Woah, I can easily understand why such a grand amount of people loved this book and definitely see why many were not satisfied with the movie. I cannot believe how many elements of this story they changed. However, there is something that I must admit: I preferred the movie because of how melancholic and hopeful it made me feel and for the suspense inside it that the book irrevocably lacked. It is not something that I hear myself say often at all. I have always been that little full of criticism girl who could not help but compare books to movies and movies to books. Quite a negative experience I tend to have with the latter. I mean, Red Riding Hood (trailer), starring Amanda Seyfried, was enticing! Reading the filmtonovel adaptation though felt like walking through mud – tiring, boring, and endless. Why I granted it a three star rating is beyond me.
Let’s just put that aside though. After all, it is of The Giver that I shall talk about and my time spent reading the story was definitely not wasted – hence the four star rating – even if not what I anticipated. First, the hero was very young, a detail that I seemed to have forgotten before starting this read. Not a problem though, for Jonas showed an impressive and admirable maturity in his character. Even I, at twelve, and others around me at that time, were not as reflective, wise and…intelligent. Sure, math held no secrets from me, but I was not actually resolving problems for the greater good or aware of the true face of the world. As opposite as the situation and context definitely were, the fact remains that Jonas lead this story with greatness and, along the way, opened my eyes to some beautiful themes.
It shook me to witness how unimportant Fiona appeared and how no chemistry was palpable between Jonas and her. Apparently, they were friends through Ashen mostly, or at least that is what I deducted. Of course, they volunteered together but it is not as if they talked and shared moments like true friends normally do. Plus, we could barely see her because of how her presence was omitted. Ashen was definitely endearing in this while, in the cinematographic adaptation – I apologies for bringing it up again – I growled at him continuously.
This was another example of a book with fine simplistic writing. My first one, I believe, was Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Then I discovered some others and familiarized myself with this type of writing. I am completely in favour of it since it can bring such a peaceful atmosphere to stories and make the reader easily understand every detail written. However, there is something that I unluckily often stumble upon when this style is present and this was no exception: repetition. But maybe it is easier to distinguish it since everything in the writing is clearer?
Even though I brought up an equal – or so it seems – amount of positive and negative elements for The Giver, I must let you know that the negative ones never bothered, annoyed or frustrated me. They were there, and I was aware of them, but never let any of those weaknesses keep me from enjoying my read. Because I did. So much.
PS. For a couple of minutes, I thought that I just read one of the first dystopian books ever written, but this list proved me the contrary.
Lowry's book is a piece of nationalist propaganda, using oversimplification, emotional appeals, and dualistic morality to shut down her readers' minds. More troubling is that it is aimed at children, who don't yet have the critical faculties to defend themselves from such underhanded methods.
Unsurprisingly, Lowry adopts the structure of the monomyth, equating a spiritual journey with a moral one. Her Christfigure uses literal magic powers to rebel against his society. This rebellion and the morality behind it are presented as 'natural', to contrast with the 'abnormal morality' around him.
Lowry doesn't seem to understand that we get our morality from our culture, it isn't something inborn that we 'lose'. This is the first hint of Lowry's misunderstanding of the human mind. She assumes her own morality is correct, and then builds her story to fit it.
She also makes the character act and think like a modern person would, despite never adequately explaining how he came up with such unusual notions. It's the same trick many historical fiction authors use, leaving us scratching our heads as to why a Fourteenth Century French peasant speaks like a secondwave feminist. I'd suggest that Lowry falls to this fault for the same reason they do: she has no talent for imagining how others might think differently.
Lowry's book ends with the standard nonspecific transgressive spiritual event that marks any overblown monomyth. Since the book is not a progressive presentation of ideas, it does not suggest any conclusion. Instead, the climax is a symbolic fauxdeath event (symbolic of what, none can say). Confusingly, Lowry later redacts the ending in the sequels, undermining the pseudospiritual journey she created.
Though some call this book 'Dystopian', it's closer to the truth to say Lowry borrows elements from the Dystopian authors, attempting to combine the spiritual uplift of the monomyth with the political and social deconstruction of the Dystopia. What she doesn't recognize is that the faith of the one conflicts with the cynicism of the other. She draws on ideas and images from many other authors: Bradbury, Huxley, Orwell, Burgess, but doesn't improve upon them.
These authors created novels that reflected the world around them. They based them on the political events of the times, presented with realism and careful psychology. Though they presented the struggle between the individual and the society, they portrayed morality as grey, and suffering as the result of individual human faults, not political systems. Lowry doesn't realize that the best way to critique Fascism or Communism is not to present it as 'evil', but to simply present it as it was.
But Lowry's world is not based in reality, it is symbolic and hyperbolic. Instead of writing about how poverty makes the world seem small and dull, she has the characters magically unable to experience life. Instead of an impersonal government, she presents a sort of evil hippy commune.
The only political system it resembles is a school, which is a neat little trick to get the kids interested. The idea that 'school=unfeeling totalitarian hell' is not an uncommon one, but it's one I'm surprised teachers would support. The book also suggests a creche, but lacking similarity to any realworld system, it doesn't work as a political criticism.
Lowry creates this artificial world to suit her purposes, but it is not a symbolic exercise like 'Animal Farm'. We understand that the pigs of animal farm are symbolic, because there are no talking pigs. Lowry's world is more insidious, since its oversimplification is hidden. She builds an artificial world to support the dualist morality that she's pushing. She presents the same kneejerk fears about euthanasia and abortion that people use against Women's Rights or Health Care.
Worse than these Straw Man arguments is the fact that she never deals with the economic causes of totalitarianism. Tyrants don't just rise up and take control by their own force of will, they come into power because of the socioeconomic situations that surround them. Lean times produce strong, fascist leaders while profitable times produce permissive, liberal societies.
Strong, centralized leadership simply doesn't selfpropagate in cultures where everyone is clothed, fed, and housed. The Holocaust was socially about some ideal of 'change' and 'purity', but it was economically about the transmission of wealth from Jews, Poles, and Catholics to Germans (and more specifically, to those Germans who had elected the new ruling party).
The atrocities of war are, for the most part, committed by normal people on other normal people. By presenting the power structure as 'amoral' and 'inhuman', Lowry ignores the fact that people will willingly cause others to suffer. Painting the enemy as 'evil' and 'alien' is just an unsophisticated propagandist method.
She contrasts her 'evil' with the idealized 'goodness' of emotion, beauty, and freedom. This is nothing more than the American dream of 'specialness' that Mr. Rogers was pushing for so many years. We are all special, we are all good, we all deserve love and happiness. Sure, it sounds good, but what does it mean?
Where does this 'specialness' come from? If it is just the 'sanctity of human life', then it's not really special, because it's allencompassing. If all of us are special, then none of us are. There's nothing wrong with valuing life, but when Lowry presents one mode of life as valuable and another as reprehensible, she ceases to actually value humanity as a whole. Instead, she values a small, idealized chunk of humanity. 'People are good, except the ones I don't like' is not a moral basis, nor is it a good message to send to kids.
If the specialness is only based on fitting in with a certain moral and social guideline, then Lowry isn't praising individuality, she's praising herd behavior. The protagonist is only 'special' because he has magic powers. His specialness is not a part of his character, it is an emotional appeal.
The idea of being a special individual is another piece of propaganda, and its one kids are especially prone to, because kids aren't special: they are carefully controlled and powerless. Giving a character special powers and abilities and then using that character to feed a party line to children is not merely disingenuous, it's disturbing.
There is also a darker side to universal specialness: giving a child a sense of importance without anything to back it up creates egotism and instability. Adults noticed that children with skills and friends had high selfesteems, but instead of teaching their children social skills and knowledge, they misunderstood the causal relationship and tried to give them selfworth first.
Unfortunately, the moment unsupported selfworth is challenged, the child finds they have nothing to fall back on. Their entitlement didn't come from their skills or experiences, and so they have nothing to bolster that sense of worth. Instead, any doubt sends them down a spiral of emotional instability.
A single book like this wouldn't be the cause of such a state in a child, but it does act as part of the social structure built to give a sense of worth without a solid base for that worth. People like to believe they are special, kids especially so, but being a remarkable person is not a result of belief but of actions. If the book had informed them, then it would leave them better off, but giving them a conclusion based on emotional appeals does nothing to build confidence or character.
Many people have told me this book is good because it appeals to children, but children often fall for propaganda. Children develop deep relationships with pop stars, breakfast cereals, and Japanese monsters. This does not make them good role models for children.
Feeding 'specialness' to kids along with a political message is no better than the fascist youth programs Lowry intends to criticize. The obsession with individuality is just another form of elitism. It's ironic that people in America most often describe themselves as individuals when pointing out the things they do to align themselves with groups.
But banding together in a community is not a bad thing. For Lowry and other 'Red Scare' children, any mention of 'communal' can turn into a witch hunt, but we all give up some personal rights and some individuality in order to live in relatively safe, structured societies. There are benefits to governmental social controls and there are drawbacks, and it's up to us to walk the line between the two. Anarchy and Totalitarianism never actually exist for long: we are social animals.
It's not difficult to understand why Lowry is so popular, especially amongst educators. The message she gives aligns perfectly with what they were taught as kids, from Red Scare reactionism to the hippydippy 'unique snowflake' mantra. These ideas aren't entirely misguided, either. It's good to recognize the benefits of difference and the dangers of allowing other to control our lives.
If a reader believes that fascism and socialism are inherently wrong and that their own individuality is their greatest asset, they will likely sympathize with Lowry's work. However, this doesn't make the book honest, nor beneficial. One of the hardest things we can do as readers is disagree with the methods of authors we agree with ideologically.
It makes us feel good to find authors who agree with us, but this is when we should be at our most skeptical. Searching the world for selfjustification is not a worthwhile goal, it simply turns you into another shortsighted, argumentative knowitall. 'Yes men' never progress.
Lowry is toeing the party line. She does not base her book around difficult questions, like the Dystopian authors, but around easy answers. She doesn't force the reader to decide for themselves what is best, she makes it clear what she wants us to think. Her book is didactic, which means that it instructs the reader what to believe.
Even if her conclusions about Individuality vs. Community are correct, she doesn't present arguments, she only presents conclusions. Like rote memorization or indoctrination, she teaches nothing about the politics, social order, economics, or psychology of totalitarianism or individuality. The reader is not left with an understanding, just an opinion.
The baseless 'individuality' of the book lets the reader imagine that they are rebelsthat they are bucking the system even as they fall into lockstep. By letting the reader think they are already freethinking, Lowry tricks them into forgetting their skepticism.
She is happy to paint a simple world of black and white, and this is likely the world she sees. I doubt she is purposefully creating an insidious text, she just can't see past her own opinions. She writes this book with a point to make, and makes it using emotional appeals and symbolism. She doesn't back it up with arguments because she doesn't seem to have developed her opinions from cogent arguments.
In the end, she doesn't show us that the structure of this society is wrong, she says nothing poignant about individuality vs. community; instead, she relies on threats to the life of an innocent infant. Yet nowhere does she provide an argument for why communal living or the sacrifice of freedoms for safety must necessarily lead to infanticide.
In politics, making extreme claims about the opposing side is called mudslinging, it is an underhanded and dishonest tactic. It works. Arguing intelligently is difficult, accusing is easy, so that's what Lowry does.
She is another child of WWII and the Cold War who hasn't learned her lesson. She quickly condemns the flaws of others while failing to search out her own. Even after the Holocaust, there are many racist, nationalist, violent Jews; conflict rarely breeds a new understanding.
America condemned the faceless communal life of the Second World, and yet America created The Projects. We critiqued strong governmental controls, but we still have the bank bailout, socialized medicine, socialized schooling, and socialized charity. America condemned the Gulags and Work Camps, and yet we imprison one out of every hundred citizens; far more than Stalin ever did. Some are killed, all are dehumanized.
As a little sci fi adventure, the book isn't terrible. It's really the pretension that goes along with it. Lowry cobbles together religious symbolism and Dystopic tropes and then tries to present it as something as complex and thoughtful as the authors she copied. Copying isn't a crime, but copying poorly is.
Like Dan Brown or Michael Crichton, she creates a political pamphlet of her own ideals, slaps a pretense of authority on it, and then waits for the money and awards to roll inand they did. Many people I've discussed this book with have pointed to those awards as the surest sign of this book's eminent worth.
Award committees are bureaucratic organizations. Their decisions are based on political machinations. This book is a little piece of Nationalism, and so it was lauded by the political machine that Lowry supports. The left hand helps the right. If awards are the surest sign of worth, then Titanic is a better movie than Citizen Kane.
What surprises me is how many of those who brought up the award as their argument were teachers. If a politicallycharged administrative committee is the best way to teach children, then why do you take umbrage when the principal tells you that bigger class sizes (and fewer benefits) are fine? Listen to him: doesn't he have award plaques?
The other argument is usually that 'kids like it'. I usually respond that kids also like candy, so why not teach that? Some people also get angry at me for analyzing a book written for children:
"Of course it's not a great book, it's for kids! If you want a good book, go read Ulysses!"
I prefer to give children good books rather than pieces of political propaganda (even if they agreed with me). Children can be as skeptical, quickwitted, and thoughtful as adults if you give them the chance, so I see no excuse for feeding them anything less.
Kids aren't stupid, they just lack knowledge, and that's a fine distinction. It's easy for adults to take advantage of their naivete, their emotionality, and their sense of worth. Just because it's easier for the teacher doesn't mean it's better for the child.
When we show children something that is oversimplified, presenting an idealized, crudely moralizing world, we aren't preparing them for the actual world. If you give a child a meaningless answer to repeat, he will repeat it, but he won't understand why.
Why not give the child a book that presents many complex ideas, but no rote answers, and let them make up their own minds? If they don't learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff and form their own opinions early, in a safe, nurturing environment, what chance will they have on their own as adults?
In all the discussions and research regarding this book, I have come across very little analysis. It's especially surprising for a book with such a strong following, but there aren't many explanations of why the book is supposed to be useful or important.
This lack of argument makes sense from a political standpoint, since there is no reason to analyze the worth of propaganda: its worth is that it agrees with society and indoctrinates readers. Analyzing it would defeat the purpose; political diatribes do not stand up to thoughtful attention.
Perhaps someday someone will create a thoughtful, textual analysis of this book that will point out its merits, its structure and its complexity. I've gradually come to doubt it. I never expected when I wrote my original review of this book that it would garner this much attention.
I still welcome comments and thoughts, but if your comment looks roughly like this:
"You should read this book again, but this time, like it more. You think you're smart but you aren't. You're mean. Lowry is great. This book won awards and kids like it. It's meant for kids anyways, why would you analyze what its about? I bet you never even read the sequels. Go read 'Moby Dick' because you are full of yourself."
I've heard that one before. If you do want to comment though, you might check out this article; I find it helps me with presenting my ideas. I've taught this book to my 6th graders nine years in a row. Once I realized that the book is actually a mystery, and not the bland scifi adventure it seemed at first skim, I loved it more and more each time. Nine years, two classes most years... 17 TIMES. I've come to see that the book isn't the story of a depressing utopia. It's the story of the relationship between the main characters the Giver, Jonas, and... I won't say her name. And of course, the baby Gabe.
Every year, as we read the book out loud together, I am amazed at details the students notice (things I've missed the previous 15 times), or questions they raise that lead to further insights for not just the class but ME. My God, the things they come up with, that I as an English major, or even me if I'd read this with a book club, could never have gone that far in depth.
As I began to more fully understand the book over the years, I was better able to guide their discussions, which helped them think more deeply about the book, and made me appreciate the book even more. And by "guide," I don't mean calm, controlled, teachery, "I already know the answer" talk.
My discussion techniques, simple:
I'd stop the tape (books on tape are AWESOME the narrator is always so much better than I could ever be) and say something like, "So, what do you think? Doesn't this seem a little WEIRD?" and off they'd go, bouncing ideas off each other until finally someone said something incredible, something no kid had thought of in the past nine years. Once I myself knew how to be interested in this book, I knew what might keep them hooked.
Or, I myself would suddenly realize something new, and I'd stop reading and say, "OH MY GOD DID YOU GUYS GET WHAT THAT MEANT??? WHAT IT MIGHT MEAN????"
I feel free to participate myself, since I myself still have so many questions about the book. I'm not spoiling the ending when I bring up my own questions, because I know this book is a mystery in which things don't much get answered they're left to linger, and that's part of the beauty and hopefulness in this book.
There are still lines, moments, in the book that give me chills. I wait for them greedily, just to hear the words spoken.
I feel lucky to have been forced to read this book a dozen times. There are other books I've read a lot with my students, and this is the one that most stands up over time, the only one that keeps my interest. I truly am on the edge of my seat to see what we will realize next. Because I've seen that, even if I think I have it all figured out, some kid is going to say something to rock my world.
I can't believe Lowry was able to make a book this clever; part of me thinks a work this good is impossible, and that we are just reading too much into it. But no, it's all there, all the pieces, and she put them there. I just don't see how could she have written such a tightly woven mystery how could she have know all of the questions the book would raise? And you know what, she probably didn't. A book isn't like drawing a map. You make the world, and things happen. And in this case, she did make a perfect world. (I SO did not mean that as a UTOPIA PUN!!!!!!! I hate puns so much!!!!!! I mean, she so fully created that world where everything that happens is plausible.)
Just read the damn book, then call me.
Or, call me after like, Chapter 13, then after 18 and 19.
he book. Lines that almost make me cry
This book is perhaps the best refutation that I have seen in some time of a common philosophy of pain that is sometimes found in the popular media and in some versions of Buddhism. According to this philosophy, pain is the ultimate evil, and so, to eliminate pain and suffering we must give up desire, and individuality. Self is an illusion, and leads to pain; desire and agency are dangerous, so we should give them up and join the cosmic oneness "enlightenment" to find a utopia without pain. As George Lucas unfortunately has Yoda say to Anakin, "you must give up all that you fear to lose."
And, of course, this is hogwash. Choice, agency, adversity, love, desire, and real pleasure are dangerous, they can lead to pain, but without them life has no purpose. Love could lead to the loss of that which we love, but life without love is empty. Purpose comes from choosing. Purpose comes from overcoming adversity. Yes, you could choose poorly, and that could lead to pain, choice is dangerous, but without it, life has no meaning, it is colorless. Greatness in life is found by overcoming adversity, not by the absence of adversity. Without opposition, there is nothing to overcome, and thus there may be no bad, but there is also no good, there may be no pain, but there is also no joy.
The book's ending mirrors this ambiguity. Although some later books answer some of these questions, at the end of this book we are left to wonder: Did he die? Did he live? All we really know is that he was made free, and he made a choice... was it the right one? Did it lead to happiness for him? Did it lead to happiness for the community who will now have his memories? Will they destroy themselves, or will the Giver be able to help them find true purpose and happiness in life? We don't know, because that is the way of all choices. We can't always know the outcomes of our decisions, and therein lies the danger, but the risk is well worth the rewards.