Lois Lowry’s The Giver—a version of which is coming soon to your local movieplex very soon—starts out on a chilling note, as the sight and sound of a plane—just one plane—completely freaks out a young boy named Jonas and for the first time, introduces him to fear. Because it is a deviation, and any deviation from normal, in this world, is wrong and terrifying. It is, after all, a planned and structured world, where everyone is carefully placed in the correct job, with the correct family and correct spouse, with no more than two children who must be carefully applied for and then cared for, with rituals for talking about feelings and interacting with peers, where the absolute precision of language is insisted on, a world of still evolving genetic engineering. Oh, and drugs.
Like the best of dystopian novels, The Giver is less about a future world than about our own. Lowry considers some of the solutions for managing an ever increasing world population and decides, with cold and clear logic, to see exactly what type of community such solutions would create.
It’s not really one I’d want to belong to. Very spoilery.
At first glance, and to outsiders, Jonas’s community might seem ideal. After all, almost everyone in the community is content enough, and if something goes wrong every once in awhile—a four year old drowning in a river, the failure of a twelve year old that no one really wants to talk about—the community has rituals, endless rituals, for dealing with the grief, and life returns to normal.
True, the ongoing monitoring and rules might seem a bit terrifying or at the very least overly anal. No child, for instance, is allowed to own or even use a bicycle until the age of nine. This rule seems so pointless that kids regularly break it, and a committee is even discussing changing it. In another case, Jonas’ father begs for a bit of leniency for an infant who is not thriving as he should. Just possibly because according to the text infants are left at night with caretakers who aren’t even given spouses because they have no ability to bond, which…um, what are you thinking? Oh, right, you are giving me a clue that not all is right in this world. Still—what are you thinking? Why would anyone hand over an infant to someone lacking empathy? My friends don’t even trust ME with infants long term. Anyway, he’s granted this leniency.
Indeed, the ease of breaking some of the rules only heightens the absolutism of the other rules, and by “absolutism” I mean, “if you disobey these laws you will be killed.”
Not that community, for all of its focus on precise vocabulary, uses the word “killed.” Instead, they say “release.” Sometimes this is “good” as when extra infants, or infants that don’t thrive (HELLO LOUSY NIGHT CARETAKERS WITH NO EMPATHY why have you been put in charge of cute little babies again?), or the elderly (after long and presumably somewhat useful lives) are “released” with the help of syringes. More rarely this is “bad” as when recalcitrant adults end up getting “released” for failing to fit into the society.
Oh, the community makes a great show of supporting individuality, placing each child into a profession exactly suited to that child’s skills and personalities. In a rather nice and falsely encouraging moment, the class clown gets to be the Activities Director, planning games. So that’s nice. Largely because it means he doesn’t get killed. Go activities directors! Try to make sure that the young kids you work with won’t need syringes.
I kinda keep coming back to that point largely because I cannot remember another children’s book where characters accept infanticide so readily. (Characters, not the author: Lowry does not approve.) The tolerance of infanticide is historically attested in certain cultures, and it’s not really out of place here, especially since the infants in question are not tended by their birth parents, but by community members who know they will release the infants one way or another, either through infanticide or through assigning the child to a different family. And, of course, the community members are all brainwashed and drugged up. Still, even though the text has made it very clear that “release” means “euthanasia,” the scene where Jonas’s father cheerfully kills a young infant just because the poor baby can’t sleep through the night, sniffle, is pretty shocking for a book aimed at pre-teenagers, if necessary for the plot.
Also odd for a preteen book: the rather frank and clinical description of just how the community produces said infants and the insistence by more than one character that giving birth is not something anyone should aspire to. Not that sex seems to be a part of it. A few carefully selected women—called Birthmothers—are allowed to give birth to precisely three babies, apparently by artificial insemination, pampered as they do so, before getting released to hard labor. It is not, as Jonas’ mother makes clear, a particularly respectable profession, and it is one that she does not want her own daughter to enter.
(I’m also kinda appalled by one aspect Lowry does not get into: given that children are assigned professions at the age of twelve, exactly when do Birthmothers start their gig? And how much training, apart from Lamaze classes, can you really give expectant mothers that you are monitoring twenty four hours a day and keeping on a careful diet anyway? “Here’s how you handle morning sickness. Now, calling it morning sickness isn’t quite correct since you’ll be feeling sick all day long, but—” Do they just decide to go ahead with this when the girls are 14 and have presumably been trained as much as they can be? Or does it start at, say, twenty? I need to stop thinking about this.)
Any additional population growth is strictly controlled by giving all community members Special Pills as soon as they start feeling Stirrings. (Lowry and the community’s word, not mine.) This complete hormonal shutdown is why I’m assuming the artificial insemination above.
While we’re talking about the weird non-sex procreation and lousy nighttime nurturing, can I just take a moment to wonder why a community that has successfully banned sex and chooses to raise infants in a communal dorm, supervised at night by caretakers with no empathy or interest in children, still chooses to raise the surviving children in two parent households? I’m not against two parent households, exactly, and the universal hormonal shutdown kinda answers the “why aren’t there any gay households” question (also, this book was written in 1993, but really, I am blaming the hormones) but I really fail to see why, given the emphasis on the importance of community over all else, the kids aren’t just raised in dormitories. I suppose the idea is that the adults gain something from raising children (certainly the fact that spouses deliberately apply to have children suggests that), or that the community has decided that children need to be in two parent households, but given the general deadening of emotions and hormones I’m really not seeing the need.
Oh, and the community has not just removed sex, but also the ability to perceive colors. Lowry’s buildup of this reveal is masterful; watch for her careful word choice in the first half of the book on a reread.
Anyway, back to the story. Jonas is pretty nervous about the Ceremony, a community event where the twelve year olds of the community will be assigned to whatever jobs they will be doing for more or less the rest of their lives. Oh, the community allows for occasional adjustments here and there, but in general they have watched everyone so closely (creepy) that they are rarely wrong. Jonas, for no reason he can understand, is nervous: he feels no particular call to any given job. And as it turns out, he has a reason to be nervous. He has been chosen to be the Receiver, the one person in the community who knows the truth about human history, and the one person who will be able to see colors. It’s not a position that leads to a contented place in society.
As Jonas learns, years ago (possibly centuries ago) the community made a deliberate choice to embrace Sameness. After all, the ability to love, to form bonds, to see colors—all of this comes with terrible consequences: violence, hatred, food scarcity, pain, anger. If you want to lose the bad things, the community reasoned, you have to give up the good things. At the same time, the community did not want to completely forget the bad things—otherwise, they might forget just why the rules (and all of those drugs) had been created in the first place. And so they have the Receiver—who eventually becomes the Giver (as he gives these memories to the child he trains)—who can remind the community just why allowing Birthmothers to have four children instead of three, to make up for a labor shortage, is a bad idea. (Overpopulation.)
And so, Jonas learns, his father, who has no real capacity for love, can easily kill a child for the greater good of the community. For stability. For peace. For contentment.
This is rather like the choices offered in Le Guin’s classic “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” with one major exception: in that story, everyone in the city knows the truth. Here, almost no one does. Those responsible for “releasing” infants and the elderly know something—they know they are placing unmoving bodies in a trash chute—but it’s unclear just how much they realize (remember, everyone is taking a drug every single day). The result, though, is similar: like the citizens of Omelas, they agree this is necessary for the community.
Jonas, and the author, firmly disagree. It’s a powerful story of the importance of individuality, and difference. Also, the belief that just maybe Stirrings might be a Good Thing.
I do have a couple of quibbles. One comes later in the book, when Jonas’ parents chide him for using the word “love,” on the basis it’s “a very generalized word, so meaningless that it’s become almost obsolete,” which, ok, fair enough since almost no one in this community is capable of love, but in that case, how do his parents know the word?
The other part I’m less happy with is the introduction of semi-psychic powers, which always accompany blue eyed children. This feels unnecessary; the world Lowry has built is strong enough to stand on its own without psychic powers, and if watching movies and television has taught me anything, it’s that quick info dumps into people’s head to tweak their memories can be accomplished in other ways. (You don’t even need a Pensieve—sorry, mixing geekdoms again.)
I am aware that some of these psychic powers are no such thing, and rather just the ability to see past the conditioning that keeps most members of the community from seeing colors. But I can’t help thinking that the entire color subplot could have been handled slightly differently. The text already suggests that the community has deliberately bred colorblindness into its population (along with trying to get rid of distinctive hair tones and eye colors), but occasional mutations or genetic throwbacks would not be unexpected.
In any case, if you’ve followed along so far, you can probably guess just why this book has been so frequently challenged and/or banned in U.S. libraries: infanticide, Stirrings, birthmothers, the replacement of any form of religion by highly secular rituals—yes, I can see why some parents would not be thrilled by this book.
Kids should probably read it anyway. At the very least it has some great vocabulary for SAT prep.
But more importantly, such bans seem to miss the entire point of the book: the dangers that come when we do not allow deviation, do not allow differences, and strive for uniformity. The world Lowry depicts may be a world with few tragedies. But it is also a world where no one falls in love, where everything is grey, where everyone has forgotten sunshine. If always conforming to the accepted, to the norm, leads to that sort of world, count me out. The more forbidden books, the better.
Mari Ness spent much of her childhood hunting down the books on banned book lists, which is the only reason she knows anything about Mark Twain. She lives in central Florida.