What happens when the dystopic society created by an author doesn’t actually seem that bad? This was the question I found myself asking often as I read The Giver by Lois Lowry.
The book started out brilliantly and the premise was fascinating. The main character, a 12-year-old boy, lives in a futuristic society in which emotions and even colors are muted. The townspeople know nothing of struggles or hardships or food shortages or war or anything else negative. Supposedly this is bad, but the author doesn’t do a good job of explaining why. Granted, this is a children’s book, or at least young adult, so it doesn’t necessarily need the depth of an adult’s book, but for the most part, the author expected us to recognize that this society was bad only because it wasn’t like ours. The protagonist’s journey is about his discovery that his society is less desirable than one like ours, but at no point in the book did I agree.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t actually want to live in a world of muted emotions. But the people of this society seemed content and happy almost every day. They had limited choices, but there’s research out there that too many options can actually be overwhelming and depressing for people. So limited choices may not be as bad as it’s made out to be. There are some obvious aspects of the society that are terrible, namely, the part where babies who don’t show proper adaptation are killed. That’s horrible. Obviously. I am a staunch opponent of infanticide. I want all babies to flourish in a loving environment. But that’s not what happens in real life. In real life, many babies die and many other babies are raised in unloving and/or abusive homes. So while this aspect of the society is absolutely unacceptable and intolerable, it’s not quite a strong enough argument for choosing a society like ours instead.
Then there’s the Giver, himself. The Giver is the only person in the society that is familiar with all of the horrible, but also all of the great things in life that this society has had blocked from their collective memories. The Giver must exist so that if something bad happens, the town leaders can turn to this person for advice on how to deal with the problem. That’s terrible for the person whose lot in life it is to be the Giver, but it’s pretty awesome for everyone else. Again, not what I would choose, but not bad enough to make the argument that our society is better.
Now, perhaps the author was trying to point out that something in between our society and theirs is more ideal, but 1) that’s not the impression I got reading this book, and 2) if that was her point, then she should have ended the story with that idea in mind. Instead, the book ends almost as if in the middle of a thought. There’s no closure. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but reading the entire book, I kept waiting for the author to make a point about the two options for societies, and then she ended without anything even resembling closure. Perhaps that was supposed to be the point, and her only objective was to get students discussing which is better or preferable, but it left me dissatisfied and disappointed.
There are other books in this series, which I would have continued reading if they were to pick up where this one left off, but what little I read about them implied that they would not provide the closure I seek, so I didn’t bother pursuing them.
That said, this book does make one think, so I can’t entirely discard it. I won’t say don’t read it, but I’d also be slow to recommend it to others. This is especially true for adults. I can see some value in children reading it as early exposure to the concept of other societies, but they will only get real value out of it if they have someone with whom to discuss the ideas the book presents.