Summary and Analysis
In the first sentence of The Giver, Lowry creates suspense and foreshadows the outcome of the novel. The setting is an unknown future year in "almost December." Lowry uses the word December to symbolize short, dark days, cold weather, and end-ings — a time when nature seems dead. She also alludes to future, fearful situations because Jonas' fear — apprehension — has just begun. Lowry uses the third person, limited omniscient view-point — that is, she tells us what Jonas thinks and feels but not what the other characters' thoughts and feelings are. This viewpoint is limited omniscient because the thoughts and feelings of only one character, the protagonist, are revealed.
Although Lowry doesn't provide geographical details of Jonas' community, she does disclose certain characteristics of the community through Jonas' point of view. As Jonas remembers an incident a year earlier when a pilot mistakenly flew over the community, it becomes evident that the people in the community unhesitatingly obey instructions that the Speaker blasts over loudspeakers placed throughout the community. At the conclusion of the plane incident, the Speaker uses an amused tone to announce that the pilot is going to be "released" from the community. Through Jonas, we know that a release is a "terrible punishment, an overwhelming statement of failure." The irony of the Speaker's amused tone and the pilot's serious punishment creates a sense of foreboding — a threatening feeling that something bad is going to happen — because Lowry does not explain what "release" means.
Jonas' life seems ideal. His parents both work. His father is a Nurturer, a caretaker of infants, and his mother has an important job with the Department of Justice. Jonas and his seven-year-old sister, Lily, attend school, and Lily goes to the Childcare Center after school. Jonas and Lily argue and tease each other. Each evening at mealtime, the family members share their feelings about that day's events and then comfort and support each other. Their life seems too good to be true.
Not only Jonas' family but the entire community appears to be a utopia, a perfect place where nothing bad happens. Everyone who is at least nine years old rides bicycles because they seem to be conscious of improving their air quality by not using vehicles. Children eight years old and younger are not allowed to ride bicycles until they receive their own at the age of nine, but, like most children, they secretly practice. The elderly people in the community are honored for a life well lived and are released at celebrations of their lives. Each school day begins with a patriotic hymn — a "chanting of the morning anthem" — and citizens of the community encourage the use of precise language.
Precise language, however, is not always precise. Many times, the meaning of a word is other than the dictionary meaning. For example, during the evening sharing of feelings, Lily explains her anger at a boy who visited her school that day but who didn't understand the playground rules. The visitor behaved differently, so Lily and Jonas call him an "animal." To them, the word "animal" means "someone uneducated or clumsy, someone who didn't fit in." However, Lily and Jonas don't really know what an animal is because apparently animals do not exist in their community. That people in the community, because they have never had contact with animals, believe that animals are imaginary can be seen in the comfort objects which Sevens and younger sleep with. Comfort objects are stuffed animals that represent actual animals. Each new-child (infant) is issued one comfort object and can keep it until the age of eight, when it is turned in to be recycled for use by another newborn. Jonas' comfort object was a bear, and Lily's is an elephant.
As Lowry discloses other meaningful details about the community, tension builds because something doesn't seem quite right. We find out that everyone in the community lives by rules contained in the Book of Rules. Adults do not choose their own spouses; instead, they are matched according to their personalities. Each family is called a family unit and is made up of a mother, a father, and two children — one male child and one female child. Parents in a family unit must apply for each child. When their application is accepted and they have been matched with one of the babies born during the year (only a maximum of fifty babies are born each year to control the population), they receive a newchild at the December Ceremony, when the infant is named and becomes a One (one year old). Birthdays are not exact: A child's age always increases each December, even if the child's birthday is not in December. After a person reaches the age of twelve, birthdays are no longer observed.
The community members have chosen Sameness over individuality and security over freedom, both major themes in the novel. Until the age of twelve, each peer group is called by its age — for example, Fives, Sevens, Elevens — and must abide by established rules regarding appropriate clothing, haircuts, and behavior for each particular age group. Every child in a peer group looks the same. Everyone and everything are predictable day after day, year after year, thereby ensuring the false sense of security that people in the community have chosen over the freedoms to think and act for themselves. Jonas' community is not a utopia; it's a dystopia, a place that appears to be perfect but really is not.
Lowry gives us the illusion that the people living in the community are acting as individuals rather than as robots. For example, when Jonas' father breaks a rule by checking a list to see what name an infant, who is not sleeping soundly or developing as quickly as he should, will be given at the naming ceremony, Jonas is awed. He can't imagine his father breaking a rule, especially because fathers are expected to exhibit model behavior for their children, and if citizens are caught breaking the rules, they are punished. If someone breaks the rules and is caught three times, the offender's punishment on the third offense is release from the community.
Jonas' mother's duties include punishing people who break rules and ultimately having to authorize these people's release from the community. Her distressful feelings about release show that a release is actually quite horrible. A release is final and signifies that the person being released is a complete failure to the community. Lowry hints at the meaning of release when she describes the citizens' feeling of "what-could-we-have-done?" when an infant has to be released for not developing quickly enough. The people clearly feel as though they are doing the right thing by following the rules, but by following the rules, they don't have to accept responsibility for their actions. They are so conditioned to following the rules that it doesn't occur to them to think as individuals and voice their own opinions. And getting a rule changed is an almost impossible feat. Citizens laugh about changing a rule because it is such a difficult, drawn-out procedure. The suggested rule is first presented to the Committee of Elders and is then studied for years. If the Committee of Elders can't make a decision, the proposed rule change goes to The Receiver, the most important Elder in the community, for a decision. Because the process could take a lifetime, changes in the rules are not often suggested.
When Jonas shares his apprehension about the December Ceremony with his parents during the ritualistic evening sharing of feelings, a family discussion ensues. The December Ceremony is especially important to Jonas because he is an Eleven and will be participating in the Ceremony of Twelve, in which he will be assigned his lifelong career. The job Assignments are secretly made by the Committee of Elders after much observation, note-taking, and discussion. Jonas is apprehensive because he has no idea what his Assignment will be. According to the rules, Jonas' parents comfort him, assuring him that his Assignment will be the right one for him. At the conclusion of Chapter 2, Lowry continues the book's foreboding mood of uncertainty as Jonas' mother talks to him about the changes that will occur in his life after he is assigned.
dwelling a home.
Food Delivery people People in Jonas' community don't cook their own food. The food for each meal is delivered to community members by people who have been assigned to be Food Delivery people.
ironic a contrast between what is expected and what actually occurs. For example, in Chapter 1, when the Speaker informs the community that the errant pilot will be released, he uses an "amusing" tone in his voice, but the act of release is a serious, fatal matter.
Speaker the person whose voice the people hear over the loudspeaker system.
palpable here, meaning real.
hatchery Jonas' community includes a salmon hatchery, a place where salmon are raised for the people's consumption.
tunic a piece of clothing.
wheedle here, meaning to compete for attention.
animals a term used in Jonas' community to describe someone "uneducated or clumsy, or someone who didn't fit in."
usages ways in which words are used.
newchildren newborns; infants.
December Ceremony the ceremony during which the children in each peer group chronologically move from one age to the next; infants are placed with family units, and Twelves are assigned their lifelong careers.
Hall of Open Records a building that stores records about citizens and events, as well as other information that is available to citizens of the community.
comfort object a stuffed animal that is issued to an infant until the child becomes an Eight, at which time the stuffed animal is recycled for another child's use.