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The Giver | Study Guide

Lois Lowry

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the themes in Lois Lowry's novel The Giver.

The Giver | Themes


The Freedom and Burden of Choice

Within Jonas's community, the necessity for choice has been eliminated. With a detailed and comprehensive Book of Rules to follow, and schedules in place for each day, every person knows exactly what to do and when to do it. Clothing (and even hairstyles) are regulated, and there are set times for school, work, play, and reflection. A voice over a loudspeaker ensures that all rules are being followed; the school activities, community meetings, and rituals of the family units are structured to reinforce the understanding of what is correct. Citizens are, therefore, freed from the daily burden of having to make hundreds of small decisions.

Much more crucial life decisions have also been eliminated, however. Family units do not develop naturally, with partners choosing to marry and have children. Instead, a special committee determines which spouses are suited to each other and which children best fit within that family unit. Even the number of children is predetermined: each family unit is allowed one boy and one girl. The choice of an individual's job within the community is also decided upon after the Elders' careful observation of that citizen's particular skills and predispositions; those decisions are never questioned.

These rules and requirements were apparently put in place to ensure the most efficient way of running of the community, and to prevent citizens from making the "wrong" decisions. Jonas, when he first becomes truly aware that freedom of choice has been eliminated, rebels against that decision, saying that the elimination of choice is unfair, and that he wants to decide for himself what he does or doesn't want. For a brief moment he tries to "correct" his thinking, saying of his community, "What if they were allowed to choose their own mate? And chose wrong?" He then concludes, "We really have to protect people from the wrong choices."

As Jonas receives more memories and becomes knowledgeable about the beauty of choice, however, he understands that while the freedom to choose does entail risk and possible regret, it can also bring great satisfaction. In other words, the greater the risk, the greater the potential reward. Eventually, the freedom to choose even becomes the key to saving young Gabriel's life and the soul of the entire community, as Jonas decides for himself that the rules of the community are wrong and that he must fight against them. Whether his choice was the right one or not remains ambiguous, but at least he had the freedom to make it.

Importance of Memory

Lois Lowry was inspired to write The Giver after her parents moved to a nursing home. She saw her father begin to lose his memories, even the happy ones, and her mother begin to relive hers, including the death of her oldest daughter. Both situations caused Lowry to begin to wonder about the importance of memories, and what it would be like to be able to manipulate them, choosing which ones to retain and which ones to forget.

In The Giver, control of memory has been taken to a dangerous extreme. At some point in the community's history, leaders decided to protect people from the pain and regret that can be caused by memories. They also wanted to prevent people from dwelling on the past, or longing for traditions and experiences that had been deemed inefficient or dangerous (such as traditional families or crackling fires), or that might interfere with the smooth running of the community. As a result, citizens are allowed only "one-generation memories"; that is, they can only remember experiences from their own life. But those experiences have been so carefully controlled by the leaders, there is almost nothing special enough to recall, bad or good. The critical memories, which include those from generations past and the lessons of history, have been locked away in the mind of one person: the Receiver of Memory.

The position of Receiver was created because even the community leaders realized that only with memories can there be knowledge and wisdom, and only the knowledge of history can prevent disastrous mistakes from being made again and again. The Giver (who, in the novel, is also still the acting Receiver), for example, prevented the Elders from shooting down the pilot who flew over the community, realizing that in the past, such events were accidental and hasty actions led to disaster. Another time, he advised the Elders against increasing the population, recalling instances where communities could not feed their people, a situation that led to hunger and warfare. No one else in the community has The Receiver's knowledge or wisdom, however, which means that for the most part, decisions are made based on rules and guidelines rather than on any real understanding. This eliminates any ability to modify decisions based on common sense or intuition, which may explain how the community became so rigid.

As Jonas receives both the dark memories and the beautiful ones, such as memories of families and holidays, he realizes that the Elders made one other miscalculation when they did away with memories. By eliminating memories, they have also eliminated true contentment and happiness. Without memories of pain or danger (which they have chosen to abolish), people cannot appreciate safety. Without memories of sadness (abolished), no one can feel true happiness and joy.

Conformity versus Individuality

The ultimate goal in Jonas's community is Sameness. This concept is applied to the climate, the terrain around the community, and the buildings within it. It is also applied to people, who are bred and conditioned to be as much alike as possible. Even variations in skin color have been eliminated, along with the ability to see colors. The reason for establishing Sameness among people was apparently to eliminate such things as competition, jealousy, and discrimination. If everyone is the same, there can be no conflict.

The emphasis on Sameness begins even before babies are born. The existence of a stable of Birthmothers suggests that those women are carefully chosen to be human incubators who will produce healthy newborns. It is likely that even the embryos are created by the scientists who monitor the birth process, using the best sperm and eggs. Once the babies are born, those with any kind of weakness or abnormality are "released." The process of release continues over the next year, so that only healthy babies who meet certain criteria are assigned to families.

Sameness continues to be encouraged as the children grow up. They are placed in age groups, with each group given a specific set of responsibilities and tasks to learn. Hairstyles and clothes are assigned. Strict rules of behavior are reinforced at school and in the daily rituals in the family dwelling. Language is expected to be precise, limiting individuality of expression. As the Chief Elder tells the participants at the December Ceremony, their goal is to learn to fit in, "to standardize your behavior, to curb any impulse that might set you apart from the group."

The end result is that there is little individuality, no creative expression, and no appreciation of those who are different. There is no mention of artists or musicians in the book, no geniuses, no leaders. No one is special, except the Ones. Only in the assignment of adult jobs are differences appreciated, and even then they are twisted to conform to the requirements of the society. For example, both Father and Fiona seem to have been born with a great deal of natural empathy and compassion for the newborns and the Old. But their natural instincts are manipulated to the point where they can kill the innocent without a moment's regret, based on a set of directives in "the rules." Individuality is limited to what can be useful to the community; the rest is chiseled away. By seeking Sameness, Lois Lowry seems to be saying that the community has also eliminated the potential for the richness of spirit and mind, innovation, and beauty that diversity can bring. It also means no individual can feel admired, special, or unique.

Security versus Freedom

The quest for Sameness in Jonas's community is about more than eliminating conflict and jealousy. It was also put in place to achieve the ultimate in safety, security, and efficiency in the community. Climate was carefully controlled to allow less disruption of the growing season and more ease in transportation. Family units and a strict number of annual births and deaths were established to control the population and make it the healthiest one possible. Rules and regulations were put in place to prevent competition, discord, and anything resembling crime. Even color was eliminated to reduce the need for choice, or the confusion or discomfort caused by perceived differences.

While the intentions of the original community leaders may have been to create a utopian community where hunger, crime, and discord were unknown, they did so at the expense of freedom and individuality. The community becomes a dystopia, where everything is controlled by a Committee of Elders, and citizens have no say in how they live their lives. They are little more than robots, moving in lockstep through the years as they follow directions in the Book of Rules. Jonas gradually begins to see the unfairness of it all, crying out in frustration against the people who let it happen.

By highlighting Jonas's anger and frustration, Lowry is making the point that people must not blindly follow the rules of society, no matter how well-intentioned the reasons were for putting them in place. They should not be willing to trade away freedom for safety and security. Instead, individuals must be aware of and question everything about their society and their country, including the decisions of those who lead it. In Jonas's community, the people passively accept all rules and customs and have lost their individuality.

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