The Giver: Good story, important questions

The Giver by Lois Lowry

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.


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RUTH ARNELL is a retired professor of political science in Idaho. From a young age she has maxed out her library card the way some people do credit cards. Ruth started reading fantasy with A Wrinkle in Time and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — books that still occupy an honored spot on her bookshelf today. Ruth and her husband have a young son, but their house is actually presided over by a flame-point Siamese who answers, sometimes, to the name of Griffon.

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3 comments

  1. A thoughtful review of this book, Ruth. I bought it for a young friend for Christmas years ago. She and her mom read it together. She has her own child now and still talks about the book and the impact it made.

  2. It’s not my intention to be a party-crasher given the commentary and generally warm review above, but I have to say I had a different reaction to The Giver.

    For starters, it doesn’t challenge the reader in any way. It’s easy to sympathize with Jonas and his literally black and white world because the idea is nothing new. Orwell has done it, Huxley has done it, even Le Guin has written a dystopian novel of similar caliber (The Telling). This is the 21st century, however; surely Western society is dealing with issues more poignant than the possibility of a totalitarian regime? Secondly, and perhaps most bindingly negative for me, was the deconstructive ending. (Warning: readers who have not read the book, avert your eyes! :) Lowry spent an entire book heavily critiquing Jonas’ society while developing him emotionally to the point he was able to go out on his own. But in the last sentences, Lowry suggests that it may have all been just a dream, and in the process places doubt upon all of the meaning and value of the story. Had Lowry ended the book with Jonas’ escape, the story would be rounded, closed, certain, that is, rather than the unequivocal circumstances it ends under. (Having read an interview with Lowry, I can also say initially she never thought there would be any sequels, meaning the ending is as she thought it should be.)

    I will never criticize Lowry and her desire to imbue a YA story with the pain and joy of life, I just think her choice of premises is lazy and her ending ambiguous to the point of deconstructing the whole book.

    • The more I think about it, the more I think the ending totally fits the book. The fact that she forces the reader to make up their own mind about what happened, rather than spelling it out for them, speaks to the central issue of choice and freedom, and the idea that many people really don’t value freedom when they have stability.

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