“The Giver” by Lois Lowry

Ah, to revisit books of the past. I last read The Giver in the mid 90’s before I had kids, and before I went to grad school, and before I read all the books I’ve read since then.

The Giver depicts a utopian society in which all members are regulated, safe, fed, housed, and cared for. When young Jonas is selected to be the Receiver of Memory, we slowly learn through his eyes what the costs to this “utopia” entail. It ends with a famously ambiguous scene, that I was disappointed to learn that Lowry explains in a later book. I only read one sequel, Gathering Blue, which didn’t propel me to read the rest.

Superficially, The Giver is a Good Book, a Classic. Jonas is easy to relate to, a sweet kid who learns and is pained by dark truths. But the conflict at the end hinges on one of my least favorite cliches, the YOUNG CHILD IN PERIL. Jonas makes a “choice” that’s not really a choice–it’s obvious. I wanted that choice to be more complicated, to have more consequences. And it does have a possible consequence in its ambiguous ending, but only one for the individual, not for the many.

I said this in my review of Matched, but a good dystopia should make the conflict between freedom and safety more complicated, as Ursula LeGuin did in her story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas“. The benefits of safety are dismissed too easily by white kids of privilege. Of course they’d find it easy to dismiss. But what about people who’d undergone poverty, starvation, war, etc? Mightn’t they make a different choice? And might not they be considered in a white-kid protagonist’s decision? Not in these books.

One interesting thing to me: I read the ending differently this time. I made a note when I read it last time what I thought happened, and this time I felt the opposite. There is power in that ending, which is why I wish Lowry had left it ambiguous.

Edited to add: The world of The Giver is communist, so much so that I was often reminded of the North Korea from Adam Johnson’s novel The Orphan Master’s Son, e.g., when announcements were made by loudspeaker and people disappeared under a cloud of euphemisms.So then isn’t The Giver at its core just: “Communism is Bad; Individuality and Freedom are Good. Go, ‘Merica!”?

I just finished reading The Karamazov Brothers, and one line from the famous chapter ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ reminded me of The Giver and the other dystopian novels because it sums up the central conflict:

And they will come to understand that freedom together with an abundance of earthly bread for all is inconceivable, for they will never, never learn to share among themselves. (317, Oxford World’s Classics)

2 Responses to ““The Giver” by Lois Lowry”

  1. sm Says:

    i read ‘the giver’ (for the first and only time) about 8 years ago - in an afternoon. it was the first YA book (or is it considered JF now?) i’d read since i left highschool 15-20 years ago and i’d forgotten how much i love YA books - more straight forward in their themes, quicker reads, very satisfying.
    ‘the giver’ got me reading YA again, and i’m grateful for that. without it i would never have read ‘perks of a wallflower’ or ’speak’ or ‘liar’ or ‘little brother’ or ‘i am the messenger’ or …
    as an aside - i credit YOU, girl detective, for bringing graphic novels into my reading pot :)

  2. girldetective Says:

    S–I found The Giver a quick, satisfying read both times, but it was only after I read some other reviews that I looked at it with a more critical eye and it began to fall apart for me.

    I think the crux of what makes a YA book good is what makes any book good: the skill with which its written. I’ve come to believe giving a book a pass because it’s written for children is a cop out. Speak, The Tiger Rising, The Chocolate War and I am the Cheese–these and so many more stand on their own merits, for any age reader.

    Glad to know I’m an influence with GNs. Like YA, they get a bad rap, and some of them are excellent works of art.