Lowry's novel was written against the backdrop of events in Bosnia, and in particular the ugly results of "ethnic cleansing." During the early 1990s, Serbian forces in Bosnia opened concentration camps and attempted to rid the country of Muslims. Muslim women were raped and Muslim men incarcerated and starved, all as a matter of social and political policy. These practices were made known to the world by investigative journalism. The community in Lowry's novel is similarly concerned to keep outsiders at bay. There is only a way out of the community, no way in.
While writing her novel, Lowry will have been aware of a celebrated euthanasia case in 1990, involving Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Kevorkian had once proposed rendering death row prison inmates unconscious so that their living bodies could be used as the subjects of medical experiments. The suggestion had led to his dismissal, but he continued his preoccupation with euthanasia by writing on the subject for European medical journals. In an issue of Medicine and Law, he suggested setting up suicide clinics, arguing that the acceptance of planned death required the establishment of well-staffed and well-organized medical clinics where terminally ill patients can opt for death under controlled circumstances of compassion and decorum. In the late 1980s, he developed a suicide device that was basically a method of administering a lethal injection. In the novel, the Releasing Room, and the crude means of administering Release, bear all the hallmarks of Kevorkian's suicide device.
Kevorkian appeared on the Donahue talk show in April 1990. A woman who had been diagnosed as suffering from Alzheimer's disease saw the show and got into contact with him. An English professor,...
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The setting of The Giver is "the community," an isolated group cut off from the outside world, which is called, "elsewhere." At first, the community does not seem all that different from our own world—it has houses, schools, a child care center, and the equivalent of a rest home. In fact, it seems nearly a utopia. In the community, families talk through their problems; the elderly are cared for by other citizens; children show respect for their teachers. There is no war, disease, hunger, or lasting pain.
The reader gradually becomes aware, however, that there are unusual aspects of this society. At the age of twelve, all children become adults and receive their "Assignment" or life's work. At a yearly ceremony, the community's twelve-year-olds are, after a great deal of discussion among their elders, matched with jobs such as "Fish Hatchery Attendant," "Instructor," "Pilot," "Nurturer," or "Assistant Director of Recreation." One of the least prestigious jobs is "Birth-mother" and, it turns out, only a few people actually give birth to children. Infants are assigned to appropriate fathers and mothers when they turn one.
Despite the appearance of tolerance and flexibility, the society follows very rigid rules which are constantly blurted out over loudspeakers. Language must be very precise and is a means of controlling inappropriate ideas. There are no longer any books, except those hidden in the dwelling of The Giver, the only...
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Writing in the New York Times, Karen Ray has described the style of the novel as "appropriately flat yet expressive." The novel is written in an accessible, almost journalistic prose which contrasts with the intense, lyrical descriptions of the memories that Jonas begins to receive from the Giver. The novel is gripping, able to hold tightly the reader's attention until the end. The most powerful part of the book is the ending in which fact and fiction, the present and memory, blend together as Jonas struggles to bring Gabriel safely to the outside world that, so far, only exists in the memories he has received from the Giver.
The Giver, which takes place from one December to the next, has a mythic, almost allegorical quality, one quite different from Lowry's comical, contemporary family stories. Some of Lowry's other books, notably Number the Stars, draw on fairy tale allusions and structure to tell realistic stories. Although The Giver makes no direct references to fairy tales, the opening has a "once upon a time" quality and the joys of the outside world, especially the memory of sledding down a hill and a family celebrating Christmas, become Jonas's fairy tales, ones which sustain him at the end of the novel.
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The Giver treats a number of important social concerns and, as a result, deals with some sensitive issues. The book, as is the case with many dystopian novels, argues against blind obedience to society's rules and dictates. The main character's only solution to the ethical problems he encounters is to run away. The novel suggests how language can be used to condition people to accept atrocities and argues that there are significant problems that result from trying to eliminate individual differences. As a result, the community has eliminated the freedom to make choices. Creating a society in which no one feels pain is, in actuality, destructive and leads to the devaluation of individuality.
In order for Jonas to feel compelled to leave the community, Lowry must show his horror at the way his society complacently condones murder. Thus, Jonas witnesses his father happily following orders, killing a baby. Another potentially controversial aspect of the society is that all physical love has been eradicated—members of the community take pills which eliminate all sexual desire.
The moving ending of the novel, in which Jonas and the infant Gabriel flee the community, does not provide a neat solution to the problems Jonas encounters. Like the main character of Robert Cormier's I Am the Cheese (1977), who continues to struggle although it is clear that he will die, Jonas and Gabriel, despite their efforts, may not live to make it to...
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Topics for Discussion
1. Discuss whether the music Jonas hears and the lights he sees at the very end of the novel are real. How are we supposed to read the ending? Do you think Jonas finally reaches a safe place?
2. How do Jonas's attitudes about the community change during the course of the novel? Why do the Giver and Jonas decide that Jonas should leave the community?
3. What does the novel suggest about the importance of being able to make choices, regardless of the consequences?
4. Why does the Giver feel that Rosemary was brave?
5. How is it that Jonas's father, who seems so sensitive to children, is able to perform "releases" so easily?
6. What would be the benefits of living in Jonas's community? What does Lowry suggest that the community has given up in order to be safe?
7. How is language used to control the behavior of community members?
8. How does Lowry manage to create suspense in this novel?
9. Discuss the memories that Jonas acquires from the Giver. How do they change him? Is Lowry really suggesting that we would be better off without painful memories?
10. Discuss Lowry's use of community holidays, especially the Ceremony of Twelve. How does this celebration differ from the memory of Christmas, which Jonas receives from the Giver and which sustains him when he escapes?
11. Why does Jonas empathize with Gabriel? What is it about the infant that makes Jonas...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Read one or two other "dystopian" novels, such as 3984 and Brave New World. Compare and contrast the characteristics of the societies they depict with those of The Giver. You might consider what, if any, characteristics their protagonists share and the way in which they react to their respective societies.
2. Memory is an important topic in Lowry's Anastasia Krupnik and Autumn Street. Compare and contrast what the books suggest about the value of and pain associated with memory.
3. Take one of the memories which Jonas receives and write a story which incorporates it. You might explore the characteristics of the person who initially experienced this memory and why it was...
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Topics for Further Study
A politician holding high office, after reading The Giver, decides that new laws should be passed outlawing cultish communities. These laws will also affect traditional communities, such as the Amish and the Bruderhof. As an attorney you are engaged by such communities to help defend their continuing existence. Prepare your defense.
After collecting as many examples of attempts to build Utopia as you can find (these should include both practical attempts, and fictional representations), plot them on a world map and on a timeline to determine whether they tend to occur in clusters.
You are a television documentary producer. You have been asked to produce an outline for a 60-minute program on the...
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Dystopian novels, books about repressive, nightmarish future societies (which are extolled by their leaders as the perfect way of life), have been the subject of a number of novels for young adults, as well many adult books which are regularly taught in high schools. Both Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1933) and Ray, Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1953) portray future worlds whose citizens are assigned specific social roles, much like the members of the community in The Giver. In all three of these worlds, art, music, and literature have disappeared, often having been replaced by technology or more "practical" pursuits. In George Orwell's well-known 1984 (1940), "Big Brother" and the Thought Police control...
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What Do I Read Next?
Anastasia Krupnik, the first in Lowry's sequence of novels about a "crackle-brained, fizzle-headed, freckle-faced dynamo." The atmosphere in this novel could not be more different from that in The Giver. Can you identify any connections?
One reviewer of The Giver compared it with Margaret Atwood's adult novel The Handmaid's Tale (1985), a dystopia in which women's roles are limited to either wife or bearer of children.
There were several attempts to set up Utopian communities in the nineteenth century. Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance (1852) is based on personal experience of one such enterprise.
Any futuristic tale must expect to be compared with...
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For Further Reference
Bradburn, Frances. "Middle Books for Fourth through Eighth Graders." Wilson Library Bulletin 68 (1993): 122- 123, 126. Bradburn suggests that The Giver is excellent science fiction for young readers and that it is more subtle and more straightforward than Louise Lawrence's Keeper of the Universe (1993).
Campbell, Patty. "The Sand in the Oyster." Horn Book 69 (1993): 717- 721. A detailed analysis of The Giver, noting Lowry's growth as a writer and comparing the novel to David Skinner's You Must Kiss a Whale (1993). Campbell comments on Lowry's use of foreshadowing and the ending which draws from three different typical ways of ending a dystopian novel.
Flowers, Ann A....
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Patty Campbell, review in The Horn Book Magazine, Vol. LXIX, No. 6, November-December, 1993, pp. 717-21.
Jane Inglis, review in The School Librarian, Vol. 43, No. 1, February, 1995, pp. 31-32.
Lois Lowry, Newbery Medal Acceptance speech, delivered at the American Library Association's annual meeting June, 1994, printed in The Horn Magazine, Vol. LXX, No. 4, July-August 1994, pp. 414-22.
Gary D. Schmidt, review in The Five Owls, Vol. VIII, No. 1, September-October, 1993, pp. 14-15.
For Further Studv
Michael Betzold, Appointment with Doctor Death, Momentum Books, 1993.
A journalist gathers...
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