My daughter is reading The Giver in her 8th grade English class, so I used that as my excuse to finally reread this pioneer of middle grade dystopian literature. It holds up pretty well. There are some things that may seem a bit clichéd or predictable, but it reminded me of when I finally watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho after seeing a lot of the suspense movies that were inspired by it. The influences of The Giver on today’s dystopian trends are quite obvious.
Jonas lives in a society where everything has been optimized to be safe and predictable. He’s a pretty happy and well adjusted kid, with two parents and a sibling of the opposite sex, just like every other kid in his society. There is a strong focus on being polite to each other, with a ritual for apologizing and rules in place to keep everyone happily in line. Every child grows up knowing what’s expected of them, what happens if they step outside of that, and that society runs more smoothly when everyone plays their role. Family units are arranged after careful observation of the people involved—a male and a female are matched with each other, then they can apply for children who are assigned to them in an annual ceremony, once the nurturing center has determined that they’re growing and progressing properly and they can sleep through the night, etc. Dreams are shared over breakfast and feelings are shared over dinner. Once the children are raised, the parents join the Childless Adults until they retire and join the Old. It’s a limited society, but it has a certain appeal in its lack of chaos, pain, and loss.
When Jonas and all of the others in his age group are assigned to their adult jobs, he learns that he’s been selected to be the Receiver, the holder of all the memories that were deemed too dangerous for most of society to remember. The current Receiver becomes The Giver, transferring his store of memories one by one to Jonas. Jonas feels the extremes of joy and pain, he learns the attraction (and the danger) of having a choice. As we learn what all Jonas’ society has given up in the name of safety and predictability, the reader starts to question the wisdom of it.
The Giver is a classic and a Newbery Award Winner for good reason. It’s an interesting and thought-provoking book, with plenty to talk about.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Some of the memories that are transferred to Jonas are painful and awful. An elephant is killed for its tusks, and its mate mourns it. A boy is killed in war. Jonas feels the pain of crashing on a sled and breaking a bone. These memories are vividly shared.
Death and Suicide
Anyone who doesn’t fit into the society for whatever reason is “released.” There’s talk about what this means, and it’s generally assumed to mean that they leave the society and go somewhere else. However, it turns out that release is death through lethal injection. All of the old are released once they reach a certain point. If identical twins are born, the one perceived to be weaker is released. Jonas learns the truth about release by watching his father release a newborn twin. At that point, he realizes how truly dishonest his society is, with everyone lying to each other in the name of things being peaceful, predictable, and happy.
Society had chosen a Receiver ten years before Jonas was chosen, but she was a failure. Jonas eventually learns that she was overwhelmed by the pain of the memories, so she asked to be released, knowing full well what it was. She chose to inject herself, which The Giver seems to view as a sign of her strength and bravery. It’s not handled with much depth, but this is in fact a case of a twelve year old girl committing suicide because she can’t handle what her society demands of her. Among Jonas’ rules as the new Receiver is the mandate that he may not ask to be released.
The reason the society needs a Receiver is because someone needs to hang on to these memories of how things were before the Sameness. They can’t afford to lose all the lessons learned in those memories, and occasionally the elders ask the Receiver for advice before they make a decision. A Receiver holding all that pain means that others can live without feeling that pain. Jonas accepts his role as Receiver, even though it’s painful physically and emotionally.
Eventually he and The Giver both realize that protecting the people from these memories is unfair—they need and deserve to feel love and pain and happiness and anger. Jonas runs away from the only world he’s ever known in order to release his memories back to the people.
All of the children, starting at a certain age, are required to volunteer within the community. Jonas helps his friend Fiona take care of the Old, which in this case means bathing an old woman. Only the very old and the very young are ever permitted to be naked around other people. Jonas kind of envies them the freedom of not always hiding their bodies from others.
Sex and Love
As Jonas becomes a young teenager, he starts to have what his mother calls Stirrings—his hormones are kicking in. It starts with a dream of bathing Fiona. His mother gives him a pill that he’s supposed to take for the rest of his life that will keep the Stirrings at bay. Everyone in the society starts taking these pills as soon as their Stirrings begin. As Jonas receives more memories, he starts to suspect that he should stop taking the pills, so he does. He has pleasurable dreams and vaguely romantic thoughts toward Fiona.
It seems obvious that the parents in the family units are platonic. Without strong emotions, bonds like love are impossible. And any physical desire is taken away with pills. Birthmothers are vessels only—it’s not an honorable calling, really. Three pampered years, three babies (I assume through artificial insemination), and then off to a life of physical labor.
As Jonas learns more about his society through his role as Receiver, he starts to realize all the horrible things that happen behind the scenes in order to keep this calm and predictable façade. His father works in the nurturing center where the newborns stay until they go to their new families. Gabriel is an especially problematic newborn, so he ends up living with Jonas’ family for over a year, in the hope that this special treatment will help him learn to sleep peacefully at night. When it becomes clear that he can’t sleep peacefully away from Jonas, Gabriel is scheduled for release. Jonas’ father jokes that even he voted for it after the awful night Gabriel had at the center. By this point, Jonas knows what release really is, and he realizes that his parents have been lying to him all along—his supposedly nurturing father will unquestioningly take the life of a child he’s shared a home with because the child isn’t fitting into the criteria of society. That’s his role, and so he does it without remorse or question. This is the moment where Jonas essentially breaks ties with society, realizing that nothing is worth this tradeoff.
Starvation and Suffering
When Jonas and baby Gabriel flee society, they enter totally unknown territory. They’re unprepared for the journey ahead of them, and for pages and pages they wander, hungry and freezing. Jonas would give up and let himself die if not for Gabriel depending on him.
I first read this book when it originally came out, and it’s stuck with me. Rereading it, I can see why it had such an effect. Modern readers may not be quite as impressed because there’s a good chance they’ve already read several dystopias that draw heavily from the themes and tropes that were new and surprising when The Giver came out 21 years ago. It’s relatively short and straightforward, making it a great book to discuss with reluctant readers. I’d recommend it for precocious 10 or 11 year olds and up, and I strongly recommend making sure there’s an opportunity for your child to discuss it with an adult who’s also read it because there’s just so much to talk about.
The ending is ambiguous (although vivid enough that it stuck with me as a detail I remembered for 20+ years) which annoyed my daughter. Before the sequels came out, some readers interpreted it to mean that Jonas and Gabriel died. I’ve not read any of the sequels yet. I may need to change that.