The Giver

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The Giver cover
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The Giver is a soft science fiction novel written by Lois Lowry and published in 1993. It is set in a future society which is at first presented as a utopia and gradually appears more and more dystopic. The novel follows a boy named Jonas through the twelfth year of his life. Jonas's society has eliminated pain and strife by converting to "Sameness", a move which has also eradicated emotional depth from their lives. Jonas is selected to inherit the position of "Receiver of Memory," the man who stores all the memories of the time before Sameness, in case they are ever needed. As Jonas receives the memories from his predecessor—the Giver—he discovers how shallow his community's life has become.

Despite controversy and criticism that the book's subject material is inappropriate for young children, The Giver won the 1994 Newbery Medal and has sold more than 3.5 million copies. In the United States, it is a part of many middle school reading lists, but it is also on many banned book lists (see Controversy). The novel forms a loose trilogy with Gathering Blue (2000) and Messenger (2004), two other books set in the same future era.


Template:Spoiler At first glance, the novel's setting seems to be a utopia, where all possible steps are taken to eliminate pain and anguish. Two-way speakers monitor every household for rule infractions. The people are almost always compliant; families share their dreams and feelings on a daily basis to defuse emotional buildup. This society remains harmonious by matching up husbands and wives based on personality compatibility.

As time progresses in the novel, however, it becomes clear that the society has lost contact with the ideas of family and love (at least in the "more complete" sense at which Lowry hints). Children are born to designated "birthmothers" and then distributed, one boy and one girl per family, in order to achieve balance in the population. After family units have served the purpose of raising the children in a stable environment, they cease to exist, the parents going to a communal housing facility for childless adults, and the children becoming involved in their work and starting monogenerational families of their own. The community maintains this process using pills which suppress emotion, mainly romantic love and human sexuality.

All the land near the community and around the other, similar towns clustered about the nearby river has been flattened to aid agriculture and transportation. Climate control is used so the weather remains constant.

The community is run by a Council of Elders that assigns each 12-year-old the job he or she will perform for the rest of his or her life. People are bound by an extensive set of rules touching every aspect of life, which if violated require a simple but somewhat ceremonious apology. In some cases, violating the rules is "winked at": older siblings invariably teach their younger brothers and sisters how to ride a bicycle before the children are officially permitted to learn the skill. If a member of the community has committed serious infractions twice before, he or she may be punished by "release."

The "Ceremony of Release" recurs throughout the novel, becoming more ominous as more details are revealed. Early in the story, we learn that the procedure is generally considered a shameful fate, particularly if the one released is a functioning member of society. On the other hand, Release of the elderly is an occasion of joyful celebration, and release of an infant is regarded as unavoidable to preserve balance. Later, we learn the specific criteria for which infants—under the care of assigned Nurturers before they are assigned to families—are selected for Release. In particular, if a Birthmother produces twins, a Nurturer weighs them and usually Releases the smaller.

The general belief of the people, and possibly even the people who perform the "Ceremony of Release" is that the people are sent "elsewhere," which is believed by the readers to be some kind of other community. As the novel nears its conclusion, the protagonist discovers that release is actually euthanasia. The scene which makes this revelation has drawn criticism from some adults who would rather not see children exposed to such descriptions.

The book is told in the third-person limited. The protagonist, Jonas, is followed as he awaits the Ceremony of Twelve. He is a curious, compassionate person. Jonas lives in what seems to be a normal family unit with his mother a judge and his father a "nurturer." He is selected to be "Receiver of Memory," because of his unusual "capacity to see beyond," which is the ability to do something unusual, such as see color or hear music. He trains for the position of Receiver by receiving memories from the aged incumbent (known to the community as "the Receiver," and to Jonas as "the Giver") who is burdened by the emotional weight of the memories. These memories are images from the world before Sameness, "back and back and back"—things that no one else in Jonas's world remembers.

Through The Giver, Jonas receives memories of things eliminated in Jonas's world: violence, sadness, and loss, as well as true love, beauty, joy, adventure, and family. Eventually, these revelations prompt Jonas to seek to change the community and return emotion to the world.

The ending is ambigious, though Lowry has said:

How could it not be an optimistic ending, a happy ending, when that house is there with its lights on and music is playing? So I'm always kind of surprised and disappointed when some people tell me that they think that the boy and the baby just die. I don't think they die. What form their new life takes is something I like people to figure out for themselves.
And each person will give it a different ending. [1]



Color represents diversity and a depth of feeling beyond that which the majority of society enjoys. In The Giver, however, objects do not "gain" color through intense emotional experiences on the part of their observers; rather, Jonas learns to see the colors which objects intrinsically possess. Apparently, the transition to Sameness involved removing color vision from the people, although the Giver implies that genetic engineers also attempted (without total success) to remove the variability in the human population (even light eyes and red hair are rarities).

A motif of nudity recurs in several places. During his volunteer hours (a time when children aged eight to twelve explore their community and prepare for an eventual career), Jonas assists in the House of the Old, where the most aged members of the Community reside. Lowry describes how Jonas bathes an old woman, Larissa; he enjoys the trusting, carefree nature of the experience, which reminds him of his father caring for an infant. Jonas muses about how his Community has strict rules against nakedness, in almost all circumstances. He personally finds them a nuisance—such as the admonition to keep oneself entirely covered while changing for athletic games—and doesn't understand why the Community would institute such precautions. Later, the tenderness of the bathing scene gains a sexual edge, when Jonas dreams about cajoling a female friend, the red-haired Fiona, to remove her clothes and climb into a tub so that he can bathe her. Jonas recounts this dream at his family's breakfast dream-telling, and his parents recognize it as an early sign of what they call "the stirrings" (puberty). A daily pill makes the stirrings go away.

Music plays a role in The Giver, although its presence is very subdued. Just as it is possible to read well into the novel without realizing that its characters do not see color—often until the Giver mentions that a thing called "color" once existed—it is also easy to miss the fact that the community has no music. One of the few clues is when Larissa describes a Ceremony of Release for an old man who was leaving the Community. "We chanted the anthem," she says, a phrasing which implies an absence of melody. Later, when the Giver is instructing Jonas, we learn that as a boy, the Giver had a faculty much like Jonas's ability to "see beyond". In the Giver's case, it was hearing beyond: he began to hear "something truly remarkable, which is called music". (This sense is more mystical than Jonas's, in that we can understand how objects have color which people are unable to see, but we cannot identify a natural source of music—unless the Giver discovered he could hear musical patterns in everyday sound, as Mozart reputedly did.)



  • Jonas: the protagonist, an Eleven year-old when the novel opens, who is selected to become Receiver of Memory at his Ceremony of Twelve.
  • The Giver: the incumbent Receiver of Memory, who stores human experiences from the time before Sameness. The Community's Elders rely upon his "wisdom" in the event of emergencies; because no one wants the pain that comes with keeping the necessary memories, this "honor" is restricted to one individual.
  • Jonas's Mother: an intelligent, practical woman who serves her Community as a judge.
  • Jonas's Father: a caring man, something of the ideal father figure, who works as a nurturer for Children in their first year of life. Later, Jonas learns that his father is responsible for the Release of defective children.
  • Lily: Jonas's talkative, enthusiastic and outgoing younger sister.
  • Asher: Jonas's closest friend, a cheerful and easygoing boy who is assigned the position of Assistant Director of Recreation.
  • Fiona: Female friend and co-eval of both Jonas and Asher. Her red hair represents a failure of genetic engineering, as the Giver notes. "We never completely mastered Sameness [...] Hair like Fiona's must drive them crazy." She works as a Caretaker for the Old. Despite her kind demeanor, she is adept at Releasing the elderly without emotion.
  • Gabriel: an infant from the Nurturing Center whom Jonas's father takes home for extra care. Slow in development and highly emotional, Gabriel is at risk of Release.
  • Rosemary: the Elders' previous selection to be the new Receiver of Memory, when Jonas was a Two. Her training failed, in a way which impacted the entire Community: defeated by the memories of loss and hurt which the Giver was forced to transfer, she asked for Release. Once she was "Elsewhere", the memories given her had no place to go, so they floated freely. The Giver reveals that Rosemary was his daughter.


Cover of the 1999 paperback edition

According to her Newbery Medal acceptance speech [2], the stream of ideas which became The Giver originated when Lois Lowry lived in Japan, at the age of eleven. Her family dwelled in an American enclave, "Washington Heights", near the Shibuya district of Tokyo. Dissatisfied with the American elementary school, the tiny library full of American books—with the entire transplanted United States lifestyle—one day the young Lowry sneaked out the back gate into Shibuya. She found the experience rewarding enough to repeat:

Again and again—countless times without my parents' knowledge—I ride my bicycle out the back gate of the fence that surrounds our comfortable, familiar, safe American community. I ride down a hill because I am curious and I enter, riding down that hill, an unfamiliar, slightly uncomfortable, perhaps even unsafe ... though I never feel it to be ... area of Tokyo that throbs with life.

Many years later, Lowry still recalled the smells and sounds of Shibuya, remembering most of all the blue-uniformed schoolchildren, "the strangers who are my own age". Among the tumult of life in that district, she noticed the widespread noise of wooden sticks being banged together, of young men shouting and waving banners—acts which turned out to be Communist demonstrations [3].

Looking back at this experience, Lowry relates that it was an example of what every child must do eventually: leave the safety of his or her village. Because Shibuya was such a different place, divided so sharply from Washington Heights, her journey was only a touch more dramatic than most. (Caldecott Medal winner Allen Say was one of the Shibuya schoolchildren. He and Lowry met at the 1994 Newbery ceremony and discovered each other's identities when Lowry autographed a copy of The Giver in Japanese. After briefly discussing the time Lowry spent in Japan, Say exclaimed, "Were you the girl on the green bike?" [4].)

The man pictured on the book's original cover is Carl Nelson, a painter who lived alone on an island off the coast of Maine. Lowry visited him in 1979, sent there to research a magazine story. His vivid and detailed sense of color impressed her greatly. Years later, she heard that he went blind. Pondering the matter, sadly and whimsically, she began to imagine if he could have magically given her the ability to see the way he had. These experiences, and others like them, percolated and gradually formed the background for a story.

Lowry describes creating the pain-free world of Jonas's Community in her Newbery speech:

I tried to make Jonas's world seem familiar, comfortable, and safe, and I tried to seduce the reader. I seduced myself along the way. It did feel good, that world. I got rid of all the things I fear and dislike; all the violence, poverty, prejudice and injustice, and I even threw in good manners as a way of life because I liked the idea of it.
One child has pointed out, in a letter, that the people in Jonas's world didn't even have to do dishes.
It was very, very tempting to leave it at that.

History and critical reception

Reviews and awards

The critical reception of Lowry's work has been remarkably polarized. On the one hand, one finds critics like Anita Silvey, whose 100 Best Books for Children calls The Giver one of the 1990s' greatest children's novels—and also one of the greatest young-adult science fiction novels of all time. [5] A review in the Christian Science Monitor claims, "Lowry's powerful book, simply and directly written, offers an inspiring defense of freedom. Both adventurous and skillfully plotted, this book is recommended for young readers 8 and up." [6] This sort of praise has likely helped the book sell 3.5 million copies in its first decade, as well as making it a part of many schools' reading programs. [7] On the other hand, the book's detractors have tended to be as vehement in their denunciations as Silvey's lot is with praise (see Controversy below).

One example of a negative review from an SF writer is from Debra Doyle, who wrote

The Giver fails the sf Plausibility Test for me. I don't see how a society like the one depicted could be attained/sustained in anything other than a metaphorical world. And even considered as fantasy, rather than sf, the book is too damned obvious. Things are the way they are because The Author is Making A Point; things work out the way they do because The Author's Point Requires It. [8]

The Giver has become something of a canonical work among educators who believe that "YA" (young adult) audiences respond best to contemporary literature. These teachers postulate that "teenagers need a separate body of literature written to speak directly to the adolescent experience [...] and plots that revolve around realistic, contemporary topics". (Of course, Lowry's futuristic setting means that this particular YA book can only address "contemporary topics" in an allegorical fashion, a point which raises questions of its own.) In this view, a "classics-only" curriculum can stunt a developing reader's appetite for words; there are naturally teachers who argue the opposite side of the argument, and press to keep older works on the reading lists [9].

Lowry's most celebrated and controversial novel has also found a home in "City Reads" programs, library-sponsored reading clubs on city-wide or larger scales. Waukesha County, Wisconsin and Milwaukee County, Wisconsin chose to read The Giver, for example, as did Middletown, Connecticut, Bloomington, Illinois, Valparaiso, Indiana, Rochester, Minnesota, Central Valley, New York, Centre County, Pennsylvania and others ([10], [11]).

Some adult reviewers writing for adults have commented that the novel's story is not likely to stand up to the sort of probing literary criticism used in "serious" circles. Karen Ray, writing in the New York Times, detects "occasional logical lapses", but quickly adds that the book "is sure to keep older children reading. And thinking" [12]. In a similar vein, Natalie Babbitt of the Washington Post calls Lowry's work "a warning in narrative form", saying

"The story has been told before in a variety of forms—Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 comes to mind—but not, to my knowledge, for children. It's well worth telling, especially by a writer of Lowry's great skill. If it is exceedingly fragile—if, in other words, some situations don't survive that well-known suspension of disbelief—well, so be it. The Giver has things to say that can't be said too often, and I hope there will be many, many young people who will be willing to listen." [13]

On the other hand, some practitioners of postmodern literary criticism suggest that a fully "adult" interpretation of Lowry's work is eminently possible [14].

Lois Lowry has won several awards for her work on The Giver. Most notable are the following:

Classroom use

The Giver has been adopted into reading curricula across the United States, despite the objections of some that its content is unsuitable for young audiences (see Controversy below).

When interviewed on NPR's Morning Edition, Lowry commented on her "young adult" audience's reaction, as follows:

The audience tends to be junior high age, and that's a tough age to engage. They come upon the book in an "Oh, this is an assignment. I'll have to read it, I suppose, but I'm not going to like it." And, yet, what has happened, and I know this because the book's been around now for a while, and I get, every day, letters from classrooms or from individual kids, they begin to see a counterpart with their own lives and to value their individuality. At the same time that they're all desperately wanting to wear the same sneakers, they suddenly begin to think "Hey, maybe that's not such a great thing, the sameness of all of us." [16]

While the novel's ambiguous ending has created some confusion, many middle and high-school teachers have used this ambiguity to provide students a "jumping-off point". Beginning with their own interpretations of the book's finale, the students are encouraged to write essays exploring what could happen to Jonas next [17]. It remains to be seen how the publication of a sequel, Messenger, will influence this teaching method (see Inspirations and adaptations below).

Intriguingly, the novel has also been used as an aid to teaching science to middle-school or junior-high audiences. For example, the Community's universal color-blindness can be used to motivate a discussion of color vision, and the topic of Sameness can provide an introduction to genetics. [18]

Another classroom use involves the subjects of probability and statistics. [19] In Jonas's Community, fifty children are born each year; all of them receive their names at the December Ceremony of the Ones. All parts of the Community are carefully balanced, including the gender ratio. Consequently, there should be twenty-five girls and twenty-five boys per year. However, assuming a roughly fifty-fifty likelihood that a particular infant will have either gender, there is a considerable chance that the actual ratio in the population will turn out different. If Jonas's Community had the same biological characteristics as the readers' world, the boy/girl ratio would fluctuate from year to year, in a way that we can calculate mathematically.

The binomial distribution for children born each year

Teachers who use this technique suggest that students estimate the gender ratio experimentally, say by shaking a box full of coins and counting how many land heads-up. It is also possible to predict the gender ratio and its fluctuations using probability theory, although the tools necessary for the calculation are not (as of 2005) typically taught to United States middle-school classes. Technically speaking, the birth of each child can be modeled as a Bernoulli trial with a roughly 50% probability that an individual child will be born male (or female). The overall number of boys and girls born each year would then follow a binomial distribution (with N = 50 and p = 0.5). The accompanying graph shows the result of this calculation in pictorial form: although the mean is 25, implying that on average we would find 25 boys and 25 girls each year, there is a sizeable standard deviation. Put another way, there is around a 32% chance that the actual number of males born in any one year will be less than 21 or greater than 29. The fact that the actual ratio of the sexes in Jonas's Community is so much more constrained than the ratio predicted by this probability model suggests that the Community artificially manipulates gender selection, possibly through the use of genetic engineering. (The Giver himself notes that Sameness depends upon the manipulation of genes, although the Community is not completely adept at the practice.)

Inspirations and Adaptations

For a decade after The Giver was published, readers debated the meaning of its ambiguous conclusion, with little more information than Lowry's elusive statements in select interviews.

After several years of this uncertainty, Lowry revealed the next episode in the characters' lives in her novel Messenger (2004), set seven years after The Giver concludes. (Only Gabriel is mentioned by name, but the young man known as "Leader" is clearly Jonas.) Alert readers may also notice what was possibly a reference to Jonas in the final pages of Gathering Blue (2000). However, this link was tenuous and uncertain until Messenger made it explicit.

The Giver also influenced Rodman Philbrick, who cited The Giver as inspiration for his novel The Last Book in the Universe (2000).

The Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Chicago, Illinois presented a stage adaptation of The Giver in April 2005, aimed largely at children. All but four of the eighteen shows during the play's two-week run sold out before the play opened [20].

In the fall of 1994, actor Jeff Bridges and his ASIS Productions film company established an agreement with Lancit Media Productions to adapt The Giver as a movie. Over the following years, details were slow in forthcoming; the members of the partnership changed and the production team grew in size, with little motion actually seen toward making the movie. At one point, screenwriter Ed Neumeier—who had worked on RoboCop and Starship Troopers—was signed to create the screenplay. Later, Neumeier was replaced by Todd Alcott [21]; Walden Media became the central production company. [22], [23]

An Internet Movie Database entry for The Giver appeared in late 2004, which claims a release date later in 2005. Bridges himself is, at present, the only credited cast member to be listed. [24]

The prolonged and arduous journey which The Giver has taken towards the silver screen is reminiscent of other novels in or near the science fiction genre. Other examples of longtime reader favourites which have endured such adaptation processes include Isaac Asimov's I, Robot, Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game.


The suitability of The Giver for middle school students is periodically challenged by some politically and socially conservative advocacy groups. The concerns typically cited include the book's treatment of suicide, sexuality, euthanasia and the occult. The American Library Association lists The Giver as the United States's eleventh most challenged book for the period 1990-1999, and the fourteenth most challenged from 1990 to 2000. The change may be due to the increased popularity of Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Alice series and J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels [25].

Between 1999 and 2001, The Giver was challenged in at least five separate states, sometimes more than once [26].

On January 6 2005, the Associated Press wire service reported that parents in Blue Springs, Missouri wished to remove The Giver from the eighth-grade reading list, almost eight years after it was placed there. Parents referred to the book as "violent" and "sexually explicit". The case reached Kansas City in March 2005, where hearings were held to determine the book's status. Kansas City newspapers quoted parents as saying, "The lady writes well, but when it comes to the ideas in that book, they have no place in my kid's head", and the more general, "Everything presented to kids should be positive and uplifting". The school board eventually voted, unanimously, to return the book to schools [27]. A school board member was quoted saying, "What really has us concerned is not only the attack on The Giver, but what other actions might be taken by those who seek to wrest control of our kids' education from the direction of professional educators" [28].


The following links were last verified on 10 July 2005.
  • ^ Lois Lowry, The Giver (1993). ISBN 0440237688.
  • ^ Natalie Babbitt, "The Hidden Cost of Contentment", Washington Post 9 May 1993, p. X15.
  • ^ Karen Ray, "Children's Books", New York Times 31 October 1993.
  • ^ "Jeff Bridges and Lancit Media to co-produce No. 1 best seller 'THE GIVER' as feature film", Entertainment Editors 28 September 1994.
  • ^ Marie C. Franklin, "CHILDREN'S LITERATURE: Debate continues over merit of young-adult fare", Boston Globe 23 February 1997 p. G1.
  • ^ "A Monitor's Guide to Children's Bestsellers", Christian Science Monitor 24 September 1998 p. B12.
  • ^ NPR Morning Edition with Bob Edwards and Susan Stamberg (transcript), 19 December 2000.
  • ^ "Doyle's YA SF Rant", [29]
  • ^ Judith Rosen, "Many Cities, Many Picks", Publishers Weekly 10 March 2003 p. 19.
  • ^ Ian Mohr, "Walden gives 'Giver' to Neumeier", Hollywood Reporter 10 July 2003.
  • ^ "20th Century Fox Signs 5-Picture Deal With Walden Media", Business Wire 12 July 2004.
  • ^ Anita Silvey, 100 Best Books for Children (Houghton Mifflin, 2004). ISBN 0618278893.
  • ^ "School board keeps The Giver on list", UPI wire service, 15 March 2005 5:39 PM EST.
  • ^ Eileen O. Daday, "The Giver a big hit at Metropolis", Chicago Daily Herald 7 April 2005.

External links

The following links were last verified 10 July 2005.