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Last Updated on August 8, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2386

How Characterization Develops Themes in The Giver: As the protagonist, Jonas develops from a member within the two-dimensional, colorless confines of his community into a vibrant hero, ripe with moral courage, willing to risk his safety and security to save the life of an innocent child whom he loves....

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How Characterization Develops Themes in The Giver: As the protagonist, Jonas develops from a member within the two-dimensional, colorless confines of his community into a vibrant hero, ripe with moral courage, willing to risk his safety and security to save the life of an innocent child whom he loves. Aside from perhaps the Giver, Jonas is the lone character in the text with this kind of complexity. Jonas’s family and friends remain flat, functioning more to develop Jonas and his community rather than themselves as individuals. This specific use of characterization makes The Giver an excellent early text for students to analyze to understand how characterization develops themes in works of literature. 

  • For discussion: How does Jonas develop over the course of the text? What are some of the key turning points for Jonas’s character? What does he learn? How does he change? Draw on specific examples from the novel. 
  • For discussion: Both Asher and Rosemary can be read as character foils for Jonas. Compare and contrast Jonas with these two characters in terms of their perspectives and interactions with others in the community. What do the contrasts between these characters reveal about Jonas? What do they reveal about the text’s themes? 
  • For discussion: How do Jonas’s parents function in the text? What information do they convey to readers, and how do they relate to Jonas? Compare and contrast your relationships with your parents or caregivers to that of Jonas’s with his parents. 

How Symbolism Develops Themes in The Giver: In Jonas’s sparse world, the objects with which characters associate carry meaning. The apple that flickers red while Jonas is playing with it, the bicycles that citizens use to get around, the river that surrounds the community, and the comfort object that Jonas’s sister still clings to develop themes in the text. The prevalence of symbolism in the text invites readers to consider both the literal and connotative importance of a given object and how it relates to the novel’s larger themes. 

  • For discussion: Identify the concrete objects in the text that you find important. What are the figurative associations of these objects? Which themes do these objects point towards and help reveal? 
  • For discussion: Which objects in the book are red? Compare and contrast the connotative meanings of red objects in the text. How does the color red develop themes in The Giver? Are there any objects in the text that should be red that aren’t? 
  • For discussion: Which objects in your own life are symbolic? How so? Compare and contrast the objects you find personally important with the objects that Jonas finds important. 

Identifying Motifs to Establish Genre: For many students, The Giver is their first foray into analyzing dystopian literature as a genre. Like many works of Dystopian literature, The Giver depicts an authoritarian social order in which a minority of its individuals question it and attempt to flee from it. Lowry does just this, with her construction of Jonas’s peaceful, pleasant, organized community which, ultimately, Jonas chooses to abandon. Like other texts in the genre, The Giver invites students to explore their own attitudes about their own societies and the extent to which governments are justified in involving themselves in the lives of the citizenry. 

  • For discussion: How does Lowry characterize the government of Jonas’s community? Ask students to consider the role of the Speaker, the Elders, and ritual in developing the government as the antagonist in the text. 
  • For discussion: In what ways do Jonas and the Giver criticize their community? What views do the other characters express? In your view, which aspects of the community are justified and which aren’t? 
  • For discussion: Which aspects of Jonas’s society is the text specifically critical of? Are there any parallels between these aspects of Jonas’s society and the society in which students participate today? 

Analyzing Verbal and Situational Irony: For many, the elegance of The Giver arises from the way Lowry constructs the calm, pleasant veneer of Jonas’s community, only to subvert the reader’s understanding by revealing its cold, cruel reality. Lowry develops this effect through irony, both verbal and situational. One element of Jonas’s community is precision of language, and Jonas is very conscious of naming his feeling—“apprehension”—as he awaits the Ceremony of Twelve, as well as distinguishing between “hungry” and “starving.” Yet, contradictorily, key practices of the community are referred to through vague euphemisms, such as “release.” Further, as the readers’ understanding of the community develops along with Jonas’s, they also realize that the function of the community’s rituals and regulations are often different from what they seem. 

  • For discussion: Why is diction so important to Jonas’s community? In which situations do they reach for precise, literal language? When do they reach for euphemism? 
  • For discussion: What roles do ritual and ceremony play in the lives of the citizens in Jonas’s community? To what extent are rituals an authentic expression of the citizens’ experiences, and to what extent do they hide reality? 
  • For discussion: Which aspects of Jonas’s community do you find surprising? Compare and contrast your understanding of Jonas’s community with their growing understanding of the ethical compromises they make as citizens of their own community. 

The Importance of Free Will as a Theme: One of the characteristic aspects of Jonas’s community is that its inhabitants lack free will. Though there is some leeway to explore one’s interests during volunteer hours, the critical decisions in life—career selection, marital partner selection, the choice to have a family—are largely dictated by the Elders. Jonas and the Giver address this topic directly on numerous occasions, and the Giver explains that the Elders decided to get rid of choice so that people wouldn’t have the opportunity to make poor decisions. 

  • For discussion: When, how, and why does Jonas’s understanding of free will develop? For Jonas, what are the benefits of free will, and what are its dangers? 
  • For discussion: Within the regulations of the community, when are its citizens allowed to exercise free will? What are the effects of their exercising free will? 
  • For discussion: Is Jonas justified in leaving his community? Is his departure noble, or is he avoiding his responsibility to the community? 
  • For discussion: Are the Elders justified in regulating the lives of its citizens so completely? When and why might a government be justified in regulating the lives of its citizenry? 

Additional Discussion Questions: 

  • The Giver has an ambiguous ending. How do you interpret the final chapter? Support your response with evidence from the text. 
  • Compare and contrast expectations for adolescent members of Jonas’s community with the expectations you feel (or felt, as the case may be) from within your own community. What advice might you give Jonas? How would you respond in his situation? 
  • What are the tradeoffs for individuals in Jonas’s community? What rights do citizens relinquish, and what protections do they gain? Would you be willing to join a similar society? Which benefits would you seek in such a community? Which rights would you be willing to forfeit? 


Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching

Suicide Is a Motif in the Text: One of the fundamental aspects of the community is the idea that individuals can apply for “release.” A euphemism for death by chemical injection, the process of “release,” the choice to end one’s own life, plays a prominent role in the text. Rosemary, the student Receiver prior to Jonas, chooses suicide over life in the community. One of the new rules Jonas receives when he is designated as Receiver is that he is unable to apply for release. When Jonas and the Giver discuss Jonas’s escape, they consider the Giver’s desire to apply for release in their plans. 

  • What to do: Read sensitive selections of the book in class together. Consider modeling close reading for students by engaging critically with the events in the text. 
  • What to do: Make use of sentence frames and structured class discussions to ensure students are equipped and supported when engaging with sensitive subject matter. Additionally, consider asking students to respond through reflective writing. 
  • What to do: Rosemary’s decision to end her life is one of the key elements that distinguishes her from Jonas. Invite students to consider what her choice reveals about her character. Ask students to consider how the values and structure of the community led to Rosemary’s decision. Extend the exercise by asking students to consider what the community, the Giver, or Rosemary herself could have done differently. 
  • What to do: Emphasize the value of all human life to students. Point out the resources available in your community for individuals struggling with suicidal ideation. 

Jonas’s Community Condones Institutionalized Killing: As Jonas’s understanding of his own community builds, so too does the reader come to understand the authoritarian nature of the community’s government. The emotional climax of the novel occurs when Jonas learns that his father, acting in his government assigned role, kills infants that are unable to meet the standards of the community. 

  • What to do: Remind students that the citizens in Jonas’s community don’t understand release in the same way that individuals today understand death. As they conceptualize it, individuals depart for an ambiguous destination described as “Elsewhere.” This inability for characters, such as Jonas’s parents, to grasp the gravity of their actions reveals the very extent to which they are robbed of their understanding of life. In other words, acknowledge that Jonas’s government is terrifying and encourage students to unpack the effect this stylistic choice has on them as readers. 
  • What to do: Explain to students that as a dystopian text, The Giver presents a critique of the authoritarian government therein. Ask students to identify exactly which aspects of the government they find unethical and posit an effective criticism to that end. 
  • What to do: Remind students that many modern national governments, including that of the United States, utilize the death penalty. Ask students to compare and contrast Jonas’s government’s use of release with that of their own government’s use of the death penalty. To what extent are governments today justified in using capital punishment? Note: this conversation is best suited to students of a slightly higher level of maturity, given the difficulty of discussing real-world political policies around capital punishment. 

The Ending Is Ambiguous: Whether Jonas successfully makes it to Elsewhere or succumbs to the elements is unclear. Lowry addressed this ambiguity when she accepted the Newbery Medal, saying, “Those of you who hoped that I would stand here tonight and reveal the ‘true’ ending, the ‘right’ interpretation of the ending, will be disappointed. There isn’t one. There’s a right one for each of us, and it depends on our own beliefs, our own hopes.” 

  • What to do: Explain to students that all authors make choices about which elements to directly, conclusively reveal to readers and which to leave up to the reader’s imagination. 
  • What to do: Ask students to question their own interpretation of the ending, identifying when they are relying on evidence from the text and when they are relying on their personal worldview. 

There’s a Recent Film Adaptation of the The Giver: As is common with classic texts, many students will have already seen the film version before reading the book. Still others may watch the film in lieu of reading the story. 

  • What to do: Remind students that film and novels are different media, so even if a film recounts a text faithfully, reading the text will be an inherently different experience from watching the film. 
  • What to do: Emphasize to students that the film offers a subjective interpretation of the text, not a perfect reconstruction of it. The film is no substitute for the novel. 


Alternative Approaches to Teaching The Giver

While the main ideas, characters, themes, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving teaching The Giver, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the novel. 

Focus on Jonas and his hero’s journey. Compare Jonas’s journey to that of the archetypal hero, who reluctantly leaves the safety of home to go on a physical and psychological quest with the aid of a mentor. What flaws does he overcome? What would it mean for him to be successful in his quest? Alternately, how does Jonas differ from the archetypal hero? Does he deviate from the heroic path? 

Focus on the value of human life as a theme. The community uses norms, rules, and rituals to govern how, when, and why individuals are released. Ask students to consider what Jonas’s society gains and loses from this arrangement. Are there circumstances in which governments are justified in deciding the fate of its citizens? What do the elderly and the very young contribute to society? 

Focus on the value of human relationships as a theme. Over the course of the book, Jonas learns that the feeling of familial love is more profound than that which he shares with his parents and sister. What does Jonas hope to gain when he asks the Giver to act as his grandfather? 

Focus on the construction of gender norms. How do divisions of gender and sexuality function as a motif in the text? While many distinctions between gender are neutralized in the text, other gender stereotypes are upheld. When and why are Jonas and his fellow citizens distinguished by gender? How do these distinctions develop throughout the text? 

Focus on celebrating the value of diversity. One of the goals of Jonas’s community has been to establish “Sameness,” or complete homogeneity among individuals and their environment. As you read, ask students to consider the value of diversity between individuals. What do societies gain by having a population of individuals with diverse backgrounds, tastes, ideas, and opinions? 

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