Book Title: The Giver
Author: Lois Lowry
Style: Chapter book
Target Audience: YA
Genres: Fiction, Dystopian
Page Count: 179
Format: eBook (library)
Reading time: 2.5 hours
Date Finished: 2/03/17
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My impressions: I have mixed feelings about The Giver, one of those books that’s notable for being perhaps the progenitor of the YA “kids coming of age in a dystopian society” genre, but which is also better thought of as an allegory than a true story. And while I recognize that many people slightly younger than me grew up with this book and still love it today, I’d challenge that it’s half as deep or meaningful as anyone claims it to be.
In many ways, The Giver reminds me of a film that came out a few years after its publication called Pleasantville. In that film, there’s a society of people living in an idealized 1950s television culture. Their world is black and white, and their experiences are relatively passionless. A couple of characters from the real world come in, introduce color and sex and sin and the world of Pleasantville is rocked by the youthful rebellion. The film’s conceit is superficial, and its pseudo-allegory for the turbulent counter-culture of the 60s is so shallow it’s almost laughable. And yet many people saw that film as being deep and meaningful because it was trying to point out that a world where things are sterile and safe is no fun… as if anyone but a few terrifying souls ever thought any differently.
The thing is, that’s essentially the message The Giver provides. In this story, a boy named Jonas lives in a society where everything is so precisely ordered and planned that there’s no hunger, no pain, no deviation from norms and no focus on individual desire. Everything done is for the good of the society, and the children growing within it have to learn to fulfill their own roles within it or else risk being “released” to a place called Elsewhere. Jonas comes of age and is ready to be selected for a vocation, but he’s instead selected for a very rare role: taking the place of the Receiver of Memories, an individual in the society who has great privilege, but who also lives in extreme isolation.
The current Receiver becomes the Giver and begins transmitting a series of memories from previous generations into Jonas’s mind. Some are pleasant, like sledding down a hill in the snow or feeling the sunshine (which Jonas has never before seen and has no words to describe), and others are painful, like breaking a leg or witnessing war. Jonas also realizes that he’s begun seeing the world differently – he sees glimpses of color where everyone else just sees gray.
Up to this point, the book is fine, and very interesting. But then it takes a turn which makes it feel less like a poignant novel and more like an episode of The Twilight Zone or Black Mirror. There’s a twisted secret to this society that the Giver gradually reveals to Jonas – there is no Elsewhere, at least, not in a physical sense. Outside of the various communities, there is only desolation and wilderness; to be “released” actually means to be euthanized. Jonas learns that even his father, whose job is to nurture infants, routinely euthanizes babies who aren’t able to fit in or who are the weaker of twins, and this compels him to snatch a baby on the brink of being euthanized and to escape the society forever.
And honestly, that’s where the book really loses me. It’s preposterous. The idea that a society could be built where those who are in everyday roles are callously murdering those who are no longer useful is such a stretch that the illusion of the story shatters. In true totalitarian states, people are governed by fear, not conditioning, and death is carried out by soldiers and sociopaths, not by average citizens. To suggest that there could be individuals who are simultaneously caring for humans and murdering them when they’re no longer useful ignores a lot of what we understand about human beings’ aversion to murdering one another. It’s a horrifying thought, but it’s also a cheap gimmick.
I was more impressed by the end of the book, which seemed to imply that Jonas was dying of hypothermia and diving deeper and deeper into his dreams of a better world as he died in the wilderness. That seemed to me to be a startling conclusion: that escaping evil is not good enough, that Jonas’s insistence on saving one baby when he should have been using his great power and privilege to change society outright was perhaps a reflection of the author’s views on morality.
But it turns out there are three more books in the series, and Jonas goes on to live with the people outside the communities (as does the baby he rescued). Therefore, the ending of the book feels cowardly to me, since it results in Jonas finding people who appear to be celebrating Christmas who will then save him and nurture him in what I presume is a more conventional manner. (Even if it was unintended, suggesting that they’re celebrating Christmas also conjures the idea of Christianity, which is a common convention for displaying redemption and rebirth in a character.)
So, I’m left with mixed feelings. Lois Lowry is a good writer, and I found The Giver to be an enjoyable and interesting read. I understand why people like this novel, and I also understand why some adults have challenged it as a book that’s an obvious allegory for questioning the dictates of society. Far more important to me, however, is the question of, “is this book really as deep as the discussions it inspires in young readers?” My feeling is that no, it’s not.