The Giver is a novel written by Lois Lowry. It is set in a future society which is at first presented as a utopian society and gradually appears more and more dystopian; therefore, it could be considered anti-utopian. The novel follows a boy named Jonas through the twelfth year of his life. The society has eliminated pain and strife by converting to "Sameness", a plan which has also eradicated emotional depth from their lives. Jonas is selected to inherit the position of "Receiver of Memory," the person who stores all the memories of the time before Sameness, in case they are ever needed to aid in decisions that others lack the experience to make. As Jonas receives the memories from the previous receiver—the "Giver"—he discovers how shallow his community's life has become.
Despite controversy and criticism that the book's subject material is inappropriate for young children, The Giver won the 1994 Newbery Medal and has sold more than 5.3 million copies. In Australia, the United States and Canada it is a part of many middle school reading lists, but it is also on many banned book lists. The novel forms a loose trilogy with Gathering Blue (2000) and Messenger (2004), two other books set in the same future era.
The book's setting seems to be a utopia, where all possible steps are taken to eliminate pain. The people are almost always compliant; families share their dreams and feelings on a daily basis to
diffuse emotional buildup. This society remains harmonious by matching up husbands and wives based on compatibility of personality and if there is any sign of feelings the match is denied. There is also a subtle theme of technology having only a minimal role in society; throughout the book, it is taken for granted that Jonas's community is without such technologies as television, or radio, although computers are mentioned at one point. Transportation is mostly limited to bicycles; however, cars and airplanes exist in small numbers.
Lowry describes creating the pain-free world of Jonas' Community in her Newbery Award speech:
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, poverty, prejudice 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.
As time progresses in the novel, however, it becomes clear that the society has lost contact with the ideas of family and love, at least in the "more complete" sense at which Lowry hints. Children are born to designated "Birthmothers" and then family units can apply for children. If the family unit applies for the maximum allowed number of two, it will always be one boy and one girl. This is to keep the genders even. After family units have served the purpose of raising the children in a stable environment, they cease to exist, the parents going to a communal housing facility for childless adults, and the children becoming involved in their work and starting monogenerational families of their own, forgetting their foster parents who are growing old. The community maintains this process using pills which suppress emotions, mainly romantic love and sexuality, which they refer to as "Stirrings."
All the land near the Community and around the other, similar communities clustered about the nearby river has been flattened to aid agriculture and transportation. A vaguely described system of climate control is used so that the weather remains constant. It is implied that genetic engineering has been used extensively to manipulate human beings so that they physically conform with Sameness.
The Community is run by a Council of Elders that assigns each 12-year-old the job he or she will perform for the rest of his or her life. People are bound by an extensive set of rules touching every aspect of life, which if violated would require a simple but somewhat ceremonious apology. In some cases, violating the rules is "winked at": older siblings invariably teach their younger brothers and sisters how to ride a bicycle before the children are officially permitted to learn the skill. If a member of the community has committed serious infractions three times before, he or she may be punished by "release". "Release" is a thing at which the characters hint throughout the book. Originally, it is thought of as a process where the "released" is sent to live outside of the community, but still in a good place. Eventually, it is revealed to be a system of euthanasia through lethal injection, employed not only as punishment, but also to ensure a monotony of means by which death occurs.
The book is told from a third-person limited point of view. The protagonist, Jonas, is followed as he awaits the Ceremony of Twelve. Jonas lives in a standard family unit with his mother (a judge) and father (a "Nurturer"). He is selected to be "Receiver of Memory", because of his unusual "Capacity to See-Beyond", which is an ability to do something unusual, such as see color, which all the other people were genetically changed not to see, or hear music (as in the case of Jonas's mentor). He trains for the position of Receiver by receiving memories from the aged incumbent, known to the community as "The Receiver", and to Jonas as "The Giver", who is burdened by the emotional weight of the memories. These memories are images from the world as it existed before the time called Sameness, "back and back and back", things that no one else in Jonas's world remembers.
Through the Giver, who becomes his teacher and surrogate grandfather, Jonas telepathically receives memories of things eliminated from his world: violence, sadness, and loss, as well as true love, beauty, joy, adventure, animals, and family. Having knowledge of these complex and powerful concepts alienates Jonas from his friends and family, as well as making him more cynical towards his previously sheltered life, as he often discusses with the Giver. Eventually, these revelations prompt Jonas to seek to change the community and return emotion and meaning to the world. He and the Giver plan on doing this by having Jonas leave the community, which would cause all of the memories he was given to be released to the rest of the people, allowing them to feel the powerful emotions that Jonas and the Giver feel.
Meanwhile, Jonas's family temporarily houses a baby named Gabriel, because he is unable to sleep throughout the night and disturbs the other babies in the "Nurturing Center". Jonas learns that unlike the other people in his community, "Gabe" can receive memories from Jonas, which he uses to help calm the baby. Because Gabriel still cannot sleep through the night without crying after the extra year he was given to learn how to sleep soundly, he is now destined to be Released. Desperate, Jonas flees the community with Gabe. At first, the escape seems successful. Soon, however, food runs out and they grow weak. They find a snow covered hill with a sled on top, which Jonas remembers from the first memory he ever Received. He and Gabriel board the sled and go down the hill where they hear singing.
The ending is ambiguous, and Jonas's future and even survival are left unresolved. Their survival is made apparent, however, in Messenger, a sequel novel written much later.
A motif of nudity recurs in several places. During his volunteer hours (a time when children aged Eight to Eleven explore their Community and prepare for an eventual career), Jonas assists in the House of the Old, where the most aged members of the Community reside. Lowry describes how Jonas bathes an old woman, Larissa; he enjoys the trusting, carefree nature of the experience, which reminds him of his father caring for an infant. Jonas muses about how his Community has strict rules against nakedness in almost all circumstances. He personally finds them a nuisance, such as the admonition to keep oneself entirely covered while changing for athletic games, and does not understand why the Community would institute such precautions. Later, the tenderness of the bathing scene gains a sexual edge, when Jonas dreams about cajoling a female friend, the red-haired Fiona, to remove her clothes and climb into a tub so that he can bathe her. Jonas recounts this dream at his family's breakfast dream-telling, and his parents recognize it as an early sign of what they call the "Stirrings" which in this book is the name given to sexual feelings. Special pills that suppress one's hormones are taken to remove any such feelings, so a person is not upset with their allocated spouse, who is chosen for them by The Elders.
Both wild and tame animals are considered non-existent until the Giver recreated them from his memory from before their disappearance. It appears that all the animals in the community except humans have died out due to habitat destruction, pollution, overhunting, abuse, disease, or being completive to native species. Fish do, however, exist; one of the elevens was named "Fish Hatchery Attendant" and Asher said he was distracted watching salmon.
Music plays a role in The Giver, despite its presence being very subdued. Just as it is possible to read well into the novel without realizing that its characters do not see color except for the scientist that the giver mentions them seeing color — often until the Giver mentions to Jonas that a thing called "color" once existed — it is also easy to miss the fact that the Community has no music. One of the few clues is when Larissa describes a Ceremony of Release for an old man who was leaving the Community. "We chanted the anthem," she says, a phrasing which implies an absence of melody. Later, when the Giver is instructing Jonas, he reveals that as a boy, the Giver had a faculty much like Jonas's ability to "See Beyond", called Hearing Beyond: he began to hear "something truly remarkable, which is called music". This sense is more mystical than Jonas's, in that it can be understood how objects have color which people are unable to see, but it cannot identify a natural source of music, unless the Giver discovered he could hear musical patterns in everyday sound, as Mozart reputedly did.
One important theme in The Giver is the selection of citizens' careers based on what they are most naturally suited for. This aspect of the novel could have been inspired by the Platonic ideal espoused in The Republic. The other is that without pain and anguish one cannot truly feel love and joy. Also, to live in a "perfect" world with no poverty, violence, hunger or heartbreak would be to live without love, beauty, joy, compassion or empathy.
Another recurrent theme is the very fragile balance between utopia and dystopia. At the beginning of the book Jonas has entire trust in his community. But then a change provoked by his new-come knowledge made him see how very deprived the Community and its members were of all "real" life. Throughout the book the reader is led to wondering whether an actual utopia exists.
The Giver has become something of a canonical work among educators who believe that young adult audiences respond best to contemporary literature. These teachers postulate that "teenagers need a separate body of literature written to speak directly to the adolescent experience [...] and plots that revolve around realistic, contemporary topics". (Of course, Lowry's futuristic setting means that this particular young adult book can only address "contemporary topics" in an allegorical fashion, a point which raises questions of its own.) In this view, a "classics-only" curriculum can stunt a developing reader's appetite for words; there are naturally teachers who argue the opposite side of the argument, and press to keep older works on the reading lists.
Lowry's novel has also found a home in "City Reads" programs, library-sponsored reading clubs on city-wide or larger scales. Waukesha County, Wisconsin and Milwaukee County, Wisconsin chose to read The Giver, for example, as did Middletown, Connecticut; Bloomington, Illinois; Valparaiso, Indiana; Rochester, Minnesota; Central Valley, New York; Centre County, Pennsylvania; Montgomery County, Maryland and others.
Some adult reviewers writing for adults have commented that the story is not likely to stand up to the sort of probing literary criticism used in "serious" circles. For instance, 50 children are born each year by the group of "birthmothers" who each have 3 children — therefore 17 new "birthmothers" are required each year, even though this profession is looked down upon in the book. Karen Ray, writing in the New York Times, detects "occasional logical lapses", but quickly adds that the book "is sure to keep older children reading. And thinking". Young adult fiction author Debra Doyle was more critical stating that "Personal taste aside, The Giver fails the sf Plausibility Test", and that "Things are the way they are (in the novel) because The Author is Making A Point; things work out the way they do because The Author's Point Requires It.".
Natalie Babbitt of the Washington Post was more forgiving, calling Lowry's work "a warning in narrative form", saying:
The story has been told before in a variety of forms—Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 comes to mind—but not, to my knowledge, for children. It's well worth telling, especially by a writer of Lowry's great skill. If it is exceedingly fragile—if, in other words, some situations don't survive that well-known suspension of disbelief—well, so be it. The Giver has things to say that can't be said too often, and I hope there will be many, many young people who will be willing to listen.
In the fall of 1994, actor Bill Cosby and his ASIS Productions film company established an agreement with Lancit Media Productions to adapt The Giver to film. In the years following, members of the partnership changed and the production team grew in size, but little motion was seen toward making the film. At one point, screenwriter Ed Neumeier was signed to create the screenplay. Later, Neumeier was replaced by Todd Alcott and Walden Media became the central production company.
An Internet Movie Database entry for The Giver appeared in late 2004, which claimed a release date in 2007. Bridges himself is, at present, the only credited cast member to be listed. The Giver is currently in pre-production and is slated for release in 2011. It is to be directed by David Yates. Actor Ron Rifkin read the text for the audio book edition.