Study Guide

The Giver Analysis

  • Tone

    Seductive (Lowry's Words, Not Ours)

    Lois Lowry explains in her Newbery Medal acceptance speech that she tried to "seduce" the reader. No, not that way—get your minds out of the gutter, Shmoopers.

    What she means is that she wants to draw you in, and in a way ease your guard at the outset of The Giver. Think about it this way: when you first see Jonas's community, it doesn't seem all that bad. Everyone's nice to one another. The family is open and communicative:

    Next, Mother, who held a prominent position at the Department of Justice, talked about her feelings. Today a repeat offender had been brought before her, someone who had broken the rules before. Someone who she hoped had been adequately and fairly punished, and who had been restored to his place: to his job, his home, his family unit. To see him brought before her a second time caused her overwhelming feelings of frustration and anger. And even guilt, that she hadn't made a difference in his life. (1.59)

    (Okay, we admit, the thought of "sharing feelings" at dinner might make you want to hurl, but once you get past the eye-rolling, a violence-free world doesn't seem like a bad deal.)

    But after you're lured into this placid, cookie-cutter community and thinking "Oh, this seems nice," comes the shocker: no freedom, no choice, no sex, and no real emotions.

  • Genre

    Dystopian Literature, Science Fiction

    Jonas's community is an attempt at a utopia—a perfect society with no pain, suffering, or violence. But, as we see from reading, there are clearly some serious problems here. There's no freedom, choice, or individuality, and the novel argues that this price is just too high to pay for mere contentment. So, because The Giver portrays a failed utopia, it is anti-utopian or a dystopia—a world in which everything has gone wrong.

    Moving on to the next category, take a look at the world in which The Giver takes place. In this futuristic society, humans are genetically engineered to stop seeing color. The climate and topography are scientifically controlled. We don't know the details of these techniques, but it's plot elements like these that warrant the "science fiction" label.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Is It Better To Give Than Receive?

    Lois Lowry isn't playing coy with this title—no Shakespeare or Bible allusions here. (Thanks, Lo!)

    The term "The Giver" refers to the old man, the former Receiver, who transfers all his memories to Jonas. The very names "Giver" and "Receiver" remind us of one of the book's central themes: memory is meant to be shared.

    The professions held by Jonas and the old man may be about holding the memories, but they are more significantly about passing them from one person to another. That's why their titles aren't "Memory Keepers." The transition from one to the other—from a Receiver to a Giver—is an important one in the novel. The old man, of course, becomes The Giver as soon as Jonas becomes the Receiver.

    But, more interestingly, Jonas becomes The Giver when he gives his memories to Gabriel. He has found love by the end of the novel, and he expresses that love through the selfless act of handing over his best and brightest memories. Which is totally aww-inducing.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Snow Day?

    The ending to The Giver is sort of a "take it how you like it" deal. Either Jonas and Gabriel make it to Elsewhere, everyone is happy, and the world is right as rain, or… they die of exposure/starvation in the freezing snow.

    Hmm. Not a lot of gray area there.

    The first option makes a good case for the book being optimistic. Jonas, despite being raised in the highly controlled community, has come to value freedom and choice over contentment and ease. Gabriel, being a baby and all, could represent the opportunity for a better future. That they make it to their destination means there is hope for all of us.

    The second option is a bit more flexible. Clearly, it could be a huge downer. The human spirit, the desire for individuality, etc., are nothing in the face of the rigid rules of Jonas's community. Once we've abandoned freedom for security, we can't ever go back.

    Well, that's no good. Maybe you want to go with that other ending…

    But wait. Even if Jonas and Gabriel do die, the ending might still be optimistic. The point isn't that Jonas succeeds, but that he tries at all. If he is willing to die for freedom and choice and individuality, then isn't that a kind of victory? He still escaped from the community. He still got "released," in one way or another. And, by leaving the community, Jonas released all the memories he had received from The Giver.

    So it may be one small step for Jonas (and one baby step for Gabriel), but it's one giant pain in the butt for the Elders. And that's something.

  • Setting

    An Isolated "Community" Sometime In The Future

    Yeah, our description is pretty vague... but so is the setting in The Giver.

    We can't be sure when the story goes down, but since the memories of a distant past correspond to our world today, we conclude that it is, in fact, some time in the future.

    Lowry has created in The Giver an entire world, unique from what we know but with certain similarities. There's enough to make it familiar to us, but elements that make us uncomfortable, too. For instance, Jonas has sexual urges just like we do (normal), but he has to take a pill to make his go away (weird). He has a family, with parents and a little sister (normal), but they're all selected by a committee to form a family unit (weird). This strange dichotomy is what makes The Giver so enticing.

  • Writing Style

    Plain, Clear

    The Giver is a rather straightforward narrative, so you won't get bogged down in ornate language or Faulkner-like, page-long sentences. But that doesn't mean that the writing is childish or boring—it's economical, but full of imagery:

    Jonas nodded. The man was wrinkled, and his eyes, though piercing in their unusual lightness, seemed tired. The flesh around them was darkened into shadowed circles.

    "I can see that you are very old," Jonas responded with respect. The Old were always given the highest respect. (10.36-37)

    Refreshingly, the novel tells it like it is. Or rather, tells it as it might be, in Lowry's cautionary vision of the future.

  • Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

    The Color Red

    OK, so what do you think of when you think of red? Fire, passion, and love…exactly. Red is a pretty intense color. Possibly the intense color. So when Jonas starts seeing the color red, he's not just seeing the color red. He's seeing passion, fire, and love. That's why it's so fitting that Fiona – the girl Jonas does have feelings of attraction for – has red hair. It's also fitting that at the peak of the novel's emotional intensity – when Jonas is trying to survive and clinging onto desperately to his last bit of hope and courage – we get the color red again, this time in the sled he finds at the top of the snow-covered hill. See how that works out?


    Because Gabriel is a baby and can't talk or emote in any discernible way, he's really more of a symbol than a full-fledged character. So what does Gabriel symbolize? Well, to Jonas, Gabriel is a pal. Jonas identifies with him. There's that whole light eyes thing (and we have more to say on that in a bit) and the fact that they can share memories together. But why does Jonas choose Gabriel to share the memories with? Because he's a baby, and because he's in danger of soon being released, Gabriel in many ways exists outside the rigid control of the community. Jonas can't transmit memories to Lily because she's too ingrained in the "people shouldn't touch other people" mantra of the community. Gabriel, however, is untainted; he's pure and free.

    All the more reason to try and protect him. Because Gabriel hasn't yet come under the thumb of the community's control, he's also a symbol for a brighter future. When Jonas escapes with Gabriel (maybe, unless they die), we get the sense that there is hope for us all.

    There's also something to be said about Gabriel's name, but for that you're going to have to check out "Tools of Characterization." See you there.

    The Sled

    The sled first comes up when The Giver compares the process of receiving the memories to sliding downhill in the snow. At first it's all birthday parties and wind in your face but, before you know it, your arm's being blown to pieces (which, in his comparison, is like snow piling up on your runners. Right…). Jonas then gets to experience this himself, as the sled is his first memory. Of course, we see the same sled again at the end of the novel, as Jonas races downhill toward the village that's either a hallucination or the Elsewhere of his dreams.

    Because The Giver explicitly spells out the simile for you, there's not much more to say in the vein of "riding downhill = receiving memories." But we can think about what it means when Jonas actually does ride down the hill at the end of the novel. Until now, this action has been a sort of dream, someone else's memory, someone else's exhilaration, someone else's difficulty and pain. But now all of these things are very much Jonas's own. The novel even states explicitly that now Jonas is using his own recollections, rather than drawing on the fleeting memories passed on to him by The Giver. In short, his dreams have become reality, and the sled clues us into that. Of course, it's also possible that the final sled ride is just Jonas's memory, and that it's not happening at all, which would really shoot that theory down.

    Light Eyes

    There is definitely an association in The Giver between those who can receive memories and those who have light eyes. There isn't really any explanation for why this is, and it would pretty useless for us to sit around and speculate about why this is, logically or scientifically. It's better to think about it as an artistic device that Lowry used to help us make certain connections. For one, Jonas's role as The Receiver is in some way pre-destined. He was just born with the right attributes to be The Receiver. It fits. He's supposed to do this. Light eyes also clue us in to the fact that Jonas and The Giver share a special bond, something that others, try as they might, will never have. Likewise, eyes signal the close bond that will form between Jonas and Gabriel; we suspect something is up even before Jonas transfers memories to the little tyke

    But why eyes? And why light eyes? Jonas himself says that he always thought there was something peculiar about this feature, that it somehow signified "depth." Indeed, Jonas has a way of seeing deeper than others. The way he perceives the world is different – more reflective, more contemplative, more insightful – so it makes sense that his eyes appear different than everyone else's.

    The River

    There's a lot you could say about the river and symbolism, and none of it is necessarily right or wrong. You could go with the "you can't step in the same river twice" argument, which is to say that the river symbolizes change, an important idea in Jonas's static community. Or, you could say that river symbolizes the boundary between Jonas and the rest of the world. On the other hand, rivers flow, right? So it could be about the river flowing out, away from Jonas's community, in the direction he will eventually take himself. Then again, there's a lot of death associated with the river – first with the child Caleb and later as the site of Jonas's planned fake death. Jonas first thinks of release as escape from the community, and later learns that release is really death, so the river is, in a way, both about leaving the community and about dying. Funny, because that's what the ending of The Giver is about, too.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third Person (Limited Omniscient)

    The Giver is told in the third person, but focuses exclusively on Jonas. We know what he's thinking and feeling, and we don't enter into anyone else's head. The narrative often just goes into telling mode, giving us the background info we need about the way things work in the community, but just as often we get the info in a contrived, "Jonas is thinking about this" sort of way.

    So it's not the most elegant device in the world, but it gets the job done. As far as Jonas being our protagonist, this is a great choice of narrative voice, since it really gets the reader invested in the novel's hero.

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      The Call

      Jonas is named "The Receiver."

      Our hero doesn't exactly start his ordeal voluntarily. He's "selected," as they say, to bear the burden that the rest of the community would rather not deal with. But we have to remember that Jonas has some innate qualities which, along with a pair of baby blue eyes, convinced the Elders he was the right man for the job.

      In a way, it's almost as if he was fated.

      The Journey

      Warfare, pain, suffering, emotional despair, and a broken leg or two.

      This part of the Booker plot is made up of difficult ordeals faced by the hero. Every tough memory which Jonas encounters is another ordeal. He has to suffer through it physically, sure, but also emotionally. As he grows farther away from his friends and family, Jonas has to deal with isolation as well, and a (justified) sense of mistrust.

      Arrival and Frustration

      Planning, plotting, and everything going to hell.

      Jonas arrives "in sight of his goal," as Booker says, when he and The Giver think it may be possible to change the way things work in the community. When Jonas finds out that Gabriel is to be killed, this is the last obstacle in sight.

      The Final Ordeals

      Barefoot in the snow and uphill both ways (for the most part).

      Jonas struggles to keep Gabriel and himself alive even while in sight (or so he thinks) of his end goal: Elsewhere. The "final battle" is of course that last uphill climb, though no one can tell you for sure whether Jonas makes it alive to his goal. Call it an ambiguous "Quest," but that's the way it goes.

    • Plot Analysis

      Initial Situation

      Jonas is waiting for December.

      This is how things start off in The Giver. Jonas waits with what, after some deliberation, he identifies to be "apprehension" for this mysterious "Ceremony of Twelve" that's coming up next month. We know something big is coming soon, but we're still in the dark about what that is.


      Jonas is named the new Receiver.

      This is the big something we've been waiting for. First Jonas is skipped over during the Ceremony of Twelve—that's like a conflict appetizer. Then he's named The Receiver, which is definitely our main course. For conflict dessert we've got that first mysterious meeting with The Giver.


      Like they say, being the Receiver isn't all fun and games.

      As if being solely responsible for containing all the memories of all humanity for generations into history were not complicated enough, Jonas soon finds that the nature of those memories throws a real monkey-wrench into his life. As the bad memories keep coming, so does the strain on his life. His own feelings on the matter get more complicated, too, since he starts to doubt the integrity of his community.


      Jonas watches his father kill a baby.

      Cue the dramatic music! This is the big emotional climax of the text since Jonas realizes that his father 1) has been lying to him his entire life, and 2) murders babies. (You can argue about which one of those is more traumatizing.) Anyway, it's also the climax of the book's action, because it sets in motion Jonas's whole "I'm running away!" gig.


      Going up the hill…

      The trip up the hill is suspenseful, as is everything that leads up to the going up the hill, if that makes sense. As soon as we hear that Gabriel is to be "released" (which by this point we know equals death), we're in major suspense. We don't know if Gabe is going to be killed, if Jonas is going to get caught, and if he's going to die…


      Coming down the other side…

      Once Jonas makes it to the top, it's all downhill from there. Hardy har har. Depending on your interpretation of the ending, you know at this part that Jonas is either speeding down toward Elsewhere, or he's finally died.


      You tell us.

      The conclusion to The Giver is uncertain. Either Jonas and Gabriel make it to Elsewhere, or they die freezing in the snow. You can check out our "What's Up With the Ending?" for some general discussion.

    • Three Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      We meet Jonas and are slowly introduced to "the community" and the ways in which it functions. At first, we might be enticed, but it soon becomes clear that it's not such a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Suspense builds as we anticipate this mysterious "Ceremony of Twelve" in December, and Act I ends at the moment that Jonas is named The Receiver.

      Act II

      Jonas meets with The Giver and starts to receive memories. As time goes on, his eyes are opened to both the joys and horrors of the past, and he grows increasingly more isolated. His relationships with his family and friends become strained, but at the same time he gets closer and closer to The Giver and to Gabriel. When he watches his father murder the baby twin on video, Jonas is forever changed.

      Act III

      Once Jonas and The Giver start hatching their plot, we move into Act III. Once again we have the same old suspense-building, fist-clenching tension, and the whole shebang ends with the walking-uphill-in-the-snow climax.