Jun 11

The Giver (1993)

Lois Lowry’s The Giver can best be described as a primer to dystopian literature. It is reminiscent of Zamyatan’s We (1921), Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and Orwell’s 1984 (1948), only geared toward younger readers. While it may lack the maturity and literary ingenuity of its predecessors, The Giver remains no less engaging.

Jonas lives in the Community. In it, the Committee of Elders takes care of everything for everyone: they carefully select one’s career, life partner and children. To ensure the longevity of the Community, developmentally delayed infants, the elderly and multiple recidivists are “released” into Elsewhere. In the name of Sameness, scientists have eradicated variation from nature: life is unburdened by things that give contrast to the world, like color and weather. Within the Community, order and predictability are the name of the game; a pain-free life, the prize. Thus, there are no surprises, and no surprises equals no hurt. That is not to say that members of the Community do not feel unpleasant things; in fact, family units engage in a nightly ritual known as the Sharing of Feelings. However, those feelings are subdued versions of more heightened emotional fare.

Every December, the Community attends the Ceremony, which marks a variety of milestones reached by different cohorts of children. The most anticipated milestone is that of the Twelves: they are revealed their Assignment, the career for which they must begin training. To the Community’s surprise, Jonas is bestowed the rare and coveted title of Receiver of Memories. The Receiver is the recipient of all information that has been committed to memory since the beginning of humanity. To ensure the Community may live in harmony, the Receiver must bear the load of all memories that may compromise this idyllic existence: enviable memories of pleasure and happiness—like sledding down a snow-covered hill, rocking on a hammock below palm trees by the beach, or exchanging Christmas presents by the glow of a roaring fireplace—and disconcerting memories of horror and sadness—like gory wartime battles and merciless animal poaching. As part of his training, Jonas must meet daily with the previous Receiver, now the Giver, so that the physically and emotionally taxing transfer of memories may be performed.

Lowry’s message goes beyond saying we can only feel pleasure if we also know pain; rather, we only attain true happiness when we risk getting hurt. That is, we can only wholly experience the amusement of sledding if we are willing to accept we might fall and injure ourselves, the tranquility of a beachside nap if we accept a wayward coconut might cause us a concussion, and the comforting warmth of a crackling fire if we accept it may spread and consume our home. The point is: when we protect ourselves from the possible pain such experiences might provide, we also shield ourselves from their potential pleasures. Think of experiencing a sled, a beach or a fireplace in virtual reality: while diminishing the inherent danger does not fully eradicate the enjoyment, it restricts the qualitative appeal. So, by building an environment where no risk of harm exists, the Community has barred its citizens from the full experience of pleasure.

A few months into his perspective-shattering training, Jonas grows steadily angry with his friends and family. His life has become increasingly textured, both emotionally and intellectually; by contrast, their lives remain painfully unchanged. Jonas cannot understand why someone would settle for a monotonous life, let alone embrace it as a fulfilling choice. We feel his frustration: it is disconcerting when we witness otherwise intelligent individuals willingly de-individualize themselves, because they have deluded themselves into thinking they have become self-driven by buying into “the Community.” It’s as ironic as thinking you’re special for owning the Louis Vuitton shoulder bag that thousands of others also own, or covet. Still, the survival of certain societies, namely capitalist ones, relies upon this core misconception. Ultimately, while Jonas’ (and our) world is thought of as “perfect,” it is ultimately constrained and limiting.

Despite its riveting premise, The Giver is not a perfect book. We understand the universe Lowry has created is distinctly dystopian; yet, its overall functioning is only superficially explored, sometimes lacking in detail (although its intended audience probably wouldn’t notice that the fine points of the Community do not hold up to the most intense scrutiny). I would enjoy a tactfully produced movie that expands on the universe Jonas inhabits. Making one’s way through the story, we also realize that its characters behave the way they do because the overarching theme and primary message require it, causing the story not to progress as organically as it should. Still, The Giver is an intellectually stimulating read, providing much food for thought.

When Jonas encounters the memories that have been kept from him all his life, he becomes conflicted. What is he to do with all this newfound knowledge? The Committee wants him to keep it a secret and bear the emotional weight of it until a subsequent Receiver is selected toward the end of his life, but something inside him tells him the Community might actually benefit from experiencing the memories for itself. While the ultimate consequence of Jonas’ decision is left to interpretation, it would be hard to disagree with his ultimate choice. We identify with his journey, his challenges; they resonate deep within us.

In many ways, Jonas’ story is as timeless as the very first story: Adam and Eve’s. Since everyone’s needs are satisfied and pain is non-existent within the Community, it embodies Paradise on Earth. In fact, if Adam and Eve had never left the Garden of Eden and society had been free to develop within its boundless confines, the modern world would probably be like the Community. Another parallel: in both cases, the governing body has invested a natural being with a precious body of illicit facts. Indeed, the Giver of Pleasurable and Painful Memories is to the Community what the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is to the Garden of Eden. Standing before this remarkable being, Jonas is faced with the same question Adam and Eve were before him: is a safe, albeit oppressive, life preferable to an uncertain, albeit free, life? (Of note, one of the first colors Jonas sees is the red of an apple.) Psychiatrist Marvin P. Osman’s (2000) enlightening interpretation of Adam and Eve’s story reflects Jonas’ dilemma:

It would seem that the first children were limited to the role of being mere extensions of the Creator, confined to the Garden’s peripheral foliage while the fruits of the trees of life and knowledge were out of bounds to them; they were excluded from forms of self-expression that could intrude upon grown-up prerogatives. The innocent children’s need to maintain a secure attachment to the Divine Parent succeeded for a time in constraining them to remain within the circumscribed area to which they had been assigned. In due course, however, the biblical children matured, physically, psychologically, and sexually. It is this maturation that threatens the hegemony of the Almighty, thus producing the tension between them and their creator that leads inexorably to temptation, transgression, and abandonment. One might conjecture that the primordial children contentedly reposed as subordinates of a seemingly all-giving entity while they lived within the matrix of what the God/Parent chose to provide: that they were spared both the harshness of life in the external world and the realization that there would be an end to their existence. However, the attractions emanating from outside the parental matrix, the discovery of which is the inevitable consequence of psychic and physical maturation, facilitate movement away from one’s progenitors. This heralds the inevitability of death, but it also holds forth a myriad of possibilities for fulfillment in a wider world. (p. 1297-1298)

Much in the same way God cared for His creation and spared it from Evil prior to the Original Sin, the Committee is an “all-giving entity” that protects those under its care from the cruelties of the outside world, Elsewhere. However comfortable God’s Garden was, though, it remained a prison nonetheless, and this is exactly what Jonas realized of his own Community. Such realizations arise from experiential growth. Ironically, Jonas’ maturation process begins sexually: upon experiencing Stirrings for the very first time, he is ordered to begin a course of medication. Only later does he develop critical thinking. The moment Jonas realizes there is more to life than can be provided to him by the Committee, he ceases to value the Community. Enticed by the promise of a fuller life, Jonas delivers himself from the prison he was born into. If we select the less hopeful interpretation of the conclusion of The Giver, Jonas’ premature death mirrors Adam and Eve’s newfound mortality upon escaping the Garden.

We long for perfection. We so wish our lives to be just right—low on conflict, high on harmony—that we involuntarily invent symbols of perfection we come to mistake as truth and foolishly begin to strive for: religions have their Heaven and Nirvana, secular institutions have their Self-Actualization and Mental Health. Yet, what we do not realize is that paradises, especially manufactured ones like the Garden of Eden and the Community, are inherently limiting. In contemporary society, we have internalized such outward representations of perfection, substituting them with manufactured states of mind like those provided by psychotropic drugs in our relentless quest for mental fitness. Paradises, be they religious or secular, are inherently limiting because they are lacking. To be sure, happiness can exist without pain. While eternal happiness is theoretically possible, provided pain can be totally eradicated, it does not come without a price, for as soon as we eliminate the risk of pain, the happiness we are able to enjoy is effectively dulled. Technically, it is still happiness, but it is not the genuine sort of happiness that typically coexists with real pain. In this way, The Giver reminds us that paradisiacal perfection is neither enviable nor desirable, for it may just cost us our Humanity.


Osman, M. P. (2000). The Adam and Eve story as exemplar of an early-life variant of the Oedipus complex. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 48, 1295-1325.

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