Once upon a time, I earned a Master's Degree in Literature and was a Professor of Literature and Composition. I had a wonderful time writing my Master's Thesis about Children's and Young Adult Literature, and I considered earning a Ph.D. so that I could continue to pursue the written word, including British, American, Latin American and other Global Literatures, Children's and Young Adult Literature, all types of genres and occasionally even poetry. But life takes you in unexpected directions, and so now I am working for a non-profit agency (you can read about that on my other blog, A Little Bit of Wonder). Although my job keeps me too busy to post as many book reviews as I would like, Recommended Reading is a place where I can continue to share my literary discoveries and knowledge as time allows.

Please note that I post reviews for books that I recommend reading, just like the blog title says. This means that I typically won't post a review for a book that I completely dislike. This isn't because I shy away from making negative comments, but rather because I don't want to waste your time or mine (I won't even bother to finish a book if it's not any good). For more on this, see the explanation of my Rating System.)

Friday, February 25, 2011

Book Review: The Giver

Note: I list a lot of details from the dystopian world of The Giver in this review, but I have tried to refrain from giving up anything that Lowry includes as a surprise reveal in the novel, and as always, I do not spoil the climax/end of the novel.

When I picked up Lois Lowry’s Newbery-winning novel The Giver for a re-read, I was reminded of something that C.S. Lewis once wrote: “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty.” I am often struck by the truth of this statement when I re-read classic works of children’s literature, especially when I return a book that I haven’t touched in at least a decade. The memories of a novel come rushing back; the significance that the story held for me in my childhood intermingles with my “adult” reactions, adding layers to the experience of reading the book. Lewis’s quote came particularly into my mind as I re-read The Giver, since I have actually experienced the death of loved ones and wrestled personally with some of the questions in the book since last reading Lowry’s novel. Now, The Giver is no longer just a well-written work of dystopian fiction, but a reflection on events that are personally significant.

I remembered the basic plot of the novel: twelve-year-old Jonas is living in what seems to be an ideal society where no one experiences pain of any depth, but once he is chosen to be “The Receiver of Memory” for his community, he begins to learn the price of that idyllic existence. While his friends and peers start training for their new occupations as Doctors, Teachers, Nurturers and Recreational Assistants, Jonas begins to meet with the previous Receiver. The elderly man’s job is now to pass on the memories to young Jonas – and so the man becomes The Giver of the novel’s title. Through Jonas’s relationship and work with The Giver, he begins to perceive many new things about the world around him – both beautiful and painful things, the emotions and experiences that make us fully human.

But as Jonas learns about these many exciting, wonderful experiences, he realizes that his family and members of his society are completely unaware of them. They do not understand the depth of both affection and sexual love that human beings are able to feel for one another because they are medicated to remove sexual urges. His society has sought to eliminate the horrors of physical pain and emotional anguish, but have also robbed themselves of the emotions at the opposite end of the spectrum – joy and passion. But The Giver must teach Jonas about physical pain and death in its many forms; the knowledge and experiences of these things will now be his burden to carry in order to shelter the community from such horrors. But once Jonas realizes how the people of his society have handicapped themselves, he wants to devise a way to restore memories and emotions to the individual members of the community so that they can once again experience human passions.

The society that Lowry has created is becomes more and more obviously insidious as the novel progresses. “Sameness” stretches across all aspects of their community: the society dictates acceptable behaviors, occupational choices, spousal selection, family planning. Everything is masterfully controlled – even climate, genetics and death.

As I re-read the novel, I was particularly fascinated to notice the community’s use of language; there is often a prescribed script which the members of this society must follow and so it is through language that the people police themselves and control is maintained. As someone who loves words and phrases and stories, I noticed more and more the ways that the social and individual narratives were controlled: the use of a number instead of a name when a child misbehaves, a name designated as “Not-to-Be-Spoken” if a person of that name has been a particular disgrace, the prescribed apologies and standard responses for every social situation, the required family ritual of dream-telling, the importance that is placed on the precision of language – and Jonas’s resulting preoccupation with the accuracy of his expressions. All of these things create parameters for the individuals of this society, which shows just how powerful language and narrative can be. The creators of this society felt that they must standardize even a simple apology in order to ensure safety and happiness.

It is obvious that while this “sameness” was intended to provide safety and happiness, it has removed people’s free choice and the vibrancy of their lives – yet upon re-reading The Giver at this juncture of my life, I must admit that there were certain aspects of this society that appealed to me. Last year, I watched both of my very special grandparents rapidly deteriorate physically, then die – and so it seemed somewhat attractive to me that in this society, the elderly were treated with so much respect, cared for so diligently and made so comfortable, then “released” before they started to suffer. Euthanasia is a touchy subject – one of many in The Giver. Reading the novel again, I have realized just how complicated many of these issues can be.

But The Giver does not attempt to preach – it simply presents these very complicated social issues in a context that readers can see the trade-off. There are reasons that this society has relinquished many of their rights – and in certain ways, they are better off. I don’t think that they just seem to be better off – they are better off. It is not a total illusion. But ultimately, we have to ask ourselves, is the illusion worth it? The answer to most of us, even with all the attractive aspects of this society, is still a resounding “no.”

This post participates in Presenting Lenore's Dystopian February Reading Challenge.


  1. +JMJ+

    I also read The Giver as a child and ended up rereading it several times while growing up; but although it should be right up my alley, it still manages not to be one of my favourites.

    For me, Lowry's silence when it comes to the history of the community--exactly how they got from our world to their world--is a major weakness. Well, okay, it's possible to fill in most of the blanks by ourselves . . . but what about the memory transmission trick which Givers and Receivers use? And how do memories escape (only to be caught again?) if a Receiver dies--or even leaves the community--without passing them on to another?

    Lowry just left too many things wide open for me, I'm afraid.

    Lauren, your point about illusions is interesting to me in the light of the ending. Most readers seem to think that Jonas dies at the end. I've actually never thought that. =P I believe he and Gabe make it in the end. But if we're going to read the story as if they don't . . . then the dream/hallucination of the sled and the lights is just another kind of illusion, isn't it? Like the community he has left behind, he's just seeing what he wants to see and not what's real. And so we can ask whether the illusion of having found another community was also worth it.

  2. Enbrethiliel,

    I didn't want to comment on the end in my review because that would give the end away. :-) I might write up a post at a later date about Lowry's writing overall, and then I might say more on the subject of Jonas and Gabe's survival...

    But I will say this on the subject of Lowry's "silence" regarding the history of the community -- I think that it works because the book is from Jonas's perspective. We never find out anything that he does not know -- and he is not at the point yet where he is asking questions like, "How did we come to this?" or "Who decided to transition our society to 'Sameness'?" He has too much to absorb already, at this point in his life. So I think that while I'm curious about those things, I don't need them for the story to work.

    I agree, though, that the whole mode of memory transition from The Giver to The Receiver is a WIDE open question... that's the "science fiction/fantasy" part of the novel, and I guess I'm just willing to play along and ignore that unexplained phenomenon. I'm not really sure why I'm more willing to go with Lowry's funky Sci-Fi than L'Engle's... but for whatever reason, I am. Oh, well... :-)

  3. +JMJ+

    Hmmmm. I guess it's just that if I had been in Jonas' place (and I was about his age when I first read this book), I would have had tons of questions about the history of the community. Now that I think about it, he kind of lets me down as a character because he doesn't ask them.

    As for the funky SF issues . . . The reason I buy whatever L'Engle is selling is that she writes as if it could happen to anyone in real life. Some characters have special abilities, but these turn out to be perfectly natural: the universe has always had beings like them, even if our own planet has been relatively blind to the fact. I got a similar sense of "magical realism" from Lowry at the beginning of The Giver, when the setting seems to be a dystopian future of our own world. But our world doesn't have people who can transmit memories through touch: this ability is never explained at all.

    I look forward to the future post about Jonas and Gabe! =)


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