The True Gift of The Giver

More than two decades ago—long before we all were transfixed by the rebelliousness demonstrated by Katniss Everdeen in the dystopian society presented in the Hunger Games, or Tris Prior in the dystopian Divergent—Newberry Medal-winning novelist, Lois Lowry published The Giver, a novel designed for a young-adult audience, which described a totalitarian society in which no one was given a choice about anything.

In Lowry’s dystopia, all members were relieved of the anxiety that accompanies the act of choosing. The burden of choosing was given over to the State—through the Elders—who made all the decisions for the residents. Everyone was happy in this worry-free environment because the State provided everything for its residents. The State chose your spouse, the children you would raise—or never be allowed to raise, the house you would live in, the uniform you would wear, and the career you would pursue. No one even had to think about what to eat for dinner because all of those decisions were made by the Elders who created guidelines for balanced meals to be delivered to the doors of each household unit each day. School lunches were carefully calibrated and monitored by the central authority to ensure that each child received the appropriate nutritional balance.

The book quickly became a huge hit—albeit a controversial one as parents were always a bit concerned about the content which was frightening to some because in a dystopian society like this one, the authority of parents was usurped by the State, and there was no room at all for God. Still, the book became “required reading” on middle school reading lists throughout the country—and beyond. Readers of all ages enjoyed the story of Jonas, the 12-year-old boy, who courageously challenges the oppressive control exerted by the State.

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So smitten with the book, eighteen years ago, The Giver was optioned for a film by actor-producer, Jeff Bridges, but the movie was never made. No one really knows quite why—even the author—who has said in interviews that perhaps the country was not yet ready for a film about such a dystopian society.

But, times have changed. In today’s era of state surveillance of our personal lives through the monitoring of our email and phone communications—along with the unprecedented interference into our religious freedom and the private affairs of our families, The Giver seems so much less implausible than it used to seem. Who might have guessed in 1993, when The Giver was first published, that someday a Mayor of New York City would try to ban large cups of soda, or the First Lady of the United States would prescribe exactly what children would eat in their school lunches.

Indeed, The Giver is a film for our times. Released on August 15, the film grossed $12.7 million in its opening weekend as theatre goers continue to be attracted to the cautionary tale of a society that has lost its way. Just as in the book, the film portrays the agonizing lack of individuality and total control over the residents. Meryl Streep plays the role of one of the Senior Elders who makes many of the decisions for the others. Justifying her role as decision-maker in the film, she claims that when decisions are left to individuals, “they always choose wrong—every single time,” Lowry’s learned Elders accepted the “burden” of making all of the decisions for the others. Believing that the Elders knew best about the well-being of the members, the society these community leaders created was “perfect” in every way. There was no war, no anger, no envy, no poverty and no wealth. Every material need was met. Even the climate was controlled by the state so there was never any snow or rain to make sidewalks and bike paths slippery or dangerous. There were no cars or trains to pollute the environment—residents used only the bicycles that each received at the Ceremony of the Tens—a happy day when each ten-year old received their one prized possession.

Of course such total control carries costs. There was no art, no music, no theatre, and most importantly, no love. In the film, medication is administered to keep emotions away. In the book while medication is used to control what are called the “stirrings” of love and attraction, the film seems to focus more on the use of mood stabilizers to control all moods and emotions. This really was not necessary because in a true totalitarian society, no medication is needed to control that which is controlled by the norms and values imposed by the community. The film also recasts Jonas as a 16-year-old, instead of a 12-year-old child as in the original story. Perhaps this makes him a more plausible hero.

In both the book and the film, the most important decision made by the elders of Lowry’s dystopian society was to choose the careers for each child in the community. Career choice was based primarily on community-need—but need was also coupled with some acknowledgement that some children were more suited for one career than another. Some of the children had more scientific aptitude and they would be given training assignments to become doctors or engineers, others showed nurturing ability and would be funneled into caregiving careers in the nursery or the House of the Old. In what was called the Ceremony of Twelve in the book because the career decisions were made for the 12-year-old children (unlike in the film when the career choices were made for the 16-year-old children), the children were told by the Chief Elder that “This is the time when we acknowledge differences…. You Elevens have spent all your years till now learning to fit in, to standardize your behavior, to curb any impulse that might set you apart from the group. But, today, we honor your differences. They have determined your futures.”

And, these “differences” predict the destinies of these children. One of the careers—described by a main character in the book as a “job without honor”—was the Assignment as Birthmother. This Assignment is described as requiring no special talent or ability. It is viewed as lacking in prestige in Lowry’s book because it is often given to the “laziest” young women of the society—the ones who “would enjoy three years of being pampered” and given the best food and easiest jobs. Birthmothers were only expected to give birth to one child, but then they would have to assume the menial task of Laborer for the remainder of their lives. They would never see the child they gave life to, and were never allowed to be part of a family unit. The film reinforces the sadness of the career of Birthmother who, unlike the others who were assigned a spouse and two children (one boy and one girl), Birthmothers were never assigned children of their own to nurture.

In some ways, it is the Assignment to Birthmother in this society that hits closest to home for those of us who have become increasingly alarmed by the frequency of the use of women as breeders in our own dystopian society. Today’s surrogates, as depicted in Jennifer Lahl’s new documentary, Breeders, are not so different from Lowry’s Birthmothers. They, too, are pampered throughout their pregnancies—given the best food to eat and allowed plenty of rest—but they also face an unfortunate future once they have delivered the child to the new family unit. And, although some would argue that the well-paid surrogates that childless couples hire to give birth to their children, have a choice in accepting the assignment as Birthmother, many of these women are coerced into assuming that role. The surrogates in Thailand and India—where childless couples are turning to find affordable women to breed their babies—are nearly always coerced into the practice. There is no “choice” for them.

And, like today, as the women who are employed as surrogates must produce a perfect child, any imperfection in the newborn child in the dystopian society described in The Giver results in a quiet “release” of that child…

The Giver is really a gift to us all because it is a reminder of the horrible costs we incur when we trade freedom for the “comfort” that comes from allowing others to make the “right” decisions for us.  We can rejoice when Jonas begins to question this oppressive control because it is the time when he begins to get in touch with his humanity. This is something that just cannot be allowed in a totalitarian society like that of The Giver. But, Jonas knows—as we all know—without the freedom to make the wrong choices, there really cannot be right choices. Without the ability to choose evil, choosing good is meaningless. That is the true horror of The Giver’s “perfect” society.


  • Anne Hendershott

    Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Crisis Publications, 2020).

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