“We failed in our last selection,” the Chief Elder said solemnly.
Just before the Ceremony of Twelve, Jonas and the other Elevens line up by number—in addition to his or her name, each child has a number that was assigned at birth, showing the order in which he or she was born. Jonas is Nineteen; his friend Fiona is Eighteen. The Chief Elder, the elected leader of the community, gives a speech before the Ceremony, noting that it is the one time the community recognizes the differences between the children rather than ignoring them as is customary and polite. Jonas watches and listens as his classmates receive their Assignments. His friend Asher is assigned the position of Assistant Director of Recreation after the Chief Elder gives a long and humorous speech about Asher’s pleasant, fun-loving nature and the trouble he has had in using precise language. She recalls a time when Asher confused the words “snack” and “smack” at the Childcare Center, and received a smack with the discipline wand every time. She laughs as she remembers that for a while, three-year-old Asher refused to talk at all, but that “he learned . . . [a]nd now his lapses are very few.” Jonas is relieved that Asher has received a wonderful Assignment and happy to see that his other classmates are pleased with their Assignments too.
But when Jonas’s turn comes, the Chief Elder skips over him, moving from Eighteen to Twenty without acknowledging him. Jonas endures the rest of the Ceremony in horrible embarrassment and worry, wondering what he has done wrong. The audience is concerned too—they are unused to disorder and mistakes. At the end of the Ceremony, the Chief Elder apologizes for causing the audience concern and causing Jonas anguish. She tells him that he has been selected for a very special position, that of Receiver of Memory. The community has only one Receiver at a time, and the current one—a bearded man with pale eyes like Jonas’s, sitting with the Committee of Elders—is very old and needs to train a successor. The Chief Elder explains that ten years ago, a new Receiver had been selected, but the selection had been a terrible failure. After Jonas was identified as a possible Receiver, the Elders watched him very carefully and made a unanimous decision to select him, despite the strict selection criteria. To begin with, the candidate for Receiver can be rejected if any of the Elders so much as dreams that he might not be the best selection. The Receiver also needs to possess intelligence, integrity, and courage, as well as the ability to acquire wisdom. Courage is especially important, because as the Receiver, Jonas will experience real pain, something no one else in the community experiences. The job also requires the “Capacity to See Beyond.” Jonas does not believe he has this capacity, but then he looks out at the crowd and sees their faces change, the way the apple changed in midair. He realizes he does have it after all. The Chief Elder thanks him for his childhood, and the crowd accepts him as the new Receiver by chanting his name louder and louder. Jonas feels gratitude, pride, and fear at the same time.
Although his training, which will keep him apart from other members of the community, has not yet begun, Jonas immediately begins to feel isolated from his friends and family, who treat him differently from before, though very respectfully. At home, his family is quieter than usual, though his parents tell him that they are very honored that he has been selected as Receiver. When he asks about the previous, failed selection, they reluctantly tell him that the name of the female selected ten years ago is Not-to-Be-Spoken, indicating the highest degree of disgrace.
Before bed, Jonas looks over the single sheet of paper in his Assignment folder. He learns that he is exempted from rules governing rudeness—he can ask anyone any question he likes and expect an answer—that he is not allowed to discuss his training with anyone, that he is not allowed to tell his dreams to anyone, that he cannot apply for medication unless it is for an illness unrelated to his training, that he cannot apply for release, and that he is allowed to lie. He also learns that he will have very little time for recreation and wonders what will happen to his friendships. The other instructions disturb him too—he cannot imagine being rude, nor can he imagine not having access to medication. In his community, medicine is always instantly delivered to stop pain of any kind, and the idea that his training involves excruciating pain is almost incomprehensible. He cannot imagine lying, either, having been trained since childhood to speak with total precision and accuracy, even avoiding exaggeration and figures of speech. He wonders if anyone else in his community is allowed to lie too.
The Chief Elder’s description of Asher’s childhood troubles gives us our first concrete example of the real cruelty that keeps the community so peaceful and happy. Though Asher seems to be a well-adjusted child, the idea that a normal three-year-old child’s confusion of two similar words could be so systematically and coldheartedly punished is difficult to accept. When a child whose language development had been progressing normally suddenly regresses into silence from constant physical punishment, that is evidence of severe trauma. Several events in the novel have already made us wonder if the peace and order of the society is worth the sacrifices its members have to make—sacrifices of individual freedom, deep personal relationships, and sexual pleasure—but Asher’s punishments demonstrate the severity of those sacrifices and help us to understand how intolerant the community is of differences and personality quirks.
Of course, the Ceremony of Twelve is the time when the community celebrates differences, and for Jonas it is the time when his own differences are made uncomfortably clear. His anguish and discomfort at being singled out at the Ceremony is only his first taste of the isolation he will experience as the new Receiver—the only member of the community whose life experience is appreciably different from anyone else’s. His family’s quiet respect for him and his friends’ distant behavior contribute to this growing feeling of isolation. Jonas is already different—already he has the ability to see beyond—but until now, he has not felt particularly different, and it has not occurred to him to criticize or question many of the community’s rules and practices. Interestingly, the role he is assigned, in accentuating his differences, encourages him to question those rules and practices, as he begins to do at the end of Chapter 9. The rules that permit him to act differently—he is permitted to be rude and to lie, among other things—encourage him to think differently: his permission to lie makes him wonder for the first time if other people in his society are permitted to lie too. Jonas loses some of his faith and trust in the members of his community. This slight loss of trust reminds us how dangerous it is to the structure of Jonas’s society to permit free choice or to encourage free thought.
The old Receiver’s eyes are the same color as Jonas’s and the newchild Gabriel’s. Since Jonas’s eyes already have a metaphorical meaning in the story, symbolizing his uniqueness, his isolation from his community, and his depth of vision (both physical and mental), we immediately associate those qualities with the Receiver too. The shared eye color links the Receiver and Jonas, suggesting that Jonas was destined to be the Receiver even before his abilities were recognized by the Committee of Elders. This destiny could be genetic—the genes giving Jonas and the Receiver light eyes might also govern their personality traits and their abilities to see beyond—or it could be more mystical in nature, with the light eyes serving as a mark of special, mysterious powers. Lowry’s use of light eyes as a kind of talisman indicating powers that Jonas cannot explain or understand foreshadows Jonas’s training later in the novel, when the memories of the Receiver, as well as the way he transmits them, take on a mystical, inexplicable quality that demonstrates how little the other members of the community understand them.
The fact that the newchild Gabriel has the same color eyes as Jonas and the Receiver indicates that his character will play a very significant role in the novel. His eyes have already marked him as unusual, and they have already linked him to Jonas, but the fact that he shares qualities with the Receiver suggests that he is even more special—that he, too, might be gifted with mysterious powers.