Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1996
Critics respond to Lois Lowry's novel, The Giver, with nearly universal praise. The book has received more than ten prestigious awards, including the highly coveted Newbery Medal, which the American Library Association awarded it in 1994. (The ALA awards the Newbery Medal to the best book published in the United States for children or young adults in the preceding year.)
One reason for the novel's nearly unprecedented acclaim is that its storyline captures the interest of a wide group of readers and critics. For example, many scholars consider the novel to be dystopian (about a miserable society), and compare it favorably to adult classics like Brave New World (1933), Fahrenheit 451 (1953), and 1984 (1940) as well as to children's classics like White Mountains (1967) and A Wrinkle in Time (1962). Other scholars, like Patty Campbell, praise the novel for capturing the moral imaginations of its readers. Campbell lauds the novel for taking "hardened young-adult reviewers by surprise." The novel, she says, is so "rich in levels of meaning, so daring in complexity of symbol and metaphor, so challenging in the ambiguity of its conclusion, that we are left with all of our neat little everyday categories and judgments hanging useless."
While critics', librarians', educators', and students' responses to the novel seem like veritable fanfare, the novel has nevertheless become the center of a spirited censorship debate. To the surprise and indignation of many of the novels' enthusiasts, The Giver, according to a report by the People for the American Way, was the second most frequently challenged book in 1996. Parents in cities as geographically dispersed as Las Vegas, Nevada, Columbia Falls, Montana, Palm Springs, California, and Brecksville, Ohio, have protested use of the novel in public schools because it contains adult themes like infanticide (baby killing) and euthanasia (mercy deaths). In one particularly controversial scene, Jonas, the protagonist in the novel, watches as his father carefully directs a needle "into the top of newchild's forehead, puncturing the place where the fragile skin pulsed." His father says cheerfully, "I know, I know. It hurts, little guy. But I have to use a vein, and the veins in your arms are still too teeny-weeny." Jonas's father pushes in the plunger, then says, "All done," and sends the small corpse down a trash chute. Would-be censors object to the scene because it is so graphic, and because it transforms Jonas's once beloved father into a cold-blooded murderer.
The irony of censorship attacks on the novel is that The Giver dramatizes the plight of an individual living in a society that censors its peoples' language, emotions, and behaviors. This irony is compounded by the fact that most who would like to see The Giver censored confess that they have never read the novel in its entirety. However, would-be censors raise important questions, not just about Lowry's novel, but about all novels for youth. For example, parent Anna Cerbasi of Port Saint Lucie, Florida, who asked school board members to remove the novel from middle-school shelves, objected to the book because "Nobody is a family. They kill the baby who cries at night. I read it and thought—no way. Not for sixth grade. Maybe high school, maybe." Ms. Cerbasi's concerns about the novel raise legitimate questions about who should decide which books are appropriate for which children, and whether or not disturbing stories are appropriate for youth even if they teach a valuable lesson.
However, these large questions cannot be answered on the basis of one book. In fact, a surprising number of books written for youth contain graphic and disturbing materials. It seems likely that Lowry's novel has been more controversial than most, not because it is any more "dangerous" than other books, but because it has been so widely integrated into school curricula and has therefore caught more parents' attention than less accessible books. Given the size of the question—how can one evaluate whether or not terrifying materials are appropriate for a youthful reader—it is most realistic to respond to would-be censors' concerns by presenting a constructive reading of The Giver, a reading which is consistent with educators' efforts to discuss controversial scenes in sensitive and responsible ways.
Critics and censors all agree that Jonas's situation in The Giver is horrifying. Through a series of shocking events, he discovers that "release" is actually murder, that his people literally have limited vision (they can only see in black and white, so do not notice racial differences, or colors of any kind), and that his people have no way to think for themselves, or to make decisions without The Giver's help. (They have no memories of pain and pleasure, and they are sedated so as not to feel the "stirrings" of their own desire.) Jonas is understandably concerned by these discoveries, especially when he learns that his step-brother Gabriel is going to be "released" (killed) because he cries during the night. Jonas knows that he must save Gabriel, and he knows that he must do something to help his community to respond more creatively to the inevitable (and sometimes painful) variation of the human species.
Jonas's despair is, at this point, so profound that readers may fear he will be overcome by it. However, he does overcome his despair, and this is why the book is so important—and appropriate—for young people to read. Lowry has equipped Jonas with the qualities he will need to rise above his difficult circumstances. She has given him the ability to see color, the ability to grapple with imperceptible ideas (like memories and colors), and faith in his own ability to act morally. She has made Jonas's perceptual abilities a condition for him to act heroically in this story. Through Jonas, Lowry argues for the preservation of a kind of creative vision, a vision which every community needs if it is to benefit from its citizens' differences and input.
More specifically, Jonas is a hero worth emulating because, throughout the novel, he develops and refines his unusual ability to perceive and to understand ideas that are outside of his frame of reference. One day, for example, Jonas notices a "change" in an apple. When he tries to define this change, by observing the apple under a magnifying glass, he fails. The magnifying glass doesn't help him because what Jonas needs is "a new way of looking" at things in order to apprehend color, a magnifying glass does not allow him to apprehend what is new and different. Here Lowry is suggesting that the vision of an artistic boy, who is open to ideas that exist outside of current paradigms of thought, is of the utmost importance to a society that has lost the ability to perceive differences. Similarly, when Jonas admits to the community that he believes he has the capacity to "see beyond," the crowd begins to collectively murmur his name. Ironically, the community, which, as The Giver points out, has "never completely mastered Sameness," selects Jonas to help lead them because of his ability to perceive differences. Jonas's vision is all the more valuable because it is in such short supply. Lowry is arguing for the preservation of a particular way of looking at the world that is essential to the survival of the human(e) race.
Further evidence of the importance of Jonas's unique perceptual abilities comes when he discovers that his community's goodness is a sham. Had Jonas simply rejected his community (as a "lesser" character might have done), the novel would not have carried the same positive psychological impact. Jonas does initially feel contempt for his community, but he quickly develops the insights he needs to channel his anger into constructive actions. For example, he sarcastically mimics his peoples' obedience.
I will take care of that, sir. I will take care of that, sir....I will do whatever you like, sir. I will kill people, sir. Old people? Small newborn people? I'd be happy to kill them, sir. Thank you for your instructions, sir.
But The Giver tells Jonas that "They can't help it. They know nothing." Jonas struggles to understand his community, and comes to recognize that it is made up of learned, civilized people, who have no awareness of their origins and very little knowledge of how rules are made. Jonas's people cannot perceive differences; they do not adapt well to change. And so they are simple, shallow, and murderous.
Yes, Lowry's novel is terrifying, but it is not irresponsible in its handling of sensitive materials. In fact, Lowry seems to be dramatizing a modern view of healing, as described by Louise Kaplan in her book No Voice Is Ever Wholly Lost. After working with holocaust victims and their families, Kaplan concluded that, even though many holocaust survivors have never verbally shared their experiences with their children, their children feel compelled to physically reenact their parents' trauma (by developing anorexia, for example). The bodies and subconscious minds of holocaust survivors' children understand—without words—the nature of their parents' unwitnessable suffering. The only release for these children is to hear their parents' stories. This "truth telling" frees children from the compulsions they feel to "enact and concretize" their parents' unspeakable and painful pasts.
Kaplan's observations of how parents unknowingly transmit traumas to their children support a reading of Lowry's novel as powerful and positive. Jonas has been selected to receive memories because his community members prefer the comfort of virtually pain-free and comfortable living. However, Jonas discovers that if he leaves—or dies—his memories will be released and transmitted back to the community. Jonas chooses to give the community back its memories. If Kaplan's theory is right (and according to the logic of Lowry's story), the community needs its memories in order to heal itself; if members acknowledge both their pain and their joy, as well as the depths of their emotions, Jonas will be "released" (not killed) from the huge burden of serving as the Keeper of Memory.
Lowry's ending, though ambiguous, lends support to the idea that the novel embraces "wholeness" as a healing principle. In the end, Jonas, who has run away from home with Gabriel in tow, discovers a place that he remembers. He finds a sled that he remembers, mounts it, and its runners slice through the snow and take him towards "Elsewhere," the place that holds his and Gabriel's "future and...past." Jonas then hears music for the first time. He is able to hear the music, to recognize the music, because he has relinquished others' memories, and in so doing has opened the door to his own perceptions. It is now possible for his new thoughts and feelings to join with his old thoughts and feelings. Lowry foreshadows this perplexing but hopeful ending when she describes Jonas as Keeper of the "memories of the whole world." Her message, finally, is that one cannot ignore uncomfortable memories; one must embrace a "whole" vision, which contains joy as well as pain, if one (or one's children) is/are ever to feel "at home" in the world.
Though Lowry has consistently declined to interpret The Giver's ending, she has revealed that she is pleased by young readers who have perceived "the magic of the circular journey," and "the truth that we go out and come back, and that what we come back to is changed, and so are we."
Lowry's novel is compelling, terrifying, and above all, hopeful. Through reading about Jonas, a boy who has the courage and vision to help his people to acknowledge their pain and differences, Lowry's readers can experience the joy of pushing "open the gate" [Lowry's metaphor] that separates them from Elsewhere. It would be hard to find a more appropriate message for youth, who are immersed in making important decisions about what kinds of people they will one day become.
Source: Elyse Lord, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998.
Elyse Lord is a visiting instructor at the University of Utah and at the Salt Lake City Community College.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3412
"How do you know where to start?" a child asked me once, in a schoolroom where I'd been speaking to her class about the writing of books. I shrugged and smiled and told her that I just start wherever it feels right.
This evening it feels right to start by quoting a passage from The Giver, a scene set during the days in which the boy, Jonas, is beginning to look more deeply into the life that has been very superficial, beginning to see that his own past goes back further than he had ever known and has greater implications than he had ever suspected.
Now he saw the familiar wide river beside the path differently. He saw all of the light and color and history it contained and earned in its slow-moving water, and he knew that there was an Elsewhere from which it came, and an Elsewhere to which it was going.
Every author is asked again and again the question we probably each have come to dread the most: How did you get this idea?
We give glib, quick answers because there are other hands raised, other kids in the audience waiting.
I'd like, tonight, to dispense with my usual flippancy and glibness and try to tell you the origins of this book. It is a little like Jonas looking into the river and realizing that it carries with it everything that has come from an Elsewhere. A spring, perhaps, at the beginning, bubbling up from the earth; then a trickle from a glacier; a mountain stream entering farther along; and 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.
For me, the tributaries are memories, and I've selected only a few. I'll tell them to you chronologically. I have to go way back. I'm starting forty-six years ago.
In 1948 I am eleven years old. I have gone with my mother, sister, and brother to join my father, who has been in Tokyo for two years and will be there for several more.
We live there, in the center of that huge Japanese city, in a small American enclave with a very American name: Washington Heights. We live in an American-style house, with American neighbors, and our little community has its own movie theater, which shows American movies, and a small church, a tiny library, and an elementary school; and in many ways it is an odd replica of a United States village.
(In later, adult years I was to ask my mother why we had lived there instead of taking advantage of the opportunity to live within the Japanese community and to learn and experience a different way of life. But she seemed surprised by my question. She said that we lived where we did because it was comfortable. It was familiar. It was safe.)
At eleven years old I am not a particularly adventurous child, nor am I a rebellious one. But I have always been curious.
I have a bicycle. Again and again—countless times—without my parents' knowledge, I ride my bicycle out the back gate of the fence that surrounds our comfortable, familiar, safe American community. I ride down a hill because I am curious, and I enter, riding down that hill, an unfamiliar, slightly uncomfortable, perhaps even unsafe—though I never feel it to be—area of Tokyo that throbs with life.
It is a district called Shibuya. It is crowded with shops and people and theaters and street vendors and the day-to-day bustle of Japanese life.
I remember, still, after all these years, the smells: fish and fertilizer and charcoal; the sounds: music and shouting and the clatter of wooden shoes and wooden sticks and wooden wheels; and the colors: I remember the babies and toddlers dressed in bright pink and orange and red, most of all; but I remember, too, the dark blue uniforms of the schoolchildren-—the strangers who are my own age.
I wander through Shibuya day after day during those years when I am eleven, twelve, and thirteen. I love the feel of it, the vigor and the garish brightness and the noise: all such a contrast to my own life.
But I never talk to anyone. I am not frightened of the people, who are so different from me, but I am shy. I watch the children shouting and playing around a school, and they are children my age, and they watch me in return; but we never speak to one another.
One afternoon I am standing on a street corner when a woman near me reaches out, touches my hair, and says something. I back away, startled, because my knowledge of the language is poor and I misunderstand her words. I think she has said "ki-rai-desu," meaning that she dislikes me; and I am embarrassed, and confused, wondering what I have done wrong, how I have disgraced myself.
Then, after a moment, I realize my mistake. She has said, actually, "kirei-desu." She has called me pretty. And I look for her, in the crowd, at least to smile, perhaps to say thank you if I can overcome my shyness enough to speak. But she is gone.
I remember this moment—this instant of communication gone awry—again and again over the years. Perhaps this is where the river starts.
In 1954 and 1955 I am a college freshman, living in a very small dormitory, actually a converted private home, with a group of perhaps fourteen other girls. We are very much alike. We wear the same sort of clothes: cashmere sweaters and plaid wool skirts, knee socks and loafers. We all smoke Marlboro cigarettes, and we knit—usually argyle socks for our boyfriends—and play bridge. Sometimes we study; and we get good grades because we are all the cream of the crop, the valedictorians and class presidents from our high schools all over the United States.
One of the girls in our dorm is not like the rest of us. She doesn't wear our uniform. She wears blue jeans instead of skirts, and she doesn't curl her hair or knit or play bridge. She doesn't date or go to fraternity parties and dances.
She's a smart girl, a good student, a pleasant enough person, but she is different, somehow alien, and that makes us uncomfortable. We react with a kind of mindless cruelty. We don't tease or torment her, but 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.
Somehow, by shutting her out, we make ourselves feel comfortable. Familiar. Safe.
I think of her now and then as the years pass. Those thoughts—fleeting, but profoundly remorseful—enter the current of the river.
In the summer of 1979, I am sent by a magazine I am working for to an island off the coast of Maine to write an article about a painter who lives there alone. I spend a good deal of time with this man, and we talk a lot about color. It is clear to me that although I am a highly visual person—a person who sees and appreciates form and composition and color—this man's capacity for seeing color goes far beyond mine.
I photograph him while I am there, and I keep a copy of his photograph for myself because there is something about his face—his eyes—which haunts me.
Later I hear that he has become blind.
I think about him—his name is Carl Nelson— from time to time. His photograph hangs over my desk. I wonder what it was like for him to lose the colors about which he was so impassioned.
I wish, in a whimsical way, that he could have somehow magically given me the capacity to see the way he did.
A little bubble begins, a little spurt, which will trickle into the river.
In 1989 I go to a small village in Germany to attend the wedding of one of my sons. In an ancient church, he marries his Margret in a ceremony conducted in a language I do not speak and cannot understand.
But one section of the service is in English. A woman stands in the balcony of that old stone church and sings the words from the Bible: Where you go, I will go. Your people will be my people.
How small the world has become, I think, looking around the church at the many people who sit there wishing happiness to my son and his new wife, wishing it in their own language as I am wishing it in mine. We are all each other's people now, I find myself thinking.
Can you feel that this memory is a stream that is now entering the river?
Another fragment. My father, nearing ninety, is in a nursing home. My brother and I have hung family pictures on the walls of his room. During a visit, he and I are talking about the people in the pictures. One is my sister, my parents' first child, who died young of cancer. My father smiles, looking at her picture. "That's your sister," he says happily. "That's Helen."
Then he comments, a little puzzled, but not at all sad, "I can't remember exactly what happened to her."
We can forget pain, I thought. And it is comfortable to do so.
But I also wonder briefly: is it safe to do that, to forget?
That uncertainty pours itself into the river of thought which will become the book.
1991. I am in an auditorium somewhere. I have spoken at length about my book Number the Stars, which has been honored with the 1990 Newbery Medal. A woman raises her hand. When the time for her question comes, she sighs very loudly, and says, "Why do we have to tell this Holocaust thing over and over? Is it really necessary?"
I answer her as well as I can, quoting, in fact, my German daughter-in-law, who has said to me, "No one knows better than we Germans that we must tell this again and again."
But I think about her question—and my answer—a great deal.
Wouldn't it, I think, playing devil's advocate to myself, make for a more comfortable world to forget the Holocaust? And I remember once again how comfortable, familiar, and safe my parents had sought to make my childhood by shielding me from Elsewhere. But I remember, too, that my response had been to open the gate again and again. My instinct had been a child's attempt to see for myself what lay beyond the wall.
The thinking becomes another tributary into the river of thought that will create The Giver.
Here's another memory. I am sitting in a booth with my daughter in a little Beacon Hill pub where she and I often have lunch together. The television is on in the background, behind the bar, as it always is. She and I are talking. Suddenly I gesture to her. I say, "Shhh," because I have heard a fragment of the news and I am startled, anxious, and want to hear the rest.
Someone has walked into a fast-food place with an automatic weapon and randomly killed a number of people. My daughter stops talking and waits while I listen to the rest.
Then I relax. I say to her, in a relieved voice, "It's all right. It was in Oklahoma." (Or perhaps it was Alabama. Or Indiana.)
She stares at me in amazement that I have said such a hideous thing.
How comfortable I made myself feel for a moment, by reducing my own realm of caring to my own familiar neighborhood. How safe I deluded myself into feeling.
I think about that, and it becomes a torrent that enters the flow of a river turbulent by now, and clogged with memories and thoughts and ideas that begin to mesh and intertwine. The river begins to seek a place to spill over.
When Jonas meets The Giver for the first time, and tries to comprehend what lies before him, he says, in confusion, "I thought there was only us. I thought there was only now."
In beginning to write The Giver I created, as I always do, in every book, a world that existed only in my imagination—the world of "only us, only now." I tried to make Jonas's world seem familiar, comfortable, and safe, and I tried to seduce the reader. I seduced myself along the way. It did feel good, that world. I got rid of all the things I fear and dislike: all the violence, prejudice, poverty, and injustice; and I even threw in good manners as a way of life because I liked the idea of it.
One child has pointed out, in a letter, that the people in Jonas's world didn't even have to do dishes.
It was very, very tempting to leave it at that.
But 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 humans would no longer be necessary. Choice would be obsolete.
And besides, I had ridden my bike Elsewhere as a child, and liked it there, but had never been brave enough to tell anyone about it. So it was time.
A letter that I've kept for a very long time is from a child who has read my book Anastasia Krupnik. Her letter—she's a little girl named Paula from Louisville, Kentucky—says:
"I really like the book you wrote about Anastasia and her family because it made me laugh every time I read it. I especially liked when it said she didn't want to have a baby brother in the house because she had to clean up after him every time and change his diaper when her mother and father aren't home and she doesn't like to give him a bath and watch him all the time and put him to sleep every night while her mother goes to work ..."
Here's the fascinating thing: Nothing that the child describes actually happens in the book. The child—as we all do—has brought her own life to a book. She has found a place, a place in the pages of a book, that shares her own frustrations and feelings.
And the same thing is happening—as I hoped it would happen—with The Giver.
Those of you who hoped that I would stand here tonight and reveal the "true" ending, the "right" interpretation of the ending, will be disappointed. There isn't one. There's a right one for each of us, and it depends on our own beliefs, our own hopes.
Let me tell you a few endings which are the right endings for a few children out of the many who have written to me.
From a sixth grader. "I think that when they were traveling they were traveling in a circle. When they came to 'Elsewhere' it was their old community, but they had accepted the memories and all the feelings that go along with it."
From another: "Jonas was kind of like Jesus because he took the pain for everyone else in the community so they wouldn't have to suffer. And, at the very end of the book, when Jonas and Gabe reached the place that they knew as Elsewhere, you described Elsewhere as if it were Heaven."
And one more: "A lot of people I know would hate that ending, but not me. I loved it. Mainly because I got to make the book happy. I decided they made it. They made it to the past. I decided the past was our world, and the future was their world. It was parallel worlds."
Finally, from one seventh-grade boy: "I was really surprised that they just died at the end. That was a bummer. You could of made them stay alive, I thought."
Very few find it a bummer. Most of the young readers who have written to me have perceived the magic of the circular journey. The truth that we go out and come back, and that what we come back to is changed, and so are we. Perhaps I have been traveling in a circle, too. Things come together and become complete.
Here is what I've come back to:
The daughter who was with me and looked at me in horror the day I fell victim to thinking we were "only us, only now" (and that what happened in Oklahoma, or Alabama, or Indiana didn't matter) was the first person to read the manuscript of The Giver.
The college classmate who was "different" lives, last I heard, very happily in New Jersey with another woman who shares her life. I can only hope that she has forgiven those of us who were young in a more frightened and less enlightened time.
My son, and Margret, his German wife—the one who reminded me how important it is to tell our stories again and again, painful though they often are—now have a little girl who will be the receiver of all of their memories. Their daughter had crossed the Atlantic three times before she was six months old. Presumably my granddaughter will never be fearful of Elsewhere.
Carl Nelson, the man who lost colors but not the memory of them, is the face on the cover of the book. He died in 1989 but left a vibrant legacy of paintings. One hangs now in my home.
And I am especially happy to stand here tonight on this platform with Allen Say because it truly brings my journey full circle. Allen was twelve years old when I was. He lived in Shibuya, that alien Elsewhere that I went to as a child on a bicycle. He was one of the Other, the Different, the dark-eyed children in blue school uniforms, and I was too timid then to do more than stand at the edge of their schoolyard, smile shyly, and wonder what their lives were like.
Now I can say to Allen what I wish I could have said then: Watashi-no tomodachi desu. Greetings, my friend.
I have been asked whether the Newbery Medal is, actually, an odd sort of burden in terms of the greater responsibility one feels. Whether one is paralyzed by it, fearful of being able to live up to the standards it represents.
For me the opposite has been true. I think the 1990 Newbery freed me to risk failure.
Other people took that risk with me, of course. One was my editor, Walter Lorraine, who has never to my knowledge been afraid to take a chance. Walter cares more about what a book has to say than he does about whether he can turn it into a stuffed animal or a calendar or a movie.
The Newbery Committee was gutsy, too. There would have been safer books. More comfortable books. More familiar books. They took a trip beyond the realm of sameness, with this one, and I think they should be very proud of that.
And all of you, as well. Let me say something to those of you here who do such dangerous work.
The man that I named The Giver passed along to the boy knowledge, history, memories, color, pain, laughter, love, and truth. Every time you place a book in the hands of a child, you do the same thing.
It is very risky.
But each time a child opens a book, he pushes open the gate that separates him from Elsewhere. It gives him choices. It gives him freedom.
Those are magnificent, wonderfully unsafe things.
I have been greatly honored by you now, two times. It is impossible to express my gratitude for that. Perhaps the only way, really, is to return to Boston, to my office, to my desk, and to go back to work in hopes that whatever I do next will justify the faith in me that this medal represents.
There are other rivers flowing.
Source: Lois Lowry, "Newbery Medal Acceptance," in The Horn Book Magazine, Vol. LXX, No. 4, July-August, 1994, pp. 414-22.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1301
Once in a long while a book comes along that takes hardened young-adult reviewers by surprise, a book so unlike what has gone before, so rich in levels of meaning, so daring in complexity of symbol and metaphor, so challenging in the ambiguity of its conclusion, that we are left with all our neat little everyday categories and judgments hanging useless. Books like Robert Cormier's I Am the Cheese or Terry Davis's Mysterious Ways are examples of these rare treasures. But after the smoke of our personal enthusiasm has cleared, we are left with uneasy thoughts: Will young adults understand it? Will the intricate subtleties that so delight us as adult critics go right over their heads? Will the questions posed by the ending leave them puzzled and annoyed, rather than thoughtful and intrigued? It all depends—on the maturity of the particular young adult, on how well we introduce the book and follow up with discussion, and on certain qualities in the book itself. In the past year young-adult literature has been blessed with two such extraordinary works. The Giver by Lois Lowry and You Must Kiss a Whale by David Skinner.
The Giver is particularly surprising because it is a major departure from the style and type of book we have come to expect from Lois Lowry, as Horn Book Editor Anita Silvey pointed out in her July/August 1993 editorial. Up until now, much of Lowry's work has consisted of "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. Indeed, it is Lowry's skill at depicting cheerful, ordinary reality that makes the revelation of the sinister difference in this alternate reality so chilling.
Most surprising of all is the leap forward Lowry has made in mastering the creation of a subtext by innuendo, foreshadowing, and resonance. Take, for example, the opening sentence. "It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened." The word December is loaded with resonance: the darkness of the solstice, endings, Christmas, cold. Almost and beginning pull forward to the future source of his fear, "that deep, sickening feeling of something terrible about to happen." 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.
The fascinating gradual revelation of a world and its interlocking rationale as explained by a protagonist immersed in the culture is reminiscent of Margaret Atwood' s Handmaid's Tale. Lowry plays with our perceptions and our emotions, creating tension by presenting details of this community that win our approval, and then hinting at something terribly wrong. The family, for instance, seems ideal: a gentle, caring father and mother and the one child of each gender that tells us that this community has solved the population problem; the scenes of their warm, bantering conversations around the dinner table; their formal sharing (as required by the Rules) of feelings from their day and dreams from their night; the comfort and support they offer one another. But then we hear of Birthmothers and applications for children and spouses, we begin to wonder why there are no grandparents and to suspect what lies behind the parents' talk of "release."
Lowry has structured the intriguing details of this planned community with meticulous care, focusing particularly, through Jonas' s eyes, on the education system that produces a society which functions by internalized values. At first it seems to be an autocratic state—an impression that is given credence by Orwellian images such as the rasping voices that chastise from ubiquitous speakers. But soon it is revealed that the community is ruled by an elected Committee of Elders and that the citizens long ago chose this controlled life. Each peer group of fifty children is called by their ages— Fives, Elevenses—and is distinguished by certain clothes, haircuts, and required behaviors that are appropriate for their stage of development. At eight they begin to spend their afterschool hours volunteering in the various work of the community, and at twelve they are each given an Assignment, based on the careful observation of the Committee of Elders, which will be their job for life.
When the fateful December ceremony comes, Jonas is stunned to learn that he has been appointed the new Receiver of Memory, the highest position in the community. Each day he goes to the rooms of the old Receiver of Memory, a reclusive elderly man whom he comes to call The Giver. There his innocence is gradually transformed as the old man transmits to him, often with great pain for Jonas, the memories of experiences and emotions that the people have chosen to banish from their minds so that they might sustain the illusion of social order and success. Jonas's first memory-lesson is a sled ride that teaches him the concepts of cold and snow and of "downhill"—ideas that are new to him because the community has abolished weather and irregular terrain in the interests of efficiency. As the days wear on, Jonas experiences war and pain and love, and begins to understand how his society has given up choice and freedom for control and predictability.
And then one day he asks to view a videotape of a "release" that his father has that morning performed on an unwanted baby at the community nursery, and learns to his horror that the euphemism covers engineered death—for the old, for rule-breakers, and for surplus or difficult infants. Watching his father sweetly wave bye-bye to the small corpse as it slides down the disposal chute, Jonas realizes with cold shock that his nurturing family is a sham, held together by trained reactions, not love, and that there is only hollowness at the heart of the society's life. He and The Giver hatch a plot to force the community to change. Jonas will flee, so that the memories he has assimilated will return to the people, forcing them to suffer and grow. But that night Jonas's father announces that Gabriel, the difficult toddler who has been temporarily sharing their home and whom Jonas loves, will be "released" the next morning. There is no time to carry out the plot; in the night, Jonas and Gabriel bicycle away.
And now we come to the inherent difficulty of every dystopia story—how to end. Basically, there are three possibilities. The protagonist escapes as the society collapses; the protagonist escapes with the intention of returning with the seeds of change; or the protagonist escapes, but it turns out to be an illusion. Lowry opts for elements of all three. Jonas journeys for days and days and, finally, at the end of his strength, comes to a place where there is snow, and a hill, and a sled. Here the story, which up till now has been readable as an adventure tale, becomes symbolic and ambiguous as Jonas and the dying baby begin the sled ride toward the faint distant Christmas lights which are part of his memory of love. Is it a dream? Are they already dead? Or will they find a new life? Will the community they left behind reshape itself in a more human mold? Lowry refuses to provide a tidy ending. The challenge of the ambiguity is appropriate for the stature of this intricately constructed masterwork....
Source: Patty Campbell, "The Sand in the Oyster," in The Horn Book Magazine, Vol. LXIX, No. 6, November-December, 1993, pp. 717-21.
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