The non-native residents of Village are overwhelmingly those who have physical disabilities that in other settlements, like Leader's (Jonah) in The Giver or Matty's village in Gathering Blue, would spell death or abandonment for them. In Village, however, the guiding principle is that physical difference isn't anything to be ashamed of or something that should be "fixed"; indeed, Messenger implies at various points that physical difference is often a mark of emotional maturity or kindness. Despite the prevalence and importance of this concept in Village, the characters of Messenger—Matty included—often struggle to truly practice what they preach. As Matty embarks on his journey through Forest, he grapples with this disconnect and comes to realize that it's not people who are born different who need to change. Instead, the world needs to change to become more accepting of those who are different.
Messenger takes a very clear stand regarding what constitutes a person's identity, what the most important parts of a person's identity are, and what parts should or shouldn't change. It does this first by introducing the reader to the idea of "true names," which are bestowed upon young people or adult immigrants and confer adult status on them in the community. These true names reflect what Leader, the aptly true-named leader of Village, sees as the truest and most important element of a person's identity. Mentor, for example, got his true name because, prior to the start of the novel, he dedicated his time and energy to teaching and mentoring anyone and everyone. Gatherer, on the other hand, was named for the physical contribution he makes to Village—gathering food—while Matty fears that his regular fishing escapades will earn him the name Fisherman. Instead of Fisherman, Matty wants to be named Messenger, as his admittedly rare ability to walk through Forest unscathed means that he's one of the only villagers able to carry messages to faraway settlements. It's important to note that while the novel offers only a handful of named adults, the names that Leader chooses for people appear to only pertain to what those people can do for the community, whether that be teaching, leading, or working with a food source. They don't, as far as the reader can tell, have anything to do with a person's physical characteristics, either positive or negative—suggesting that, within this society, a person's physicality isn't especially important to the way its inhabitants think about identity.
This begins to change, however, when Trade Mart starts to take on a questionable role and allows people to trade their true selves for physical traits. Matty sees this happen most noticeably with Mentor, who, in his middle age, used to be a bit stooped, balding, and had a noticeable belly, in addition to having a birthmark that covered a large portion of his face. Because of his desire to court Stocktender's widow, Mentor begins to trade away his true self in exchange for becoming taller, thinner, and getting rid of his birthmark. Importantly, the novel suggests that trading one's true self for physical traits is always a bad idea, because as he becomes more handsome, Mentor also becomes callous, selfish, and fearful of those who are different than he is. Matty also notices one woman who traded some of her true self making fun of her husband for his limp after trading—something that Matty finds disturbing and unproductive by nature, given that as far as he knows, the woman's husband cannot change his limp.
However, Matty's innocent and good-natured view of physical difference isn't entirely without fault. When he arrives at Kira's, he asks if he might fix her limp so that they might travel more quickly back through Forest, something that suggests that Matty sees physical differences or disabilities as a struggle to overcome—and one that he knows he can fix with his gift. Kira refuses, however, and insists that her limp is part of her identity and isn't something she cares to change. As a skilled weaver and textile artist, as well as a generous person with the power to "see ahead," Kira's leg simply has little to do with how she sees herself—her value, as far as she's concerned, comes from what she can do in terms of her craft, not what she looks like.
All of this challenges Matty's understanding of what someone's true identity actually is and ultimately, comes to affect Matty's identity as well. While Matty's lack of a true name makes it clear that his identity is still forming, his desire to be called Messenger is, according to Leader, not an accurate encapsulation of who Matty truly is. Leader's choice to bestow the name Healer upon Matty after Matty's death reinforces yet again that identity isn't something someone can bestow entirely upon themself. Instead, identity is something connected to what a person can do for their community and ultimately, comes from that community as well.
Identity and Difference ThemeTracker
Identity and Difference Quotes in Messenger
"Were you scared of Forest?" Matty asked him. So many people were, and with good reason.
"No. It's all an illusion."
Matty frowned. He didn't know what the blind man meant. Was he saying that fear was an illusion? Or that Forest was? [...] Maybe, Matty thought, everything was an illusion to a man who had lost his eyes.
But here in Village, marks and failings were not considered flaws at all. They were valued. The blind man had been given the true name Seer and was respected for the special vision that he had behind his ruined eyes.
There were no secrets in Village. It was one of the rules that Leader had proposed, and all of the people had voted in favor of it. Everyone who had come to Village from elsewhere, all of those who had not been born here, had come from places with secrets. Sometimes—not very often, for inevitably it caused sadness—people described their places of origin: places with cruel governments, harsh punishments, desperate poverty, or false comforts.
"Well," said Matty slowly, "when she was leaving, walking and talking with the other women, and her husband behind trying to keep up, she whirled around suddenly and scolded him for being slow."
"Slow? But he's all twisted. He can't walk any other way," the blind man said in surprise.
"I know. But she made a sneering face at him and she imitated his way of walking. She made fun of him. It was only for a second, though."
"It was so important to him, and he made it important to me: poetry, and language, and how we use it to remind ourselves of how our lives should be lived..."
Then her tone changed and became embittered. "Now he talks of nothing but Stocktender's window, and of closing Village to new ones. What has happened to my father?"
Some of those who had been among the most industrious, the kindest, the most stalwart citizens of Village now went to the platform and shouted out their wish that the border be closed so that "we" (Matty shuddered at the use of "we") would not have to share the resources anymore.
We need all the fish for ourselves.
Our school is not big enough to teach their children, too; only our own.
They can't even speak right. We can't understand them.
They have too many needs. We don't want to take care of them.
And finally: We've done it long enough.
"She's quite lovely, isn't she?"
Matty shrugged. He understood that Leader was referring to Kira but the blind man's daughter was older than he. She had been like a big sister to him. No one in the old place had thought her lovely. They had been contemptuous of her weakness.
"She has a crooked leg," Matty reminded Leader. "She leans on a stick to walk."
But on this journey, something was different. For the first time, Matty felt hostility from Forest. The fish were slow to come to his hook. A chipmunk, usually an amiable companion, chittered angrily and bit his finger when he held his hand toward it. Many red berries, of a kind he had always eaten, had black spots on them and tasted bitter; and for the first time he noticed poison ivy growing across the path again and again, where it had never grown before.
To his amazement, Kira said no. Not no to leaving—he hadn't suggested that to her, not yet—but a definite, unarguable no to the idea of a straightened, whole leg.
"This is who I am, Matty," she said. "It is who I have always been."
He could see, too, that she was accustomed to her stick and twisted leg. A lifetime of walking in that way had made it, as she had pointed out, part of her. It was who she was. To become a fast-striding Kira with two straight legs would have been to become a different person. This was not a journey Matty could undertake with a stranger.