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Literature: The Giver

Newbery Medal-winning young adult novel by Lois Lowry. Known for its expertly merciless Deconstruction of the Utopia, and incidentally provides an introduction to the Dystopia genre for grade-school readers for whom some of the bits of 1984 and Brave New World would be a bit too saucy.

SPOILERS AHEAD! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!...unless you went to grade school...

The Giver takes place on Earth (presumably in the far future) in a setting known simply as the Community, which is implied to be similar to independent others not terribly distant from it. Here life is completely free from worry thanks to "Sameness", a philosophy that strives to eliminate any possible want or need from human existence.

Children are born to anonymous Birthmothers, and are monitored from the moment they leave the womb. Everyone and everything is designed to be supportive, helpful, encouraging. All your major life decisions as an adult — your career, your spouse, when you can raise children and who those children will be — are made for you by the Committee of Elders, based on careful observation of your particular needs and aptitudes. Citizens live in symmetrical family units of four: two parents, one boy, and one girl. (When young teenagers first reveal "the Stirrings," their mothers simply hand over the pills required to counter them.) As soon as their children are grown, the adults are sent to an area for Childless Adults, and when they reach a certain age they are to be cared for in The House of the Old.

There is no dissension at all. People have even been bred to look the same (red hair and/or blue eyes are borderline freakish), and most have lost the ability even to see color. The population lives by a set of Rules that govern even the smallest detail of their daily lives — and if any single person breaks one, a loudspeaker immediately 'reminds' the entire community. Precision of language is drilled into children as soon as they begin talking, so that there can be no possible misunderstanding; any slight remaining difference or deviation is simply not discussed (this includes any mention of the Stirrings, naturally).

Anyone who cannot or will not conform - the very Old, the handicapped, people who break the Rules three times - is "Released to Elsewhere", vaguely understood to mean sent somewhere outside the Community.

No-one in the Community even has a frame of reference to question this way of life - including our protagonist, Jonas, who at the book's opening is preparing for his Ceremony of Twelve where he will be assigned his future career. Jonas is one of the slightly-different; he has blue eyes and can see color, even though he doesn't know what it is yet. It is because of this ability "to see beyond" that he is chosen to be the successor to The Receiver — now the Giver — of Memory, the one person in the entire community allowed to know what's beyond it. Or at least, what used to be.

Turns out, perfect painlessness isn't as easy to maintain as it looks. There are still memories of the time before Sameness, when people still knew want, and grief, and pain... and happiness and love.

All those dangerous memories have to go somewhere. By a process never quite explained, the Receiver keeps them all stored in his head to protect his community at large from being overwhelmed by them, from learning of the mistakes humanity once made. Eventually this one must pass them on to a younger Receiver, for if the Receiver were to die - or otherwise leave the Community - while in possession of the memories, they would fly free, everyone would remember, and the Sameness would be shattered.

Thanks to his new position, young Jonas is exposed to how life used to be, and slowly but surely grows to believe it was better that way. His dilemma comes to a head when he discovers he's now allowed access to the most secret ceremonies of his Community, including the ceremonies of Release. Excited to peek in on his gentle father at work as a Nurturer of newborn babies, Jonas instead finds himself watching him cheerfully kill a newborn twin with a painful lethal injection, simply because 'having two identical people running around' would disrupt community harmony.

The Giver calms a horrified Jonas by explaining that he too has been looking for a way out for years, and helps Jonas plan how to run away. The memories Jonas has absorbed by then will be released to the citizens of the Community he's left behind, and The Giver will help them understand and cope with them. These carefully-laid plans, however, are abandoned when Jonas gets word that baby Gabriel, whom Jonas' father had brought into the family especially to try and help him meet the development goals, is to be Released as a failure the next day. With no other choice, Jonas takes the little one and runs for it into the harsh, cold world beyond, leaving us with only the sequel to reassure us they don't die.

A movie adaptation was released in August 15, 2014, starring Jeff Bridges as The Giver, Taylor Swift as Rosemary, Meryl Streep as the Chief Elder, Katie Holmes as Jonas's mother and Alexander Skarsgård as Jonas's father. Jonas himself is played by a relative unknown in the United States, Aussie soap star Brenton Thwaites.

The book spawned three pseudo-sequels, Gathering Blue, Messenger and Son. While Gathering Blue only implied it was set in the same universe, Messenger heavily hinted to being related to The Giver, and Son outright connected it. Together, they formed the The Giver Quartet.


In addition to its exploration of the Utopia, this novel provides examples of:

  • Adult Fear:
    • Seeing your friends and family indoctrinated by the government to the point that they no longer know how to think for themselves.
    • Your loved ones being euthanized without your knowledge.
    • Jonas asks his parents if they love him. They don't even understand the meaning of the word.
    • The Giver's relationship with his daughter Rosemary. He must give her the memories, she can't handle it, and it hurts her to the point where not only does she ask to be Released, but insists on injecting herself.
  • After the End: While The Giver implies that the world "evolved" for lack of a better term, into Sameness, its sequel Gathering Blue shows that the world takes place after a major upheaval known as the The Ruin.
  • American Civil War: The memory of war Jonas receives seems to be from the Civil War considering that soldiers are wearing grey uniforms and horses are running amok.
  • Assimilation Plot: The assimilation has already occurred in the distant past. "Sameness" is what gives the community its cohesion.
  • Biblical Motifs: A bit subtler than most examples, but they're still there. Two of the central characters are named after an Old Testament prophet and an angel, respectively, and the plot starts with an incident with an apple that foreshadows a loss of innocence. The Community, a utopia without any knowledge of good or evil, undergoes a major upheaval after this knowledge is passed on to them. Unlike the Biblical example, however, Messenger implies that they get better.
  • Bureaucratically Arranged Marriage: All couples are arranged this way.
  • Child Prodigy: Benjamin, a classmate of Jonas', spent so much time volunteering (between the ages of eight and eleven) at the Rehabilitation Center that he came up with machines to facilitate the rehab and knew almost as much as the directors.
  • The Chosen One: Jonas is chosen to become the next receiver.
  • City in a Bottle: The Community has existed for long enough that no one has any concrete knowledge of the world outside it (known as "Elsewhere"), except the Receiver of Memory.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: Blue (or at least "pale") eyes are linked to the special Receiving ability.
  • Conditioned to Accept Horror
  • Corporal Punishment: How the children learn to speak properly. A story was told about how Asher, as a three, misspoke and was hit so often with the stick that his legs had marks and he went silent for a time. The Chief Elder remembered this fondly.
  • Crapsaccharine World: At first, the Community may sound like an ideal, orderly place to live in, no? Then you realize that you're not able to feel emotions, see colors, choose your own jobs or even spouses, and worst of all, if you are sick, the lighter one of twins, or already old, you promptly get executed.
  • Cult: Close enough.
  • Culture Police: Totally unseen, but therefore all the more creepy.
  • Deadly Euphemism: "Released".
  • Deconstruction: The Giver is actually a deconstruction of utopias and their necessary maintenance. In the slow revelation of the underlying rules The Community is built upon, it becomes apparent that played realistically utopias may become dystopias of their own.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: Use by the government, as people are (presumably due to genetically modification) unable to see colors.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: A Pilot-in-training is Released to Elsewhere for a navigational error.
  • Dystopia: In disguise.
  • Erotic Dream: Jonas' dream of his "favorite female friend," Fiona, which prompts his mother to start giving him the pills.
  • Everyone Calls Him Barkeep: The Giver's real name is not revealed.
  • The Evils of Free Will: The guiding principle behind the Community. The Elders make everyone's choices for them, including career, marriage, when they are qualified to have children, etc.-because if left alone, they can make the "wrong" choice.
  • False Reassurance: The language of the Community is full of doublespeak and euphemisms-although what that means in a community that literally has no way of knowing it is left as an exercise for the reader.
  • First Time in the Sun: Among the memories Jonas gets from the Receiver is one of the sun, suggesting it's somehow filtered out.
  • Foreshadowing: Early on, we learn that Jonas' younger sister Lily has a stuffed toy elephant as her "comfort object", and that she believes that elephants are imaginary creatures that never existed (when he was little, Jonas had a bear, which was also supposedly imaginary). Much later in the book, Jonas receives a memory of an elephant being killed for its ivory by poachers. This is a major step in Jonas learning about the lost memory of sorrow, and it makes him realize just how much of the old world people have left behind.
  • Gainax Ending: The ending is written ambiguously enough that the reader can interpret it as Jonas and Gabe escape, or they end up back at the Community, or the ending is a Dying Dream, or what-have-you. Lois Lowry responded with a Shrug of God when asked about it, although Messenger heavily implies their survival and Son confirms it.
  • Government Drug Enforcement: Aside from the usual birth control pills (which in Son are suggested to also keep feelings shallow), people are given painkillers for every little hurt, to keep them from feeling even that most basic of emotions, pain. Recreational drugs however, do not exist in The Community. In Son, Claire sees a crew member smoking on his break, and assumes it is some sort of medical inhaler.
  • Grammar Nazi: Proper and precise word use are important in The Community. Jonas was punished for hyperbole when he claimed he was starving. He was also asked to use less vague language when he asked his parents if they loved him. Young children are not given an exemption: Jonas's friend Asher was beaten for asking for a "smack" instead of "snack", and for a time refused to speak at all.
  • Happiness Is Mandatory: Well, actual happiness might disrupt things with excess energy-more "Quiet Contentment Is Mandatory."
  • Heroes Want Redheads: Our protagonist Jonas has his Stirrings for Fiona, who has red hair.
  • How Do You Like Them Apples?: Jonas first discovers his powers through an apple. He later uses these to instigate a community-wide upheaval.
  • In the Future, Humans Will Be One Race: All humans in the Community are bred to more or less the same physical features. Differences such as Fiona's red hair and Jonas's blue eyes are regarded as a fault.
  • Individuality Is Illegal: See The Evils of Free Will above. The Community is run by a very precise set of rules-people have been engineered so that they all look the same, experience more or less the same things, and react with the same quiet contentment and patience, and any deviance from this (see Asher's "snack"/"smack" incident) is punished. Breaking the rules thrice results in Release.
  • Ironic Echo: "Back and back and back" is at first used between The Giver and Jonas to describe why things are how they are. Later, it is to emphasize the hopelessness of changing anything.
  • I Want My Mommy: Heartrendingly utilized in the memory of war.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Ophelia in Hamlet reminds us that "There's [R]osemary, that's for remembrance"-is it any wonder the community banned her name after what she did to them?
    • Also, "Asher" means "happy."
    • "Jonas" is a variant form of the Hebrew name "Jonah". Much like the prophet Jonah in The Bible, Jonas (who's arguably a "prophet" in his own way) is a Chosen One selected by his rulers to receive great messages, and he ultimately decides to elude his destiny by running away and starting a new life somewhere else.
  • Mind Screw: The ending left a large number of readers hopelessly confused, especially the younger ones.
  • Multiple Demographic Appeal
  • Never Say "Die": Nobody *dies* in the Community, they are "released"-or in rare cases, "lost".
  • Never Trust a Trailer: In something of a repeat of the Bridge to Terabithia situation, the film's trailers made it look like a brainless action movie only made to cash in on the success of the likes of The Hunger Games and Divergent. It's actually much closer to the book's story.
  • No Blood Ties: It's heavily implied that Rosemary is the Giver's biological daughter, but other than that, no genetic relations are explicitly stated.
  • No Sex Allowed: People are given pills to stop sex drives, or "stirrings," from the start of puberty. (Platonic) marriages and families still exist, but the children are assigned to parents by the government, which has Birthmothers as a special profession. They undergo artificial insemination, as described in Son.
  • Nuclear Family: All of them, without the dog.
  • Occult Blue Eyes: Having blue eyes, or at least light as opposed to dark, is very rare in the community in which the book is set, and seems to be a sign that one is capable of "seeing beyond".
  • One Steve Limit: Invoked. In the Community, only one person is allowed to carry a given first name at any given time. In the rare event that a person dies unexpectedly, their name is immediately passed on to a newborn baby to create the impression that they never really left.
  • Only One Name: Everyone in the Community. Justified, since all of them are raised by adoptive parents assigned by the government, and have no reason to carry family names. This also prevents people from becoming too attached to their adoptive families, since familial love is one of the many emotions that society has let go of.
  • Passing the Torch: An essential part of the Giver's relationship with the Receiver. Every Receiver accepts the job with the understanding that he/she will eventually become the next Giver, with the task of passing on the accumulated memories to the next Receiver.
  • Population Control: Every family unit is allowed two children. If a child dies, the parents either can apply or are simply given another baby of the same gender and same name as a replacement. However, they come from Birthmothers, which only have 3 children, then a lifetime of hard labor. Even then, only 50 newbabes are given to parent units in December.
  • Released to Elsewhere: Trope Namer.
    • Somewhat played with, as while the trope itself is "mandatory euphemism for death," the premise of the book twists this a bit. Since the Givers contain more-or-less all the community's knowledge, we have no reason to believe that anybody knows that "release" is death, which in turn means they refer to it as "released to elsewhere" not as part of some Big Brotheresque Newspeak, but because they don't KNOW any better.
      • Jonas' father kills the baby, and the Giver tells Jonas that his friend Fiona has already been taught how to release the elderly. The people who carry it out definitely know, but even they do not seem to quite understand the gravity of what they are doing.
  • Renowned Selective Mentor: The community only has one titular Receiver at a time. Each Receiver must choose a child as his successor during his lifetime. The main character Jonas becomes the Receiver's student, and he is considered to have a special rank in the community.
  • Replacement Goldfish: If a child dies, the Community says his name less and less during the day as a way of allowing them to say goodbye to him. The parents can then apply for a replacement child who will be given the same name.
  • Science Fantasy / Mohs Scale of Sci-Fi Hardness: Everything that happens in the book is mostly within the realm of reality, except for the psychic way memories are passed from The Giver to The Receiver. No science is involved, just physical contact and concentration, implying use of some form of magic or supernatural ability. But in the sequels, especially Messenger, certain people possess "gifts" that are essentially magical powers that perform a set task. There is even a forest that changes itself to reflect the attitudes of the members of a community.
  • Series Continuity Error: The fourth novel, Son, uses words like "death" and the concept of love before Jonas changes things.
  • Sexless Marriage: Every marriage is this, since sexual desires are suppressed by pills.
  • Sinister Surveillance: No one can turn the speakers off...except the Giver.
  • Someone Has to Do It: Jonas and the Giver deal with their duties with much reluctance, but continue on anyway because of this trope...until they formulate a plan.
  • Together in Death: The Giver implies that he plans to be Released so this will be the case with him and his daughter, Rosemary.
  • Unperson: The Community has removed Rosemary, the previous Receiver of Memory, going as far as to decree that her name cannot be used for a new child ever again, after the memories she received dissipated out into the community when she applied for Release (assisted suicide, and she knew what it was-she even asked to administer the lethal injection herself) and the members of the Community had to feel emotion and pain for the first time. This fiasco is the source of the current rule that the Receiver is barred from asking for Release.
  • Truth in Television: The loudspeaker system prevalent throughout the book actually exists in many schools-the school's office can switch on a microphone to communicate with teachers through the loudspeaker if the phones are out of order for some reason.
  • The Voice: The Speaker who makes the announcements and warnings over the loudspeaker.
  • Weather Control Machine: Though the mechanics of it are never discussed, it's made clear that the Community's leaders know how to control the weather within the confines of the Community. For the people that live there, things like snow and rain are completely unknown, and the sun is always faint enough that no one apparently knows what a "sunburn" is. Fittingly, taking a sled ride in the snow, getting a sunburn, and getting a leg fracture after slipping on ice are some of the first memories that Jonas receives. When he escapes with Gabe, he has to deal with harsh weather for the first time in his life, and nearly freezes to death in the snow.
  • The World Is Not Ready: For the memories Jonas and the Giver plan on unleashing. This is part of why the Giver chooses to stay with the Community to help them through it.
  • Transferable Memory: The Giver transfers memories to Jonas. Also, those memories can be transferred to the general population if something happens to the Receiver.
  • War Is Hell: Jonas receives a horrible memory about war.
  • Wham Line: At some point The Giver mentions that there used to be another receiver named Rosemary. She was given sweet memories most of the time, but when she started to get the really painful memories, she asked to be released. After she died, her memories were let out, and there was chaos. Only with The Giver's help did people return to their normal lives. Later on, you also learn that The Giver has a daughter. Jonas, eager to help, asked what her name was. The reply? "Her name was Rosemary."
  • What Is This Thing You Call Love?: When Jonas learns about love through memories received from the Giver and asks his parents if they love him, they admonish him for not using precise language and say that asking "Do you enjoy me?" or "Do you take pride in my accomplishments?" would have been better.
  • World of No Grandparents: Enforced. Since there are No Blood Ties, nobody knows who their biological grandparents are, and old people just go to the House of the Old.
  • World of Silence: The community is a milder version. People still laugh and take pleasure in their activities, but as Jonas discovers, it is all very superficial. When someone in the community says they are sad or angry, they are not talking about true grief or rage, but much shallower emotions.
    • The word "love" is not unknown in the community, but it has lost relevancy. Jonas' parents enjoy his company very much, but they consider the word as very generalized, meaningless to the point of being obsolete. If the community continues as it is, the word itself may be forgotten.
  • Writers Cannot Do Math: Poorly thought out population control.
    • Each family unit is allowed a maximum of 2 children, the same number of children are born each year and they are all assigned to a family unit. Not all adults have children, and not all family units have the maximum of 2 children.
    • Birthmothers, the only job that allows giving birth, are only allowed to have 3 children each before they become laborers. This would require that at least 2/3 of all women become birth mothers to maintain a stable population, but this doesn't happen at the beginning of the book as the administration is handing out jobs to graduates.
  • You Are Number Six: People have serial numbers besides their names. When children behave badly, their parents sometimes address them by their numbers, suggesting that a bad child is not worthy of a name.

The Girl Who Loved Tom GordonLiterature of the 1990sThe Giver Quartet
ShilohNewbery MedalWalk Two Moons
The Girl Who Owned a CityScience Fiction LiteratureGlasshouse
Give a Boy a GunYoung Adult LiteratureGives Light

alternative title(s): The Giver
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