Utopia or dystopia? Lois Lowry’s The Giver

Lois Lowry paints a deceptively harmonious picture of the future in The Giver.

Lois Lowry paints a deceptively harmonious picture of the future in The Giver.



Imagine a world in which hunger does not exist, war has been abolished, diseases like cancer and AIDS have been cured and poverty is no more.

Sound perfect?

Readers of Lois Lowry’s Newberry Award-winning book, The Giver, may not be convinced after finishing this short but thought provoking work.  While written for a middle school audience, the book addresses adult themes of memory, the tradeoffs of the social contract, truth and indviduals’ desire for authentic feeling and expression.

Twelve-year-old Jonas is the book’s protagonist. 

The book opens toward the end of his and his friends’ designated period of childhood in a place called Elsewhere  Each child is assigned a role that the community’s elders have deemed will suit him or her well and that will also benefit the futuristic society in which they live.

Jonas is chosen to be the receiver of all the community’s memories.  He receives memories from The Giver, who then is unable to retain the memory of the experience he has transferred to Jonas.  Through his sessions with the Giver, Jonas comes to understand experiences like snow and war.   His expanded palate of experiences helps Jonas realize the unfortunate and even unwitting compromises that community members have made: in exchange for their apparent peace and tranquility, they have surrendered the ability to deeper emotions of love and to make independent choices.

Through his position as the receiver, Jonas also can see whatever he wants in the community.  His observation of his father’s euthanizing a baby makes him understand both that he does not really know his parents and, more profoundly, that the society is predicated on lies of purported equality and decent treatment for all.

The realization galvanizes the young man when he realizes that a young baby named Gabe who is placed in his family’s custody may be in jeopardy.  He decides to flee, with the baby in tow. 

The ending is ambiguous.

After consuming all the food they he brought for Gabe and struggling with despair, Jonas gains strength from the memory of sunshine and keeps on going.  He and the baby are on a sled in snow, which was his first memory, and see a town and houses from which music is playing at the bottom of a hill.  They go down toward the houses on the sled.

Facing History and Ourselves, the organization for which my wife works, has published a study guide that takes teacher and students through the book.  One of the guide’s most compelling elements is the Newberry Address Lowry gave.  In it, she talks about the memories that informed The Giver and gives multiple examples of readers’ interpretations of the ending. 

The Giver is in the tradition of dystopian literature like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Kurt Vonnegut’s short story ‘Harrison Bergeron‘ and Ursula LeGuin’s short myth, ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.’ 

In each instance, apparent peace is bought at the expense of individual freedom.  Each society is based on some level of suffering and on official powers, despite the community’s pledges of equality.  And each gives the reader pause to think about where we and people in other societies are relative to these questions.


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