Book Review: “The Giver” by Lois Lowry

I can positively hear the eye rolls. I mean who in the world hasn’t read The Giver? Nowadays, it’s required reading in almost every middle school across the country. Perhaps I’m generalizing by using my experience to color my impression of how popular this book is, but still. It’s The Giver. 

So why am I reviewing it? Other than the obvious fact that it was recently made into a movie that arrived in theaters and promptly disappeared with less fanfare than your average young adult novel-turned-movie? Because I think it’s important to consider all science fiction and fantasy, even those written for young adults.

I first read the novel in fifth grade and when I saw the movie trailer this past summer, I had a visceral reaction to it: “Oh my god, I LOVED that book.” But I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember why.  So here I am, reminding all of us who read the novel years ago, why it still retains a special place in science fictional literary foundations (dystopian before Uglies, Hunger Games and Divergent arrived on the young adult scene and, if I might add, an average of about 400 pages shorter, coming in at a meager 179 pages).

In rereading The Giver, I was struck by how ingeniously it is written. This is not a novel that panders to young adult or middle grade reading levels. Sure, it follows the life of twelve-year-old citizen, Jonas, and the sentences are nice and short, but the themes throughout follow a hard line approach popular in the medieval era: children are merely unfinished, miniature adults. The readers, regardless of age, must face uncomfortable truths about society with the philosophies popularized by Orwell’s 1984 thrown in liberally. What are the advantages and disadvantages of complete governmental control? When is control taken too far? How do citizens react or remain passive with regard to everything going on around them?

I’m not quite sure Lowry answers these questions at all in her novel. I think we understand that complete control is bad. Due to its stranglehold on the general population, the governing body is forced to explain away occurrences (such as a mysterious jet flying over the city). Even though the citizens of this place are forced to take pills that shut out emotions, in order to curb imagination and original thought, the way in which the governing body uses almost mythological tellings to explain the world argues that completely cutting humanity off from well, their humanity, cannot be accomplished. Society can be restructured and manipulated into an unnatural configuration, but human “urges” and nature can be strong enough to overcome government rules.

I have to applaud Lowry on her methodology when writing this. As the novel progresses, we learn as Jonas learns, a technique that Lowry went to great pains to perfect. As readers, we exist in a colorful world. Jonas does not. Lowry painstakingly manufactures a colorless world, but we as readers are not aware of its uniform shades until Jonas discovers red for the first time. We are immersed in his sterile environment until he feels the sharp pang of sexual desire for the first time (known as Stirrings). While Jonas’ environment is alien, he shows us what it means to be unaware of history, unaware of the self, and only concerned with the present. He shows us what it means to obey rules and celebrate “releases” from the community without awareness of what such rules and ceremonies actually signify. In a way, Lowry plays with semiotics, showing a community where the jump is broken between “sign” and “meaning”. Where Saussure “saw the relationship between an object or person and its meaning as being essentially arbitrary and motivated only by social convention,” Lowry’s novel agrees. Jonas witnesses love in his memories, undergoes feeling and as such, experiences meaning on a visceral level. By doing so, Jonas advances in his life where his fellow human beings find themselves confined to a “meaningless” present.

That being said, Jonas exists in this sterile community until he is elected to be the new “Receiver of Memories” or at least receiver of the Giver’s memories. In a way, he fills the gap between sign and meaning. As a result, Jonas must bear the painful memories of the past and, when needed by his community, he can be called upon for advice. Jonas experiences the full spectrum of human emotion that his community has quelled via pills. In turn, his loneliness grows and he finds himself alienated from people that do not, in any way, share emotional similarities to those he sees in his new memories.

I think, as readers, we are meant to engage in the philosophical question regarding which state of being is Jonas better suited for. Would the world be a better place without color? Without love or hatred? Without sexual desire? It seems like most authors in science fiction (less so in fantasy) are concerned with how all of our failings as humans (as specified above) can affect our futures. For example, Ursula K. Le Guin argued in my last scifi review: gender and sexual desires/hormones are responsible for both progress and destruction. Instead, Lowry is more engaged with the idea of “survival”. The community she creates in her novel believes that doing away with “humanity” allows for survival. But what if the thing that makes us human is meant to give our lives meaning? Lowry, Jonas, and the Giver all seem to argue that meaning is necessary for fulfillment and I have to say, the book puts a good argument for that forward.

As a novel, it’s thin and as a result, I had a lot of questions by the time I finished the book. The plot didn’t feel fully developed enough for me and I was still left with questions such as how did the world become this way? Do communities beyond this small world even exist? Still, the world was entirely captivating so I’ll let it slide for now

Even though I’m not going to spoil it for you here if you haven’t read it, THE ENDING is not at all what I remember of it. As a child, I was an optimist and I believe you can read the ending one of two ways. I read it a different way this time and felt the message at the end of the novel was much bleaker than I originally thought: you cannot live in the world of memories and the physical world simultaneously. Jonas is unable to take the memories he has seen and use it to find meaning in his world (or at least operate as a full being in his new world). Even if Jonas doesn’t have much of a choice in the ending and even though Lowry’s interpretation of her ending aligns more with my childhood “optimistic” reading, I do think we are forced to confront the fact that living in the past has never done anyone much good.

4 out of 5 stars.