Review: The Giver, by Lois Lowry (mother and son joint review)

The Giver, a futuristic/dystopian/”soft” sci fi fantasy of about 175 pages, was first published in 1993. It won all kinds of awards, including the Newbery Medal, and is often assigned by US school teachers in middle school, although critical reception has been mixed. I started hearing about it when I moved to Maine. It turns out that Lowry is a Maine author of a sort:

My children grew up in Maine. So did I. I returned to college at the University of Southern Maine, got my degree, went to graduate school, and finally began to write professionally, the thing I had dreamed of doing since those childhood years when I had endlessly scribbled stories and poems in notebooks.

My students often ask me if I have read it  — it picks up some themes we address in Intro to Philosophy and Ethical Theory, especially as explored by Plato in the Republic and John Stuart Mill in Utilitarianism — but I never had, because I was out of college by the time it was published. My 10 year old fourth grader just read it for school, so it was a good time for me to do so as well.

Here is our joint review (He wanted pictures of us as we were writing it):

Goofing around

Finally, a decent one

Excerpt (Jonas, the main protagonist, and his little sister Lily, are having their evening chat about feelings after dinner with their parents):

[Jonas] listened politely, though not very attentively, while his father took his turn, describing a feeling of worry that he’d had that day at work: a concern about one of the new children who wasn’t doing well. Jonas’s father’s title was Nurturer. He and the other Nurturers were responsible for all the physical and emotional needs of every new child during its earliest life. It was a very important job, Jonas knew, but it wasn’t one that interested him much.

“What gender is it?” Lily asked.

“Male,” Father said. “He’s a sweet little male with a lovely disposition. But he isn’t growing as fast as he should, and he doesn’t sleep soundly. We have him in the extra care section for supplementary nurturing, but the committee’s beginning to talk about releasing him.”

“Oh, no,” Mother murmured sympathetically. “I know how sad that must make you feel.”

Jonas and Lily both nodded sympathetically as well. Release of newchilden was always sad, because they hadn’t had a chance to enjoy life within the community yet. And they hadn’t done anything wrong.

There were only two occasions of release which were not punishment. Release of the elderly, which was a time of celebration for a life well and fully lived; and release of a newchild, which always brought a sense of what-could-we-have-done. This was especially troubling for the Nurturers, like Father, who felt they had failed somehow. But it happened very rarely.

Jessica: Ok, how would you describe this book to someone your age who has not read it?

David: I would describe the book as about a perfect world that’s gone wrong. The main character’s name is a boy named Jonas. Jonas is eleven and soon he will be told what his Assignment is. That is his job. There is no pain, you can’t feel it. Everyone has the same birthday. There is no war. There is no hunger. No bad things that happen. It is a very civilized community.

Jessica: So what has gone wrong?

David: The whole community isn’t really the best community. You can’t have your own babies. That’s the birth mothers’ job. You don’t choose your own job. The elders choose it for you. You don’t choose your wife or husband. You take pills for your “stirrings”. You get a comfort object like a stuffed elephant. But they take them away from everyone at the same age.

Jessica: So what happens to Jonas?

David: Jonas is about to become a “Twelve”. He has been seeing things and is worried. The ceremony of the Twelves is the last age ceremony. After that nobody knows their age. And they tell you your assignment. Everybody gets a job except for Jonas. Jonas panicked because the elders never make a mistake. It is supposed to be perfect, a utopia. But after everybody else got their jobs, one of the elders says that Jonas has not been “assigned”. He has been “selected” to be the Receiver of Memories. Everybody gasps because this is so rare. There is always just one Receiver at a time in the whole community and it is an honor and a heavy burden.

Jessica: What does the Receiver do?

David: After that he goes to his training with the Giver, who teaches him about what the Receiver does. The Giver gives memories of the past to Jonas by touching him. Some of them are painful, of war and famine. It hurts Jonas to receive these memories. But some memories are nice, like of sun and snow. The Giver explains that Jonas has been seeing colors, which the rest of the community can’t see.

Jessica: Did you enjoy this book? How would you rate it on a scale of 1 to 10?

David: I would give it an “8”. It is not perfect because they just didn’t tell so much. The only action part came at the end. The book was quick, almost like an abridged version. I need an unabridged version that tells me all about this, or a prequel. How did this community come into being?

Jessica: What would you say the theme or underlying message of this book is, if there is one?

David: If you strive to be perfect you might be doing more harm than good. But you’re blind to that. Also, a world with choices is better than a world without choices. Even if you make wrong choices, it’s your choice. You should have a say. Even George Bush.

Jessica: What?

David: I said “even George Bush.” [pause] What, you don’t want to get political on your blog?

Jessica: No …  it’s just [can’t hear self think over loud chicken clucking noises made by 10 year old] Fine. It stays. Now, what’s the title of a book or two that you really loved?

David: Fellowship of the Ring by JRR Tolkien, and The Name of This Book series by Pseudonymous Bosch (check out his really cool website here :lol: )

Jessica: Ok, time for bed. I am going to add a few comments now.

David: What comments?

Jessica: Just some adult observations.

David: What adult observations?

Jessica: You can read it tomorrow. Now go to sleep!

I think David hit it when he said this book read like an abridged version. I was drawn in at first, especially by the simplistic but evocative language (as in the excerpt, “newchild” for infant, “released” for euthanized, etc.) but there was a point when the suspension of disbelief became very difficult for me to maintain. Like, how did they get rid of perception of color? Of the sun? Of strong emotions? Of animals? And how can humans even function without those things? In Brave New World, to which this is often compared, you got a sense of the mechanisms — genetic engineering, pharmacology, and behavioral psychology — by which obedience was achieved, but we get nothing in The Giver.The book crossed lines between between fantasy and allegory that I found jarring.

I also had problems with the way memory was portrayed. Memories of the type explored in The Giver (episodic) are always someone’s. How can one person have first person experiences of things he hasn’t experienced? Also, memories are portrayed sort of like they are in the Harry Potter series. Remember Dumbledore’s pensieve? Each memory is a discrete thing, unconnected to everything else in mental life. That’s not how it works — “memory” is really a folk name for a set of cognitive capacities, not little drawers in our brains that hold Polaroids. I’m not asking for a neurologically accurate account of memory, but to not even explain a little how it is that one human mind can hold the world’s memories going back generations, how it is that such memories are transferred to the Receiver, and how exactly it will happen that if they are not successfully transferred they “go into everyone”, were gaps even my 10 year old noticed.

Books like this always work a little better for me when the attractions of the futuristic world are actually attractive. To me, the community in The Giver — devoid completely of close personal relationships, including familial ones, as well as romantic love and sex, creativity (no artworks, including books), and so many other things, not to mention color and weather!  — was hard to reconcile with anything I know about human desires or visions of the good life. To my son, though, it was attractive, so maybe that’s the problem with reading this book for the first time at my advanced age.

The novel ends abruptly and ambiguously. In my reading, the ending was very, very bleak, and as such, it was the thing I liked best about the book. In her Newbery speech, Lowry said:

Those of you who hoped that I would stand here tonight and reveal the “true” ending, the “right” interpretation of the ending, will be disappointed. There isn’t one. There’s a right one for each of us, and it depends on our own beliefs, our own hopes.

I like that idea, that Lowry has written choice and freedom into the book as a kind of meta-reinforcement of the theme the book.

Unfortunately, from what I gathered by looking at reader comments on Goodreads, this is the first of a trilogy, and subsequent books foreclose the pessimistic reading I prefer.

Gender, race and sexual orientation are interesting in this book. Jonah’s mother, more intelligent, is in the Justice department and his father is a Nurturer, a kind of gender reversal. It’s slightly odd that sexual reproduction still takes place in that community (where are the clones?). In the era of “Sameness” there are no colors, so apparently no races or ethnicities. But what does that mean exactly? Lowry has said she conceived the world devoid of racism and other social ills. Do we have to get rid of race and ethnicity to get rid of racism? Finally, non-hetero sexualities do not exist.

I’m glad I read The Giver. I can now see why my students mention this book so often in my philosophy classes. I think it is possible to get into some interesting questions raised by The Giver, like the tradeoff between freedom and security, the individual versus the collective good, the relationship of the experience of suffering to true joy. But I do not think this book has very interesting things to say about those questions. I liked the prose, the setup, and the plot. I just wish, like David said, there was more of it.

6 responses

  1. I liked this review a lot! I haven’t read THE GIVER either, but it *does* look like a short book so I can see it being too short. Didn’t know this was the start of a trilogy.


  2. What a great, thoughtful (and funny) review. I haven’t read this either, but what you both say fits with what I’ve heard from children’s lit people (a lot of people felt betrayed by sequels that foreclosed ambiguity and negated their reading of The Giver’s ending).

    I’m not surprised it’s taught a lot. This is how I feel about Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, which I find not very satisfying as a novel because it’s too “obvious,” but which is very “teachable” for the same reason.

    Have you read/taught Ursula LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”? It sounds like this books explores some of the same issues (but LeGuin has sex and music and all that good stuff in her u/dystopia).


  3. How did I miss this? Wow, this is an excellent review, you two. David, I really like your take-away theme of choice (even for Geo Bush! even though I used to wish I could be the boss of him, I feel you are right about that.) Also, Jessica, the point about the alternatives being attractive in a dystopian, right. I always enjoy that more.

    This was an interesting and helpful review. Hmm! Maybe this is a book I’ll recommend to my niece.


  4. Pingback: Bid and Win the first in the series: The Giver by Lois Lowry on Freado | Freado Blog

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