Lowry: The Giver

July 29, 2019

The Giver
Lois Lowry
(Houghton Mifflin, 1993)
225 p.

Imagined futures in which things have gone wrong are often called “dystopian”, but an interesting refinement of the idea holds that a proper dystopia is not just a future where things are worse than they are now, nor even a world in which efforts to create a utopia have failed in catastrophic ways, but a world in which a utopian project has succeeded and, so ill-conceived was the project, thereby made of the world a nightmare. By this measure, Lois Lowry’s middle-school staple The Giver is a true dystopian novel.

Lowry’s future is one that has been very capably managed to death. Difference, being a source of strife and ground for injustice, has been eradicated: the society in which young Jonas, just on the cusp of becoming a Twelve (year-old), is devoted to an ideal of “Sameness”. People live in identical dwellings, have identical families (two adults, male and female; two children, male and female), celebrate their birthdays on the same day, and even have an unwaveringly pleasant climate. Things that might lead citizens to prefer one person over another — things such as parenthood, for instance, or love — are gone: infants come to this community from Elsewhere and are simply assigned to the care of adults, and everyone takes a daily pill to prevent “stirrings” that might lead to spontaneous formation of families. All strong feelings, in fact, whether of joy or sorrow, have been managed into oblivion. It is a very rational, efficiently run place, in many ways thoughtfully designed, and gives every appearance of being exactly what it is intended to be.

The good people of this town could not be so contented as they are had they any memory of things having once been different, and so an historical ignorance is carefully cultivated. All reside on an island in an ocean of time, featureless to the horizon in every direction — all but one, that is. One citizen is specially selected to be Receiver of Memory, a function which the planners and rule-makers, whoever they are, have found advantageous to maintain in case planning for the present should, for them, at least, require some knowledge of the past. Jonas, to his amazement, is selected for this important role, and so he begins an apprenticeship with the elderly current Receiver of Memory. The book is largely an account of what happens to Jonas as he learns about the past and begins to experience feelings: of fear, happiness, anxiety, and love.

Lowry is wonderful at slowly bringing this bizarre world to life, detail by detail. Every so often she lets drop a phrase that reveals afresh just how comprehensively human life has been smothered for Jonas, and how little he realizes it. She is particularly good in her use of language; small verbal tics tell as a lot: children are never called boys or girls but only “males” or “females”, there are no homes but only “dwellings”, no families but only “family units”, and no death but only “release” — a euphemism so vague that Jonas seems to have no clear notion of mortality.

Is this supposed to be a portrait, at some level, of our society? One could imagine a liberal reading in which the bad guys are rule-makers, authorities who suppress individuality, who must fall before the force of strong feelings. The book has been criticized, often, I think, because of the attitude of suspicion it cultivates toward authorities. Given the nature of the authorities in the book, this seems a particularly daft criticism; surely the respective merits of docility and rebellion depend almost entirely on context. Moreover, an entirely different reading is available from a broadly conservative point of view, from which Lowry’s dystopia looks uncannily like a fulfillment of liberal ambitions: severance from the past in the service of social malleability, a total dissolution of the nexus of marriage, sexuality, and procreation, and a kindly violence against the sick and weak. Indeed, this last aspect gives The Giver a potency it would have lacked when first published, even to the extent of making it, to the extent that it has been broadly read as a liberal-minded critique, something like a Trojan horse in the culture war, for those inclined to read it in political terms.

Nothing obliges such a reading, of course; a more personal interpretation might dwell on the goodness of emotions and their importance to a fully human life, and of what is lost to us when we live simply to avoid pain. Or the story can be enjoyed on its own terms, simply as a well-written, mysterious, and exciting tale. It won the 1994 Newbery Medal.

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