By Eliza Berman, Slate
The first time I read The Giver, Lois Lowry’s 1993 dystopian children’s novel, I was in the fourth or fifth grade. My biggest concern was whether my parents had packed a Fruit Roll-Up or a bag of Cheetos in my lunch; the dangers of freedom-quashing authoritarian regimes were not things I had thought much about. And yet, years later, the book about a boy who challenges his community’s systematic repression is the one that stands out most to me from my early childhood. Somehow the gravity of the book pulled me in, even if I didn’t understand quite what it meant.
With the movie adaptation out in theaters this week, I decided to revisit The Giver for the first time. As I picked it up again, I was thinking of Ruth Graham’s recent admonishment of adult readers of young adult literature, which was published in Slate, and whichunleashed a fiery backlash from those who find value in books targeted at younger audiences (as well as from those who bristle at being told what they should and shouldn’t read). How would this particular young adult book hold up? And what did I miss the first time around?
A lot, it turns out. Below are all of the things that I got this time, having missed them as a kid. Spoilers, of course, follow.
Members of the community described in The Giver are “released” to a place called “Elsewhere” for a variety of reasons: A newborn fails to thrive; an elderly person has lived a full life; a criminal commits a third transgression. The protagonist, 12-year-old Jonas, wonders what happens when someone gets released, and as a kid I wondered along with him, right up until the truth was revealed toward the end of the story. This time I noticed all the clues that make it clear early on that “release” is a euphemism for government-sponsored murder. And so instead of experiencing the story the way that Jonas, innocent until his late epiphany, does, I felt much more aligned with the all-knowing Giver, spotting all the dramatic irony that Lowry deploys before Jonas finally loses his innocence.
Jonas has a dream in which he wants to take off his friend Fiona’s clothes and bathe her. “I wanted it so terribly,” he admits to his parents. “I could feel the wanting all through me.” His parents then send his younger sister out of the room and instruct him to take a daily pill to quell “the Stirrings” before they swell again. As a child, I took these feelings to be a simple case of puppy love. Perhaps I’m now taking it too far when I assume that Lowry wants us to recognize Jonas’ “pleasurable” dream as a wet dream. But obviously the Stirrings are sexual feelings, and knowing this is crucial to understanding how the regime scientifically manufactures families and deprives people of love.
At the time of my first Giver encounter, my history lessons had mostly focused on Paul Revere, Christopher Columbus, and Plymouth Rock. I hadn’t yet learned about the Khmer Rouge, Apartheid, or Nazi Germany. Lacking this context, I read Lowry’s world of obedience and order as purely fictional. Now, of course, I know that North Korea tortures and kills its own citizens and Syria allegedly uses chemical weapons against its own populace. For an adult reading in 2014, the book feels like less of a warning than a reflection of a world gone horribly wrong.
Race is explicitly addressed in the book, but only briefly, when the Giver tells Jonas that there was a time “when flesh was many different colors.” The book alludes several times to the concept of “sameness,” which the genetic scientists are still trying to master. Though the color of Sameness is never defined, the cover of the book and frequent references to Jonas’ and the Giver’s light eyes and Fiona’s red hair make it fairly clear that everyone in the community is white. Reading the book now, I couldn’t help but wonder how sameness had been achieved, a question Lowry doesn’t answer and one my younger self never pondered. Was there a genocide? Was it all eugenics? The world of the book seems even more horrifying when you are old enough to ask yourself these questions.
Lowry has said that she didn’t set out to write a religious book, but she’s aware of the allegory people pick up when they read it. My 10-year-old Jewish self didn’t pick up anything. This time I spotted the biblical names—there’s a Gabriel as well as a Jonas—and also the strong resemblance between Jesus and Jonas, who also takes on the pain of the world so that the rest of the community won’t have to. The ceremony that marks Jonas’ entry into the adult world at age 12 also calls to mind a bar mitzvah.
In Graham’s takedown of adult fondness for YA novels, she cites the overly satisfying conclusions of such books, calling them “emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction.” Whether or not that’s broadly true of YA, it’s not true of The Giver—though I didn’t realize this until rereading it. As a child, I took the ending literally: Jonas and Gabriel, the baby he’s rescued from certain infanticide, flee their community and travel for days. They’re starving and freezing and on the brink of death when they come upon a sled at the top of a hill, a recreation of the first happy memory The Giver gave to Jonas. They careen down the hill to the sight of a warm, loving home and the sound of holiday music.
Or, as many, presumably more mature readers posit, they die. Lowry meant for the ending to be ambiguous, but she got truckloads of fan mail from youngsters pleading for clarity, and she later wrote three sequels, which reveal Jonas’ fate. I won’t spoil it here.
The irony in rereading The Giver is that I finally understand what the book was trying to say, but the lessons don’t feel fresh and crucial in the way they would have had I gotten them the first time. I don’t revisit books often, but this second reading reminded me why it’s worthwhile. Graham argues that reading books meant for children requires us to dial back our emotional maturity and disregard the insights we’ve gained as adults, but this second reading was meaningful chiefly because of my increased emotional maturity. When you reread a book after many years, the words on the page may not have changed, but you have—rendering the book, in turn, something altogether new.
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