Author: Lois Lowry
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: February 2018 (re-read)
What’s remarkable about the giver, at least to today’s reader, is how it starts with such a slow burn. Sure, the opening line mentions the protagonist, Jonas, being frightened. He is recalling a plane flying overhead and the unknown reasons for its presence. We get hints that something is slightly off about Jonas’ community—there are loudspeaker orders and if someone missteps at school they have to give a rote apology. Otherwise, Jonas is simply biking home to join his family for dinner.
Dinner is almost idyllic. The parents ask about school and thoughtfully respond to their kids’ questions. Everyone is expected to share their feelings about their respective days. Other hints at oddness are dropped, such as the children’s ignorance of what animals are (they know only the funny names and shapes of their stuffed animals). Within a few chapters we learn that everyone is assigned a role when they come of age, with various occupations holding higher or lower prestige. For example, there’s not much honor in becoming a Birthmother, but there is in becoming a Nurturer, a role that Jonas’ father holds.
Slowly the fact unfolds that Jonas’ life is far grayer than ours, even in a literal sense. He has a rare gift in that he starts to see color. The flash of red from an apple or a classmate’s hair—this was an unforgettable reveal when I was a young reader. Even more dramatic is the dawning realization that no one in the community knows true pain. There are scrapes and scratches, but all the real grief and suffering is experienced by one person: The Giver.
Jonas and the old man. That early lesson about sledding. And then the subsequent, harsher lesson about bleeding bright red on that white hill. This is another sequence that never left me. The stark contrasts of color, of thrilling joy and shocking pain. What it must be like to have and to hold both. Would it be best to know neither?
As a child, The Giver was an astonishing foray into a speculative world. I suppose today’s plots are a lot more saturated with wild possibility, so I doubt the book feels as revolutionary. From an adult perspective, what intrigues most is how the plot deflates the usefulness of the word “dystopia.” Jonas’ world doesn’t strike me as authoritarian, or at least not to an extreme degree. The citizens are simply a people trying to figure out how to live. Jonas and the old man discuss the implications of the common belief that “we really have to protect people from wrong choices” because it’s “much safer.” There’s a lot of truth in that, even if it risks limiting choices to a dramatic degree, such as has happened for Jonas.
It’s hard to know exactly what Lois Lowry intended here. Was she musing on a possible future, or writing in warning of one? Her third act, which cranks up swiftly and feels like it’s on fast-forward, hints at the latter. Perhaps the whole book is a simple condemnation of conformity, not unlike A Wrinkle in Time. But on any individual page, the setting feels more like an inevitability than the product of a motivated evil. There are no real villains here other than circumstance; perhaps a parallel can be found with On Such a Full Sea.
The story brings up practical questions, after all: does a sustainable society require limits on reproduction? If so, what does that look like? Can upheaval be prevented if everyone’s lives are more planned, less unpredictable? Lowry describes Jonas leaving a life “where nothing was ever unexpected. Or inconvenient. Or unusual. The life without color, pain, or past.” Surely a couple of those things we want to leave behind: inconvenience and pain. Color we want, and things unexpected can create a fulfilling sense of wonder. But of past? Perhaps it’s overrated. Without pain, we may not have the superstitious need to create a grand story for ourselves.
Somewhere between the utopia and the dystopia is perhaps, simply, topia. On this read-through, I found that The Giver presents one possible path. The devilish details can nudge us toward right and wrong, better or worse. Jonas’ peers may not have much choice in life, but they also live in a society where “they would have to help each other dress and would learn interdependence.” They got at least a few things right. A hellish landscape this is not. Still worth escaping perhaps, especially if a young life is at stake? Probably, if a nearby village is over the horizon. But there are days when the prospect of rechanneling pain so that it becomes bottled away, to remain unseen by most of us, does not seem like madness.
Cover art corner: The paperback smells like it always did. How can this be? I wonder how old I was when I first read the book. Fourth grade? Sixth grade? Was the Newbery medal already on the cover, or is it possible I read one of the earliest printings? But that imagery is seared forever into the collective brain of my generation. The bold and mysterious title, the corner of trees that tease dawn or doom. But most of all the man’s face, photographed by Lowry herself. Does there exist a more fitting representation of a character? Humbling and haunting.