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Lowry’s novel was written against the backdrop of events in Bosnia, 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 with keeping outsiders at bay. There is only a way out of the community, no way in.


While writing her novel, Lowry would 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 could 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 Giver, 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, she found the prospect of deteriorating mental faculties impossible to bear. Both she and her husband had been long-standing members of the Hemlock Society, which supports doctor-assisted suicide. On June 4, 1990, using Kevorkian’s suicide machine, she terminated her own life.

Although attempts to punish Kevorkian with the law on this and subsequent occasions failed, the moral outcry was vociferous. Condoning suicide paves the way for society to abdicate its responsibility for improving conditions for the elderly and chronically ill, many argued. However, the woman’s family and friends insisted that she was competent to make her decision and had every right to do so. They defended the doctor’s part in her death. This particular case, and others Kevorkian has been associated with since then, have dramatized the issue of the right to die in a way that has demanded full media attention. Lowry’s children’s novel might well be advocated reading for any adult anxious to consider the full implications of doctor-assisted suicide.

Branch Davidian Raid

Early in 1993 the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, was raided by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) after neighbors of the religious group complained of hearing machine-gun fire and a United Parcel Service employee reported delivering two cases of hand grenades and black gunpowder. The Branch Davidians were an offshoot of the Davidian Seventh-Day Adventists, a splinter group of the Seventh-Day Adventists.

David Koresh had joined the group in 1984 and immediately began a campaign to gain control. Under Koresh, the religious sect became a full-fledged cult. He incorporated a strict regime for the group but excluded himself from his own discipline. After the first abortive raid by the ATF, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) swarmed the compound, hoping that cult members would surrender themselves voluntarily. Weeks of negotiations followed before the FBI asked Attorney General Janet Reno to authorize another raid on the compound.

The raid commenced at...

(This entire section contains 741 words.)

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12:05 in the afternoon. Smoke was seen coming from the compound. Fire trucks were called, but they did not arrive for thirty minutes. By that time, most of the building had already collapsed. Eighty-six people perished in the fire, including seventeen children and Koresh himself. Only nine people survived.

Koresh was representative of individuals who cast a mesmerizing spell and gain supreme control of a sect. The community in Lowry’s novel is a much more substantial body of people than this and should not be referred to as a cult (Lowry herself does not use this word in the novel) any more than the Anabaptists or the Amish are cults. In this regard, although the events of the Branch Davidian Raid were closely contemporary with the book’s publication, they are not particularly relevant to the themes of the novel.

Social Sensitivity

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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 that 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 safety. The novel’s ending is intentionally ambiguous, leaving the reader to ponder whether the Christmas lights that Jonas sees are real or whether they are only memories he has received from The Giver.


Style, Form, and Literary Elements


Connections and Further Reading