The Giver by Lois Lowry is one of the few books from my childhood that still has an honored place on my post-college bookshelf. I don’t remember the first time that I read it; all I remember is re-reading, over and over, thrilling in both the realness and otherness of the world that Lowry created. Before the existence of The Hunger Games or the Divergent trilogy, (which were both made into better movies than The Giver, honestly), Lowry introduced me to the idea of world-building, YA dystopia, and sociological imagination. What would the world look like if it were different in such-and-such a way? What would daily life look like? How would it impact people’s goals, dreams for the future, and reactions to events? How would people be the same – or different? These are questions that The Giver excels at answering, albeit briefly, as appropriate for a book aimed at young YA readers.
Watching the movie adaptation this past week reminded me of a few things that Lowry did exceptionally well that fantasy and science fiction authors can still learn from.
- Establish a world with both real good and bad aspects.
The community in which Jonas (the main character of The Giver) lives is quite tame as far as dystopian worlds go. The founders’ master plan of creating a peaceful haven for their citizens actually worked. War and hunger no longer exist, people are content with their lives and jobs, and citizens affirm each other, treat each other with respect, and have a high standard of living. (Katniss from The Hunger Games would be jealous.)
The primary external horror of this world comes from the main character’s discovery that the community euthanizes any individuals who do not conform or who have reached a certain age. Even this process, however, is carried out in a humane, respectful manner that causes the subject as little pain as possible. The internal horror of the world of The Giver is its lack of emotions and diversity of any sort, which is shown to have stripped away the beauty of human existence. The decision that Jonas comes to (to run away from the community to restore its humanity to it) is not an easy one to make: with humanity comes the ugliness, hardship, and conflict that the founders of the community sought so desperately to avoid. Whereas other YA dystopian literature presents a corrupt government that obviously must be brought down, the world of The Giver is more subtle.
- Show how the specific world impacts everyday life in realistic but surprising ways.
In the world of The Giver, “precision of language” is an important virtue. Words have power, so using the right word in the right instance is vital. This facet of society is established through several small encounters: one character saying that she is “starving,” and being sharply reproved (starvation is a terrible thing that no longer exists), and another young boy saying that he wants a “smack” instead of a “snack” – and being given one! Having established the importance of this concept, Lowry is able to use it to show a key problem in her society: its lack of love. In a key scene, Jonas asks his parents if they love him, which puzzles them greatly. The word love is too imprecise, they tell him. They take pride in his achievements, and they enjoy who he is as a person, but “love” as a word is meaningless. This exchange sets the stage for Jonas’s decision to run away.
- Create strong characters whose strength is not physical
Jonas is not an action hero. He has morals, courage, intelligence, and determination, but his success stems from his decisions to do what is right rather than from his physical or mental abilities. He hates war and violence; instead, he values love, family, music, beauty, and life – so much that he would risk leaving everything he has known and everyone he cares about for the chance to give these treasures back to a world that has forgotten them. He is tender with baby Gabriel, and risks everything, including his own future, to save the child from being euthanized. He survives in the wilderness because of memories that are not his own and borrowed courage, not from any physical training or special talents in survival that he has. And yet, Jonas is uniquely able to press on because of his moral vision. He believes in what he is doing, the rightness of it, and the need to save lives – both Gabriel’s, and those of everyone in his community who have never had the chance to truly live.
While The Giver is not an action adventure story, and thus did not translate as well to the silver screen as did later-written-but-previously-filmed novels, it is a well-crafted novel based on a well-crafted world. I have previously discussed the sociological problems with Divergent; the world of The Giver is similar in some ways, yet (albeit in a simpler form) it holds together more coherently. It is an exploration of a completely different world that is still similar enough to our own to give us pause. While The Hunger Games and Divergent show us the power of hope and courage as a single individual leads a struggle for freedom in an oppressive society, The Giver makes us think about the dangers of valuing safety and peace above all else, the value and danger of free will, knowledge, and diversity, and the things that make life truly worth living.