The protagonist of The Giver is a twelve-year-old boy named Jonas who, early in the novel, is assigned to become the community's new "Receiver of Memory." Jonas has been concerned about finding a proper niche in his society because he has previously enjoyed working in a variety of settings and does not just have just one area of interest. Jonas is introspective, constantly thinking about society and his place in it. Jonas is one of a few members of the community with light eyes and, it turns out, with the ability to, for brief moments, see colors.
Privy to information that no other citizen has because of his new assignment, Jonas finds himself questioning the world in which he has been raised. Like his father, Jonas has a nurturing side and comes to care for the infant, Gabriel, whom his family temporarily has taken in, sharing the memories he has received from the Giver to calm Gabriel. It is because of his love for Gabriel that Jonas leaves the community before the time that he and the Giver have planned.
The other significant character in the novel is the Giver, the previous Receiver of Memory, who, somewhat mystically, has been given memories of war, pain, joy, color, light, and music, all from a time before the community existed. Although he is learned (he is the only one allowed to read books), he is actually cynical about the community. His own daughter, Rosemary, has previously had Jonas's assignment and, because of the pain it involved and...
One of the children being "nurtured" by Jonas's father is not putting on weight. The boy is in danger of being declared "inadequate" and hence being set aside for "release." The father's concern is genuine. He secretly discovers the name that has been allotted to the child (Number Thirty-six in his year group), and uses it prior to the naming ceremony, hoping it will help the little fellow's development. In Chapter 3 Jonas's father actually brings the baby home at night, together with the child's comfort object (a hippo), and later he successfully lobbies for "Gabe" to be granted an additional year of nurturing.
Gabriel is pale-eyed. Although Jonas is also pale-eyed, this is a rarity in the Community. There is a suggestion that the two of them may have shared the same birth-mother. Certainly a fraternal bond develops between them, especially after Jonas offers to let Gabriel sleep in his room, so that he can be the one to comfort him in the night, if necessary, his Mother and Father having become worn out.
On being transferred for a trial night back to the Nurturing Center, Gabriel cries inconsolably, and it is decided he shall, after all, be "released." This announcement, at a family evening meal, forces Jonas to bring forward his planned escape. He races away from the community on his Father's bike, with Gabriel in the child-seat on the back.
The Giver is fair-eyed, like Jonas, and like the previous Receiver, a girl called Rosemary. The Giver claims Rosemary as his daughter.
In her Newbery acceptance speech, Lowry talked about a painter she had met in 1979, while working on an article for a magazine. Something fascinated Lowry about the painter's face, especially his eyes. "Later I hear that he has become blind. I think about him—his name is Carl Nelson—from time to time. His photograph hangs over my desk. I wonder what it was like for him to lose the colors about which he was so impassioned. I wish, in a whimsical way, that he could have somehow magically given me the capacity to see the way he did." (Lowry's photograph of Carl Nelson was used on the front cover of the first American edition of the novel.)
The Giver, who describes himself as not as old as he looks, provides just such a magical transfer of powers. He has been made tired by the burden of knowledge and memories, the assimilation and storage of which have consumed his life. As soon as Jonas meets him (in Chapter 10), The Giver is at pains to point out that it is not the memory of nostalgia—not the recollections of childhood normally indulged in by the old—that he must transmit. "It's the memories of the whole world."
His apartment is book-lined, at first giving the impression that The Giver's knowledge is professorial, and that the relationship between him and Jonas will be one of sage and student....
Jonas, the main character of the novel, unlike his friend Asher, is careful about language. He searches for the right words to describe his feelings. The opening of the book establishes him as age eleven, apprehensive about the approaching December, when the annual Ceremony will be held and Assignments will be given to all those in his year group.
He gets on reasonably well with his peers and has friends of both sexes (Asher and Fiona). But he feels different. Physically he has pale eyes, whereas nearly everybody else has brown eyes. Other eleven-year-olds are able to predict their likely Assignments, which are chosen on the basis of observed inclinations and aptitudes. Jonas has developed no special interest (he visits the House of the Old only to be with Fiona, who is dedicated to her work there) and has no idea what the Elders will consider him cut out to become—hence his apprehensiveness.
Apart from this, Jonas conforms well. He shares his family's distaste for Isaac, the clumsy and untidy boy who lives next door. Numbered Nineteen in his year group, Jonas has a long wait at the Ceremony, while the lower numbers receive their Assignments. All are given predictable and aptly chosen tasks in life. His nervousness mounts. The tension (both for Jonas and for the reader) becomes almost unbearable when the Chief Elder skips Jonas's number. His is the last Assignment to be announced. It is entirely unexpected and hugely daunting; Jonas has been...
As with all the characters in the novel, Andrei is mentioned only by his first name. A contemporary of Jonas's father, he became an engineer and designed the bridge that crosses the river to the west of the community.
Asher is Jonas's best friend. He has a habit of mixing up his words, a habit which early chastisement with the Discipline Wand at the age of three did not eradicate. In one recollected scene, he asks for a "smack" instead of a "snack" and is repeatedly hit. This treatment caused him to stop talking altogether for a time, but essentially he remains an easygoing boy with a good sense of fun. At the ceremony of Assignment, he is made Assistant Director of Recreation, an occupation which everyone feels will be entirely appropriate for him. After Jonas has been assigned to The Giver, the two friends fall out, Asher not being able to understand Jonas's objections to a goodies-baddies game he has been playing with friends.
Benjamin is the same age as Asher and Jonas. For the past four years he has done his voluntary service after school in the Rehabilitation Center, where he has devised important new equipment.
A very minor character. The brother of Fiona, a girl Jonas is especially fond of.
Caleb is described as a replacement child. In Chapter 6 he is presented to a couple in place of their previous child, who had wandered off and fallen into the river. Fatal accidents, such as this, are rare in the Community. The choice of the same name for the replacement child is quite intentional. At the time of the original Caleb's loss, the entire community joined together in a slowly fading murmur of the drowned boy's name. Since then it has been used by no one. Then, at the naming ceremony of the new Caleb, the murmuring begins again, this time increasing in volume, "as if the first Caleb were returning."
The Chief Elder, elected every eleven years, is the leader of the community and responsible for addressing the annual ceremonies, at the culmination of which the Assignments are announced. The Chief Elder announcing Jonas's Assignment is female.
Edna is an old person who has been recently "released." She had been a Birthmother and then worked for years in Food Production, without forming a family unit.
For most of the time the reader is entirely sympathetic towards Jonas's father. He works as a Nurturer, looking after very young children before their naming and allocation to family units. His concern for one baby boy, Gabriel, who is not progressing well, is touching, especially when he decides to bring the child home for several weeks in order to build up his body weight. This gesture is thoroughly approved by Jonas. But total disillusion with his father sets in when Jonas discovers the truth about "release" and witnesses his father's casual, businesslike approach towards deciding the fate of a pair of twins, only one of whom is allowed to grow up in the Community.