Critical Overview

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Despite its differences from Lowry’s other work, The Giver was universally well-received on publication. Gary D. Schmidt, writing in The Five Owls, stated,

This is a fantasy novel that does what fantasy at its best can do: make us see the reality all the more clearly. The questions it asks about the costs of love, the structure of the family, the role of painful memories, the nature of the perfect society are all timely.

In a much longer but equally enthusiastic review of “this intricately constructed masterwork,” Patty Campbell, writing for Horn Book, began by drawing attention to the departure from Lowry’s usual style.

Up until now, much of Lowry’s work has consisted of [what one reviewer called] “contemporary novels with engaging characters that explore something very rare—a functional family.” But The Giver is a dystopia, “driven by plot and philosophy—not by character and dialogue,” and the picture of the functional family turns disturbingly awry as the story proceeds.

Campbell takes advantage of the space allowed for an extended review to delineate what she sees as the exceptional advance in narrative skill shown in the novel. The opening of the novel, she argues, shows a mastery of “innuendo, foreshadowing, and resonance.” Quoting the opening sentence, Campbell goes on to explain:

The word December is loaded with resonance: the darkness of the solstice, endings, Christmas, cold . . . . The name Jonas, too, is evocative—of the biblical Jonah, he who is sent by God to cry against the wickedness of Nineveh, an unwilling lone messenger with a mission that will be received with hostility. In one seemingly simple sentence Lowry sets the mood and direction of her story, foreshadows its outcome, and plants an irresistible narrative pull.

Proceeding to compare the novel with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Campbell then analyzed the skill with which Lowry slowly reveals the unpleasant edifice upon which the initially appealing community is based, before admiring the ingenuity of the novelist’s handling of the denouement. Amongst a minority of reviews to question certain aspects of the novel, Jane Inglis, writing in School Librarian, wondered whether able readers might be frustrated “by the strict limits imposed by the author on her creative imagination.” Inglis went on to recommend Lowry’s book as “an admirable early venture into fictional dystopias, with lots of follow-up material available for the reader who craves for more.” However, the review was out of kilter with the judgement of Campbell and others that Lowry’s novel, though a children’s book, deserved to be considered alongside the very best books written on a similar theme.

Lowry’s Newbery acceptance speech identified the creative source of the book as memories bubbling up like springs and mountain streams,

each tributary bringing with it the collected bits and pieces from the past, from the distant, from the countless Elsewheres: all of it moving, mingled, in the current.

She remembered living in an American enclave, situated in the center of Tokyo, cocooned from the Japanese way of life. She remembered the way in which, at college, a fellow student had been ostracized simply for being different. There had been no teasing or unpleasantness. “We do something worse: we ignore her. We pretend that she doesn’t exist. In a small house of fourteen young women, we make one invisible.” She remembered meeting a painter, Carl Nelson, who later became blind. “I wonder what it was like for him to lose the colors about which he was so impassioned.” In summarizing what these and other memories represented, Lowry has been her own most revealing critic.

I’ve never been a writer of fairy tales. And if I’ve learned anything through that river of memories, it is that we can’t live in a walled world, in an ‘only us, only now’ world, where we are all the same and feel safe. We would have to sacrifice too much. The richness of color would disappear. Feelings for other human beings would no longer be necessary. Choice would be obsolete.

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Essays and Criticism