The Giver by Lois Lowry“We don’t dare let people make choices of their own…We really have to protect people from wrong choices.”
In my previous article, I talked about Utopia by Sir Thomas More and the concept of utopian societies. Utopia was More’s attempt to critique some of the problems in his society and put forth a challenge for reform, but many of the ideas proposed in his story are far-fetched and impractical. From More’s work, a lot of other utopian and dystopian literature developed and dystopian fiction and films are continually being written.
Dystopia happens to be one of my favorite genres of fiction. So here’s the funny thing: I’m sometimes accused of being a perfectionist by people who know me well, but for some reason, I enjoy reading stories of societies which are far from perfect, even though they were established with that intention. I think I like these stories because as a “perfectionist” I’m also a fixer. If I see something amiss, or something that I think could be improved upon, I just have to jump in and try to remedy the situation. So I can relate to the story characters that see the problems in their culture and are not content to just accept it and go along with society. I also admire characters who are determined to fight evil and injustice, even when it means defying the culture they live in.
One of my favorite young adult dystopia books is The Giver by Lois Lowry. I’ve read it numerous times and have also taught it a couple of times for Jr. High lit courses. The setting of The Giver could be futuristic or simply an alternate reality. Real historic events that have taken place on Earth are mentioned in the story, so it apparently takes place in a community somewhere on Earth, but not the Earth as we know it. In this community, most aspects of life are controlled: population, weather, education, jobs, recreation, property ownership, even death. Families are formed by a Committee that assigns spouses and children to each household, and occupations are assigned to children when they turn 12. “Sameness” is emphasized and individuality is discouraged. Asking questions is considered rude, and everything is carefully planned out in order to “protect people from wrong choices.” Rules are strictly enforced and very hard to change.
Twelve-year-old Jonas had always been respectful of authority and very careful about following the rules. He accepted the way things were; the rules made sense, and he never questioned them. Although he was aware that the rules stated that “if you don’t fit in, you can apply for Elsewhere and be released…How could someone not fit in? The community was so meticulously ordered, the choices so carefully made.” While the community is rather isolated and protected and its citizens are almost completely free of pain, sorrow, illness, fear, or worry, it is also devoid of creativity, variety, privacy, imagination, opinions, choices, and adventure. The story’s conflict develops when Jonas is selected to be the Receiver of Memory, the most important job in the community, and “now, for the first time in his twelve years of life, Jonas felt separate, different. He remembered what the Chief Elder had said: that his training would be alone and apart.”
When he begins his training to take on the role of Receiver (which is passed on to him from the Giver of Memory), Jonas gradually learns about all that has been kept from the people “for their good.” As Jonas gains this awareness, he begins to resent the restraints and rules in his society that are limiting personal freedom, individual expression, and human relationships. As he acquires memories, experiences feelings, and gains an understanding of concepts like family and love that none of the people in his community are familiar with, he becomes more alienated from them and discontent with his life. At one point, Jonas expresses his frustration with the situation with the Giver:
“But why can’t everyone have the memories? I think it would seem a little easier if the memories were shared. You and I wouldn’t have to bear so much by ourselves, if everybody took a part.”
The Giver sighed. “You’re right,” he said. But then everyone would be burdened and pained. They don’t want that. And that’s the real reason The Receiver is so vital to them, and so honored. They selected me – and you – to lift that burden from themselves.”
“When did they decide that?” Jonas asked angrily. “It wasn’t fair. Let’s change it!”
“How do you suggest we do that? I’ve never been able to think of a way, and I’m supposed to be the one with all the wisdom.”
Jonas wonders if things could somehow be changed, but it is the Giver who comes up with the plan to return the memories back to the community.
In The Giver, Lois Lowry uses foreshadowing effectively to build the suspense. As the story progresses, she gradually gives the reader more information about Jonas’ society and what is kept from them in order to maintain a sense of security and sameness. The Giver also raises some good topics discussion, which is why I chose it for literature studies. For example:
- Is it worth giving up personal freedom in order to have security/safety?
- Which is safer or better for society — freedom of choice or control? Which is better for the individual?
- Is it better to express inner thoughts, feelings, concerns, and opinions, or are some thoughts and feelings better kept to ones’ self?
- How do family and other personal relationships give life more meaning and purpose?
- How are mistakes, disappointments, pain and sorrow important, even beneficial, in life?
- Why are memories important in our life? If we could have all of our bad memories erased, would that make us happier individuals?
Warning to parents and teachers: The Giver has been the target of censorship due to some of the controversial subjects it touches, particularly euthanasia. For this reason and for its minor references to sex and drugs, I would recommend this book for ages 12 and up. Apparently some have thought that Lowry is suggesting that some of the practices in Jonas’ society should be implemented in the real world. However, I think it’s clear that she is merely putting forth a hypothetical situation to show the possible negative consequences of establishing such a rigid, controlled community.
The Giver was followed by three additional companion works: The Gathering Blue, Messenger, and finally Son which was published in 2012. I just recently read the last one, which I did enjoy, but The Giver remains my favorite; it’s a story that really stays with you. Regarding Lowry’s story quartet, a reviewer for Breakpoint explains:
“Despite their differences, Lowry uses each setting, as well as each new antagonist, to highlight both the internal and external forces that come against us as we daily battle to accept our circumstances, ourselves, and those around us, without surrendering the things that make us unique or letting go of our convictions. She also highlights the way both our greatest desires and best intentions can be used against us, and what consequences might follow.”
(A film adaptation of The Giver was released in August of 2014. You can view the movie trailer on Youtube. I liked the movie, but if you’re a purist and see it after having read the book, then you will be frustrated about some of the differences from the book. Some of the changes I was okay with, while others annoyed me, but I will refrain from giving away any spoilers!)
A Perfect World
Since the Fall of Man (see Genesis, Chapter 3), humanity has been struggling to find ways to make life easier, happier, safer, and more comfortable. Utopia, The Giver, and other dystopian/utopian fiction depict man trying, by their own efforts and wisdom, to make the world a better place to live. Of course each person and culture has their own ideas of what a perfect world would look like. As long as sin is in the world, there will always be hatred, strife, and war; ignorance, fear, and poverty; pain, sickness, and death. So do we just quit fighting and give up? Of course not, for God has mercifully given us the capability to learn from our mistakes, to gain strength from disappointment, to discover ways of improving the quality of life, and to encourage others and relieve suffering. And sadly, for those who are without Christ, this world is as good as life will ever get. But when men try to make a better world while ignoring the existence of God, establishing their own Law and standards while neglecting His, their efforts will inevitably have harmful consequences, and any good they do manage to achieve will only be temporary anyway.
In every dystopian society, more control, rules and restrictions are imposed in order to achieve order and “perfection”, but the result is always less true liberty, less exercise of free will, less creativity, and less contentment. Yet laws and government will always be necessary to keep peace, security, and order in a world inhabited by sinful men. The truth of the matter is, making more laws and enforcing rules and punishments will never create a perfect society, for every society is made up of natural-born sinners. In order to change behavior effectively, there must be a change of heart, and that is a work that only God can accomplish. This is why attempts to create a Utopia often turn into a nightmarish existence. While no place on Earth can ever be a Utopia, we can certainly work and pray for the world to be a better place, but we must seek to do this God’s way, by His Word, depending on Him to change men by His power, from the inside out. After all, by the completed work of Jesus, God is in the business of making men holy, one individual at a time.
In Utopia, More’s character remarks, “Except all men were good everything cannot be right, and that is a blessing that I do not at present hope to see.” Nope, not at present, but in the future, for “according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells” (II Peter 3:13), and we know that, “When that which is perfect is come, then that which is partial will be done away” (I Cor. 13:10).
Related articles and sites
- Lois Lowry’s website (loislowry.com)
- Why we need dystopian tales (www.christianitytoday.com)
- Focus of the Family’s review of The Giver (www.pluggedin.com)
- Another review of The Giver (www.carolhurst.com)
- Lowry on Giving Up ‘The Giver’ to Hollywood (www.nytimes.com)
- The Giver movie (www.imdb.com)
- The Giver student webquest activity (questgarden.com)