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.

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 at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. She is the author of Status Envy: The Politics of Catholic Higher Education; The Politics of Abortion; and The Politics of Deviance (Encounter Books). She is also the co-author of Renewal: How a New Generation of Priests and Bishops are Revitalizing the Catholic Church (2013).

  • ForChristAlone

    I remember a line from one of my ToB readings that went something like this: “You can never say ‘yes’ if you cannot say ‘no.’

    Freedom is a word like ‘love’ that in today’s world is bandied about but bereft of its true meaning. What we need are courses in high school and college entitled, “The Christian Understanding of Freedom.”

    • Diego Fernando Ramos Flor

      For sure, that means also recognizing that, as St. Thomas Aquinas, freedom must be subordinate to justice. That’s part of the Christian understanding of freedom

    • Deus Caritas Est

      Catechism of the Catholic Church no. 1766 – ” ‘ To love is to will the good of another’ ” citing Aquinas (Summa). Obviously to be able to love means to have the gift of free will. As far as the mood altering drugs the above review says are used in the movie — Catechism no.1763 – “Feelings or passions are emotions or movements of the sensitive appetite that incline us to act or not to act in regard to something felt or imagined to be good or evil.” again no. 1766 – “Passions ‘are evil if love is evil and good if it is good.’ ” citing St. Augustine (De Civ. Dei)

  • Blah Blaah

    I’m just reading Joseph Pearce’s ‘Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile.’ He quotes from Solzhenitsyn’s ”From under the Rubble’: ‘Our present system is unique in world history, because over and above its physical and economic constraints, it demands of us total surrender of our souls, continuous and active participation in the general, conscious LIE. To this putrification of the soul, this spiritual enslavement, human beings who wish to be human cannot consent. When Caesar, having exacted what is Caesar’s, demands still more insistently that we render unto him what is God’s – that is a sacrifice we dare not make!’ (Solzhenitsyn, ‘From under the Rubble’, Little, Brown, 1975 pp. 22-24; in Pearce, p. 228).

    Of course, Solzhenitsyn was describing a SYSTEM, but the effect is the same as slavery to sin in the individual: it demands that we sacrifice our humanity and our souls. Lowry’s dystopia is firmly based in human experience (communist systems); it’s already been tried. And it’s not very surprising that it should be nothing new, since evil is never creative. All attempts to erase human nature end in slavery – to sin or to the state or to Satan. Take your pick.

    • cestusdei

      And we thought we defeated such a system in the Cold War only to find it growing in our midst.

      • DE-173

        It was already growing 100 years ago.

      • John200

        We croaked Communism, then let the Damnocrats bring it back to life.

        For some years back there, Marx was a figure of ridicule, understood as a damned fool whose idiotic babbling caused 100+ million deaths.

        Lefty is too stupid to contend with. He says nothing worth hearing. Just defeat him. That’s what is needed.

        • Catholic pilgrim

          Karl Marx & his fantasies are the opium of the Leftists. Marxism/Communism/Militant Atheism is a bloody thing that ruins everything it touches.

  • Fred

    I haven’t seen it yet, maybe I will – not too enamored with what comes out of Hollywood these days. I was struck by the description of birthmother being a job without honor as I reflect on our Blessed Mother, as well as beautiful mothers everywhere and the hard but loving lifetime commitment of motherhood. It’s sad to reflect on the state of current affairs, however, choosing to remain optimistic, maybe things operate in cycles for a reason and low moments or even movies like these can wake people out of trances to realize that yes, we can make things better by putting Christ first in our lives, and not our faith in whoever fools enough people to occupy our house on Pennsylvania Avenue.

    • ForChristAlone

      well said

  • The worst people are ‘good’ people. If you have no room, no tolerance for bad, you cannot really be good.

  • publiusnj

    The rise of surrogate mothers to fertilize the Gay Marriage Movement is a fulfillment of this novel’s premise on birthmothers. The NY Times (July 6, 2014, p. 1) recently ran a page plus article on “womb renting” that was designed to praise the Gay Marriage Movement’s move into the baby producing business but which actually showed what a dystopian world is being created. Incidentally, the article is even helpful for the Pro-Life cause because the NY Times refers to the fetuses spawned by the gay couples’ contracts with surrogates as “babies” while still in the rented wombs. Does that mean the NY Times accords greater respect to such children because of all the money their gay sponsors pay for them?

    In all events, the article is a treasure trove for information on what Gay Marriage “hath wrought.”

    Here is a link to the article:

    • Anne Hendershott

      Thank you for the link – I had missed that one in the NYTimes – sometimes they give the pro-life side some verification without realizing it. One of the saddest parts of The Giver for me was to call the role of BirthMother a “job without honor”

      • Fred

        It is sad. Even putting the relationship with our Blessed Mother aside for a moment, I am amazed at the skills required by motherhood and puzzled how the feminist culture kicks it to the curb with disdain. I tell my wife she has a much more difficult job raising our family and running the household than I do in my 9-5 job, and what I do is challenging.

        • DE-173

          “I am amazed at the skills required by motherhood and puzzled how the feminist culture kicks it to the curb with disdain.”

          Reread how Satan tempted Eve.

          As an aside, modern feminism could never have flourished with my Great-Grandmothers, they had no desire to trade their coal stoves, washboards and soap for picks, shovels and dynamite. Their days were long and hard and filled with labor, but they got to see the sun once in a while.

          • John200

            Grammy knew (damn well!) she was doing something important and challenging.

            Her work required versatility and a certain skill level in many different lines of work. She was the last line of defense for the family. No sane person could see it otherwise. Grammy understood what she was doing for the family.

            When she got a chance to sit down on that couch, she had earned it. Grampy knew it, even after his own trudge through the day’s work.

            Perhaps today’s secular kooks can learn something about a family? JPII is a good entryway…

          • Catholic pilgrim

            As GK Chesterton knew very well, women have the greatest power in shaping society by their motherhood. Mothers (not corporate bosses nor politicians) are the one who truly decide a society’s future. Radical Feminism disempowered women by denying & ridiculing their motherhood. Radical Modernist Feminists have greatly damaged women (& therefore society). The best thing we can do to restore a strong sense of motherhood & womanhood is bringing back (at the parish level) the awareness of the powerful Intercession of our Blessed Mother (which the “spirit of Vatican 2” did away with by throwing out Marian statues & Pious Mariology). By returning to our Mother Mary (from whose womb our Emmanuel, our Salvation, came to us), whose Queenly intercession is most powerful amongst Saints (as well as her role model), we as a society & individuals will rediscover & realize how awesome mothers truly are. Mary is the only hope for regaining true feminism, only she can fix this mess.

            • Catholic pilgrim

              btw- The actual Vatican 2 Council documents actually encouraged strong Mariology, it was only the liberals who threw away the Marian Statues & Marian Piety from parishes (& consequently family homes) across the USA.

              • ForChristAlone

                You mean to tell me the “nuns on the bus” crowd don’t recite the rosary together in their chapel every afternoon?

                • Catholic pilgrim

                  🙂 Ha! They’ve got no time for the Rosary or Mary, they’re too busy reciting their Litany of Praises to Obama the Messiah. “Hosanna, blessed be Obama riding into the gates of Wash., DC, on a donkey (DNC symbol), greeted by Pelosi/Reid palm bearers”

        • AnnieOfArc

          A feminist “friend” told me this weekend she could tell I’d never had a real job since I didn’t know what PTO (paid-time off) was. I’ve worked as a nanny, preschool teacher, foster care worker, and caregiver. It hurt my heart – all the diapers I’ve changed, all the children I’ve potty-trained, all the children I’ve talked to and tried to raise as good, moral beings – none of that was ‘work’ to her. I don’t sit at a desk or wear blazer suits, so it doesn’t “really” count. And as she sits there and wonders why I’m not interested in voting for Hillary Clinton (who has also scoffed at women’s work), I’m just amazed she can’t see the disconnect between her professed feminism and her actual attitude towards those who do women’s work.

          Sorry, that’s my little mean-spirited rant; kudos to your wife and to you for recognizing how wonderful and meaningful that work is!!

      • John200

        The New York Times gave a half-face to the big boys who were buying a little boy. That is to say, the New York Times “forgot” to identify the big boys who were buying a little boy.

        You can see the rest of the story. The NYT will help this unfortunate boy’s literary “career.” The boy will write an interesting book at about 6 years old. He might need a ghostwriter. He will have experienced 6 years of hell. And at age 11, he can write another book. He will have experienced 11 years of hell. At age 16, …

        Pitiful. Piggish.

        I will not comment on the development of the proctologist’s business with this unfortunate boy.

        The CDC will need to maintain close, but not intimate, contact.

  • DE-173

    “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.”

    Wow, a prophecy of Michelle Obama.

    • John200

      Moochelle cannot tell humans what to eat. Her caboose (don’t trust me, take a look yourself; don’t spit up your gum) does not seem to correspond with good nutrition.

      Ah, leave that aside. I am content with beef, chicken, beef, shellfish, beef, finfish, beef, vegetables piled too high to finish them (leftover veggies are often better than first time vegs), beef, french fries, beef, salads, and beef.

      Start with a good piece of steak, the rest of the meal does not much matter, it will fall into line, eh?

      Now you don’t have to be PC around here, come on, tell the truth, you know it’s so.

      • TERRY

        Roast beef medium rare, baked potatoes, Yorkshire pudding and peas.

        To drink – whatever.

    • Catholic pilgrim

      No worries, DE. Nobody is gonna take away my beef, chicken, my Nonna’s gnocci e ravioli, chocolates, & desserts. First Lady Obama, you can take away my steak ribs over my dead fingers! Mrs. Obama: If my Mama & sweet Nonna approve of my food, I don’t need your guidelines nor any government’s approval


    I would recommend that you skip seeing what must be a profoundly depressing movie and read ‘Strangers and Sojourners’ by Michael O’Brien, followed by ‘Plague Journal’. It’s basically the same theme but from a different perspective. Ignatius Press


    Also read ‘Father Elijah’ by the same author, also ‘Theophilos’.

  • Vinnie
  • cestusdei

    A good movie. People gasped when they showed a baby being killed, but I thought “this happens every day in the USA.” This future is what many liberals think of as heaven. It is the culture of death covered with a layer of “nice.” It is hell.

    • John200

      Liberals think it is heaven? OK, funny-ish, but the consequences do not produce good comedy.

      We kill 1300-2000 babies/day (I forgot the most precise estimate) in the US. And thousands more daily across the world; ie, millions yearly.

      The culture of death will put all of us in hell. I think we are being treated to a preview, but it is fair to say that the reality is here. We are experiencing it, to my surprise and dismay. All this makes me see the point of becoming a contemplative and praying out the rest of one’s (my?) life.

      • Objectivetruth

        Approximately 3300-3400 abortions per day in the US…….

        Many ways to think about it, but that’s like wiping out the entire student body of a large size public high school every day. For fifty years.

        The horror……

        • ForChristAlone

          Every day is Newtown in America!

        • John200

          That’s correct. I am not sure how I flubbed the figures, but I did flub ’em.

          Good catch.

          • Objectivetruth

            No worries, John. Even one abortion a day is one too many.

  • RufusChoate

    Ahh yes the glories of Dystopia. This is a very interesting piece on the apparently prophetic nature of fiction when it might really only be a character study of the nature the central planning Leftist technocrats that manage to create a small slice of hell out of every human action. The Dystopia began when Karl Marx first put pen to ink in 1848 and fired the totalitarian minds of the

    It is no mystery that the dissolution and denigration of most critical of all human institutions to a civil society: Faith, Marriage and the Family are the focus of all Dystopian villains just as they are in contemporary culture.

    The comprehensive state is a jealous and vengeful deity whether it was first written of in the heart of Soviet Russia in 1921 when Yevgeny Zamyatin penned “We or Huxley’s “The Shape of Things to come” and any of H.G. Wells utopian fantasies and finally C.S. Lewis’ musings on the abolition of man in “That Hideous Strength”. In every case the Dystopia decouples Sex from Marriage and the Family in an celebration of unlimited but sterile license while destroying the institutions the directed Sex to its many layered but most fecund and loving expression.
    Today we are propagandized by the Left with a promised punishment of cataclysmic and apocalyptic ecological collapse if you have more than one child and sterile narcissistic unions with the prerequisite collection of pets are the perfect union of man and the other.
    Sterile License is slavery and the Left has embraced and celebrated Sexual license since Marx raped his mentally dull maid while his children suffered malnutrition without the slightest approbation from his peers.

    • John200

      Hi Rufus,
      The “apparently prophetic nature of fiction” is often fictitious. Fiction is good entertainment, often philosophically interesting, usually lousy history, and even worse in terms of predictive power.

      Dystopia uncouples human nature from human beings while claiming to base its moral idiocy on human nature (John200, 2014). I am not writing the dissertation on that unless I get a book contract with cash upfront. But — I am sure you noticed — it is sufficient to confuse most normal people.

      It is now impossible to take lefty seriously as he descends into madness, informing us that we are the problem with earth. God love him, he is demented. We should prevent him from doing further harm to himself and others, and feel pity for him.

      We are informed that Karl Marx wrote his most passionate (and insane) prose while he was corresponding with the carbuncles that gave him a “pain in the axsz” in that library where he sat his useless and insane axsz for many years. You could look it up; he spent his adult years scribbling in a library in England; he did not work. You could look up the carbuncles, too.

      Raping a dull maid is sickening, as is much of his “work.” Pardon me, this MarxThing has caused me to throw up, and then I will complete this note.

      Maybe I am reading awrong, but I think a typo got into your note. At the very end, did you mean, ” without the slightest DIS-approbation from his peers?”

  • Paul

    This is a clear example of the state taking over the role of the individual’s conscience leaving the individual conscienceless. Man without conscience is just an empty shell, an automaton that acts to the will of the state.
    There are many similar goals between the role of the state and the role of religion, i.e. a non-violent society. But where they differ is the total trust placed in the state – which is deeply flawed because Man is flawed – instead of God who is infallible.

    • DE-173

      “There are many similar goals between the role of the state and the role of religion, i.e. a non-violent society.”

      What makes you think that? All religions aren’t homogeneous and some states foment violence if it can be directed externally.

      “where they differ is the total trust placed in the state”

      Statism is a religion, albeit one that is a non-theistic exercise in idolatry.

  • Gail Finke

    Really enjoyed this!

  • karekea

    I don’t understand how Christians can be promoting this movie, which is disturbing at best for the age group for whom it was intended. Should children be watching a movie where an infant is murdered by lethal injection? Let’s put on our thinking caps and stop
    promoting this seemingly “pro-life’ film as it takes away the innocence of
    any child unfortunate to be seated in the audience. Karen Hornsby, LA

    • ForChristAlone

      You make a good point about safeguarding our children.

      I find the entire premise of this movie frightening – mainly because we are living it today and the worst part of this is that I suspect few appreciate the gravity of it all because it is so insidious.

  • Maria Perez

    I saw this movie and it was very well done. Is it depressing? Most certainly. Was it hard to see the baby being killed? Very painful! But when you imagine the many ways it is cruelly done every single day, you want the movie to be seen by the many who are oblivious to where we are and where we are heading. The funny thing is that it was done in a clean and bloodless way. But isn’t that the way evil (murder) has been promoted for years now? By saying it is clean and safe and rare (not!). One of the best lines in the movie is when Jonas says, “They told me they made a society free from murder. But they didn’t. They just called it something else.” It is called choice. The new barbarians just wear white lab coats.
    Someone complained about children seeing this. Sadly children and teenagers are exposed to a lot of evil every day. The irony is that the only way for Jonas to fight against the evil around him was to be exposed to it. Like it or not, if we do not see and face evil, how will we recognize it and fight it?

  • pdxcatholic

    What would have made the premise of the story more unsettling (and more realistic) would have been to give people the illusion of making their own choices. As we see today, a hundred different soft drinks (or television channels or spaghetti sauces) is not a real choice–yet, people are often duped into thinking it is.