Russell F. Hirsch
The Secret Genius of THE GIVER
THE GIVER is one of the most successful children’s novels of all time. Winner of the 1994 Newbery Medal, Lois Lowry’s tale still captivates readers decades later and remains a mainstay on school reading lists across North America. And, there’s a secret hidden at the heart of this novel that helps explain why it’s so powerful…
In order to unravel that secret, we of course need to know the story: Twelve-year-old Jonas lives in a community without poverty or war where everything is carefully assigned and controlled. Differences–and individual choices of any consequence–have been suppressed. But when Jonas starts magically receiving memories of the way the world was before the switch to sameness, he must decide whether to conform to his community’s traditions or escape to the unknown world beyond.
When I first read THE GIVER as a ten-year-old, the ending stuck with me. It was the first time I’d encountered a book with an ambiguous finish. I wasn’t sure what had happened. Jonas left his community, but did he find safety? Did he die? I thought he died…
(Lois Lowry ended up writing three sequels to THE GIVER that make it pretty clear he DIDN’T die but this was before all that!)
Whether Jonas died or survived, the end still felt emotionally satisfying. The emotional power of the ending is one thing that makes THE GIVER such a classic. So, how did Lois Lowry pull this off? To understand the powerful ending, we have to go back, not to the beginning, but to the midpoint of THE GIVER: a subtle moment that reveals the true genius of the novel…
WHAT’S A MIDPOINT ANYWAY?
Ah, a question that has haunted many a writer looking at their own manuscript! I could devote numerous posts to examining midpoints, but generally-speaking, the midpoint is an event halfway through the story that shifts the main character’s trajectory.
In the first half of the story, a protagonist is primarily reacting and responding to events, and in the second half, they are taking the initiative. THE HUNGER GAMES is a good example of this: When Katniss first enters the arena, she’s mostly on the run from her enemies, doing just enough to survive. At the midpoint, she takes the initiative, dropping a nest of mutated wasps on her opponents. She continues to hunt them down as the second half of the book progresses.
In adventure stories, the midpoint often includes a change in goal–and a literal change in direction–for the main character.
Katherine Applegate’s animal fantasy, ENDLING: THE LAST, is a great example: The protagonist, Byx, is a Dairne, a sentient, dog-like creature. After her pack is killed, she fears she’s the last of her species, so sets off in search of a scholar named Ferrucci, who will supposedly shelter her. At the midpoint, Ferrucci betrays Byx and imprisons her. The second half involves escaping–literally moving away from Ferrucci–and starting a new search for a mythical island where other Dairnes are rumored to live.
What’s so secret about THE GIVER’s midpoint?
The Giver is not an action-adventure novel. Jonas doesn’t experience a literal change in direction, though he does have an inner shift, from accepting the conformist values of his community in the first half to questioning them, and ultimately abandoning them, in the second half. But what I love about the THE GIVER’s midpoint is that it’s not a big, bombastic event. It’s not a huge battle or stunning plot twist or unexpected revelation. In fact, it’s such a short a passage, it’s easy to miss. So what is it?
Here’s the passage, from page 112 of 225. Yup, 49.78% of the way through the book to be precise. The dream comes after Jonas has received the memory of a sled ride from his mentor, the eponymous Giver.
Again and again, as he slept, he had slid down that snow-covered hill. Always, in the dream, it seemed as if there were a destination: a something–he could not grasp what–that lay beyond the place where the thickness of snow brought the sled to a stop. He was left, upon awakening, with the feeling that he wanted, even somehow needed, to reach the something that waited in the distance. The feeling that it was good. That it was welcoming. That it was significant. But he did now know hot to get there.
The midpoint dream subtly gives Jonas a new goal, and provides the reader with a question that will guide the rest of the story: Will he ever reach that mysterious, significant place he can intuitively sense somewhere in the distance?
Sure enough, the ending revisits this exact image–not in a dream, but in real life–after Jonas has escaped his community with a baby that he saved from execution. Here’s the passage from page 224:
The wind was bitterly cold. The snow swirled, blurring his vision. But somewhere ahead, through the blinding storm, he knew there was warmth and light. Using his final strength, and a special knowledge that was deep inside him, Jonas found the sled that was waiting for them at the top of the hill. Numbly his hands fumbled for the rope. He settled himself on the sled and hugged Gabe close. The hill was steep but the snow was powdery and soft, and he knew that this time there would be no ice, no fall, no pain. Inside his freezing body, his heart surged with hope. They started down. Jonas felt himself losing consciousness and with his whole being willed himself to stay upright atop the sled, clutching Gabriel, keeping him safe. The runners sliced through the snow and the wind whipped at his face as they sped in a straight line through an incision that seemed to lead to the final destination, the place that he had always felt was waiting, the Elsewhere that held their future and their past.
This passage answers the question raised at the midpoint: Does Jonas reach that mysterious destination?
Whether you think he literally reaches a new community, which was the author’s intent, or whether, like my ten-year-old self, you think he reaches it in his mind in the final moments of his life, doesn’t really matter. Either way, the midpoint question gets answered, ensuring the end is emotionally satisfying.
Would this have worked if the dream occurred at some other point of the story, say 41% of the way through or 72% of the way through, rather than at the exact midpoint? Probably, yes, but I don’t think it would have been as satisfying. Why not?
Because stories are like a vibrating string. When you play a string on a piano or a guitar, you hear its fundamental pitch. (If you play the A string of a guitar, you hear an A.) But, that fundamental pitch also contains overtones or harmonics–subdivisions of the fundamental vibration that occur at key ratios: 1/2 the wavelength, 1/3 the wavelength, and so on. What sounds like A in fact contains countless other pitches within it. (For a good explanation, check out this article from Music Student 101.)
Image from: Music Student 101
In a novel, when events fall on key ratio points, they resonate more strongly with one another. We rarely consciously notice this, but I think readers pick up on this intuitively. Like Jonas, readers have a special knowledge deep inside that tells them when a story is structured in a satisfying way–and Lois Lowry’s masterful structure in THE GIVER is sure to keep it resonating with readers for many more decades to come.
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