community, is given the opportunity for unsupervised play and interaction with nature, and also manages risk for himself for the first time, as he tries to keep both himself and Gabe alive.  The Giver illustrates the importance of giving children the opportunity to explore nature, because doing so brings both Jonas and Gabe happiness and freedom that they’d never experienced before. 

            However, nature isn’t presented merely as idyllic.  In the last chapter, Jonas and Gabe become increasingly weak as they aren’t able to find food; they also are caught in a snow storm and Jonas fears they may freeze to death.  This threat doesn’t negate the importance of Jonas’ newfound connection to the environment, as Jonas never truly regrets leaving the community, but it does highlight the complicated relationship between people and the environment and shows the dangers people were trying to escape when they created Sameness.  The Giver never denies that there is a danger in freedom, in choice and emotion and wildness, but it ultimately argues that the danger is worth it.  After thinking that, by leaving, he had exposed himself to starvation, Jonas realizes that, “If he had stayed, he would have starved in other ways.  He would have lived a life hungry for feeling, for color, for love.”  In a way, this sums up a main message of the book—that our connections to nature and each other are worth any risk they may create.  It is only through embarking on a journey through nature that Jonas has the opportunity for unrestricted and unsupervised growth, that he is able to experience the adventure, experimentation, and development that Mugford argues is crucial for child development.   


jccohen's picture

'a life hungry for feeling'


Your set-up – the point that The Giver may be seen as an unlikely choice for an investigation of nature – provides an effective backdrop to your claim that it’s actually J’s “relationship with his environment” that enables him to escape from “Sameness” and enter a journey of growth.  You initiate this by locating absence, that is, J’s unrelatedness to his environment.  Although this might be read as a profound interconnection, you point out that it’s more a matter of environment as deep background. 


The links between memory, questioning, and relationship (and joy!) show us a path back to connection with nature, which interestingly requires a flight from human community.  This is an intriguing pathway in relation to education, since the linkages of memory (history) to questioning (inquiry) and ultimately to relationship (social relations in literature, etc.) could be seen to model an approach to education that could lead to a very different kind of human-environment connection.  In a sense, the book is a scenario without education or learning, at least in this deeper sense.  I don’t remember too much about what we actually hear about schooling but I’m guessing that it’s rote and disconnected…  So how might a revamping of ed be a crucial pivot here?


You bring us this wonderful quote from the end of the book:  ““If he had stayed, he would have starved in other ways.  He would have lived a life hungry for feeling, for color, for love.”  Would you say that these qualities – feeling, color, love – are a kind of stand-in for risk and unpredictability, that “unsupervised” dimension of life that is, actually, life?