The Giver

The GiverMy 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

Violence

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.

Sacrifice

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.

Nudity

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.

Unquestioning Roles

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.

Recommendation

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.

 

The Giver by Lois Lowry
Published in 1993 by Dell Laurel-Leaf
First in a quartet, with Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son
Read an old paperback copy

 

Comments

  1. I read this a couple of years ago because I thought my daughter was going to have to read it in 6th grade. Right after, I read one of the new Dystopian novels, Matched, and saw a *lot* of similarities, like you mentioned.

    I thought this book was interesting and fairly well written, but I think it would be best for adults. As required reading for kids, I strongly, *strongly* dislike it. To me, there are several disturbing thoughts in this book – I have pages and pages of notes.

    First off, I was one of the ones who thought that Jonas and Gabriel died. I thought it was the only ending that made sense in light of the rest of the book. I found the idea that all of the people in the book who could fully experience life, with color and music and love, either killed themselves (The previous Receiver, the daughter of the Giver), wanted to kill themselves (the Giver – in fact I thing he was planning on it after he helped transfer the memories to everyone), or died trying to escape (Jonas and Gabriel). I also thought the book, especially if you read the ending as death for Jonas and Gabriel, as sweet escape. Given the rising rates of teen suicide, I think that’s a dangerous thought to plant in the head of adolescents.

    Also, whenever I read a book *assigned as required reading* to kids where the parents who at first seem to be good, turn out to be not trustworthy or evil, even by a little bit – makes me uncomfortable. It seems subversive to me on the part of the “establishment.” (Which ironically is what this book seems to be warning against.) For that reason, I much preferred the parents in Matched.

    I do wonder if I have a different experience because I read the book as an adult and don’t have fond memories of reading it when young. However, when I was young I only liked happy books, so I’m sure I wouldn’t have liked it then. 🙂 My daughter’s class ended up not reading the book.

    How did your daughter end up liking it, other than the ending?

    • ayvalentine says:

      I agree with your concerns about the suicide (I strengthened the wording in the review when your comment made me realize that my discomfort with how it’s handled really didn’t come across). I assumed that, while The Giver would welcome death when his time came, he intended to help the society through the transition of receiving all the memories–I thought he was in it for the long haul, and that’s part of why he wouldn’t leave. Although he does mention wanting to see his daughter, which I think he would have to die to do… It’s ambiguous!

      For what it’s worth, my daughter read the ending more literally (a real sled, not the escape of death) and was annoyed that it broke off rather than seeing them to the new society she’s sure waits for them–but she is pretty literal. She was surprised that some people might interpret it as death, but could see it after I mentioned it. She liked the book overall and thought it brought up a lot of interesting issues. I’ll be really curious to see what she has to say after seeing the movie.

      I can see your issue about the parents, but to me it felt different in this case because they and everyone else in the society were essentially incapable of love–they weren’t real parents in many ways. It’s pretty brutal to expose Jonas’ dad like that, but it had a strong impact, too. I don’t know how else the revelation about release could have been so shocking and effective. But I did read and enjoy the book before becoming a mom, so it’s possible that I’m more forgiving of it because of that.

      • I think it’s interesting how our perception of a book or a movie can change after we become a parent. 🙂

        The ending – part of why I would interpret it as death is that I always wanted to figure out how to *make* a book end happy, but as I got older I came to find that was never the reason they wanted on the test in English class. (Well, that sounds biased – doesn’t it?)

        • ayvalentine says:

          I can’t help but think that death is frequently added so that books are viewed as “serious literature” by awards committees and English majors (I say as a proud English major and former lit teacher). I shared some thoughts about it a few years ago: http://reads4tweens.com/the-role-of-death-in-tween-lit/ I frequently wish death played less of a role in books aimed at tweens, and I can totally see why it would become the default. “Not sure what happened? I’m sure it was a metaphor for death. At least that’s what my English teacher would say.”

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