Book: The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993)
Reviewer: Jeriann and Bethany
Age/Genre: YA Dystopian
Reading Accoutrements: Your favorite stuffed animal or other comfort object that reminds you of your childhood
Content Notes: Euthanasia, Suicide
Hello and welcome to Bathtub Book Club, Isolation Edition! If you’re reading this in 2020, you’re likely spending a lot of time at home or dreading leaving your home. Since pretty much all new news right now is a certain level of exhausting, we decided to stick with the familiar and re-read a book that we’ve both read before.
Unfortunately for some of you, Jeriann chose the book instead of Bethany, so instead of an escapist Romance, you’re getting an open-ended Dystopian. Sorry if that’s a bit too familiar right now.
For those of you who haven’t read The Giver, it is a 1993 Young Adult Dystopian novel often taught in English Literature classes for adolescents. The story is told from the perspective of Jonas, a 12-year-old who lives in an isolated Community of Sameness. At the age of 12, children are assigned to start learning the trades they will have for the rest of their lives. Everyone in the Community is assigned a job, and life is very regulated. Speaker systems passive-aggressively call out citizens who violate the rules. People who deviate too far from the norm too often are “released” from the Community. If you’ve ever read or watched a dystopian story before, you probably know what that means. (Dead. It means they end up dead.)
Jeriann: I chose this book because I’ve been enjoying dystopian novels lately and I couldn’t remember a lot of The Giver from when I read it in high school. I do recall being enamored with the world that Lowry created, and having a lot of questions about what was actually happening in the background of the book. Neither of those things has changed.
Bethany: Lowry did an amazing job of creating a world that is unique, with subtle and familiar similarities to our own world, in very simple language. It is the hallmark of a good dystopian novel that you can get lost in a new world while still drawing parallels to the failures of your own society. Lowry definitely succeeds.
At the ceremony where he is to be assigned his future profession, Jonas is first skipped over, then awkwardly called to the stage. The Chief Elder explains that Jonas has not been assigned, but rather has been “selected” to fulfill a very important role in the Community. He will be the Receiver of Memory, of which there is only one at a time, except when the previous Receiver (called the Giver to eliminate confusion) trains the future one. Jonas receives a packet explaining a bit about his new role, and is concerned to see that he is exempt from certain Community rules. This means he is now allowed to ask any question of anyone, even if it is considered rude. He is also allowed to lie, which makes him extremely uncomfortable.
Bethany: As a 12-year-old who has grown up believing that no one is allowed to lie, being told that this rule will change for him because of his profession actually makes Jonas realize that others might have received a similar pass. He even goes so far as to realize that, if he were to ask another adult if they were allowed to lie, he wouldn’t know if they told him the truth – they could be lying! Lowry explores that concept from the perspective of a 12-year-old in a really relatable way.
When Jonas goes to meet his new instructor, he learns that there are certain facets of the world that have been purged from the public memory. But the Elders recognize that sometimes, past knowledge is necessary in order to address unique problems and prevent repeating the mistakes of their predecessors. So the Receiver of Memory is consulted for difficult and unprecedented decisions. The Receiver is not allowed to share the memories of the past with others, and cannot request release from the community. These memories include beautiful objects and emotions that have been rendered obsolete, as well as the horrors of war and other painful experiences.
Jeriann: I was intrigued by the idea that the elders were basically putting all of the trauma of the past onto one person. The Receiver has no one to share the pain of these collective memories with, which causes a physical toll on their body. Jonas’s predecessor looks much older than he is, and becomes slightly healthier as he passes particularly painful memories on to Jonas. At the same time however, the Receiver is the only person in his Community who can see color or who knows what love is.
As Jonas learns that the reality he has known his whole life is a fabrication, he seeks to rectify what he sees as injustices, both on the Receivers and on the people of the Community who live in the dark. He and the Giver concoct a plan to bring some of the joys of a society of choices to the Community.
Bethany: Jonas first realizes that his friends are missing out because they can’t see the beauty of colors the way he can. The people of the Community see only in shades of Sameness and do not see color – they are colorblind. When Jonas first experiences color, he is confused about it. The first few times he notices color, he doesn’t have the language to describe it, so the reader is as clueless as to what the change might be as he is. LOWRY IS SO GOOD AT THIS.
Another aspect of this society that struck a chord with me was the emphasis placed on language. Jonas spends a lot of time ensuring that his language is very precise because of how much importance was placed on accuracy of word choice during his schooling. Repeatedly throughout the book, Jonas discusses his friend Asher’s difficulty choosing and pronouncing the correct words and the ways he was punished to discourage those mistakes in the future. Lowry really shows the effects of developmental inflexibility on children in a society, using such a simple concept.
Jeriann: As you may have noticed, this society is very rigid. There are jokes about suggesting changes to a committee for “studies.” The joke is that everytime a study is initiated, it never leads anywhere. People are so used to Sameness, that they just accept any minor inconveniences or flaws they see, because they know there’s no real chance for meaningful change. The people are so used to being disempowered that they don’t see that as a negative thing. A lot of this is because everything about society is set up to avoid awkwardness and uncomfortableness. You’re not allowed to be rude. You’re not allowed to be naked. This society is set up to avoid all negative effects of connection with others, so most connections are very shallow or structured. And of course, since uncomfortableness is… uncomfortable… People are easily led to avoid it and remain in ignorance about what they are missing out on.
Bethany: One of the things the Community requires is that all members must report Stirrings. At the age of eleven, Jonas experiences his first Stirrings in the form of a dream where he wants to bathe another child from the Community, a girl named Fiona. When he tells his parents about his dream, they give him a pill and tell him that he must take these pills every day for the rest of his life. Sometimes, the dose might have to change, but he will take the pill once per day. When Jonas becomes the Receiver and begins to experience things that have been removed from the Community, he chooses to stop taking his pills without telling anyone – and he starts to experience the emotional spectrum more fully. I started to wonder whether the whole community was on mood stabilizers to make them easier to control or if the purpose of the pill was to prevent hormone fluctuation and thereby eliminate sexuality from their society.
Jeriann: Speaking of Stirrings, I want to talk about the family dynamic and reproduction for a minute. Family units are assigned by the Elders. Adults can apply for a spouse, who is assigned to them, and after three years of observation, a couple can apply for a child. Each family is allowed two children: one boy and one girl. These children are not biologically related to the couple, but are assigned at the annual ceremony. There are birthers, who spend three years in a birthing center pumping out babies (presumably between the ages of 12 and 15?!?!?!), and nurturers, who are basically medical professionals that care for the babies until the age of one, when they are assigned to a family. From the information the book gives, we do not know how babies are conceived, since sexual relations are actively discouraged. Being a birther is somewhat looked down upon in the Community. It is not a position of honor, since the women who are birthers spend three years in comfort and then become general laborers until they are sent to the House of the Old. Anyone who is seen as intelligent is discouraged from pursuing birthing as a profession. Honestly, I want to read a book about the birthing centers. But really I don’t, because they terrify me. The fact that society still needs women to birth children in order to continue existing, while systemically devaluing these women, really struck a nerve with me.
The Giver takes place in a well-developed world that explores the trauma inflicted on people by rigid societal standards. This is a fantasy world, but every injustice presented has a real-world equivalent. This novel is accessible to children, and still meaningful for adults. There are a lot of issues that Lowry explores that we didn’t have the time or space to cover here. We recommend this as an introduction to dystopian literature for readers of all ages (over 9 probably, parental discretion advised). We also recommend this for people who are familiar with and love dystopian literature already; it’s a quick and thought-provoking read with a lot to explore.