Dystopian literature is, by its very nature, controversial. The kernel for this small genre is turning what the reader knows to be normal inside out and creating a totally new world with words. Maybe change is difficult for some and reading a book that presents an alternate reality is just too much for some people.
Dystopian novels challenge our thinking and make us examine our own world and society in useful ways. I recall reading Farenheit 451 in high school. Later on, I read A Clockwork Orange, 1984, Ender’s Game and more. All these books have contributed important elements to my worldview.
What makes THE GIVER an interesting piece of dystopian literature is that is on many reading lists for children. Children being defined as reader up to the age of twelve years. Appropriately, Jonas, the main character is 11 and 12 years-old in the book. I can’t think of another book that gives our social norms a challenged treatment like a proper dystopian novel should, yet is accessible to young readers.
The Giver has generated its own controversy, not for its plot, but for the stir it causes when it makes it onto juvenile reading lists.
Jonas lives in a world without color, pain, fear, war, risk or choice. Everyone acts the same and conformity is forced. Being a naturally inquisitive and overly perceptive child leads him to have greater questions about why his world is as it is. In his community, children are separated from their families at birth for the first year. They are later reunited until the children are grown and then adults are moved to communicates where there are no children.
The society decided, long before Jonas was born, to undergo “sameness”. That was the point when life changed from what the reader knows to the world that is built in the novel.
At age twelve, children are assigned their lifelong vocation and trained in such. Once a person is too old to contribute as much as the society deems necessary, they are euphemistically “released” from society. Children who cannot fall into line with the strict customs of the society are also “released”. Although to be released as a young person is shameful.
Jonas is assigned a very important vocation as a “receiver”. The receiver’s job is to hold memories of what life was like before sameness occurred. There is an older man who currently serves as the receiver for the community. His job is to turn over the memories and his role in the society to Jonas.
The older man asked Jonas to refer to him as “the giver”. And, as he transmits the memories to Jonas, Jonas understands the world in a new way and develops a strong desire to share these feelings and memories with others. Jonas discovers that nobody in his society can be truly happy because they’ve never known sadness. They cannot experience life without struggle, disappointment, triumph and all other human emotion.
The Giver and Jonas develop a true relationship based on emotion and loyalty. They devise a plan wherein the giver will transmit all his stored emotional knowledge and memories to Jonas and Jonas will then escape and release all this into the community. When the people feel true emotion for the first time, the hope is that they will reject the current state of affairs and go back to the way things were before sameness.
Jonas’ father works with the newborns in the “newchildren” center. There, Jonas helps him with a newchild named Gabriel. Jonas helps this young baby sleep and be comforted by sharing soothing and happy memories with him. When it is revealed that Gabriel is set to be released, Jonas rebels.
The plan for Jonas to escape is rushed because Jonas wants to save Gabriel from certain death. The place that they must escape to is called “elsewhere”. As Jonas and Gabriel flee, they are beset with fear, hunger, cold and more.
Jonas escaped the community on his father’s bike and when it becomes impossible to continue on the bike, he find a sled on the top of a great hill. The book ends suddenly as Jonas and Gabriel sled to the bottom of the hill and encounter a house that is decorated for Christmas. Jonas hears music and sees colorful lights for the fist time and the novel ends.
The genius of this novel is that Lowry successfully paints a picture of a future society that a young reader can understand. The purpose of a dystopian novel is to ask difficult question about our own world and society. Without knowing it, an eleven or twelve year-old reader can develop a greater sense of his or her own world.
Jonas is very accessible to the reader and the Giver is a paternal figure that a young person can also understand through the lens of current experience with parents and grandparents.
Despite controversy that THE GIVER is not appropriate for a juvenile reader, this is a great book and one that I highly recommend for a young person who is reading at a 6th grade level or higher by ten years-old.
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