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  • The Philosophical and Ethical Significance of Color in Lois Lowry's The Giver
  • Kyoung-Min Han (bio) and Yonghwa Lee (bio)

In the futuristic community that Lois Lowry depicts in her Newbery Award-winning novel, The Giver, many things are absent. What is missing in the community runs the gamut from natural phenomena such as snow, sunshine, and hills to abstract qualities such as love, free will, and individualism. Despite the accomplishments by the community of safety from crimes, gender equality, and the abundance of food supply, critics view the community as dystopian, explicating the value and implications of what it lacks. Among those absences, color is worthy of close investigation as it plays a critical role in the development and transformation of Jonas, the protagonist. As the Chief Elder states, among all the qualities that have convinced the Committee to select Jonas as the next Receiver of Memory, the most prominent one is his ability to "See Beyond" (79) his colorless community and occasionally see flashes of colors.

Although the importance of color in the novel has not gone unnoticed, many critics have focused mainly on the sociopolitical significance of color in the novel. For example, in her contemplation on the pedagogical implications and value of The Giver, Susan G. Lea argues that the community's emphasis on Sameness that leads to colorblindness can serve in the classroom as an opportunity to explore the problems with a race-neutral perspective, which fails to understand the institutional and systematic dimensions of racism. Susan Louise Stewart also examines the ideological significance of the monochromatic world of The Giver. As Stewart's criticism of the novel indicates,1 however, these critics' focus on the sociopolitical ramifications of the absence of color in the community tends to diminish the significance of Jonas's acquisition of the ability to see colors.

Instead of understanding Lowry's treatment of color in terms of racial issues, Don Latham discusses people's colorblindness as a symbol of their lack of autonomy and individuality, which is attributable to the community's [End Page 338] overprotection of its members that has created "a society of perpetual children" ("Childhood Under Siege" 11). According to Latham, Jonas's community "does not value discrete individuals but instead prefers to function as a single, amorphous entity" ("Childhood Under Siege" 10). As Latham notes in his other essay on The Giver,2 what makes it possible for Jonas to realize the problems of his community that reduces human beings to mere objects or functions is his attainment of individuality and subjectivity. Despite his insight into the subversive nature of Jonas's relation to the totalitarian structures of his community, Latham's analysis of color or individuality does not extend to considering how Jonas's ability to see and keep colors is related to the evolution of his selfhood.

Drawing on various literary and philosophical theories of color, human perception, memory, and selfhood, this essay seeks to shed light on how Jonas's growing ability to see colors aids his transformation from a passive follower of the rules of his community into an autonomous individual with an ethical capacity that enables him to risk his own life for another human being. Jonas's growth as an individual capable of thinking for himself and making his own decisions is quite crucial to understanding the kind of values he adopts during his training with The Giver, his predecessor. As a new Receiver of Memory, Jonas learns from The Giver that his job is to hold "the memories of the whole world" (98) and that the community needs one of its members to store memories for the rest because it wants wisdom but not the pain coming from the memories. As his training progresses, Jonas realizes how the absence of memories has turned the people of his community into automatons without selfhood, free will, humanity, and most importantly, the ability to love. As evident from Jonas's daring attempt to save Gabriel's life, for Jonas, the most important values are human agency, human dignity, and human life, and Jonas's anguish over whether he has made the right choice in taking Gabriel out of the community with...


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pp. 338-358
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