It is a common anecdote that the word “utopia” has a twofold meaning: “perfect place” and “no place”. In the definition itself, a utopia is described as an imagined place, something that does not exist in reality. Perhaps the very concept of utopia teaches us something about the human condition. Can true happiness ever be attained or for that matter, maintained? If not, then why do people continue attempting to reach it? Our exploration of humanity and its shortcomings often leads our fictional utopias to be false. They are in fact dystopias: corrupt and absolute forms of government. Is this the case for Lois Lowry’s The Giver?
The Giver is by its very nature a polarizing book. Lowry has attested to receiving letters from people regarding the book which span the entire gamut of human emotion. Some say they loved the book, while others are enraged by it. She has had people write her who said The Giver saved their lives; she has also been told that she is mentally disturbed for writing such a horrible tale. It is not the difficulty of the writing that elicits such reactions. The vocabulary of The Giver is not complex. Its words can easily be read and comprehended at a middle school level. Yet its concepts are so deep and its themes so thought-provoking that even multiple rereads of the material will not suffice to fully answer the questions within. Perhaps the questions themselves are unanswerable.
The story follows Jonas, a 12 year old boy who is about to receive his assigned career that will determine the course of the rest of his life. While others in his class are designated as engineers, scientists and caretakers, Jonas is given the most rare and mysterious position within his community: the Receiver. Jonas is to be trained by the former Receiver, now The Giver, so that he may one day take on this position and do his part to preserve the welfare of his community.
This is a story I have read both as a child and an adult. I remember being riveted by my first reading of the book and the ideas presented within it questioning the values of individuality, emotion, pain, and memory. These were all concepts that stuck with me long after I finished my schooling. Coming back to the book as an adult however, I found the book to be much more of an enigma than my first read. When I read The Giver as a child, everything seemed clear: freedom was always good. Emotions are necessary. Memories must be protected. As an adult, I hesitate to take as strong a stance as I did in my younger days. I have seen how an excess of freedom can lead to chaos and destruction. I have felt emotions that have ripped me open and left me a fragile husk of who I was. I have memories I wish could be erased from my mind forever. Now that I have grown, I understand the desire for peace and stability that would lead to the dystopian society Jonas finds himself in.
Unlike the gritty, post-apocalyptic dystopias that are common with young adult fiction today, the society in The Giver appears idyllic. There seems to be no racism or sexism. Pollution is non-existent. Everyone has work, food and a roof above their heads. What more could one ask for? In the early chapters, nothing seems to even be amiss. It is only in later perusals that readers can see between the lines of what characters are saying (and what remains unsaid) to realize that even from the start Lowry was showing the dark implications of Jonas’ peaceful family life. Scenes that seemed to hold little importance when first read suddenly make sense chapters later as Jonas’ knowledge of himself and the world around him grows through his training as the Receiver. It is truly impressive how Lowry is capable of keeping the audience in the dark alongside Jonas so that the reader truly feels that they are on this journey with him, learning the truth just as Jonas does.
At its core, The Giver explores the questions we all wonder each day of our lives. What does it mean to be human? Does it mean pain as well as pleasure? Is it possible to be human without both? Is humanity found in our history? What becomes of us when that narrative is lost? As a human, what is more important: the individual person or the whole society? Is there truly one complete answer for any of these questions? This story is a classic for a reason. It can speak to anyone, anywhere in the world. If you are young, pick up this book now so you can return to it again once you are older. if you are an adult, read the story and try to imagine what the child in you would think of the tale as well. Sit with The Giver and let yourself reflect what it means to you. Find a friend to buddy-read it so you can share your thoughts with each other. Grow because of this book and let it grow with you. It is truly worth exploring.
P.S. I apologize if my descriptions in this review have been exceedingly vague. This is the sort of story that makes the strongest first impression if you know the least about it. While the value of the book deepens with additional readings, I do not want to deprive anyone the joys, surprises and sorrows that are felt so strongly the first time around.