he Giver is about Jonas, an eleven-year-old boy who lives in a futuristic society where life appears to be nothing less than idyllic. If everything in this world is so perfect, what‘s the rub? Why was The Giver banned? Why has it been one of the most controversial books since its release in 1993?
Like most books about so-called utopias, this society has a dark underbelly. And the most frequent reason for the book’s ongoing challenges is the claim that it’s “unsuited” to the middle-schoolers it is primarily assigned to. Parents of a 2007 challenge summed up this sentiment with their characterization of Lowry’s book as “too dark” for preteens.
The novel’s first notable banning came in 1994, when California parents complained about passages that deal with sexual awakening. In 1995, a Kansas parent challenged The Giver over references to suicide and murder, as well as a perceived “degradation of motherhood and adolescence.” In 1999, it was challenged in both Ohio and Florida by parents offended by mentions of suicide, infanticide, and euthanasia. Challengers in 2007 added “adolescent pill-popping” to the list of objections. The Giver continues to appear on the American Library Association’s list of 100 most banned and challenged books for all the same reasons.
Granted, the society Lowry created contains some dark elements. There’s a reason for that. These dark elements prompt the reader to think about topics like ethics, democracy, and human interdependence. As one teacher points out, “there’s a lot of strength and power” in discussing questions like “what makes a good society?” and “what is my role in society?” with middle-schoolers. They’re beginning to grapple with such issues. So, is The Giver really too dark for preteens? No. It’s just dark enough to spark a conversation about what kind of world they’ll want to build when their generation takes the reins.
Despite some challengers’ misguided ideas, The Giver is not a portal to the dark side. In fact, a careful reading like the one that follows, reveals that it’s a lesson in how to avoid going to the dark side.
Liberal Arts — Rx for the Human Condition.
“You and I are the only ones with access to the books.” This comment by The Giver seems like a throwaway line having more to do with his apprentice’s future living arrangements than anything. But it isn’t. This typically overlooked remark is actually the key to unlocking Lois Lowry’s novel, especially when considered alongside a similar statement made by The Giver later in the book… “Jonas, you and I are the only one who have feelings.”
How are access to books and having feelings related? Ursula K. Le Guin sums it up nicely:
We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel—or have done and thought and felt; or might do and think and feel—is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become… And a person who had never listened to nor read a tale or myth or parable or story, would remain ignorant of his own emotional and spiritual heights and depths, would not know quite fully what it is to be human. For the story—from Rumpelstiltskin to War and Peace—is one of the basic tools invented by the mind of man, for the purpose of gaining understanding.
One example of the way literature broadens our horizons can be found in James Baldwin’s anecdote about a time when he was very young. He “assumed that no one had ever been born who was only five feet six inches tall, or been born poor, or been born ugly.” “No one,” he believed, “had ever suffered” the way he did. Then, after reading Dostoevsky, he realized that such concerns are common, if not universal. Baldwin described this realization as a “liberation,” one that empowered him to take charge of his life and write about such social issues, which lead him to become the cultural icon he is today.
The Seductive World of The Giver.
Lois Lowry set out to seduce the reader with a world that “seems familiar, comfortable, and safe.” On its face this unnamed community is an orderly and peaceful place where life appears to be nothing less than idyllic. Lowry got rid of everything she “fear[s] and dislike[s],” things like poverty, pain, inequality. And according to one of her young fans, the cherry on top of this utopian sundae is that the people in this world don’t even “have to do the dishes.”
All that sounds great! However… the very word utopia indicates that they don’t exist. The term is derived from the Greek ou-topos meaning “no place” or “nowhere.” It was coined by Thomas More for his sixteenth-century book of the same name, as a pun on the nearly identical Greek word eu-topos, or “good place.” So, Jonas’ world may be void of poverty, pain, and inequality, but what else is it missing?
Music, theatre, and art are all conspicuously absent. There’s no literature either, none of the novels, plays, poetry, or histories that address the human condition, broaden our horizons, and keep cultural memory alive. The Giver shows us what happens to society when a Liberal Arts education is deemed frivolous, when the Humanities and fine arts are cast aside, disciplines that produced the likes of our Founding Fathers among others. It’s an important and relevant message. Rather, a warning given our obsession with STEM studies over the past several decades to the neglect of a Liberal Arts Education.
According to a recent study, the downturn in Humanities degrees appears to be a global phenomenon. The Humanities’ share of bachelor’s degrees conferred in OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries is at its smallest number since a complete accounting of Humanities degrees first became possible, in 1987. And the United States ranks below the OECD average – not only at the bachelor’s level, but for advanced degrees as well. 
Albert Einstein himself advocated a Liberal Arts education. He said, “it is not enough to teach a man a specialty,” noting “through it he may become a kind of useful machine, but not a harmoniously developed personality.” Einstein also pointed out that “overemphasis” on merely finding a job, and “premature specialization on the ground of immediate usefulness, kill the spirit on which all cultural life depends,” including the technological insights STEM studies are intended to produce. Einstein goes on to say that students “must acquire a vivid sense of the beautiful and of the morally good.” Because ultimately, they “must learn to understand the motives of human beings, their illusions and their sufferings in order to acquire a proper relationship to individual fellow men and to the community.”
It was clear to Einstein then and continues to be true today, neglecting the humanities is doubly destructive. Not only does an education lacking in these disciplines stunt the growth and development of the human person, it unleashes technology with no ethical constraints. We see both of these disastrous developments in The Giver.
When the Humanities are Neglected.
No one in The Giver’s world has experienced the universal emotional response to powerful music, like that produced by Beethoven, Wagner, or Nine Inch Nails, or Johnny Cash for that matter. Nor have the citizens in this literally colorless community, where everything appears in black and white like a 1950s T.V. show, felt awestruck while gazing on a painting by the likes of DaVinci, Rembrandt, O’Keefe, or Basquiat. These arts are nonexistent, as are the emotions they evoke. This stunted emotional development is symbolized by the daily pill all citizens are required to take at the onset of sexual “stirrings,” a drug clearly designed to keep all emotions at bay.
As Lowry’s protagonist Jonas points out, the only books in his dwelling are the “necessary reference volumes” that occupy a shelf in every household: “a dictionary, and the thick community volume containing descriptions of every office, factory, building, and committee. And The Book of Rules, of course.”
Given this selection of books, Jonas’ community is undoubtedly well-organized and efficient. For example, all children in a given age-group dress identically, in clothing that reflects their stage of development and indicates their age. The universal mode of transportation is the bicycle, and every child receives one in their ninth year. And the Department of Bicycle Repair keeps every bike in tip-top shape for the entire life of its owner. Every adolescent is assigned a job, one they’ll do for the rest of their working lives. Jobs are chosen by community elders according to each young adult’s proficiency and aptitude. From this point on, a student’s schooling consists exclusively of training for their future occupations.
This system does indeed produce capable workers. Like The Giver, says, “Everyone is well trained for his job.” But as noted earlier, literature, or any other art for that matter, is non-existent in this society. There is nothing to cultivate an appreciation for the difference between “earning a living” and actually living. And without the cultural memories and emotions that literature nurtures, as The Giver goes on to say, “it’s all meaningless.”
The job Jonas was assigned, Receiver-in-Training, is like no other. He’d been selected as successor to the outgoing Receiver of Memories, a position of great honor. Through a bit of magical realism, the Receiver holds the collective memory of the entire world. But it’s time for the Receiver to pass these memories to Jonas. Therefore, he is now called The Giver. And by way of the same magical realism that allows him to hold an entire world’s memories, The Giver transfers these memories to Jonas through touch.
After receiving several memories from The Giver, Jonas realizes that he’s developed a new depth of feeling. His emotions are no longer the shallow sentiments dissected each night with endless talk and “precise language.” He now understands that maternal love could be deeper than the anemic variety his mother has been conditioned to feel, more than simply a question of whether she “enjoy[s] him” – which she assures Jonas she does. And a father’s love is not limited to taking pride in his child’s accomplishments – which Jonas’ father confirms that he does. Jonas has experienced the physical sensations that come with emotions like joy and grief. He can truly say that he feels “such love” for his friends Asher and Fiona. Sadly, he also understands that they can’t “feel it back.”
And Back and Back and Back.
During his first session as Receiver-in-training, Jonas was surprised and confused by the concept of previous generations. Bewildered, he tells The Giver, “I thought there was only us. I thought there was only now.” He had never thought beyond his own nose so to speak. It never occurred to Jonas that his parents must have also had parents, never mind pondering questions about how or why his community developed the way it did, and how it may change in the future.
This scenario reflects the shortsighted perspective, and diminished understanding of the world that develops without a grasp of History. No matter who we are, where we live, or what we do for a living, studying history helps us understand how our world came to be, which in turn gives us insight into our place in society. Connecting with history also makes the world come alive. It fills us with curiosity, as it did for Jonas who suddenly had a string of questions: “Why don’t we have snow, and sleds, and hills? And when did we, in the past? Did my parents have sleds when they were young?”
But history’s function doesn’t end with connecting the present to the past. Understanding how our society came to be doesn’t just give us insight into today’s world, it also helps us deal with the societal shifts that will inevitably occur in the future. In short, knowledge of history is a through line from the past-to the present-to the future. Bearing this in mind, the “releases” that take place in Jonas’ world, euthanizing the elderly and certain infants, reflect the severed connection to both the past and the future that occurs when history is deemed a frivolous subject. Once again, The Giver’s dystopian society exhibits the deficiencies that arise from an education lacking in the humanities.
On their face these euthanizations (which prompt virtually every banning of The Giver) embody the technologies that have been used unethically over the course of history. At a speaking engagement for Lowry’s book Number the Stars, a woman sighed loudly and asked “Why do we have to tell this Holocaust thing over and over? Is it really necessary?” Lowry quoted her German daughter-in-law, who asserts “No one knows better than we Germans that we must tell this again and again.”
Familiarity with the history of such atrocities and understanding the environment that produced them, is the first step toward preventing them from happening again. And realizing that such barbarity occurred can shed light on present-day circumstances. For example, knowing that smallpox-laden blankets were delivered to indigenous tribes as a means of quashing Indian resistance makes it easier to understand the Native American’s ardent response to the pandemic currently wreaking havoc in our nation.
Finally, the study of philosophy is increasingly seen as nothing more than “navel-gazing.” Unfortunately, a failure to understand ethics increases the possibility that a technology like the euthanasia seen in The Giver’s world will be turned on the weak, sick, or non-conforming in our own. We’ve seen it before – but you have to be acquainted with history to know that.
The Road to Elsewhere.
As indicated above, The Giver passes “knowledge, history, memories, color, pain, laughter, love, and truth” along to Jonas. The same thing happens every time we open a book. And like Jonas’ daily visits to The Giver do for him, the more books we read the more our horizons are expanded.
After a year of studying with The Giver, Jonas sees the river that borders the community differently. Prior to his training as Receiver of Memories Jonas only saw in black and white. Now he sees “all of the light and color” the river contains. He now understands there’s an “Elsewhere” that the river came from, and an “Elsewhere” that the water is heading toward. Jonas has also learned enough about history and ethics that, like the middle-school students who read this book, he is asking questions like “what makes a good society”? And as a result, Jonas reaches the conclusion that his world isn’t what it could, or should be. But here’s the important thing… he’s inspired to do something about it.
Jonas realizes that the citizens of his community would benefit greatly if they shared the memories The Receiver of Memory now holds for them. They would acquire the sorely missed wisdom that comes with such knowledge. Together, Jonas and The Giver devise a plan to make the memories he carries go back to the people. It’ll be tricky and dangerous to pull off. And it will be painful for the community at first, but The Giver will help them integrate the difficult memories, as he had done with Jonas.
Unfortunately, things don’t go as planned. A sudden decision to “release” the infant Jonas had been helping care for forces him to slip out in the middle of night, baby in tow and ill-prepared for their journey. And this turn of events is symbolically significant.
It’s no coincidence that Jonas and Gabriel both have pale eyes, not to mention The Giver. Readers often ask if Jonas and Gabriel are brothers, or if The Giver is Jonas’ father. Given the way families are formed in Lowry’s book, this is certainly a practical explanation for why these three share the same eye color. When we engage Lowry’s symbolism, however, we see that pale eyes signify a capacity for empathy, and the emotional development that Humanities nurture.
It’s also no coincidence that three generations are represented. The past is embodied in The Giver, whose abilities were severely restricted by The Committee of Elders. Jonas, of course personifies the present, with the infant Gabriel signifying the future Jonas is attempting to rescue from a dystopian past.
The process of returning the memories to the community, however, does work just as Jonas and The Giver anticipated. Through the same magical realism Lowry used when The Giver transferred memories to him, Jonas begins to “shed” these memories once he and Gabriel get beyond the bounds of the community. As a result, the color, trees, wildflowers, and animals that had long been missing in his world, return to the landscape. Finally, after walking (apparently in circles) for days, at a point when it appears that he and Gabriel are going to die from starvation and exposure, they crest a snow-covered hill and come upon a place Jonas recognizes… from a memory of his own. It is familiar but different, he could see lights, red, yellow, and blue ones, twinkling on trees as they shine through the windows of places where families “created and kept memories, where they celebrated love.” And Jonas could hear something he’d never heard before, something he knew must be music. “He heard people singing.”
With the return of memories long held by The Receiver, the people of Jonas’ world have clearly realized a thing or two about actually living. This final scene embodies what The Giver has to say about the significance of the humanities and the importance of a Liberal Arts education, an insight crystalized in Steve Jobs’ oft-quoted remark:
Technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the result that makes our hearts sing.
As The Giver makes clear, the Humanities are central to cultural heritage, not to mention critical to our development as human beings. To quote Kurt Vonnegut, they “make your soul grow.”  But unlike the memories Jonas returned to the people, insights the humanities have to offer don’t magically take root in our minds. Which is why it’s crucial that Liberal Arts programs be supported rather than allowed to languish in the shadow of STEM studies. Lowry’s novel gives us a glimpse of what happens if we don’t.
That’s my take on Lois Lowry’s The Giver– what’s yours?
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