The Giver

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The Giver: Study Notes
Context:
She was inspired to write The Giver—which won the 1994 Newbery medal—after visiting her elderly father in a nursing home. He had lost most of his long-term memory, and it occurred to Lowry that without memory there is no longer any pain. She imagined a society where the past was deliberately forgotten, which would allow the inhabitants to live in a kind of peaceful ignorance. The flaws inherent in such a society, she realized, would show the value of individual and community memory: although a loss of memory might mean a loss of pain, it also means a loss of lasting human relationships and connections with the past. The society Lowry depicts in The Giver is a utopian society—a perfect world as envisioned by its creators. It has eliminated fear, pain, hunger, illness, conflict, and hatred—all things that most of us would like to eliminate in our own society. But in order to maintain the peace and order of their society, the citizens of the community in The Giver have to submit to strict rules governing their behaviour, their relationships, and even their language. Individual freedom and human passions add a chaotic element to society, and in The Giver even the memory of freedom and passion, along with the pain and conflict that human choice and emotion often cause, must be suppressed. In effect, the inhabitants of the society, though they are happy and peaceful, also lack the basic freedoms and pleasures that our own society values. In this way, The Giver is part of the tradition of dystopian novels written in English, including George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In these novels, societies that might seem to be perfect because all the inhabitants are well fed or healthy or seemingly happy are revealed to be profoundly flawed because they limit the intellectual or emotional freedom of the individual. 1984 and Brave New World both feature characters who awaken to the richness of experience possible outside the confines of the society, but they are either destroyed by the society or reassimilated before they can make any significant changes. The books function as warnings to the reader: do not let this happen to your society. The message of The Giver is slightly more optimistic: by the end of the novel, we believe that Jonas has taken a major step toward awakening his community to the rich possibilities of life. The novel is also slightly less realistic: although the technological advances that allow the community to function are scientifically feasible, the relationship between Jonas and the Giver has magical overtones. But Lowry’s dystopian society shares many aspects with those of 1984 and Brave New World: the dissolution of close family connections and loyalty; the regulation or repression of sexuality; the regulation of careers, marriages, and reproduction; the subjugation of the individual to the community; and constant government monitoring of individual behaviour. The Giver was published in 1993, a time when public consciousness of political correctness was at a peak, and this historical context is interestingly echoed in some aspects of the society that Lowry portrays. One of the most prominent debates surrounding political correctness was—and is—the value of celebrating differences between people versus the value of making everyone in a society feel that they belong. The society in The Giver’s emphasis on “Sameness” can be seen as a critique of the politically correct tendency to ignore significant differences between individuals in order to avoid seeming prejudiced or discriminatory. At the same time, the society refuses to tolerate major differences between individuals at all: people who cannot be easily assimilated into the society are released. Lowry suggests that while tolerance is essential, it should never be achieved at the expense of true diversity. In The Giver, Lowry tackles other issues that emerged as significant social questions in the early 1990s....
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