As simplistic an indictment of government institutions which deny individual freedom as Le Guin’s The Telling, Lois Lowry's The Giver is a book that examines political dystopia and the psychological implications of imposing homogenized thought upon society. Through the medium of a highly ordered society, “Sameness” is enforced by death, thereby exposing the black and white limits of restricted thinking when a foundation of sensual, aesthetic, and emotional memory is missing. Sounding grand, the novel likewise possesses a few significant holes that balance the ambition. But on to the review.
As with the real societies of Stalin's Russia or Mao Zedong's China, the ideology of homogenized behavior and thought for the benefit of all pervades the society of The Giver. Individual details are present, for example the public apology students must give when making mistakes, the heightened sensitivity towards non-conformity, not to mention the politically correct language used by everyone to euphemize death or sex. In the China of today, though it is fading quickly with the country's rapid modernization, written apologies are still a common method by which minor transgressions of the law are handled, not to mention the language used by the government to explain political situations such as Tibet or East Turkestan to its citizens. Despite political realities, most Chinese believe their government is there for the community's benefit, much the same as Jonas initially follows the order and routine of the nameless society at the outset of The Giver in happy, unwary fashion, the idea of thinking independently radical and extreme.
But beyond the political ideals of The Giver, it is in the psychological realm where Lowry drives a point regarding the effects of homogenized thought. Of particular concern is the effect of brainwashing on memory and how it might distance a person from the realities of life—realities that are often undesirable, but indispensable, nonetheless. In episodes that could easily parallel those of a psychologist and his patient on a sofa, the scenes wherein the Giver passes his memories along to Jonas are tense. The only truly supernatural element of the book, the extraction of repressed memories might be a conventional reading for the psychic transformation Jonas undergoes. From the relative ignorance of his parent's world to the relative omniscience of the real world, Jonas is brought to feel all of the joy and sorrow, pain and ecstasy of the memories the Giver bestows upon him. When Jonas asks why he must suffer, he replies “It gives us wisdom.” (143).
Coming to the understanding life is a long, twisting road with no shortcuts, Jonas sets out to make his own path. He ceases to take the pills which dull “The Stirring” inside him and questions the treatment of the elderly at the “House of the Old” and its “Releasing Room”. Ultimately, he comes to understand the meaning of being an individual: “Although he had through the memories of pain and loneliness learned about the pain of loss and loneliness, now he gained too, an understanding of solitude and joy.” (156).
That being said, there are some inconsistencies in the book. Primary among them is the pervasive happiness of everyone. Aren't laughter and joy emotions—emotions that require contrast to fully express? In other words, in a society devoid of sadness, pain, and suffering, wouldn't the ability to express the opposite emotions in turn be diminished? The homogeneity of Sameness, while driving away depression, would also seem to drive away happiness, in particular the ridiculing laughter which singles Asher out from the crowd at his Ceremony. Moreover, if indeed people are repressing, wouldn’t cracks appear, explosions of violence or aggression an occasional norm? There are no such cases in The Giver.
The largest obstacle in novel to overcome, however, is the ending. The story drawing rapidly to a close, just as Jonas is sledding down the hill to the place “he had always felt was waiting”, the place where “families created and kept memories, where they celebrated love”, a place where “he heard people singing”, Lowry deconstructs the whole novel—the entire anti-establishment notion—in one sentence, leaving the reader to wonder: what exactly was the point of the novel?
In the end, The Giver is a work of YA fiction that confirms the tradition of political dystopias in science fiction, but lacks the cohesion of the greats, like Orwell, Huxley, or Brunner’s novels. Lowry setting her sights high, she nevertheless fails to get out of her own way, ultimately pulling the rug out from under her own feet at the end. The setting admirably portrayed and the story developed with more consistency, it’s tough to criticize this point too greatly. But given it’s obviously an ideological piece, it’s also difficult not to. Readers who enjoyed the similarly value-confirming Little Brother by Cory Doctorow will undoubtedly enjoy Lowry’s likewise less-than-challenging novel of government control.