The Giver

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Newbery Medal-winning young adult novel by Lois Lowry. Known for its expertly merciless Deconstruction of the Utopia, and incidentally provides an introduction to the Dystopia genre for grade-school readers for whom some of the bits of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World would be a bit too saucy.

SPOILERS AHEAD! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!...unless you went to grade school...

The Giver takes place on Earth (presumably in the far future) in a setting known simply as the Community, which is implied to be similar to independent others not terribly distant from it. Here life is completely free from worry thanks to "Sameness", a philosophy that strives to eliminate any possible want or need from human existence.

Children are born to anonymous Birthmothers, and are monitored from the moment they leave the womb. Everyone and everything is designed to be supportive, helpful, encouraging. All your major life decisions as an adult -- your career, your spouse, when you can raise children and who those children will be -- are made for you by the Committee of Elders, based on careful observation of your particular needs and aptitudes. Citizens live in symmetrical family units of four: two parents, one boy, and one girl. (When young teenagers first reveal "the Stirrings," their mothers simply hand over the pills required to counter them.) As soon as their children are grown, the adults are sent to an area for Childless Adults, and when they reach a certain age they are to be cared for in The House of the Old.

There is no dissension at all. People have even been bred to look the same (red hair and/or blue eyes are borderline freakish), and most have lost the ability even to see color. The population lives by a set of Rules that govern even the smallest detail of their daily lives -- and if any single person breaks one, a loudspeaker immediately 'reminds' the entire community. Precision of language is drilled into children as soon as they begin talking, so that there can be no possible misunderstanding; any slight remaining difference or deviation is simply not discussed (this includes any mention of the Stirrings, naturally).

Anyone who cannot or will not conform - the very Old, the handicapped, people who break the Rules three times - is "Released to Elsewhere", vaguely understood to mean sent somewhere outside the Community.

No-one in the Community even has a frame of reference to question this way of life - including our protagonist, Jonas, who at the book's opening is preparing for his Ceremony of Twelve where he will be assigned his future career. Jonas is one of the slightly-different; he has blue eyes and can see color, even though he doesn't know what it is yet. It is because of this ability "to see beyond" that he is chosen to be the successor to The Receiver -- now the Giver -- of Memory, the one person in the entire community allowed to know what's beyond it. Or at least, what used to be.

Turns out, perfect painlessness isn't as easy to maintain as it looks. There are still memories of the time before Sameness, when people still knew want, and grief, and pain... and happiness and love.

All those dangerous memories have to go somewhere. By a process never quite explained, the Receiver keeps them all stored in his head to protect his community at large from being overwhelmed by them, from learning of the mistakes humanity once made. Eventually this one must pass them on to a younger Receiver, for if the Receiver were to die - or otherwise leave the Community - while in possession of the memories, they would fly free, everyone would remember, and the Sameness would be shattered.

Thanks to his new position, young Jonas is exposed to how life used to be, and slowly but surely grows to believe it was better that way. His dilemma comes to a head when he discovers he's now allowed access to the most secret ceremonies of his Community, including the ceremonies of Release. Excited to peek in on his gentle father at work as a Nurturer of newborn babies, Jonas instead finds himself watching him cheerfully kill a newborn twin with a painful lethal injection, simply because 'having two identical people running around' would disrupt community harmony.

The Giver calms a horrified Jonas by explaining that he too has been looking for a way out for years, and helps Jonas plan how to run away. The memories Jonas has absorbed by then will be released to the citizens of the Community he's left behind, and The Giver will help them understand and cope with them. These carefully-laid plans, however, are abandoned when Jonas gets word that baby Gabriel, whom Jonas' father had brought into the family especially to try and help him meet the development goals, is to be Released as a failure the next day. With no other choice, Jonas takes the little one and runs for it into the harsh, cold world beyond, leaving us with only the sequel to reassure us they don't die.


In addition to its exploration of the Utopia, this novel provides examples of:
  • After the End: While The Giver implies that the world "evolved" for lack of a better term, into Sameness, its sequel Gathering Blue shows that the world takes place after a major upheaval known as the The Ruin.
  • Ambiguous Disorder: Gabriel does not meet typical developmental goals for babies/toddlers. It's vaguely implied that he had some kind of Pervasive Developmental Disorder. Note that when the book was written, PDD and Autism were thought to be much rarer than they are today.
    • Jonas' slightly goofy, fun-loving friend Asher shows some signs of ADHD such as hyperactivity, impulsiveness, and blurting things out without thinking them through.
  • Bureaucratically Arranged Marriage: All couples are arranged this way.
  • Canon Discontinuity: The two sequels are... there's argument as to whether they really fit with The Giver or not, with Lowry not giving a concrete answer.
  • The Chosen One
  • City in a Bottle
  • Color Coded for Your Convenience: Blue (or at least "pale") eyes are linked to the special Receiving ability.
  • Conditioned to Accept Horror
  • Crap Saccharine World: At first, the Community may sound like an ideal, orderly place to live in, no? Then you realize that you're not able to feel emotions, see colors, choose your own jobs or even spouses, and worst of all, if you are sick, the lighter one of twins, or already old, you promptly get executed.
  • Cult: Close enough.
  • Culture Police: Totally unseen, but therefore all the more creepy.
  • Deadly Euphemism: "Released".
  • Deconstruction: The Giver is actually a Deconstruction of utopias and their necessary maintenance. In the slow revelation of the underlying rules The Community is built upon, it becomes apparent that played realistically utopias may become dystopias of their own.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: Use by the government, as people have be (presumably genetically modified) to be unable to see colors.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: A Pilot-in-training is Released to Elsewhere for a navigational error.
  • Dystopia: In disguise.
  • Erotic Dream: Jonas' dream of his "favorite female friend," Fiona, which prompts his mother to start giving him the pills.
  • Eternal Recurrence: The Gathering in Gathering Blue is the time when everyone is told how the world ends, rebuilds, ends, rebuilds, and ends over and over again, and will continue to do so in the future.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The Giver's real name is not revealed.
  • False Reassurance: The language of the Community is full of doublespeak and euphemisms - although what that means in a community that literally has no way of knowing it is left as an exercise for the reader.
  • First Time in the Sun: Among the memories Jonas gets from the Receiver is one of the sun, suggesting it's somehow filtered out.
  • Gainax Ending: Either Jonas escapes, or the ending is a Dying Dream. Lois Lowry responded with a Shrug of God when asked about it.
    • One fan theory says that Jonas and Gabe were always on that hill, and the whole novel was All Just a Dream caused by hypothermia. Whether they live or not is still open-ended...
    • One theory received by Lowry from a reader was that Jonas and Gabe traveled in a huge circle, and by the time they got back to the Community, it had been transformed by the memories of hope and love.
    • It is hinted in Messenger that Leader is actually Jonas - Gabe receives a brief mention, and Leader says that his gift was revealed when he saw the color of an apple (which is what Jonas does in the first book).
      • According to Lowry, this is deliberately tied in with the mention near the end of Gathering Blue that one of the boys in the 'Messenger' community has striking blue eyes.
      • There's also the fact that in Messenger, Jonas and Gabe's sled is mentioned and directly tied to Leader's arrival in the community, implying that the members of the community found them and took them in.
    • This was finally addressed via Word of God at the author Q&A of the 2009 National Book Festival in Washington, DC. After asking whether or not anyone had any questions, Lowry added, "Jonas is alive, by the way. You don't have to ask that one."
  • Government Drug Enforcement: Aside from the usual birth control pills, people are given painkillers for every little hurt, to keep them from feeling even that most basic of emotions, pain.
  • Grammar Nazi: Proper and precise word use are important in The Community. Jonas was punished for hyperbole when he claimed he was starving. He was also asked to use less vague language when he asked his parents if they loved him. Young children are not given an exemption: one toddler is beaten for saying "smack" instead of "snack", and for a time refuses to speak at all.
    • To clarify, he asked for a "smack," and received it.
  • Instrumentality
  • Happiness Is Mandatory: Well, actual happiness might disrupt things with excess energy, more "Quiet Contentment Is Mandatory."
  • Heroes Want Redheads: Our protagonist Jonas has his Stirrings on Fiona, who has red hair.
  • How Do You Like Them Apples?
  • Karma Houdini: Jamenson in Gathering Blue manipulates the protagonist and had attempted to murder her father. His punishment? Nothing, he gets off scot-free.
  • Meaningful Name: Ophelia in Hamlet reminds us that "There's [R]osemary, that's for remembrance" - is it any wonder the community banned her name after what she did to them?
    • Also, "Asher" means "happy."
  • Mind Screw: The ending left a large number of readers hopelessly confused, especially the younger ones.
  • Multiple Demographic Appeal
  • Never Say "Die": Nobody *dies* in the Community, they are "released" - or in rare cases, "lost".
  • No Blood Ties
    • Averted in that the reader is meant to assume, when the Giver reveals that Rosemary was his daughter, that he is actually the biological father of Rosemary, Jonas, the female Six, and Gabe. And, when you think about it, male genetic DNA has to come from somewhere...
  • No Sex Allowed
  • Nuclear Family: All of them, without the dog.
  • Occult Blue Eyes: Having blue eyes, or at least light as opposed to dark, is very rare in the community in which the book is set, and seems to be a sign that one is capable of "seeing beyond".
  • Population Control: Every family is allowed two children. If a child dies, the parents either can apply or are simply given another baby of the same gender and given the same name, as a replacement.
  • Released to Elsewhere: Trope Namer.
    • Somewhat played with, as while the trope itself is "mandatory euphemism for death," the premise of the book twists this a bit. Since the Givers contain more-or-less all the community's knowledge, we have no reason to believe that anybody knows that "release" is death, which in turn means they refer to it as "released to elsewhere" not as part of some Big Brotheresque Newspeak, but because they don't KNOW any better.
  • Renowned Selective Mentor: The community only has one titular Giver at a time. Each Giver must choose a child as his successor during his lifetime. The main character Jonas becomes the Giver's student, and he is considered to have a special rank in the community.
  • Science Fantasy / Mohs Scale of Sci Fi Hardness: Everything that happens in the book is mostly within the realm of reality, except for the psychic way memories are passed from The Giver to The Receiver. No science is involved, just physical contact and concentration, implying use of some form of magic or supernatural ability. But in the sequels, especially Messenger, certain people possess "gifts" that are essentially magical powers that perform a set task. There is even a forest that changes itself to reflect the attitudes of the members of a community.
    • There's a lot of weirdness connected to the memory-transferring ability. First of all, it's inseparably coupled with light eyes: you need to have light eyes to have it, and everyone with light eyes can do it. Secondly, while being one is necessary in order to not be colorblind, the Receivers' color vision isn't static: Jonas pretty much only gets it in flashes (and exclusively with red) before he starts his job as Receiver, but the more memories the Giver transfers to him, the more colors he can see and the more consistently he can do so. And it works both ways; after giving Jonas most of the memories, the Giver loses the ability to see color. Either their ability lets them punch through the limitations of their physical sight, or everyone else's colorblindness has nothing to do with how many types of cone cells they have in their eyes, assuming it's controlled by the same mechanism for the Receivers as for everyone else.
    • But don't forget: when Jonas stops taking the pills that stop the Stirrings, he can see all colors easily, and retain them. And don't forget either: the Giver can hear music. HOW is another question altogether...
    • With the Giver, it's possible that he started randomly humming a tune he came up with.
      • Or he's the only one who could tell that ambient noises in proper rhythm and cadence were pleasant sounding.
  • Sexless Marriage: Every marriage is this, since sexual desires are suppressed by pills.
  • Sinister Surveillance: No one can turn the speakers off...
    • Except the Giver
  • Someone Has to Do It
  • Spiritual Successor: Gathering Blue was consider this to The Giver for several years. It wasn't until The Messenger that the two stories were connected.
  • Town with a Dark Secret
  • Unperson: The Community has removed Rosemary, the previous Receiver of Memory, going as far as to decree that her name cannot be used for a newchild ever again, after the memories she received dissipated out into the community when she applied for Release (assisted suicide, and she knew what it was - she even asked to administer the lethal injection herself) and the members of the Community had to feel emotion and pain for the first time. This fiasco is the source of the current rule that the Receiver is barred from asking for Release.
  • The Voice: The Speaker who makes the announcements and warnings over the loudspeaker.
  • War Is Hell: Jonas receives a horrible memory about war.
  • What Is This Thing You Call Love?: When Jonas learns about love through memories received from the Giver and asks his parents if they love him, they admonish him for not using precise language and say that asking "Do you enjoy me?" or "Do you take pride in my accomplishments?" would have been better.
  • The World Is Not Ready: For the memories.
  • World of No Grandparents: Literally.
  • Writers Cannot Do Math: Poorly thought out population control.
    • Each family unit is allowed a maximum of 2 children, the same number of children are born each year and they are all assigned to a family unit. Not all adults have children, and not all family units have the maximum of 2 children.
    • Birthmothers, the only job that allows giving birth, are only allowed to have 3 children each before they become laborers. This would require that at least 2/3 of all women become birth mothers to maintain a stable population, but this doesn't happen at the beginning of the book as the administration is handing out jobs to graduates.
    • Alternatively, the population control is intentionally poorly thought out by the author and points to the fact that the so-called utopia is unsustainable, and will inevitably break down in the future.
  • You Are Number Six: People have serial numbers besides their names. When children behave badly, their parents sometimes call him on their numbers, suggesting that a bad child is not worthy of a name.