The setting of The Giver is “the community,” an isolated group cut off from the outside world, which is called “elsewhere.” At first, the community does not seem all that different from our own world—it has houses, schools, a childcare center, and the equivalent of a rest home. In fact, it seems nearly a utopia. In the community, families talk through their problems; the elderly are cared for by other citizens; children show respect for their teachers. There is no war, disease, hunger, or lasting pain.
The reader gradually becomes aware, however, that there are unusual aspects of this society. At the age of twelve, all children become adults and receive their “Assignment,” or life’s work. At a yearly ceremony, the community’s twelve-year-olds are, after a great deal of discussion among their elders, matched with jobs such as “Fish Hatchery Attendant,” “Instructor,” “Pilot,” “Nurturer,” or “Assistant Director of Recreation.” One of the least prestigious jobs is “Birth-mother,” and, it turns out, only a few people actually give birth to children. Infants are assigned to appropriate fathers and mothers when they turn one.
Despite the appearance of tolerance and flexibility, the society follows very rigid rules which are constantly blurted out over loudspeakers. Language must be very precise and is a means of controlling inappropriate ideas. There are no longer any substantial books, except those hidden in the dwelling of The Giver, the only citizen who possesses knowledge of what life was like before the community began.
The novel’s protagonist, Jonas, eventually learns of other flaws in the society. When an individual is “released,” he or she is actually executed by the injection of a drug and disposed of. People are released for breaking rules, for becoming too old, or for not conforming. Jonas’s father, a kindly, nurturing man, helps in the release of infants. It is deemed too confusing for there to be twins, so the weaker one is released. In one case, an infant, Gabriel, is planned to be released because he does not sleep through the night even though he is approaching the age of two.
Less obvious is the fact that members of the community have been conditioned not to see colors—to them, the world is literally black and white. Moreover, they have no music and no knowledge of the past—the concept of grandparents is alien. Because members of the community know no other way of life, they accept everything they are told unquestioningly. The struggle in the novel, then, comes for Jonas, who receives The Giver’s memories of the past, recognizes what his society has lost, and, in an attempt to save himself and the infant Gabriel, runs away, seeking answers “elsewhere,” in the outside world.
Writing in the New York Times, Karen Ray has described the style of the novel as "appropriately flat yet expressive." The novel is written in an accessible, almost journalistic prose which contrasts with the intense, lyrical descriptions of the memories that Jonas begins to receive from the Giver. The novel is gripping, able to hold tightly the reader's attention until the end. The most powerful part of the book is the ending in which fact and fiction, the present and memory, blend together as Jonas struggles to bring Gabriel safely to the outside world that, so far, only exists in the memories he has received from the Giver.
The Giver, which takes place from one December to the next, has a mythic, almost allegorical quality, one quite different from Lowry's comical, contemporary family stories. Some of Lowry's other books, notably Number the Stars, draw on fairy tale allusions and structure to tell realistic stories. Although The Giver makes no direct references to fairy tales, the opening has a "once upon a time" quality and the joys of the outside world, especially the memory of sledding down a hill and a family celebrating Christmas, become Jonas's fairy tales, ones which sustain him at the end of the novel.