The Giver Themes
The main themes in The Giver include the individual versus society, coming of age, and the value of emotions.
- The individual versus society: Jonas ultimately chooses to challenge the conformity of his community by embracing his individuality.
- Coming of age: When young, innocent Jonas is exposed to the terrible realities of his community, he must decide whether society as he knows it should be destroyed.
- The value of emotions: In Jonas’s society, children are taught to stifle strong feelings, and adults take pills to dull their emotions. After he becomes the Receiver of Memory, Jonas begins to question these practices.
The community Jonas lives in appears to be perfect, peaceful, and utopian. Things are not as they seem, though, and several complex themes emerge as the story unfolds, including the individual versus society, freedom versus limitation, the process of coming of age, and the importance of emotions.
The Individual versus Society
In the beginning of the novel, Jonas accepts the rules of his community and wants to fit in. There are rules against bragging or pointing out differences or any other indicators of individual distinction. The community rules ensure that people will not do or say anything that breaks or threatens the homogeneity of the community.
However, when Jonas is selected to be the Receiver, he is immediately set apart from the rest of the community, and this new experience of distinction, of becoming an individual, makes Jonas profoundly uncomfortable. Paradoxically, though the Receiver of Memory is precisely what allows the community to exist in a stable, peaceful, homogenous state, Jonas’s personal experiences in this role are what convince him to reject the community’s teachings. When forced to confront the fact that his society is indifferent to the things his Receiver trainings have taught him to care deeply about, Jonas is unable to maintain his relationships with his friends and family and eventually realizes that he can no longer be a part of his society.
Freedom versus Limitation
The community members are bounded by limitations in all aspects of life. They do not choose their careers, their spouses, or even their appearances. Nor do they choose when they will have children or how many. While community members can exercise limited choice in some instances—such as preferences around volunteer work and recreation—such choices are only allowed in a carefully controlled context. After learning about colors and sensations, Jonas begins to wish for the ability to make simple decisions—like being able to choose clothes based on colors that he likes or letting Gabriel choose which toy to play with—but he is initially reluctant to challenge the community’s teachings that such choices encourage dangerous and “wrong” individualistic behavior. However, as he is exposed to more memories of the past, Jonas begins to question whether choices themselves are inherently wrong, realizing that though people may sometimes make poor or selfish choices, the ability to decide freely is what gives meaning to life.
Coming of Age
The community ritualizes the coming-of-age process in the Ceremony of Twelve. When the Elevens turn Twelve, they receive their assignment, which will be their adult career. After each child is called to the stage during the ceremony, the Chief Elder thanks them for their childhood and announces their permanent assignment. After year twelve, people stop keeping track of their ages and simply transition into full adulthood and then again to being simply Old.
The Ceremony of Twelve marks the beginning of Jonas’s journey to greater maturity and understanding. For normal children in Jonas’s society, the transition to adulthood does not grant them greater independence, freedom, or responsibility—just like children, the behavior of adults in the community is strictly controlled and monitored. Jonas’s own coming of age is quite different, however: as he receives memories of the past and learns more about emotions, Jonas can’t help but notice a disconnect between what he has always been taught and his new understanding of the world. For example, when Jonas learns that he—and, by extension, other adults—can lie, he begins to doubt some of the other “truths” espoused by the community, such as that the community has always existed.
The Value of Emotions
The quality of Jonas’s emotions changes dramatically over the...
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course of the novel, and this transformation binds the other three themes together. After experiencing the intensity of emotion present in memories of great suffering and joy, Jonas comes to understand that the emotions of his family and friends are shallow and limited. This lack of emotion is promoted through behavioral conditioning that discourages community members from displaying strong emotions and through medication. At the beginning of puberty, a time referred to as “Stirrings,” all adults are required to take pills that further dull their emotions and sexual desires. When Jonas asks his parents if they love him, they chastise him for being imprecise with language, implying that they likely do not love him—at least, not in the way that Jonas comes to understand love. They may even be incapable of experiencing true feelings of love, due to their narcotized emotions. When Jonas stops taking the pill, he experiences all of his emotions more deeply, and this emotional strength helps Jonas to decide that things in the community should change. Jonas comes to believe that even though the intense feelings associated with his memories can be difficult to bear, it is wrong to lock them away inside the Receiver of Memory. Ultimately, Jonas chooses to flee the community, thereby saving himself and allowing everyone left behind to experience true emotions, individuality, and choice for themselves.