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The Giver | Study Guide

Lois Lowry

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The Giver | Context


Influences and Inspiration

Lowry has said that the idea of a sterile world without memories and emotions came to her after her parents moved to a nursing home. Her mother was blind and frail, but her mind was intact. Her father, who had been a career military officer, was healthy physically but had begun to lose pieces of his memory.

During one visit, Lowry's mother wanted to tell some of the stories of her life. These included happy memories of her childhood, college, and her marriage. They also included tragic ones, like the death of Lowry's older sister, Helen, from cancer. This was obviously a painful memory, but one Lowry's mother wanted—or needed—to tell. On another visit, Lowry was leafing through a photo album with her father and they came across a picture of Helen. He couldn't remember her name or what had happened to her. Lowry had to explain that her sister's name was Helen, and that Helen had died. A few minutes later, though, her father saw another picture of Helen and asked what happened to her. Her death was new to him each time he saw her picture.

On the way back to the airport, Lowry began to think about how painful memories could be, but also how necessary. She also began to wonder what it would be like if people could manipulate memories. For example, what if she could help her mother remember all of the happy memories, but eliminate the sad one where her daughter died? And just for a moment, Lowry says, she considered how much better our existences might be if we didn't have memories at all. Soon afterward, Lowry began writing a book about people who had learned to manipulate memories so they wouldn't have to remember anything that would give them pain.

Dystopian and Utopian Societies

In Lois Lowry's The Giver, the main character, Jonas, and his family live in what appears to be a perfect society. The climate is always ideal, people know exactly what is expected of them, and there is no war, conflict, poverty, or intolerance. Everyone is well taken care of and seems content. The community could be considered a utopia: a place or state of things where everything is perfect, especially laws, government, and social conditions.

The word "utopia," which literally means "no place," was coined by Renaissance scholar Sir Thomas More in 1516, for his novel of the same name. (The full title is On the Best State of a Commonwealth and on the New Island of Utopia, A Truly Golden Handbook, No Less Beneficial than Entertaining, by the Most Distinguished and Eloquent Author Thomas More, Citizen and Undersheriff of the Famous City of London.) More's "best kind of republic" existed on a fictional island. In the novel, More defined systems of punishment, social hierarchy, agriculture, and education, as well as customs for marriage, dress, and death.

The novel was assumed by many to be a satire. But others interpreted it as a blueprint for how a real society could be built. People around the world began experimenting with utopian communities, and continue to do so, even today. The first recorded utopian proposal, though, seems to have been suggested in Republic, a work by the Greek philosopher Plato. In this society, citizens were categorized into a rigid system of golden, sliver, bronze, and iron classes. The golden citizens were what Plato called "philosopher kings." The others had roles of decreasing importance. Although Lowry may or may not have had this structure in mind when she wrote The Giver, the visible tiers of workers in the community and the leadership of the Elders certainly echo this kind of world.

The opposite of a utopian community is a dystopian one. This is an undesirable or frightening society where citizens live dehumanized, often fearful lives. Dystopias are frequently the setting of books, movies, and other works of art set in the future, when society has become twisted by some strong, ruling power. Common characteristics include a strict class system that divides people into groups according to ability or intelligence, eliminates religion, and isolates citizens from the natural world. Technology is often used as a way to control the society's citizens and cause them to feel more detached from each other. Citizens are under constant surveillance, and independent thought and freedoms are limited.

Ironically, dystopian societies are often the unintended result of a society set up to be ideal. Utopias become dystopias, but the citizens are still under the illusion that their society is perfect. Protagonists like Jonas in The Giver question the existing social and political systems, feeling there is something terribly wrong with life as it is. They provide the perspective through which readers and viewers also become aware of the negative aspects of the society that is being portrayed—and perhaps aware of some resonance with problems in their own society.

Stories about dystopian societies are usually intended to call attention to real-world issues in such areas as politics, science and technology, and government control. Probably the most famous dystopian worlds were portrayed in English writer Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), English writer George Orwell's 1984 (1949), American writer Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1953), and Canadian writer Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985). But the theme continues in both adult and young adult works such as American novelist Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games (2008) trilogy, and in science fiction stories and movies, ranging from the frightening robot-controlled world of The Terminator (1984), to the deceptively peaceful world of Wall-E (2008) where people have traded meaningful lives for days of indulgence and luxury. And of course, dystopia is certainly the reality behind the supposedly perfect word of The Giver.


Although the leadership group in The Giver appears on the surface to be a council of wise Elders with the community's best interests at heart, details in the story quickly reveal that the society actually functions as a totalitarian regime. Totalitarianism is a political system in which there are no limits to the state's, or government's, authority. The ruling body controls every aspect of its citizens' public and private lives. This includes the economy, education, social interactions, and the private lives and morals of the citizens.

In most totalitarian states, all political, legal, and social institutions are replaced by new ones. The group in authority usually has a particular goal in mind as these changes are put into place. Sometimes the goal is economic, sometimes it is political, and sometimes it is based on religious or moral principles. Whatever helps the leaders achieve the goal becomes a priority, and whatever might get in the way is rejected. Everything that the governing group does is explained in terms of the goal, and getting rid of obstacles by any means necessary is justified for the same reason. Any objections or dissenting opinions are considered evil. Most unsettling is the fact that because the society and the authority of those in power center around achieving the goal, the government can never admit the goal has been reached.

The society in The Giver fits this definition almost perfectly. The architects of this world have Sameness as their goal, because with Sameness comes efficiency, safety, and freedom from pain and anxiety. To achieve Sameness, everything—from geography and climate to the structure of family units and the size of the population—is controlled by the government. Each day in an individual's life is predetermined, dictated from the day he or she is born to the day of "release," with every action prescribed in a massive Book of Rules.

Despite these restrictions, none of the citizens question their lives. They follow the rules, assume the Elders are wise, and move lockstep from year to year. As a result, the ruling body stays comfortably in power.

Banned and Challenged

According to the American Library Association (ALA), a banned book in one that has been removed from a curriculum or library and made inaccessible. A challenge to a book is "an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based on the objections of a person or group."

Books may be challenged on moral, religious, or political grounds, and usually with good intentions—to protect children from upsetting, inappropriate, or dangerous ideas. (For example, books dealing with suicide or school shootings have been said to influence troubled teens.) However, the decision about what is upsetting or inappropriate is extremely subjective. It depends to a great extent on the community norms and on an individual's personal moral compass. Several points of view may be equally valid. This is why the ALA advocates for the freedom for writers to express any and all ideas, and for readers, or their parents and guardians, to decide which books they choose to read.

The Giver was the 11th most challenged book from 1990–99, and the 23rd most challenged from 2000–09. It remains on the list of the 100 most frequently challenged books, as recorded by the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom. Some of those who have challenged the novel, which is classified as a children's book and intended for grades 5–8, are concerned that it depicts Jonas's sexual awakening. Some have objected to the violence, and others to the adult themes (such as government control and euthanasia).

The concept of book banning is directly addressed in The Giver itself. No one in the community is allowed to read books other than the dictionary (to ensure precise language) and the Book of Rules, which explains how to conduct one's life. Lowry is showing the logical—if extreme—result of banning books. Nonetheless, readers are challenged to think about a world where information is not available and comes to them only as dictated by their leaders. Hence, this banned book has much to say about book banning as a whole.

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