The Giver is one of those books that comes along and just slaps your little childhood in the head. As a young boy, the title sounded so innocuous. “The Giver.” Blah. Give me “The Space Ninja Who Kills Fools With a Laser Sword,” my younger self thought. Then, plowing through the pages in record time, I had my world blown open almost as much as the protagonist, Jonas, does. Now, some twenty years later, I am returning to this book and seeing what all the fuss young me made was all about.
Beware, thar be spoilers.
In the too distant future, Jonas lives in a collective with his family where his life is strictly managed. Everyone in the community over twelve has a job, a function, and on his next birthday Jonas will get his. But when his job turns out to be the Receiver of Memories, a once in a generation position, Jonas is about to learn what his place in the world really is. Cue dramatic lightning, cause they control the weather in this book but not enough for me to have just mentioned it except for the sake of a bad joke. Cracka-boom.
Our main character Jonas is an inquisitive, happy young boy. He stars the book innocent, almost bland except our omniscient narrator gives him thoughts that even without hearing the thoughts of others seem different. He is color in a book of black and white and that sentence means something to anyone who has seen the movie Pleasantville. His family, while playing the roles of caring mother, silly dad and bratty sister, are just as empty of life as the schedules the community keeps. With exception to the compassion they give the baby, Gabriel, the family seems to only respond to each other in accordance to the rules, not by any familial obligation. This is apparent to savvy readers right away while a younger audience will take this in as Jonas does in the book.
The only other stand out character is The Giver, Jonas’s mentor and the one who opens the boy’s eyes with knowledge of good and evil and compassion as that knowledge overtakes Jonas. This man is like a walking, talking tree from the garden of eden, which is an apt description and a nice reverse metaphor for the direction the book takes. As Jonas gets more information, he feels more apart, more naked from society. This culminates when he learns the community’s term “release” means “euthanize” (“killin folk” for those of you without a dictionary or vocabulary) and that this applies to everyone who has been “released,” including the old and noisy babies.
Two things, then I’ll wrap up.
The title. The title is interesting because there are actually two Givers in the book, the old man who gives to Jonas and Jonas who gives to Gabriel. One has to wonder who this story is about then, the small boy coming of age, waking up to the hell that all he knows and loves is gone, or the old man who is watching all this happen. He is the only other person that knows what Jonas is going through, yet Jonas is the only internal voice we hear. Something to think on.
The ending. I have heard the ending has been hotly debated as to what is happening. Me? I think both those kids are dead. Here’s where I am going to sound cold and detached, but I’m analyzing a story not cutting up a frog so give me some slack. Anyway, the ending scene is Jonas carrying Gabriel up a snow covered hill where he finds a sled and they slide down, just like the first memory The Giver gave to Jonas. Too big of a coinky-dink for me to overlook. The larger implications are also kinda staggering. Did The Giver mean for Jonas to die all along? I say yes. The old man was not naive enough to believe that the Elsewhere was a real place that could be escaped to except through release, death, whatever. Neither could he have expected Jonah, basically a privileged city boy, to survive in the wilds by himself. Also, the goal of this escape is to release the memories into the populous so the people can feel again. The only other time this happened, the Receiver gave up the memories when she died, implying that memories are either given person to person or in death they are given en masse. The old man played Jonas, especially in showing him release, into going out into the wilderness where he had no chance of survival. The ending scene, of Jonas and Gabriel sliding down a hill from one happy memory to another, is a death scene as Jonas’s body has already described textbook symptoms of hypothermia.
Of course, part of me wants to believe the old man did all this to take over the community and this is some sort of Wizard of Oz prequel. He outright states to Jonas he has to stay back to comfort the distraught people. What if he talked his first receiver into suicide as a test run and Jonas is the atom bomb to give the most memories out at once? Then he stays behind and is all “Don’t worry, wussies, I been through this, no biggie, just let me teach you how to deal.” Just because you love something does not mean you will not give it away for greater gain. Villains have been doing it throughout literature and history forever. That’s pretty freaking dark.
Why was it banned?
There are several reasons as to why this work has been banned. For one, it kills a baby and implies the systematic extermination of anyone who steps out of line. That’s, as I said before, pretty freaking dark. Also, there are fairly graphic depictions of war and death in various other forms in the memories Jonas receives, not to mention the deep sadness that Jonas feels towards them.
For another, the book can establish mistrust and rebellious attitudes toward authority figures. Let’s face it, this book does not treat the government in a good light and paints parents as subjective pack animals. Some parents may object to their children reading this book and suddenly viewing their jobs and place in society as worthless, not to mention religious and other overlording collectives in society.
Finally, this book could be seen to some distraught children as a go ahead for suicide. The actions of various characters that learn the truth could be internalized by a mind that is filled with grief and delusion. The book outright states that those that cannot fit in are either taken out or take themselves out and gives little counterargument. The overall theme is hope in humanity, in love, but it gives little reward for these ideals. Even the happy ending is a bit of a fridge horror scenario when one thinks about it too much, as I demonstrated above.
It’s good. Sometimes the writing is a little dull and the lessons are kicked into your head, but this is an effective dystopian narrative that ends up asking more questions than it raises. What do you do when your world falls apart? Is this what growing up feels like? What is the nature of man? All valid and worth asking.