The Giver is the book that got me into reading. Oh sure, I had read lots of books before, but they were always just stories. Stuff happened until there was no more book left to read and you moved on without a lot of thought into what it all meant. The Giver was different. I remember being entranced by the story in the 7th grade, finishing it well in advance of the due date. It spoke to me in a way that a thousand Hatchets or Bridge to Teribithias couldn’t; I felt like in some way the author understood me, even if there was no way she could know what some 13-year-old in Cleveland was thinking.
The Giver has prompted a similar reaction in millions of people leading it to become one of the most read (and most challenged) books in the US. Coming back to the book over a decade later, I was struck by how well thought out the story is, and with greater experience can see why it speaks to so many people. Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing, but this isn’t a case of fondness due to familiarity or popularity. The Giver does something fundamentally different from other teen novels, which allows it to impact people’s lives in a way that other books can’t.
Before looking at what The Giver does do, we need to look at what it doesn’t do. Unlike so many teen novels, The Giver eschews focusing on romance and budding teenage sexuality in favor of examining how age changes the relationship between people and society. While the book is often challenged based on the lurid dream Jonas has about his friend Fiona, this is one of the few instances where sexuality is brought up, which is surprising given the typical content of YA books (I Am the Cheese or The Fault in Our Stars for example). By only briefly touching on the topic, Lowry is letting readers make a connection to Jonas without bogging down the story. Feelings of romance are universal, but actual relationships vary greatly. By focusing in on a specific instance of romance, you are always going to alienate a certain subset of readers, and in the end reveal more about your own experiences than hit upon some universal truth.
This is important because unlike most books, The Giver is speaking directly to the reader through Jonas, telling you that the world is complicated, but that there will be people to help guide you along the way. Jonas’s experiences as a Receiver of Memory are meant to parallel new events in the reader’s life. The memories given to Jonas are sometimes painful, but manageable with the Giver guiding him. The wide range of memories Jonas is given corresponds to all the new experiences a teenager has, which when experienced for the first time seem extreme. For example, Jonas experiencing sunburn for the first time seems trivial to us, but for him it is a rare time where he has ever felt pain. In the same way, teenage heartbreak seems run of the mill for adults, but for those experiencing it, it can seem like the end of the world. All pain is real to the person experiencing it, and to teenagers going through rapid change, having a book tell them their feelings matter can be an important source of comfort in a sometimes indifferent world.
As The Giver makes clear, so many of these emotional struggles stem from how a person’s role in society changes with adulthood. Adolescence is a period of time when a person becomes active in society while at the same time begins to question how it operates. As Jonas fulfills his role in the community, he begins to realize that society is to some degree unfair. Different jobs have certain levels of prestige (such as birth mother being a low prestige job in the Community), and there is a gap between respect and the ability to instigate change. More insidiously, Jonas becomes aware of the subtle ways that members of the community are kept in line, even when there is no explicit rule against certain actions. While we as people don’t face the same set of constraints Jonas does, things such as gender and social roles serve to modify out actions and prevent us from expressing our true selves. A functioning society requires that personal actions be restrained to some degree, and to a person experiencing these norms for the first time, the disparity between personal desire and acceptable action will always lead to rebellion.
While the rebellion in the novel isn’t always perfectly thought out (see Jonas’s half baked escape plot into the woods with limited food), it’s necessary. Jonas may be young, but his horror at things such as socially sanctioned death via “release” is warranted. Adolescents rebel against society in a myriad of ways, and the actions of Jonas reinforce that the world they live in should be questioned and changed for the better. The book advocates that readers act on their beliefs and try to make society better.
Though in favor of self-confidence and moral action, Lowry smartly makes no promise of happiness or safety even when doing the right thing. Jonas misses the games of his youth and laments that his experiences have created a gulf between him and his friends, but presses onward in his attempts to reform the Community. Life is not always easy. Roselyn’s suicide is a painful reminder that our feelings and experiences can overwhelm even the best of us, and the final chapter of the book alternates between Jonas admiring nature one moment and freezing to death in the next. There is no sugarcoating that life will not always be wonderful. But life is worth living despite this pain, and happy memories will always be there to guide us through hardship. The future that is ahead of you is yours to fill with meaning, and no one can deprive you of the chance to make those memories happen.
So much of literary analysis tries to examine books from an almost objective point of view that the deeply personal experience going on with the reader is often overlooked. The reader is not some observer to a grand experiment, but the essential part that allows experiences to be shared from writer to reader. Many books convey broad “universal” themes—and these books deserve every bit of praise thrown at them—but everyone deserves a book that acts as an advocate on their behalf. The Giver does this, and it does so by saying to the reader: Your feelings matter. Your pain is real. Your life is worth living.
And when you are one in a billion struggling to find your place in the world, hearing that message can make all the difference.