I read The Giver and its companion book Gathering Blue many years ago when my eldest two children were relatively new readers. I enjoyed them, but didn’t keep up with the series, and hence didn’t know about the sequel or the other companion book until my ten-year-old brought them home from the library last week. After having read all four books now (and having recently watched the film version of The Giver), I’ve come to the conclusion that Lois Lowry is an important writer, as she’s creating a relevant and modern mythos that might well have a lasting impact on the culture.
Messenger and Gathering Blue are pure fantasies, or even fairy tales. They are kindred books, one from a male perspective, and the other from a female perspective. In the same way, The Giver and Son are kindred books, with a male perspective in one and a female perspective in the other. Honestly, put them all together, and I think she’s detailing the problems inherent to a culture that pretends itself to be egalitarian and must heal from the damages this lie has caused. The theme of human evil is overarching, but the evils-of-egalitarianism theme is present nonetheless.
Her choice to write four books with back and forth male-female — as in traditional male-female — perspectives supports this view. However, it’s the content that ultimately supports it. I’m not one to insist on my interpretation as being the author’s intention. I find symbology in books all the time which the author either didn’t know was in there or insisted was not, and that’s because I’m educated. Education creates bias; yes, it’s true. It would be really difficult for the author, in this case, to pretend that the content of masculinity and femininity in her books didn’t exist or that she didn’t intend for it to be in there (egalitarianism goes farther than equalizing the genders, but gender is a strong component of these books).
The first book in the quartet, The Giver, paints a nightmare of an egalitarian society. The society has been artificially engineered to negate differences among people. They are color blind, cut off from their feelings, and all men and women work assigned jobs in an equal fashion. Nobody marries and produces families; the children are supplied by birth mothers (no doubt the only non egalitarian position) and assigned to couples who have also been assigned to each other. Some of the details reveal that the boys, while still children, act like boys — albeit subdued. They’re attracted to vehicles, for example, in a way the girls aren’t and volunteer to work with them when they’re young. The girls, true to form, often volunteer in the childcare center or the nurturing center. But when they begin to have sexual stirrings, their natural genders are suppressed through medication.
The people don’t know any other way, as anyone who isn’t compliant is “released” (i.e. murdered), and everybody else is heavily medicated. I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but isn’t that exactly where we’re at right now? Isn’t it? We’re a pretend egalitarian society who is all but color blind and devoid of our natural emotions. We encourage girls to begin taking birth control pills at a young age, ostensibly to prevent pregnancy or more neutrally to “correct irregular and painful menstrual cycles”. What it does, ultimately, is to create an artificially neutered society. In addition to this, male sperm counts have been low for some time now, and there are a number of theories as to why this is so, including the one about oestrogens polluting the environment.
All this is to say that Lois Lowry has painted us a fairytale version of our own suppressed society. In The Giver, the male protagonist Jonas, after becoming the Receiver of Memories, learns to feel emotions again and then becomes masculine when he ceases to take his drugs. His renewed masculinity spurs him to be noble and courageous, eventually leading his people out of their artificial stupor. By contrast, in its kindred book Son the female protagonist Claire is a “birth mother” who, by bureaucratic negligence, has been forgotten about; she is never put back on her drug regimen after giving birth. She therefore begins to feel the intense loss of the baby that was ripped from her uterus and stolen from her. She ends up sacrificing herself — her entire youth, to give a bit of a spoiler — to be reunited with her child.
Son is Jungian in the way that it progresses. Claire learns what it means to be a woman, and she’s guided by a grandmotherly figure in her quest. She faces the evil shadow side of humanity in order to find her lost child. In the end, however, the hero who finally defeats the shadow is none other than her own son, nearly grown. In other words, the timeless story of the woman who births the man-child, and the man-child who grows up to defeat evil, together set the world right again. Sorry about the spoilers, if you haven’t read it. It’s still worth reading.
I’ll just leave it at that.