You can go to Barnes and Noble right now, walk to the Children’s section or the Young Adult section, and find hundreds of books about society gone wrong. Dystopian novels, stories about how everything in the world has gone terribly wrong, run rampant these days: just look at Divergent, The Hunger Games, Uglies, and Unwind. Many of these stories start by giving us the thought that this is actually not a dystopia, but a utopian society where everyone and everything is happy, healthy, and loved. We very soon find out, however, that the utopia comes at a price, and the world is a very different place. Lois Lowry’s The Giver (Published 1993), is a book like this.
In The Giver, we are taken into a world where everything is perfect. There is no hunger. There is no unemployment. Everyone is fed, taken care of, and has a place in the world. There is no pain, and if you do happen to break your leg or hurt yourself, there is release-of-pain medicine that will immediately take it away from you. This is the world that Jonas lives in, and he believes in this world. The Ceremony of Twelve is fast approaching, and like all the other 11 years old, Jonas is anxious to see what job he will receive. On the day of the ceremony, his number is skipped. After all of the other elevens receive their jobs, the Chief Elder calls him to the stage. There, she tells him that he has not been assigned but selected to be the next Receiver of Memory. This job is the highest honor in the community. Jonas is taken aback, bewildered, but he begins his job of Receiver-in-Training. He soon finds out that the Receiving he is doing is one of all the memories of the generations. Eventually, all these memories will be his alone to bear. Jonas is confronted with a world that is so different from the one he has always known. Now, he has access to war, pain, brutality, but also to happiness, sunshine, color. In the end, Jonas must make a decision whether to stay in this world and continue the lies he has lived his whole life, or to try and change things, somehow.
This book was published over 20 years ago, and it is still being read and discussed all over our country. In my opinion, it was the predecessor to the many dystopian novels that we see on the market today: I just don’t remember there being anything else like this when I was a child. My children’s literature class is required to read The Giver, and there is a reason for that. I’m reminded of the quote that says, “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” —Italo Calvino, The Uses of Literature. This book has got so much to say that I’m fairly certain it will be an extremely long time before it goes out of print.
So what is it about this book? What is it still saying? I think that this book is a testament to individuality and the fact that suppression of individuality will ultimately result in a world where we may have the desired outcome, sameness, but we will lose everything special about our world. In the beginning of the story, we are given glimpses that the world is not quite like ours today, but it does not seem bad in any real way, just different and a little curious. Jonas and his sister Lily are talking about some other children and Jonas suggests that they acted like animals. Lily asserts that they acted like animals, and then the reader is told, “Neither child knew what the word meant, exactly, but it was often used to describe someone uneducated or clumsy, someone who didn’t fit in”(p.5). Five pages into the story, and we are already wondering about what kind of a place we are seeing. By page 8, when we realize that each family is only allowed to have one boy and one girl child, there is the first real glimmer that perhaps this world is not as amazing as it seems.
It is not until Jonas starts receiving memories that he begins to question what he has grown up his whole life knowing and not knowing. Earlier in the story, Jonas saw glimpses of something in an apple, the faces of the crowd, and in his friend Fiona’s hair. He’s uncertain what happened, because he knows the size and shape do not change. The reader learns at the same time that Jonas does that it is color that he is seeing. Color?!?! This world is missing color, sunshine, and above all choice. Jonas does not change completely at first. He says that he wishes he could choose different colored tunics, and that it would be amazing if everyone could have some choice. He soon relents when he realizes that there are much bigger choices that could be made, and that people can possibly chose wrong. Jonas says, “’later it does matter, doesn’t it? We don’t dare to let people make choices of their own… Definitely not safe… What if they were allowed to choice their own mate? And chose wrong?... We really have to protect people from wrong choices’”(p.98). This is well into the book, when Jonas has been in training for weeks and he still cannot fathom breaking away from the status quo. The hardest part for me is that no one challenged that thinking aside from Jonas and The Giver. Even Asher, Jonas’ most charismatic friend, fits perfectly into society’s mold. In most dystopian novels, there is a pocket of dissension. In The Giver, there are only Jonas and The Giver who know the truth, and it takes Jonas a really long time to realize that life shouldn’t be the way that it is.
The moment I realized what a terrible world we are presented with in this story is the scene where Jonas asks his parents if they love him. His parents sit awkwardly, until his father says. “’Jonas. You, of all people. Precision of language, please!’” Then his mother tells him, “’Your father means that you used a very generalized word, so meaningless that it’s become almost obsolete’”(p.127). This is a world where love is meaningless, and where people who raise children do not even love them. This is an eye-opening experience for Jonas, but it is not yet the moment where Jonas knows that he cannot continue to live this way.
Jonas’s turning point centers around Release. Throughout the novel, we hear about Release. A pilot in the beginning of the novel gets Released. An elderly man gets Released. When twins are born, one of them is always Released. The characters in the novel do not seem to know what Release means; if they do, they are not telling. As a reader, I remember when I first read this story I started getting a feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach as I read about each successive Release. One day, Jonas sees the Release of one of the twins by his father, who is a Nurturer for the young. We finally find out what Release means—killing. Every person who is released--the old, the sick newborns, the repeat offenders—is murdered. Jonas realizes that he has been living with a man who murders people for his whole life, and he knows that he can’t go back to the simple life that he had before.
One of my biggest thoughts during this book is that there has to be more people besides The Giver and Jonas who know what is going on. You simply cannot operate such a massive brainwashing operation, where every deviancy is eliminated, without having more people who know. When The Giver and Jonas talk about Fiona’s hair, which is red, The Giver says, “I suppose the genetic scientists are still hard at work trying to work the kinks out. Hair like Fiona’s must drive them crazy”(p.95). If they cannot see color, then how do they know that Fiona’s hair is red? Throughout the novel, I kept thinking that there just has to be more people who know. In order to keep such stringent control on a society, especially when there are foxes and birds only a few days away by bicycle, there has to be a small group of people who know and keep a tight grip on the community. If there is not, then unfortunately a lot of the blame for this society lies on The Giver. If he is truly the only person who knows about what is going on, how can he live with himself? How can all the Receivers of Memory live with themselves after all the knowledge they have? How can they possibly not change things for the better? With the knowledge of the entire world inside of him, he should be able to look inside himself and find the courage to do what is right.
The Giver is a world that is not as far removed from our world as it may seem. There are places in the world that have restricted the number of children you can have. Books have been burned time and time again. Many people strive towards a sameness in our world, and this book gives us the consequences that could happen if that sameness were achieved. I, for one, say we should embrace our individuality, choose the color of our own tunics, and love whomever we want to love.
On a side note, they have finally made The Giver into a movie. After watching the trailer, I have zero hope for it. For starter, the entire thing should be in black and white, except when Jonas is getting his glimpses. Second, Jonas should be 12, not like 20 years old. Third, Fiona did not have any sense of dissent in the novel. There isn't enough Meryl Streep in the world that could save this movie. Watch the trailer here and decide for yourself.