I was first introduced to this book by students in my Ancient Political Theory class while discussing Plato’s Republic. “This is like The Giver!” I had never read the book, so I picked it up and found that, indeed, there are many similarities. The Giver by Lois Lowry is set in a utopian future society where all individuality has been suppressed and people live lives planned by a central council of Elders who dictate who will marry, who has children, what jobs people have, and every aspect of life, from clothing and hair styles to food eaten and recreational activities allowed. The central character of the story is Jonas, a young boy about to become a Twelve, at which point he will be given the assignment of his career for the rest of his life. At that ceremony, when the rest of his classmates are assigned to be doctors or engineers or fish hatchery assistants, Jonas is selected to be The Receiver. All Jonas knows is what he is told: that this will require significant amounts of pain and courage, and that it is a position of the highest honor. In his training, he learns that the sameness and equality is built on a foundation of suppression of individual choice and forced equality based on genetically engineering out the ability to perceive difference — in color, in emotion, in life. Jonas has to decide what is more important — the stability of the community or the freedom of the individual.
The Giver won a Newbery Medal and has become a classic in elementary and junior high school curriculums. It has had its fair share of controversy, especially around the role that euthanasia plays in the society and the death of children, but I feel that this is an age-appropriate introduction to one of the central issues of political philosophy in an engaging story that forces Jonas to deal with the conflicting demands of his new awakening and the supposed happiness of everyone he has ever known.
It’s not just a philosophical treatise, however. This story expertly builds tension as Jonas awakens from his enforced peacefulness to a new reality. The flow of the prose builds like a stream slowly turning into a surging river. I have two main problems with this story. First, there is no explanation of how the ability of the Giver to transmit memories by touch works. This bit of mental telepathy seems out of place in a world in which everything else is so prosaically regulated. By second problem with the book is the ending. The first time I read The Giver I didn’t realize it was part of a series, so I was really mad at the cliffhanger type ending. Even now, as I reread it with the second book sitting on my nightstand to read next, the ending still bothered me. The story doesn’t have a resolution, but rather just ends.
I would recommend that parents read The Giver if their children are going to read it so that they can be aware of the emotionally upsetting content of the story and be able to discuss it with their children. I do think it is a valuable book for students to read, and has the rare ability to mix a good story with important questions. I plan on making sure my son reads this book when he is older, because of its value. I am looking forward to reading the next two books in the series, which I have not previously read, in preparation for the last book in the quartet to be released in September.