The Giver (The Giver, #1) by Lois LowryLowrys book is a piece of nationalist propaganda, using oversimplification, emotional appeals, and dualistic morality to shut down her readers minds. More troubling is that it is aimed at children, who dont yet have the critical faculties to defend themselves from such underhanded methods.
Unsurprisingly, Lowry adopts the structure of the monomyth, equating a spiritual journey with a moral one. Her Christ-figure uses literal magic powers to rebel against his society. This rebellion and the morality behind it are presented as natural, to contrast with the abnormal morality around him.
Lowry doesnt seem to understand that we get our morality from our culture, it isnt something in-born that we lose. This is the first hint of Lowrys misunderstanding of the human mind. She assumes her own morality is correct, and then builds her story to fit it.
She also makes the character act and think like a modern person would, despite never adequately explaining how he came up with such unusual notions. Its the same trick many historical fiction authors use, leaving us scratching our heads as to why a Fourteenth Century French peasant speaks like a second-wave feminist. Id suggest that Lowry falls to this fault for the same reason they do: she has no talent for imagining how others might think differently.
Lowrys book ends with the standard nonspecific transgressive spiritual event that marks any overblown monomyth. Since the book is not a progressive presentation of ideas, it does not suggest any conclusion. Instead, the climax is a symbolic faux-death event (symbolic of what, none can say). Confusingly, Lowry later redacts the ending in the sequels, undermining the pseudo-spiritual journey she created.
Though some call this book Dystopian, its closer to the truth to say Lowry borrows elements from the Dystopian authors, attempting to combine the spiritual uplift of the monomyth with the political and social deconstruction of the Dystopia. What she doesnt recognize is that the faith of the one conflicts with the cynicism of the other. She draws on ideas and images from many other authors: Bradbury, Huxley, Orwell, Burgess, but doesnt improve upon them.
These authors created novels that reflected the world around them. They based them on the political events of the times, presented with realism and careful psychology. Though they presented the struggle between the individual and the society, they portrayed morality as grey, and suffering as the result of individual human faults, not political systems. Lowry doesnt realize that the best way to critique Fascism or Communism is not to present it as evil, but to simply present it as it was.
But Lowrys world is not based in reality, it is symbolic and hyperbolic. Instead of writing about how poverty makes the world seem small and dull, she has the characters magically unable to experience life. Instead of an impersonal government, she presents a sort of evil hippy commune.
The only political system it resembles is a school, which is a neat little trick to get the kids interested. The idea that school=unfeeling totalitarian hell is not an uncommon one, but its one Im surprised teachers would support. The book also suggests a creche, but lacking similarity to any real-world system, it doesnt work as a political criticism.
Lowry creates this artificial world to suit her purposes, but it is not a symbolic exercise like Animal Farm. We understand that the pigs of animal farm are symbolic, because there are no talking pigs. Lowrys world is more insidious, since its oversimplification is hidden. She builds an artificial world to support the dualist morality that shes pushing. She presents the same knee-jerk fears about euthanasia and abortion that people use against Womens Rights or Health Care.
Worse than these Straw Man arguments is the fact that she never deals with the economic causes of totalitarianism. Tyrants dont just rise up and take control by their own force of will, they come into power because of the socioeconomic situations that surround them. Lean times produce strong, fascist leaders while profitable times produce permissive, liberal societies.
Strong, centralized leadership simply doesnt self-propagate in cultures where everyone is clothed, fed, and housed. The Holocaust was socially about some ideal of change and purity, but it was economically about the transmission of wealth from Jews, Poles, and Catholics to Germans (and more specifically, to those Germans who had elected the new ruling party).
The atrocities of war are, for the most part, committed by normal people on other normal people. By presenting the power structure as amoral and inhuman, Lowry ignores the fact that people will willingly cause others to suffer. Painting the enemy as evil and alien is just an unsophisticated propagandist method.
She contrasts her evil with the idealized goodness of emotion, beauty, and freedom. This is nothing more than the American dream of specialness that Mr. Rogers was pushing for so many years. We are all special, we are all good, we all deserve love and happiness. Sure, it sounds good, but what does it mean?
Where does this specialness come from? If it is just the sanctity of human life, then its not really special, because its all-encompassing. If all of us are special, then none of us are. Theres nothing wrong with valuing life, but when Lowry presents one mode of life as valuable and another as reprehensible, she ceases to actually value humanity as a whole. Instead, she values a small, idealized chunk of humanity. People are good, except the ones I dont like is not a moral basis, nor is it a good message to send to kids.
If the specialness is only based on fitting in with a certain moral and social guideline, then Lowry isnt praising individuality, shes praising herd behavior. The protagonist is only special because he has magic powers. His specialness is not a part of his character, it is an emotional appeal.
The idea of being a special individual is another piece of propaganda, and its one kids are especially prone to, because kids arent special: they are carefully controlled and powerless. Giving a character special powers and abilities and then using that character to feed a party line to children is not merely disingenuous, its disturbing.
There is also a darker side to universal specialness: giving a child a sense of importance without anything to back it up creates egotism and instability. Adults noticed that children with skills and friends had high self-esteems, but instead of teaching their children social skills and knowledge, they misunderstood the causal relationship and tried to give them self-worth first.
Unfortunately, the moment unsupported self-worth is challenged, the child finds they have nothing to fall back on. Their entitlement didnt come from their skills or experiences, and so they have nothing to bolster that sense of worth. Instead, any doubt sends them down a spiral of emotional instability.
A single book like this wouldnt be the cause of such a state in a child, but it does act as part of the social structure built to give a sense of worth without a solid base for that worth. People like to believe they are special, kids especially so, but being a remarkable person is not a result of belief but of actions. If the book had informed them, then it would leave them better off, but giving them a conclusion based on emotional appeals does nothing to build confidence or character.
Many people have told me this book is good because it appeals to children, but children often fall for propaganda. Children develop deep relationships with pop stars, breakfast cereals, and Japanese monsters. This does not make them good role models for children.
Feeding specialness to kids along with a political message is no better than the fascist youth programs Lowry intends to criticize. The obsession with individuality is just another form of elitism. Its ironic that people in America most often describe themselves as individuals when pointing out the things they do to align themselves with groups.
But banding together in a community is not a bad thing. For Lowry and other Red Scare children, any mention of communal can turn into a witch hunt, but we all give up some personal rights and some individuality in order to live in relatively safe, structured societies. There are benefits to governmental social controls and there are drawbacks, and its up to us to walk the line between the two. Anarchy and Totalitarianism never actually exist for long: we are social animals.
Its not difficult to understand why Lowry is so popular, especially amongst educators. The message she gives aligns perfectly with what they were taught as kids, from Red Scare reactionism to the hippy-dippy unique snowflake mantra. These ideas arent entirely misguided, either. Its good to recognize the benefits of difference and the dangers of allowing other to control our lives.
If a reader believes that fascism and socialism are inherently wrong and that their own individuality is their greatest asset, they will likely sympathize with Lowrys work. However, this doesnt make the book honest, nor beneficial. One of the hardest things we can do as readers is disagree with the methods of authors we agree with ideologically.
It makes us feel good to find authors who agree with us, but this is when we should be at our most skeptical. Searching the world for self-justification is not a worthwhile goal, it simply turns you into another short-sighted, argumentative know-it-all. Yes men never progress.
Lowry is toeing the party line. She does not base her book around difficult questions, like the Dystopian authors, but around easy answers. She doesnt force the reader to decide for themselves what is best, she makes it clear what she wants us to think. Her book is didactic, which means that it instructs the reader what to believe.
Even if her conclusions about Individuality vs. Community are correct, she doesnt present arguments, she only presents conclusions. Like rote memorization or indoctrination, she teaches nothing about the politics, social order, economics, or psychology of totalitarianism or individuality. The reader is not left with an understanding, just an opinion.
The baseless individuality of the book lets the reader imagine that they are rebels--that they are bucking the system even as they fall into lock-step. By letting the reader think they are already free-thinking, Lowry tricks them into forgetting their skepticism.
She is happy to paint a simple world of black and white, and this is likely the world she sees. I doubt she is purposefully creating an insidious text, she just cant see past her own opinions. She writes this book with a point to make, and makes it using emotional appeals and symbolism. She doesnt back it up with arguments because she doesnt seem to have developed her opinions from cogent arguments.
In the end, she doesnt show us that the structure of this society is wrong, she says nothing poignant about individuality vs. community; instead, she relies on threats to the life of an innocent infant. Yet nowhere does she provide an argument for why communal living or the sacrifice of freedoms for safety must necessarily lead to infanticide.
In politics, making extreme claims about the opposing side is called mud-slinging, it is an underhanded and dishonest tactic. It works. Arguing intelligently is difficult, accusing is easy, so thats what Lowry does.
She is another child of WWII and the Cold War who hasnt learned her lesson. She quickly condemns the flaws of others while failing to search out her own. Even after the Holocaust, there are many racist, nationalist, violent Jews; conflict rarely breeds a new understanding.
America condemned the faceless communal life of the Second World, and yet America created The Projects. We critiqued strong governmental controls, but we still have the bank bailout, socialized medicine, socialized schooling, and socialized charity. America condemned the Gulags and Work Camps, and yet we imprison one out of every hundred citizens; far more than Stalin ever did. Some are killed, all are dehumanized.
As a little sci fi adventure, the book isnt terrible. Its really the pretension that goes along with it. Lowry cobbles together religious symbolism and Dystopic tropes and then tries to present it as something as complex and thoughtful as the authors she copied. Copying isnt a crime, but copying poorly is.
Like Dan Brown or Michael Crichton, she creates a political pamphlet of her own ideals, slaps a pretense of authority on it, and then waits for the money and awards to roll in--and they did. Many people Ive discussed this book with have pointed to those awards as the surest sign of this books eminent worth.
Award committees are bureaucratic organizations. Their decisions are based on political machinations. This book is a little piece of Nationalism, and so it was lauded by the political machine that Lowry supports. The left hand helps the right. If awards are the surest sign of worth, then Titanic is a better movie than Citizen Kane.
What surprises me is how many of those who brought up the award as their argument were teachers. If a politically-charged administrative committee is the best way to teach children, then why do you take umbrage when the principal tells you that bigger class sizes (and fewer benefits) are fine? Listen to him: doesnt he have award plaques?
The other argument is usually that kids like it. I usually respond that kids also like candy, so why not teach that? Some people also get angry at me for analyzing a book written for children:
Of course its not a great book, its for kids! If you want a good book, go read Ulysses!
I prefer to give children good books rather than pieces of political propaganda (even if they agreed with me). Children can be as skeptical, quick-witted, and thoughtful as adults if you give them the chance, so I see no excuse for feeding them anything less.
Kids arent stupid, they just lack knowledge, and thats a fine distinction. Its easy for adults to take advantage of their naivete, their emotionality, and their sense of worth. Just because its easier for the teacher doesnt mean its better for the child.
When we show children something that is over-simplified, presenting an idealized, crudely moralizing world, we arent preparing them for the actual world. If you give a child a meaningless answer to repeat, he will repeat it, but he wont understand why.
Why not give the child a book that presents many complex ideas, but no rote answers, and let them make up their own minds? If they dont learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff and form their own opinions early, in a safe, nurturing environment, what chance will they have on their own as adults?
In all the discussions and research regarding this book, I have come across very little analysis. Its especially surprising for a book with such a strong following, but there arent many explanations of why the book is supposed to be useful or important.
This lack of argument makes sense from a political standpoint, since there is no reason to analyze the worth of propaganda: its worth is that it agrees with society and indoctrinates readers. Analyzing it would defeat the purpose; political diatribes do not stand up to thoughtful attention.
Perhaps someday someone will create a thoughtful, textual analysis of this book that will point out its merits, its structure and its complexity. Ive gradually come to doubt it. I never expected when I wrote my original review of this book that it would garner this much attention.
I still welcome comments and thoughts, but if your comment looks roughly like this:
You should read this book again, but this time, like it more. You think youre smart but you arent. Youre mean. Lowry is great. This book won awards and kids like it. Its meant for kids anyways, why would you analyze what its about? I bet you never even read the sequels. Go read Moby Dick because you are full of yourself.
Ive heard that one before. If you do want to comment though, you might check out this article; I find it helps me with presenting my ideas.
The Giver by Lois Lowry - Book Opinion
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I don't remember reading a book as fast as I read this one. It was a great read. I couldn't put the book down for hours. And I must say is different from other books that I have read so this review actually is going to be somehow different from others. So let's start.
The giver is written from the point of view of Jonas, an eleven-year-old boy living in a futuristic society that has eliminated all pain, fear, war, and hatred. There is no prejudice, since everyone looks and acts basically the same, and there is very little competition. Everyone is unfailingly polite. The society has also eliminated choice: at age twelve every member of the community is assigned a job based on his or her abilities and interests. Citizens can apply for and be assigned compatible spouses, and each couple is assigned exactly two children each.
The Giver follows Jonas, a young boy living in a society where emotion and privacy has been eradicated and the people rely on the government to make their choices. It begins with Jonas feeling apprehensive and nervous about his fast approaching Ceremony, where Jonas will find out his job the elusive Elders have selected for him. Jonas is given the position of 'The Receiver of Memory', a job only given every 10 years, that holds a lot of mystery and reverence.
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The Giver by Lois Lowry summary
Imagine living in a society of sameness where you find no color, no family connections, and no memory—a society where life is governed by rigid rules that resist change and resent questioning. Twelve-year-old Jonas is looking forward to the Ceremony of Twelves and getting his new assignment. He will miss his friends and their games, but at 12 he is required to set aside his child-like activities. In this perfect world, climate is controlled, births are regulated and everyone is given an assignment based on ability. Couples are matched and applications for children are reviewed and assessed. If twins are born, the one weighing the least is scheduled for release while the other is taken to a nurturing facility. There is no choice, no disruption, and no human connections.