The Giver- Lois Lowry

The Giver was written in 1994 by author Lois Lowry. She is an esteemed young adult/ children’s writer and has written over 40 books including the Giver. Her background is very important to the story of the Giver as it shows us where the inspiration for such a book would come from. Although it is often depicted as Utopian/Dystopian literature she wrote the book as an actual thought experiment after an episode dealing with her elder father who was at the time losing his memory. She quickly rejects the idea of the book being a Dystopian novel saying: “I didn’t think of it as futuristic or dystopian or science fiction or fantasy.”[1]  After realizing that her dad had no memory of her sister and her passing away at the age of 28 to cancer, she “…began to think about writing a book about people who had found a way to manipulate human memory, so they wouldn’t have to remember anything bad.”[2]

Lowry was born in March of 1937, making her well into her 50’s at the time of The Giver’s publication. She grew up changing schools constantly, because of her dad’s occupation as an Army Dentist. Lowry found herself having to deal with the many nuances of the different schools she spent time in. Only to figure it all out, and to have to move on to the next school where things were always undoubtedly different. She didn’t actually become an author until the age of 40.  After she was already married, had four children, and divorced in 1977, actually the same year her first book, A Summer to Die, was published. This book actually mirrored her own life as it is about a young girl who has to deal with the death of her sister to cancer. Lowry herself lost her sister to cancer when she was 25 and her sister was 28 as I mentioned briefly.  Lowry says of the books she writes that they are about “the same general theme: the importance of human connections.”[3] They center on “that of the role that we humans play in the lives of our fellow beings.” [4]

With that said, it is still easily understood why the book still falls under the genre of Dystopian Literature as the books many commenters would suggest- myself included although my personal thought is it seems at times more Utopian than Dystopian. Her explanations back it up actually, as Utopian and Dystopian literature is usually based out of the need or want for an alternative way of life. They are thought experiments, what ifs so to speak. That is exactly what writing The Giver was for Lois Lowry. It was a thought experiment; it was a want for an alternative way of living because the way of living we know may sometimes be too harsh.

In the society that Lowry describes in the Giver there is no hunger, no pain, no fear, no illnesses, or conflict. There is no money in the society and no class structure, every citizen is equal and there is the characteristic of “Sameness”, which eliminates any racism or discrimination. The citizens are led by the Committee of Elders and the Chief Elder (a position that is newly elected every 10 years), following strict rules that govern not just their language, occupation, roles in the society, but also the way their families are structured. The family unit as we know it is dissolved. In order to be chosen for a spouse a citizen must apply to The Committee and in the eyes of The Committee they must have the emotional capacity to connect to others in order to actually be assigned a partner.

Children are not conceived in the conventional way by the paired husband and wife, again they must submit an application and wait for approval from the committee before receiving a child. Fifty newborns are allowed each year and they are delivered through birthmothers and then given to a family that has been approved after 1 year of being nurtured by the Nurturers- a group of nursery workers essentially, who are responsible for the emotional and physical needs of all the children under the age of one in the society. If a child does not develop well in that first year they are released from the community and the child is not given a name or a family. However, most children are assimilated into the society well and the December after their birth the child takes part in the age ceremonies where they are given to a family approved for a child and given a name.

Each family is allowed at most one son and one daughter. Every December as the children age they complete another major milestone. The nines (9 year old children) are given their first haircuts and given their bicycle- which is the mode of transportation in the society used by every citizen over the age of nine. The ceremonies end for the children after they become twelves and are given their role in the society. This role is carefully selected for the child after being observed by the Elders and they decide in what ways their personalities and talents align to specific roles in the society. There are many roles or jobs such as Doctor, Laborer, Birthmothers (who conceive 1 child per year for three years and then spend the rest of their “careers” as Laborers), Nurturers, roles in the Department of Justice, Fish Hatchery Attendant, Assistant Director of Recreation, and many more roles that each play a part towards helping the society run smoothly.

We start out meeting the main character Jonas who is anxious about his upcoming age ceremony in December, as this year he will become a Twelve. We are also introduced to his father who is a Nurturer in the community, his mother who holds a role in the Department of Justice, and his younger sister Lily who is a Seven. This would be his last year of being a part of the age ceremonies and he would be given his role in the society. These ceremonies are very important in the society as they essentially decide the lives of all the members of the society in the Giver. The first few chapters are about Jonas and his apprehension for the upcoming ceremony. We learn about the rules in the society and we are painted a wonderful picture of what life is like in this Utopian Community that takes very good care of its members in return for their cooperation with the rules that are imposed on them by The Committee. The citizens do not lie and if they do act outside of the rules such as insensitive chatter- calling attention to the things that are different about others- they are chastised. After three infractions a citizen will be released from the community. “For a contributing citizen to be released [from the community] was a final decision, a terrible punishment, an overwhelming statement of failure.” The only time release was looked upon as a ceremony or time for celebration is for the release of an elder in the community, who had lived a full life that was well lived.

By the time Jonas is ready for his assignment we have learned much about the government (The Committee of Elders), the rules and the norms of the society, and the family structure. The family is constructed of a mother, father, brother and sister; however they are not biologically a family as they have all been placed together strategically by the Elders in the community. They are birthed by birthmothers who do not take care of or get to know their own children. It is quite the opposite actually as birthmothers do not become a part of family units. Other things also become evident, like the strong hold that the Elders have on the thinking and the behavior of the citizens. Through sometimes what I consider passive aggressive tactics they get citizens to do as they are told and the citizens seem to truly believe that to act outside of these rules and the norms put in place by the elders, is a crime of sorts; even a sin.

During the ceremony Jonas is anxiously waiting for his turn to be given an assignment but has to wait through the ceremonies of the 18 other children before him as he was the 19th child born the year he was born. He learns the roles of his two close friends and it is finally his turn to learn his role! Yet he is passed over and the Elders do not immediately give him his role. At the end of the ceremony the elders explain that Jonas has not been given a role but has been chosen for the highly respected role of the Receiver! This is an extraordinary event and causes for a speech by the Elder explaining the new appointment.

He is given the rules for his new role as the Receiver of the community and he is taken aback by their briefness (he had been given only 8 rules that fit on a single page to while others were give thick packets to go with their new jobs in the society), and he is shocked that he is told he is permitted to tell lies which is strictly forbidden in this community besides he has never told a lie in his life.

Jonas immediately begins to train with the current Receiver an elder of the community, who asks to be called the Giver from now on since Jonas is now the Receiver. The Giver has the memories of the past stored within him. He has the knowledge of the world before them- not just the world that the community knows of, but of the world that they are being deprived of. He houses within him the memories of all that has happened in the world up to that point. It is his role to use that knowledge to guide the elders of the community in their decision making and to shield the rest of the community from the knowledge as well. Through his training with the Giver, Jonas begins to receive the memories of the past.

Jonas is startled by the many things he learns about his community and his life. Jonas becomes aware that neither he nor the rest of the community is able to see in color, he begins to learn that they do not understand the true feelings of love, happiness, pain, and hurt. He begins to understand that his community is being deprived of the basic value of life because they are being shielded from reality by the extreme rules put in place by the elders. He also learns of the secrets that the Elders are keeping from the community and of the dark and sinister ways that were unapparent to him before his training with the Giver.

Jonas not only has seconds thoughts about his community because of what he is learning from the training with the Giver but he also starts to dislike his own father because of the truths he learns out about his role in the community. He learns that there is more going on than he first assumed about his community and when a small baby named Gabe, that his father has been caring for is set to be released because he has not adjusted well in the community Jonas decides to escape.

With the memories that the Giver has given him he hopes to survive his attempt to escape the community he once thought that he loved. Jonas will continue to reflect on the community from which he is trying to escape as he makes his journey out into the unknown world of Elsewhere. As in much dystopian/utopian literature the community is separated from the outside world with a forest that has not been ventured in to. The book ends with Jonas trying to escape and us hoping he makes it out and somehow finds a better place for himself and the small baby Gabe…

Class themes:

Similar themes to those discussed in class are the idea and the role of the family unit. Here the family unit is created through strategic placement by the elders after couples have been together for more than three years. The couples do not have sex and the feelings of sexuality are repressed through pills that are taken after the age of puberty. They must apply for children- and only 50 children are created a year.

Another class theme is the ideal role of the government. Here we see the Elders and the Committee in this society as the governing class that rules in this society. The use and the notion of the “great lie” that is told in order to create a sense of reasoning behind their actions. The expect that there citizens behave in a ethical way that constitutes everything from the way they speak, to the way they dress. These things are monitored through the watchful eye of the elders and because everyone in the community buys into the laws and the order set forth for them.

The relationship between the sexes is not that of love but one of necessity. There is no love involved physically or emotionally. There is no religion in the society and there seems to be no idea of God or a higher being.

Although not explicitly mentioned it seems that there is some technical advances they have been able to make in order to have women reproducing without having sex (the birthmothers). It seems technology is also responsible for the fact that they are unable to see in color and the suppression of certain feelings.






7 thoughts on “The Giver- Lois Lowry

  1. The Giver reminds me of Melloasis. I’m thinking specifically of the nurseries and the rule of the elders, and children being given assigned roles as their careers instead of choosing them for themselves. I don’t think that I or the other members in the group ripped it off as much as when you’re creating a utopian society, there are certain things that should be in there.

    Personally, I think that these aspects worked really well for our society of mermaids but I would hesitate before applying them to humans. It seems too restrictive to me based on my own experience: would I want my career assigned to me? Would I want to be raised in a nursery? No and No. Personally, this would be a dystopia to me.

  2. When I read The Giver (before this class), I didn’t know what to categorize it as either. Once I started this utopia/dystopia class, I realized that the central themes we discussed in class are in the novel.

    It’s interesting because this society is supposed to be utopic- like you stated, “there is no hunger, no pain, no fear, no illnesses, or conflict. There is no money in the society and no class structure, every citizen is equal and there is the characteristic of Sameness, which eliminates any racism or discrimination.”

    For me, and I’m sure most of us, I would hate to live in this society because I value individualism. I would hate to have my entire life planned out for me and my feeling suppressed by pills. On the other hand, the concept of sameness allows everyone’s life to be valued equally which, as far as we know, is nearly impossible.

  3. Though I’ve never read The Giver, I think I may have to now!

    Reading through your description, I can see how Lowry intended for the society to be utopian and idyllic. As Anjelica mentioned, it is a society without hunger, pain, and illness. In addition, the fact that individuals cannot be married unless they display the ability to contain emotion is a bit sweet when you think of it. They’re attempting to create a solid family structure that caters toward the average family. They ensure that children are not only properly cared for, but that the marriages will not result in emotional distress by one inadequate partner.

    Another interesting aspect of this society is the role of the “noble lie” we’ve discussed in class. By keeping the society ignorant of painful experiences and of the true meaning of “releasing,” society is able to stay happy and peaceful. I would absolutely never want to live in a society like this and for me, it is entirely dystopian. Like Anjelica also said, I value individualism and this society rids that of each person. I also find pain to be a valuable lesson and a necessary part of life. This society prevents people from being able to truly live a fulfilling life.

  4. I remember reading The Giver in middle school and enjoying it. In my opinion, some of the most interesting utopias and dystopias we have studied during the course have been those that have many rules and social norms that its members are coerced into following. Since the utopia is a thought experiment, it is most interesting to imagine yourself in a world whose operation has been meticulously designed by it’s creator, and the success of the society manifests itself in these uncommon laws.The community in The Giver has all of this, with restrictions placed on childbirth, the organization of the family, and people’s jobs amongst other things. They also have very harsh penalties for people not only breaking laws, but going in a different direction from what is considered to be normal behavior, which in this society seems to beg of its citizens to not ask too many questions about what life was once like. Too much deviation from these norms, and you are thrown out and presumably left to your own death. The interest in these kinds of strict societies is in imaging how you would act under such rules, and how you could break them and still get away with it. This happens to be part of the central plot in the story of The Giver, with the Giver himself showing Jonas all the things he is not supposed to see, telling him of the past even though it is forbidden, and inspiring him to behave towards others in ways that make him somewhat of a social outcast.

  5. This was one of my favorite books growing up. I remember my terror at finding out what “release” really was!
    The forest lying beyond Jonas’s society, as you mentioned, also existed in We. On the other side of the only opaque wall in the One State was a forest. I think the idea of an untamed forest with nature wildly staking its claim is so commonly used in this type of literature because it represents the human condition that has been stifled in books like The Giver. We all have these passions that are both beautiful and uncontrollable, posing both the most awe-inspiring (love) and most dangerous (anger, murder, etc.) aspects of our society. In my theme paper, I discussed how the removal of these untamed passions may remove all danger and give the appearance of perfection, yet rob the world of the fullness of life. Societies that take away this essence of humanity, like the pill in The Giver, are ones we subsequently view as dystopian when we read these novels.

  6. This society seems to be paradise– where there is no hunger, no pain, no fear, no diseases, and no conflicts. However, it becomes apparent that these complications and tragedies do exist– its members are just deprived of receiving and experiencing them. This reminds me of a passage in “We” that stuck with me: “There were two in paradise and the choice was offered to them: happiness without freedom, or freedom without happiness.” This brings me to question, what is an ideal society– one with happiness or one with freedom? What is more important? Can they coexist? In The Giver, its members are able to experience (an artificial) happiness by giving up their freedom to experience pain/suffering and to remember their past.

    This society is different from the one in Brave New World, whose citizens willingly take the soma drug to forget any pain or unhappiness. They volunteer to feel an artificial happiness, where in Jonas’ society, its elders have made the decision for its people that they should not experience true happiness because then they must also experience true pain.

  7. The first thing that I realized is that I have a similar practice (somewhat) of only keeping good memories. I have a “happiness log/journal” where I only try to keep the happiest, or most peaceful moments of everyday. And, because, I am, in general a really forgetful person, I would tend to forget the bad parts of my everyday life eventually. When I read my journal, I’ll only be reading the parts of my life that was happy.

    i like the idea of the family being able to love each other despite their non-biological ties. I remember our class discussion on only allowing parents to have children when they are ready. However, I can’t help but pity the surrogate mothers, who, I feel, are used; they are given the job of being the vessels for other people’s baby’s, and never having the baby for their own.

    I find that The Giver has some similar qualities to A Crystal Age. Both communities does not depend on money and they have an elder that oversees the community. However, in A Crystal Age’s case, the elders were the only real Fathers and Mothers of children. But they are also chose because the previous Fathers and Mothers feel that they have the capacity of the entire community.

    I feel really interested about this book, and I’ve already bought the book, ready to read it! hopefully I’ll have more insights about this book.

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