Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Giver by Lois Lowry

Somehow I never got around to reading The Giver in middle school, which is a shame, because I think it might have given my impressionable little mind quite a bit to think about. It is, essentially, 1984 for the tween set, a slim dystopian novel written from the perspective of a teenager.

The protagonist, Jonas, is about to enter into the Ceremony of Twelve, in which he will be assigned the career which has been chosen for him. The village of The Giver thrives because these assignments are well-made; the council who decides them observes the children painstakingly so that they might make the best decision possible. The society in which Jonas lives is peaceful and self-sufficient, lacking in physical and emotional pain but, as we come to learn later, lacks also the pleasures that come with taking risk--that is to say, concepts such as love, adventure, and even sex.

But there is one man in the village still familiar with these things: The Giver. His job is the most secretive, and in many ways the most powerful in the village. He has collected all the collective memories which might endanger the stability of the society, memories that include not only exquisite happiness but terrible pain. Jonas' assignment--to the surprise of everyone--is that of Receiver, or the Giver-in-training to whom the Giver must bequeath all his memories before he dies. Throughout the process, Jonas becomes privy to not only what society can be, if risk is not eliminated, but also to the darker side of his own society that ensures its survival. The Giver reveals to Jonas that the village is built on a system of euthanasia which eliminates the elderly as well as undesired children.

I can think of few young adult books that can boast of as many strong and affective scenes as The Giver. One of my favorites comes when Jonas, having experienced love through the Givers' memories, asks his parents--two people to whom he has been assigned, and have been assigned to each other--if they love him. They chide him for his "imprecise language," saying that they desire his success, and enjoy his company, but love--what is that, exactly? Love is messy, and has necessarily been eradicated.

And yet, I have the same for The Giver that I do for many dystopian novels. I feel that the strongest dystopian novels are terrifying because it is easy to see that society might one way inexorably dissolve into the world depicted, but so many set up philosophical straw men in that they depict societies that have no redeeming features whatsoever. The best dystopias are seductive, and Lowry seems to establish the positive attributes of hers, but who really would ever argue that such an anesthetized, numb society would really be preferable to our own? I understand that the village, as in all dystopias, is meant as symbol, the reductio ad absurdum of dangerous ideas, but I am not sure what real ideas Lowry means to counteract.

I think the truth must lie in the fact that this is a young adult book, and those ideas which Lowry wishes to repel are ideas that foster in the minds of the young. It is a strongly didactic book, and seems to boil down to the simple truism that great happiness is impossible without great pain. I find great similarities between this and Tuck Everlasting--which I noted can be reduced to the idea that life necessitates death--but I reiterate that this is a lesson no serious adult needs. Am I wrong? I may be. But still I think that both books lack the sophistication that some of the best juvenile fiction possesses, and which enables them to be read and enjoyed by both children and adults.


Elizabeth said...

Does this review have lots of spoilers? Because I want to read it but I also want to read the book.

Christopher said...

Actually, now that I see it, there's one big spoiler. Maybe you should wait.

But I read this book in an hour. So get to it.

Carlton said...

I read this book in 58 minutes.

christopherchilton said...

I read your mom in twelve.

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