The Giver is a book I should have read years ago.
I wish I’d had this book as a younger person. Reading it as an adult is, I’m sure, better than nothing – but reading it as a teen (which I was in 1993, when it was first published) would have been fantastic.
But then, everything happens as it must.
The Giver is a masterclass in world-building. As we read the book, realities about the world that Lowry creates come effortlessly (on our part, at least) to the fore. She expertly paints a world which is recognisable, but very different from ours – and the means by which she gradually reveals it are magnificent. I won’t say more for fear of spoilers (though I’m sure a lot of you will have read this book already!), but suffice it to say that I was impressed.
The novel tells the story of Jonas, who is preparing to ‘become a Twelve’, which means he will no longer be considered a child in his community but will be bestowed with the societal role he will bear for the rest of his adult life. He will enter training, he will socialise for the most part with his fellow trainees, and the gradual process of splitting away from his ‘family’ will begin. He lives with his parents and his younger sister Lily, who is about to become an Eight. She, too, is facing her own milestones of development – her ‘comfort object’ (a stuffed elephant) will be removed when she becomes an Eight, and she will be given – for the first time in her life – a jacket with small pockets to symbolise her growing maturity and the fact that she is now trusted to look after her own small trinkets. Nobody has ‘birthdays’; a ceremony held every December marks a child’s changing from a Three to a Four, or a Seven to an Eight or, most significantly, an Eleven to a Twelve.
Jonas’ community knows no pain, nor hunger, nor suffering, nor strife. Everyone has a role, to which they are suited. Everyone serves. Everyone is exactly the same. Everyone takes pills from the onset of adolescence – including Jonas, early in the book – to counteract what is referred to as Stirrings, and which can be understood as nascent hints of sexuality; I preferred to think of the pills as emotional anaesthetics.
The community, which initially seemed such a Utopia, slowly reveals its darker face.
During the ceremony in which Jonas becomes a Twelve, the leader of the community calls each child in turn and gives them the role they will fulfil for the rest of their lives. When she comes to Jonas, she skips him – and the disconcerting effect is felt by everyone. At the ceremony’s end, the leader brings Jonas before his people and tells him that he has been designated as the new Receiver of Memory, a role which has remained empty since a failed successor was appointed ten years before. Nobody wants to discuss this failure: it seems to cause great pain and discomfort, and the topic is avoided. Jonas is afraid, and unsure of what is facing him. All the other children have had experience of the roles they will now be fulfilling, and they don’t have to deal with the unknown as he must.
He reports for duty and finds the current Receiver of Memory – an aged man, working alone, with shelves filled with books and the ability to switch off the surveillance which all other citizens are subject to – and he begins to understand the scope of the task facing him. Now that Jonas has become the new Receiver of Memory, the old Receiver becomes the Giver – and giving memories is exactly what he does.
Jonas gradually learns, with the help of the Giver and his own natural abilities, that all is not well in his world. He begins to see and feel and think things which are unacceptable, and the inner struggle this creates is expertly expressed. Jonas begins to see everyone – his parents included, most particularly his father – in a strange and terrifying new light, and the truths behind his life, and that of his community, which have never been faced up to before, begin to torment him.
I have rarely read a book which deals with huge universal themes (morality, good and evil, authority structures and power) as expertly as it does with the quieter, more personal themes of growing up; certainly, I don’t think I’ve read a better one than The Giver. It’s really hard to review it without giving away all the community’s secrets, and without spoiling the gradual way in which Lowry builds not only her world but also Jonas’ growing knowledge of it, but all I can say is that it is reminiscent of the learning process itself, the gradual changing from ignorance to knowledge. Some of it happens in chunks, and more of it happens gradually, just as it is for Jonas in this story. The book’s conclusion was, I felt, perfect – though my frustration at its ambiguity was tempered when I learned that sequels exist. However, even as it stands, I think The Giver is a monumental work. I can understand why it creates such controversy, and why it has been challenged and banned in schools; because I understand it, however, does not mean that I agree.
The Giver is a book that made me think. That is what the best literature is supposed to do. Anything less – anything which coddles us into believing our own perfect little Utopia is eternal, never-changing, safe and unassailable – is what needs to be challenged, to my mind.
I’m grateful for The Giver. It will live beside Ursula le Guin and Madeleine l’Engle on my bookshelves, and I hope I will always remember its message.