The Giver: Theme Analysis
Getting Older and Maturing
Growing older has a constant presence in the story in a number of ways. Chief among them is the fact that the society is structured around ages. Every age signifies a change from one level to another. Jonas is an Eleven. When they go through the ceremony to become Twelves, they receive their assignment—their permanent job—in the community. Jonas’s sister Lily is a Seven, so she still has to wear hair ribbons and is not able to have a bicycle yet—she will receive a bike when she is nine. This is one outer level in the community in which getting older gives you greater responsibility. Another level to getting older is the getting older not just on the outside when you get taller and get more responsibilities, but on the inside where you start to ask questions; Jonas starts getting older when he has the dream about the rebellious Old—it is also at this point where he is given medication to stop the Stirrings (the feelings of individuality and rebellion). Those are the levels of growth in the community, but growth stops because they don’t allow freedom of choice and expression, instead choosing for controls to keep the society contained.
So members in this community get older, but they don’t mature because they don’t have the memories that the Giver and Jonas have. These memories are the key to seeing both the good and the bad, something the larger community does not have, so they are still in a sense children. Jonas is able to mature because he is given the responsibility and “the honor” of becoming the Receiver, a person entrusted to receive all the memories from the Giver. This shows that maturing requires both the knowledge of bad and good to grow into a whole individual.
Rules and Rituals
In Jonas’s community, they are very disciplined; everything must be done in a certain way according to a certain rule. There are identical rules for children growing up. For example, children under nine cannot ride bikes, no one is able to talk about things that make others uncomfortable, assignment (job) rules are all the same, and all family unit times consist of the same ritual: Sameness. This sameness is promoted through laws, rules, and rituals.
Everyone in the community, including Jonas in the beginning, is used to this system of rules and rituals because no one knows any different life. He and all members in his community enjoy their way of life; they have become accustomed to it and accept it. However, as the story continues, and Jonas gets his assignment, we find that his job as Receiver allows him access to information no one else in the community has. This information shows him that the rules and rituals that the community has in place take the color out of life—in this community they do not even have color, a sign that the extreme level in which they allow rules and rituals to rule their lives takes the true joy and color out of their lives as well.
“Stirrings must be reported in order for treatment to take place” (p. 37). Stirrings are the feelings the people in the community get that represent individuality. One of their rules says that the people have to take medication to prevent stirrings. The rules and rituals keep the color and originality of the individual down.
If a person goes against the rules and rituals in this community, he or she are released. Being released is a punishment in the community, and it comes about by breaking the rules. Jonas, through receiving memories, finds that the community is releasing innocent people that still have meaningful lives to live. His anger and eventual fleeing of the community show the drastic way in which they have let rules and rituals guide their lives. When they live for the automatic, robot-like rules, they miss the most important things and end up doing things that are bad.
The Importance of Title
Everyone in the community has names: Jonas, Lily, Rosemary, and Asher. But as the children get closer and closer to their twelfth year of life, they are given an assignment in the community (a job for life). The community elders choose assignments based on the child best qualified for the position, according to their talents. When the children receive their assignment, they become associated with position; for example, Jonas’s Father is a Nurturer. There are Laborers, Namers, Elders, Speakers, Doctors, and many other titles.
The problem is that the real people, like Jonas, Fiona, and Asher, get lost in their job title. It is important to have work to sustain yourself and your family, but when that job starts to take over who you are, it becomes a negative thing. When people work all the time, they no longer have a life. In the story, it is worse than that. The titles allow the person to do bad things. For example, Jonas sees his father kill a child that he is supposed to be taking care of because he is a “Nurturer.” The Giver gifts memories to Jonas that are horrible memories.
There is even prejudice when it comes to the titles, as well. Jonas’s mother tries to instill in Lily that she shouldn’t want to be a birthmother because they have babies for a few years and then end up as Laborers, unlike becoming another title like Doctor or Nurturer where people are doing something that appears to be more important in the community.
Jonas learns that it is not about what people do or are on the outside (such as what title they have or how well they obey the rules), but a combination of who they are on the outside and on the inside that makes a whole, colorful person.
Pain as Growth
Pain is something that everyone tries to stay away from, but the role of pain is very important to this story because it allows the character to grow. Little by little, as Jonas receives memories from the Giver, he starts feeling for the first time in his life. He starts feeling because he starts experiencing both intense pleasure and intense pain—without one you cannot have the other; if you have all sunny days, for example, you can never really appreciate it because you don’t have the experience of a rainy day.
One of the first feelings he experiences is loneliness because he cannot share the memories. This causes Jonas a lot of personal pain because he needs to share both the exhilaration of sledding down a hill in the winter and also the dread of experiencing war. The pain of not being able to share makes Jonas ask a lot of questions of the Giver, who explains that the pain of these memories is a responsibility and an honor for the welfare of the community. The end product of the pain that Jonas goes through is to convince the Giver that the people in this community need the memories so they can be whole people again, not just robots going through the motions of rules and rituals.
The ultimate point of pain is connection, and through Jonas’s receiving of painful memories, he finds he cannot connect with the people in his community, and he has to leave. At the end of the book, when Jonas is fleeing the community with Gabriel, Jonas and Gabriel are in a lot of pain because of hunger and cold, but they make it through this difficult period and get to Elsewhere. The painful experience thus makes them grow stronger.