Dystopian Fiction

In The Giver, Lois Lowry presents a fictional society, notably different from her own and characterized by values that seem to go against the author's beliefs. Such an imagined society can be called a dystopia, a word that means the opposite of a utopia, a perfect world. The dystopian elements of Jonas's community grow more and more apparent as the novel progresses. We learn that people have no free choice over their careers (as the Elders give each person an “Assignment”), that citizens live by strict rules and are required by law to take drugs that control their emotions, and that consequently there is no real freedom. People who break the rules three times are “released” from the community, as are the elderly and babies who are judged to be too weak. By the end of the novel, we learn that being “released” means being executed, and so the threat of death underpins the actions of the citizens.

Writers often use dystopian fiction to warn readers of where the world might be headed and to make implicit comparisons with the real world. By showing what it would be like if certain things were to change, authors implicitly argue for the value of these things. In the case of The Giver, Lowry seems to be defending the importance of individual freedom, of experiencing the whole range of human emotions, and of caring for the weak even when they cannot contribute to society. Dystopian novels also offer criticism of real-life societies that they resemble. For The Giver, this might be countries that limit personal freedom in the name of a particular ideology.


The Giver can also be read as a coming-of-age story, in which the protagonist, Jonas, grows from youth to maturity. At the beginning of the novel, Jonas accepts the values of his parents and the community he has been raised in, and he lives in a state of childlike innocence. Over time, he comes to see the flaws of the community and to challenge the views that have been drilled into him. At the end of the novel, he has fully emerged as his own person with his own ideas about the world, so much so that he is willing to disobey the rules and rebel against the community. Coming-of-age stories represent the universal experience of learning about the complexity of the world around us as we mature. One of the oldest coming-of-age stories is the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. When these two eat fruit from the tree of knowledge, they transition from innocence to experience and sin enters into their lives for the first time. Perhaps as an echo of this, fruit also plays a role in Jonas's discovery of the true nature of his world, when he first sees the color red in an apple. Jonas's coming-of-age narrative relates to the dystopian genre as his transition into adulthood is dependent on learning to see the darker elements of the world he was raised in.