- Good introduction to dystopian fiction
- Well-constructed worldbuilding
- The pacing feels just right- it kept me hooked and I finished reading in a few days
- The relationships felt genuine
- It isn’t black and white
- Affirmation of love (family, friends, romantic), showing a wide range of emotions, the beauty of nature, and individuality
- Connects to Plato’s philosophy in an intriguing way
- Somewhat unrealistic- I can’t picture this community existing for as long as it has in real life
Over winter break, I decided to return to a book from my youth. It brings back simpler times, times before I had to think about questions like what job should I get or what classes should I take in my final semester. Instead, the questions were more: how would I overthrow a totalitarian government? Is the reality I experience true or a product of a carefully manufactured utopian community I was born into? I miss reading and asking those questions.
Just by looking at the cover, I feel like The Giver is covering some real philosophical stuff. Trees and men with long beards remind me of wisdom. Both also remind me of Duck Dynasty, but this isn’t based on a TV show, thankfully.
It all begins with Jonas, a twelve-year-old boy who lives in a closed-off community where everything is perfect, or so it seems. It has been perfectly created so there is no fear, pain, or accidental pregnancy. Everyone lives in identical houses, food is delivered to families, everyone rides bicycles instead of cars, and a spouse is assigned to them, based on compatibility, by the Elders. They also choose their careers in the December of their twelfth year. Why do the Elders have so much power? No one knows, but they watch you and learn what will suit your talents.
If you haven’t heard of this novel or missed it on your seventh-grade syllabus, The Giver is a dystopian novel written by Lois Lowry in 1993. It is one of those stories that I vividly remember reading in middle school. I’m not sure if I finished the book back then, but I saw the movie, and the ideas sealed into my mind.
Jonas’ community sounds a little tempting, like, where can we sign up? There is no hassle or stress at picking a job, no interviews, no troubles conceiving babies, and no one has to worry about finding someone to marry. Imagine not having to worry about getting into a car crash or being late to work because of morning traffic. We also don’t have to worry about air pollution from cars. Riding bicycles everywhere sounds like a blast and great for the environment as well.
Imagine a world without pain, where all our stress could be solved by sitting around the table with our families and talking about our feelings. These parts sound nice. Jonas has a family and two good friends- an outgoing and fun-loving boy named Asher and a quiet and sweet girl named Fiona. They have fun and ride bikes together and seem to have a typical childhood. So, it isn’t too bad.
After childhood, there is work, and people get great pleasure out of their jobs because they are chosen for them by the Elders. The Elders study us and figure out what works best with our talents, so they really know what will make them happy. Jonas’ father, for example, is a nurturer. He loves taking care of babies and gets so much joy out of seeing their small faces.
But of course, this is a dystopian novel. The community has good elements, after all, it is trying to be perfect and safe, but there are also parts that make me grateful I have to apply on LinkedIn.
There are no books, TVs, video games, or even stories in Jonas’ community. People are only allowed to read rule books. This sounds like absolute misery. There is a book that tells people about their ancestors, which they can go into town and look up. Family history cannot even be compiled privately. People cannot create things of their own. It all belongs to the community. In The Giver, no one ever goes to a play or reads a novel. They just work and talk and ride bikes. It sounds pretty boring.
The stories they tell are the ones they experience in their lives, but they all seem to run together. They are all the same. Whenever Jonas’ family talks about their day at the dinner table, the story usually goes like this: a person at work or school broke the rules and it bothered them. They tell the family they made a fist out of anger and then the family reassures them by giving reasons why people would break the rules. They are told to understand the other person’s actions and let go. This happens every day. You would think that Lily would learn, but she just keeps telling the same stories day after day.
This isn’t to say that the families are terrible. The scenes with the family unit, as the book calls them, were often some of my favorite scenes to watch. Jonas’ family cares for each other deeply. I particularly enjoyed Jonas’ father. He is very kind. The family eats dinner together every night, and they make fun of the community’s rules. Not everything is robotic. They know the system is screwed, on some level. It takes forever to learn Jonas’ parents also are there for him when he is nervous about the ceremony of the twelve.
While there is no pain, there is also little joy. All emotions feel stifled and simplified. It just feels like there could be something more. The community values the precision of language. People apologize whenever they do something wrong, and the other person has to forgive them. Happiness does exist, but it is contained, labeled, and structured within what the community finds appropriate. Imagine developing a crush on a classmate, and then your parents tell you to start taking a pill every day.
I’ll talk about the positives for a minute. I enjoyed watching Jonas meet The Giver and learn about him. The scenes of them together are pleasant and well written. I feel like I’m reading a well-written answer to a writing prompt that asks the writer to describe one of the senses to someone who hasn’t experienced them. Lowry shows joy in experiencing the little things and spending time with nature and with friends and family. The relationship between Jonas and The Giver is another great part of the book.
I found it kind of weird that Lowry decided to capitalize words like “Laborers”, “The Old”, and “Ceremony.” Oh no! The Old, Laborers! What could those words possibly mean? How could society ever say their names out loud? I guess calling them “The Old” stigmatizes them, but it also doesn’t make much sense logically. It does make sense since people are generally made to work and be active participants in the community. Younger and older people are seen as unimportant. Also, calling people by their professions shows how people are sorted into a group and isolated from other professions.
I read a few GoodReads reviews, and overall, lots of people love this book. The Giver introduced me to dystopias, and I learned to love seeing characters watch the world around them unravel. It alludes to The Matrix, 1984, and Brave New World. I didn’t notice this until I got older, but they are just like the Matrix, with the pills. It is also unique enough that I wanted to keep reading. It didn’t feel too cliche and it was a great introduction for my middle-school self to question the world around me.
It made me think about what is most important in life. Sameness, keeping life contained and perfect isn’t the answer. We are not the same. A life without joy, hope, love, sadness, and pain is not a life worth living. Although life can be painful, it also can be good. While it doesn’t feel like it could happen, the book has a certain relevance that any timeless novel possesses. It stresses the importance of values and expression and it could be read ten years ago today, or fifty years from now, and someone could still learn from it. The Giver is a story about a closed-off community more than anything, and no one wonders if there is a chance to make everything better until someone starts to see how good life could be.
The story is about the fight against sameness, against the world falling under a single government, a single way of living. The characters aren’t even aware that they have another choice. It is heartbreaking when you get to the end.
If you haven’t read The Giver before, I’d recommend checking it out! It is an intriguing story and I want to learn more about Jonas and the world he lives in. There are also three more books in the trilogy, which I may check out.
Interesting things I noticed (minor spoilers below)
The structures they live in are also incredibly rigid. Families consist of a mother, father, son, and daughter. You have to go through the Elders for everything, and you can’t choose to Technically parents have to apply for children. Women named birthmothers are the ones who have all the babies. So, no one is allowed to procreate. They aren’t aware that they can have children without the government or marry someone other than who the elders assign them. Couples technically can choose not to request children from the state, and you are allowed to be single. The government will deny a spouse or children to those they deem not good enough. Even if you aren’t released, the government can still strip your rights. Jonas, our twelve-year-old protagonist, feels sorry for a character who was single and without children. As a child, he already is judgy. While singleness and childlessness are allowed, they are undesirable options rather than simply options.
The Giver gives Jonas memories about the life that people lived before the community was formed. Jonas’ first memory contains colors, and he realizes that the world as he knew it was in black and white. I’m not sure how possible this could be in real life, but it is a powerful image. As soon as Jonas discovers colors, he is fascinated by them and never wants to go back.
It is weird that twelve-year-olds basically train to be adults. These kids aren’t allowed to be adolescents. The community teaches them not to want things or have desires beyond what the state eventually grants them. Children under nine want bikes and, those under twelve might be excited to get a job, but afterward, everything is supposed to be perfect. Wouldn’t even a job that suits your talents–get boring? Why hasn’t anyone else questioned this system?
Also, the notion of The Giver seems dangerous. Why would you let one person keep all the memories of the past? Isn’t this abusive, forcing one man to bear the world’s pain at a time? It seems like it is sufficient to destroy all the memories. After all, they barely ask The Giver for advice in the first place. They are asking for a rebellion if they let one person know information that they don’t know. After all, he could simply release all the memories, hide out in the woods, and leave everyone else to process the past.
Releasing people was heartbreaking. I guess it shows our duality. Jonas’ father could be so loving towards Gabriel but he also kills a newborn. I feel like he had to know what he was doing on some level, but he didn’t see he had a choice. Dystopian novels always seem to show how easily we’ll do something we’d never do if we’re following orders. It is terrifying. It is just what they do and no one has been taught critical thinking. They don’t even think to rebel.
I kind of wish that the girl who was The Giver before Jonas was still alive. Her story broke my heart a little. She would have been so cool. Also, it would be nice to have a cool female character along with Jonas. But, oh well, plot… I suppose.
Gabriel was adorable. I loved watching him with Jonas and his father. I loved how Jonas gave Gabriel some of the memories of the past. I might have to read the next books in the series to find out what happens to him.
Relationship to Plato’s Theory of the Forms
Plato said that the objects of this world are merely shadows of the larger Forms. He theorizes that we knew of the Forms before our birth, but we have forgotten them. What are the Forms? They are a perfect, eternal version of the objects and feelings we experience in this life. I’ll give an example. Imagine looking at a sunset and thinking that it is beautiful. Plato would argue that the sunset is not perfectly beautiful, it is lacking something. He would say that looking at the sunset points us to the idea of Beauty, but somewhere, there is a form of perfect beauty. The sunset merely points us towards a perfect Beauty.
The theory of the forms also implies that we had some sort of life experience before birth. The Giver seems to allude to Plato’s Allegory of the cave, which describes a man who is chained in darkness. He is chained with other prisoners against a rock and they are watching shadows on the walls of the cave. He breaks out of the cave and starts to see the world beyond which is lit by the sun. But, before he can see the sun, he must see the world lit by the sun. Looking directly at the sun, the source of all goods would be too intense to understand. He then learns that the shadows on the walls were mere reflections of the real world. He looks at the grass lit by the sun, and the trees for example, and appreciates their beauty.
So, how does someone get out of the cave? Well, Plato believed that everyone was born ignorant and that it took a philosopher-king to teach others about the beauty of the Forms. The philosopher-king would be the one to lead the ignorant populace out of the cave and into the light.
Jonas’ Education and Plato’s Journey
Jonas goes on a similar journey to Plato’s cave. Like Plato, he realizes that everyone around him is ignorant and living in darkness. He learns that there are deeper emotions than the enjoyment he has joking with friends and family.
Jonas is a chosen one. He occasionally sees flashes of how the world is supposed to be. He sees flashes of color and is chosen to receive memories of the past world. Jonas is assigned the job as the giver. He meets with the previous giver, who passes down the memories of how life used to be.
The world of The Giver is horrifying. The current giver, an aging man is required to hold all the memories of life before all the joy and pain. So, this man isn’t the just only person to remember suffering, he has to remember the suffering of many generations that came before him. I’m not sure if the giver holds the memories of the entire human history or if it is as far back as they can remember, but the poor man must have so much emotional stress.
I don’t understand the committee. A man with this knowledge could easily just escape the community and leave the people with the memories. That is all it takes, for The Giver can wreak havoc in one night. Then he could leave the community behind and forget the painful memories he experiences. On the committee’s part, this feels pretty stupid. Luckily, the giver cares about the community, likely because he has seen pain and suffering and doesn’t want them to suffer. Jonas imagines leaving the community behind but realizes it would be a bad idea. He loves his family and friends. Oddly enough, the community relies on the giver’s empathy to sustain them.
The giver is like a philosopher-king. He slowly gives Jonas memories of life before the community began. Jonas first rides on a sled and experiences joy for the first time. The exhilaration is nothing like he has experienced before. These memories. The experience of riding sled points to a greater emotion of joy.
When Jonas first discovers colors, he is attached to the things of this world themselves rather than their greater significance. For example, he has this conversation with The Giver.
“Of course. When you receive the memories, you have the capacity to see beyond. You’ll gain wisdom, then along with colors. And lots more.”
Jonas wasn’t interested, just then, in wisdom. It was the colors that fascinated him.
He is focused more on the sensory experience of color, which is completely beautiful, but he doesn’t understand the larger significance. After years of seeing without color, his eyes are opened up to so much more. It is not bad that he doesn’t long for wisdom yet, because his attraction to colors only points him to the most important things.
The best example of this is the scene when Jonas sees a family of parents, grandparents, and children on Christmas opening gifts. He associates the feeling with warmth and comes to realize that the experience is love. Then the book hits me in the gut. He asks his parents if they love him, and they tell him that love is a generalized word. While they are proud of his achievements and enjoy his company– they do not love him. They do not know what the word means.
Emotions are not just words, they need to be felt. Most of the memories that the giver gives Jonas contain few words. Jonas rides on a sled, takes a boat ride, gets sunburn, and watches a boy die in the army. Technical, exact language can describe those experiences, but sometimes feelings need to be felt.
Jonas realizes this at a typical family dinner conversation where Lily says she is angry at another student who broke rules at the play area. Her family comforts her with words.
“But what Lily felt was not anger, Jonas realized now. Shallow impatience and exasperation, that was all Lily had felt. He knew that with certainty because now he knew what anger was. Now he had, in the memories, experienced injustice and cruelty, and he had reacted with rage that welled up so passionately inside him that the thought of discussing it calmly at the evening meal was unthinkable.”
The feelings people experience in the community are merely shadows of the feelings people are truly capable of. Plato is all over this book. The major difference is that Jonas’ world literally exists because the government wants to keep the world the same, but Plato’s Forms are abstract.
Have you read The Giver before? Have you ever returned to a book that stuck with you when you were younger? What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.