Rereading The Giver in the Midst of a Glut of Dystopias
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The first time I read this book, it was newly published -- it hadn't even won the Newbery yet. I was an adolescent. I had never heard the word "dystopia." All I knew was that I had never read anything like it.
The second time I read it, I had just graduated from college and was at a mind-numbing data entry job. We were allowed to listen to audiobooks, so I listened to this one to refresh my memory before I read Gathering Blue.
The third time I read it was this week. I rarely re-read books, and I wasn't going to re-read this one even though my book club was reading it. I had already read it twice. I had seen the movie recently. I was sure I would remember it well enough.
I'm so glad I decided to read it again, because in the midst of the current glut of YA dystopias (I think that trend is finally dialing down), it was reassuring to revisit a truly great dystopia, one that was written to convey a philosophical idea, to make us ask the big questions, that used the dystopia in service of the message and not just as a trendy set piece.
I think The Giver stood alone, despite its success, in the genre of middle-grade/YA dystopias for so many years because this is not a book that is easy to replicate. It's a subtle and quiet book; there are no fancy gadgets, no big explosions, no evil overlord or even visibly repressive government. It concerns itself with the day-to-day lives of the people in Jonas's community, with their orderly routines and facsimile of warmth and connection.
What makes The Giver brilliant as a dystopia is that it actually makes the community Jonas lives in look very appealing. There is no hunger. There is no pain. There is no uncertainty, nor the angst of making the wrong decision. The citizens have ultimate trust in the Elders, who seem to be benign and to truly want what would make the community members happier and healthier. Not only does Jonas totally buy into the system, but in many ways the reader does, too. I remember wanting my own Ceremony of Twelve that would set me on a clear path toward my future, or wanting to be perfectly matched with a spouse and not have to worry about infidelity or wrong choices or even growing apart. Unlike many of the more recent crop of teen dystopias, the world of The Giver DOES feel utopic until you take a closer look, until you contrast it with the exhilaration of a ride down a snowy hill, or the thrill of falling in love, or the swelling up of emotion when you hear beautiful music. [Even after Jonas leaves the community, he longs for its safety and predictability, even knowing everything he knows about what has been lost.]
Because of this general sense of banality, the dark moments are more unsettling when they appear than in similar books that start out feeling dark and oppressive. This book never hits you over the head with how "bad" this society is, but instead makes you increasingly uneasy about it as Jonas grows more and more distant from the life his family and friends take for granted. It asks big questions about what is worth sacrificing to live in a world that is more safe and more predictable, and while Lowry definitely comes down on one side of the issue, there is a sense that perhaps a place like Jonas's community would not be SO bad, with a few tweaks [i.e., nix the infanticide.]
This book was published 16 years before The Hunger Games, but I see them as existing as two separate ends of a spectrum. On the one hand, we have a dystopia that looks so good that it's not hard for the reader to see why Jonas is invested in the system. The Giver is unique in that the reader gets somewhat invested in the system, too. On the other end of the spectrum we have Katniss, a heroine who knows that the society she lives in is f'd up, and the reader instantly identifies with her and agrees. In between are the legions of books in which the main character is initially invested in the system but then has some sort of "awakening" -- but in the vast majority of these books, the reader can see through the dystopia's hazy veneer of benevolence within the first chapter, which only makes the protagonist seem deluded or stupid until she (and these days, it's almost always a she) finally catches up to the reader and gets with the program and realizes, "Whoa, this place is like, really evil."
I think so many years passed between The Giver and The Hunger Games for a reason. The Giver, while successful, is too subtle in its delivery to be easily replicated. The Hunger Games, while raising equally compelling questions, is full of violence and elaborate costumes and slogans, all trappings that are easy to graft on to other, less worthy stories. And now we're drowning in a sea of sub par teen dystopias that dilute the power and controversy of the messaging that should remain critical to the genre.
I hope the recent boom of action-packed dystopias has not dulled readers' tastes for quieter, more thoughtful dystopias like this one -- little books that ask big questions. There are very few that have been published since that would hold up so well to three readings over nearly 25 years.