As discussed below, Lowry’s writing is famed for taking on issues that other young adult and children’s writers avoid. In The Giver, through Jonas and his community, Lowry brings up social issues of the time (and of the decades since) like political correctness, diversity, free will, and even suicide and euthanasia. Her willingness to discuss taboo topics like suicide has resulted in the novel being banned from schools worldwide. No matter what one’s opinion is on this topic’s appropriateness and others in a young adult novel, it is crucial for understanding the broader context of the novel.
The Giver was written in 1993 while Lowry was dealing with her father’s aging father’s long-term memory loss. One particularly poignant memory she relayed in several interviews about the novel concerned the terrible task of reminding her father that his daughter, Lowry’s older sister, died many years previous.
While navigating these dark times in her life, she started to consider what it would be like to be without the most painful memories one usually has no choice but to hold onto. This provided her with the inspiration to create the community in The Giver. There, memories are repressed of the darkest parts of human history but also the brightest. The good is thrown out with the bad.
The Giver is not the first novel that Lowry was inspired to write based on her personal experiences. Her first novel, A Summer to Die, was inspired by that same sister’s death from cancer while Lowry was quite young.
It’s impossible to talk about The Giver’s literary context without mentioning the many essential novels that came before Lois Lowry’s and solidified the dystopian genre as one worth exploring. Readers who are familiar with the world of The Giver are likely also familiar with the worlds created by George Orwell in 1984 and Animal Farm. Other novels like We by Yevgeny Zamyatin and A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess are equally important. The Giver is perhaps the most important novel of the genre aimed at a young adult audience.
It is equally important to speak about the opposite of a dystopia, a utopia, and its origins with Sir Thomas Moore in his book Of the Best State of a Republic, and of the New Island Utopia, usually shortened to Utopia. In this volume, he used the word to describe a seemingly “perfect” society that protects people from the worst parts of humanity, a perfect definition for what the community in The Giver is trying to do. But, utopias are more complicated than they might initially seem.
The word utopia, famously, means “nowhere” or “no place,” suggesting in its an impossibility and that any attempt at creating a utopia will necessarily devolve into a dystopia. Although the world that Jonas is a part of it is less outwardly dystopian than those in 1984 or A Brave New World, it has the same structure. It has fallen over the thin line that separates a successful, safe society from one that’s repressive.
Readers of The Giver will find themselves confronted with some quite difficult social topics. These include euthanasia, diversity, free will, and political correctness. The latter is the debate surrounding what is appropriate in everyday conversation, which topics one should be able to bring up, and which opinions someone can express. The politically correct opinion is the one that most people hold. If someone were to express the opposite, they’d be called out, perhaps ridiculed, or chastised.
In The Giver, everyone believes in the same things and in living the same way. There is one opinion, something Jonas runs up against throughout the novel. He feels differently than other characters do, experiences emotions more fully and completely. This is tied to other complex issues of free will and diversity.
The community celebrates something they call the “Sameness.” This is the repressive equality that extends throughout the whole community. There are no choices. There’s no color, no strong emotions, no true attachments, and no personal character traits. The community enforces Sameness through its rules and the technology it has access to. Jonas can’t express his opinions or suggest to others that they’re allowed to change theirs.
While other people go through life, believing this is the way things should be and always have been, Jonas struggles with not speaking out. For example, when he wants to draw attention to one of his peer’s unique talents. He knows he’ll be judged for doing so and create a potentially troubling situation.
Later on in the novel, the Giver explains that the Sameness was created to protect the community members from making wrong choices. Life is the same for everyone, and since no one gets to choose who they marry or what job they have, there is nothing to fight over. These elements of the novel draw attention to issues of free will and diversity in everyday life. Lowry’s writing asks, is race something to be ignored or embraced? Should differences be celebrated or repressed?
Euthanasia, selective suicide, and murder depending on how one looks at it, or other issues that Lowry raises. Anyone born into the community sickly or different in any discernible way, is too old, or too rebellious, is “released.” The community members believe this involves going to “Elsewhere,” the area outside the walls, but Jonas learns that these people, children, the elderly, and those who refuse to conform, are killed.
At the end of the novel, Jonas takes the final leap in rejecting the community’s efforts to control him. He takes Gabriel, the newborn slated to be euthanized, and escapes the community. He chooses to leave behind the values he was raised and find a new life for himself, even though it means leaving his family, friends, and home behind.