Critical Essays Major Themes in The Giver


Many themes in The Giver demonstrate Lowry's concerns about society and humanity. For example, she concentrates on the tradeoffs involved when Jonas' community chooses Sameness rather than valuing individual expression. Certain themes in the book are familiar because they can be found in other novels by Lowry.

Throughout The Giver, Lowry attempts to awaken each and every reader to the dangers that exist when people opt for conformity over individuality and for unexamined security over freedom. At one time in the past, the people who inhabited Jonas' community intended to create a perfect society. They thought that by protecting the citizens from making wrong choices (by having no choices), the community would be safe. But the utopian ideals went awry, and people became controlled and manipulated through social conditioning and language. Now, even the expression "love" is an empty ideal. For example, when Jonas asks his parents if they love him, his mother scolds him for using imprecise language. She says that "love" is "a very generalized word, so meaningless that it's become almost obsolete." To Jonas, however, love is a very real feeling.

Lowry stresses the point that people must not be blindly obedient to the rules of society. They must be aware of and must question everything about their lives. In Jonas' community, the people passively accept all rules and customs. They never question the fact that they are killing certain babies simply because such babies are different, or that they are killing old people whom they determine are no longer productive to the community. The community members unquestioningly follow rules; over time, because killing has become a routine practice, horrible and senseless actions do not morally, emotionally, or ethically upset them. As The Giver says of Jonas' father's killing the lighter-weight twin male, "It's what he was told to do, and he knows nothing else."

Another important theme in The Giver is the value of the individual. Lowry points out that when people are unable to experience pain, their individuality is devalued. Memories are so vital because they oftentimes include pain, and pain is an individual reaction: What is painful to one person might not be painful to another person. Also, people learn from memories and gain wisdom from remembering past experiences.

Life in Jonas' community is very routine, predictable, and unchanging. So are most of the people who live in the community. These characters are uncomplicated and complacent. They are static, simple, one-dimensional characters. Because the majority of them do not change throughout the novel, we see only one part of their personalities — their surface appearances and actions. Nothing happens within static characters; things happen to them.

Most of the citizens in the community passively follow the rules of the community. They always do what they are told. Nothing has ever happened to them except when an earlier Receiver-in-training, Rosemary, asked for release because she no longer could tolerate living in the community. After her death, the people were in total chaos because they didn't know what to do with the memories that Rosemary had experienced. They were not accustomed to thinking for themselves. Experiencing Rosemary's memories was something that happened to the people. Afterward, they resumed their lives as before, so it is evident that nothing permanently changed within them.

Jonas, on the other hand, is a dynamic character. He changes during the course of the novel due to his experiences and actions. We know how Jonas changes because Lowry narrates The Giver in the third person, limited omniscient viewpoint in order to reveal Jonas' thoughts and feelings. When the novel begins, Jonas is as unconcerned as anyone else about how he is living. He has grown up with loudspeakers, rules, precise language, and a family that is not connected biologically, and he has accepted this way of life because he doesn't know any other type of existence. But as he receives The Giver's memories and wisdom, he learns the truth about his community, that it is a hypocrisy and that the people have voluntarily given up their individuality and freedom to live as robots. Jonas' character changes and becomes more complex. He experiences an inner conflict because he misses his old life, his childhood, and his innocence, but he can't return to his former way of life because he has learned too much about joy, color, and love. Lowry writes of Jonas toward the beginning of Chapter 17, "But he knew he couldn't go back to that world of no feelings that he had lived in so long."

Jonas also experiences an external conflict between himself and the community. He is frustrated and angry because he wants his fellow citizens to change and thereby give up Sameness. He knows that the community and each person's life will benefit if only they would — or could — reclaim their individuality. But the people can't change. Generations ago, they chose Sameness over freedom and individuality. Now, they know no other way of life.

Other themes in The Giver, such as family and home, friendships, acts of heroism, as well as the value of remembering the past, are familiar because they are themes in Lowry's previous novels also. Like Rabble in Rabble Starkey, Jonas has to leave the family that was created for him. Through the experience of leaving, both Jonas and Rabble learn to appreciate what it means to have a family and a home. And like Annemarie in Lowry's award-winning Number the Stars, Jonas lives in a repressed society in which he has no freedom. Both Jonas and Annemarie risk their lives in order to save people they love. Because the conclusion of The Giver is so ambiguous, we don't know how Jonas' experiences ultimately affect him or his community. We do know that he matures and that he feels excited and joyful as he and Gabe ride down the hill on the sled.

Lowry challenges her readers to reexamine their values and to be aware of the interdependence of all human beings with each other, their environment, and the world in which they live. When people are forced to live under an oppressive regime that controls every person's actions, meaningful relationships between people are threatened because they involve individual feelings and thoughts. Only by questioning the conditions under which we live, as Jonas does in The Giver, can we maintain and secure our freedom of expression.