The Giver is set in a dystopian future. Since it’s for the YA crowd, it’s simpler than other staples in the genre. I’ve read criticism to this effect, but it’s not productive. The Giver’s simplicity makes it accessible to a younger audience and its narrow scope keeps it focused.
The novel outlines Jonas’s road to maturity and adulthood at the age of 12 in a warped and futuristic world. Life in his community is tightly regulated, but seemingly happy. Children do not have individual birthdays but attend a collective ceremony for everyone in their year. These ceremonies impart different gifts and responsibilities to each age group that affirm their role in the community. Jonas is forced to recalibrate his relationship with his peers when he is placed under the Giver’s tutelage instead of working in a traditional occupation. As the Receiver, he will encounter history, wisdom, and pain that he would never know otherwise.
The success of this book is the slow reveal of Jonas’s community. From the start, there are small hints that things are not as they seem:
Many of the comfort objects, like Lily’s, were soft, stuffed, imaginary creatures. Jonas’s had been called a bear. (18)
There is no further elaboration, because “bears are imaginary” is an accepted fact. While there is an entire history underpinning the community’s rules and regulations, Jonas is ignorant of all of it. Before he becomes the Receiver, there is no cause for him to question anything. Through his work with the Giver, he develops a curious nature and capacity for critical thought.
When he is given a packet of rules for his Assignment, he’s surprised by two in particular:
3. From this moment you are exempted from rules governing rudeness. You may ask any question of any citizen and you will receive answers. (67)
8. You may lie. (67)
Lying is serious business in Jonas’s community:
He had been trained since earliest childhood, since his earliest learning of language, never to lie. It was an integral part of the learning of precise speech. Once, when he had been a Four, he had said, just prior to the midday meal at school, “I’m starving.”
Immediately, he had been taken aside for a brief private lesson in language precision. He was not starving, it was pointed out. He was hungry. No one in the community was starving, had ever been starving, would ever be starving. To say “starving” was to speak a lie. (70)
What bothers Jonas most of all, is not just that he can lie, but the possibility that others have been given this same power. He wonders if his parents and teachers have ever lied to him, and he loses his blind faith in the world. The Giver is the only person with whom he can have a genuine, honest relationship. Perhaps this is why this book resonates so well with the adolescent set as they grapple with the same realizations as Jonas: You can’t take what adults say at face value, truth comes in shades of grey, and life’s decisions can be complicated.
Where the book goes off the rails (slightly), is that there is a supernatural element to Jonas’s relationship with the Giver. So many books that feature a dystopian future are made powerful and moving through similarities to our world. There is a creeping horror in looking at Winston’s life in 1984 and thinking: “if we did x, y, and z, then that could be our future.” The events of The Giver lack this resonance, because of the physical impossibility of their occurrence. (Unless, of course, this book is farther in the future than I realize and minor telepathy will be a thing someday.)
Don’t waste too many brain cells pondering the ending. There’s a sequel out (Gathering Blue), published in 2000 (which I haven’t read) that quashes the ambiguity (according to Wikipedia). And to think of all the time and energy I spent in 1999 when assigned an essay to “interpret” the ending!
Overall: 4.0 (out of 5.0) Sometimes I wonder if the stories I read when I was younger are best left alone. Narnia does not hold up when re-read and several others come to mind as well. The Giver loses a little as I’m more unimpressed with the supernatural bit now than I was then, but there are other scenes that struck a chord this time through that I do not remember as particularly meaningful when I was in middle school.