The Giver tells the story of Jonas, a boy who lives in a dystopian community where the course of every citizen's life is rigidly controlled. Every individual's future is mapped out at a ceremony which takes place when they are twelve years old. When Jonas's turn comes, he is told by the Elders who preside over this society that he has not been given an ordinary job. Instead, he is to be the "Receiver of Memory," a repository of the collective memories of the society, which no one else is allowed to access. He is trained for this unique post by the current Receiver of Memory, known as "the Giver."
In addition to being stripped of all choices and the collective memories of things like love, death, and war, the citizens of this community are taught to suppress their emotions and feelings to maintain order and avoid conflict. As the Receiver, Jonas is able to, for the first time, experience the full spectrum of human emotion through the memories he accesses.
One day, Jonas's father brings home a child called Gabriel from the "Nurturing Center" where he works. The Giver shows Jonas how his father's job involves killing some of the babies under his care, and Jonas—who now understands death and grief—is horrified by this. Both he and the Giver agree that the society in which they live must change and that people should have their memories and free will returned to them. They plan to fake Jonas's death, and for him to escape from the community in which he lives, which will allow all the memories he holds to return to the people. The Giver will stay behind to help them process these new emotions and memories.
Jonas escapes sooner than planned when he discovers that Gabriel is due to be killed the next morning. The book ends while he is still making his escape with Gabriel, and it is unclear whether he will succeed or not.