On the surface, Jonas is like any other eleven-year-old boy living in his community. He seems more intelligent and perceptive than many of his peers, and he thinks more seriously than they do about life, worrying about his own future as well as his friend Asher’s. He enjoys learning and experiencing new things: he chooses to volunteer at a variety of different centers rather than focusing on one, because he enjoys the freedom of choice that volunteer hours provide. He also enjoys learning about and connecting with other people, and he craves more warmth and human contact than his society permits or encourages. The things that really set him apart from his peers—his unusual eyes, his ability to see things change in a way that he cannot explain—trouble him, but he does not let them bother him too much, since the community’s emphasis on politeness makes it easy for Jonas to conceal or ignore these little differences. Like any child in the community, Jonas is uncomfortable with the attention he receives when he is singled out as the new Receiver, preferring to blend in with his friends.
Once Jonas begins his training with the Giver, however, the tendencies he showed in his earlier life—his sensitivity, his heightened perceptual powers, his kindness to and interest in people, his curiosity about new experiences, his honesty, and his high intelligence—make him extremely absorbed in the memories the Giver has to transmit. In turn, the memories, with their rich sensory and emotional experiences, enhance all of Jonas’s unusual qualities. Within a year of training, he becomes extremely sensitive to beauty, pleasure, and suffering, deeply loving toward his family and the Giver, and fiercely passionate about his new beliefs and feelings. Things about the community that used to be mildly perplexing or troubling are now intensely frustrating or depressing, and Jonas’s inherent concern for others and desire for justice makes him yearn to make changes in the community, both to awaken other people to the richness of life and to stop the casual cruelty that is practiced in the community. Jonas is also very determined, committing to a task fully when he believes in it and willing to risk his own life for the sake of the people he loves.
Although as a result of his training Jonas possesses more wisdom than almost anyone else in his community, he is still very young and knows little about life in the community itself. At twelve years old, Jonas is too young to control the powerful emotions that his training unleashes, and the natural hormonal imbalances of preadolesnce make him especially passionate and occasionally unreasonable. Of course, his youth makes it possible for him to receive the memories and learn from them—if he were older, he might be less receptive to new experiences and emotions—but he needs the guidance and wisdom of the Giver, who has life experience as well as memories, to help him keep all of his new experiences in perspective.
Like Jonas, who is a young person with the wisdom of an old person, the Giver is a bit of a paradox. He looks ancient, but he is not old at all. Like someone who has seen and done many things over many years, he is very wise and world-weary, and he is haunted by memories of suffering and pain, but in reality his life has been surprisingly uneventful. In the world of the community, the Giver has spent most of his life inside his comfortable living quarters, eating his meals and emerging occasionally to take long walks. Yet he carries the memories of an entire community, so he feels like a man who has done more in his life than anyone else in the world: he has experienced the positive and negative emotions, desires, triumphs, and failures of millions of men and women, as well as animals. He is responsible for preserving those memories and using the wisdom they give him to make decisions for the community. Anyone would feel weighted down by this enormous responsibility, and because the Giver is forbidden to share his knowledge and pain with anyone else, including his spouse and his children, the weight is more difficult to bear. Thus, the Giver has become an exceptionally patient, quiet, deliberate person, growing resigned to the fact that he cannot change the community even though he realizes that it needs to be changed. He endures his loneliness and frustration as well as the increasing physical pain that the memories bring him with a quiet calm that makes him a rather stoic figure. His patience, wisdom, and restraint make him an excellent teacher and mentor.
However, the memories that the Giver carries inside him are too powerful for him to be entirely stoic: he still feels strong emotions, and under the right circumstances they surge to the surface. Among the members of the community, the Giver alone is capable of real love, an emotion he experiences with Rosemary, the first child who was designated to be the Receiver. Years of loneliness, isolation, and unshared emotion made the Giver’s love for Rosemary intense, even by the standards of the time before Sameness, and when she is taken from him, his anger and grief are equally intense. It is this anger and grief, fueled by the Giver’s growing love for Jonas and Jonas’s own youthful energy, that allow the Giver to finally overturn his years of silence and endurance and change the community. The decision is also influenced by the Giver’s aptitude as a teacher and advisor: it is natural for him to want to help the community learn to handle the memories, as he has helped Rosemary and Jonas.
Jonas’s father is one of the only characters in the novel, besides the Giver and Jonas, who seems to grapple with difficult decisions and complex emotions. Although Jonas’s father does not have access to the memories that give Jonas and the Giver insight into human relationships and feelings, he displays many of the characteristics that were valued in pre-Sameness societies. As a Nurturer, he feels a strong connection with the babies he cares for and a deep concern for their welfare. Although he agrees with Jonas’s mother that “love” is a meaningless, obscure word, the feelings he displays toward the newchildren and his family seem very much like love: he delights in taking care of them and playing with them, he worries about them, and he makes minor and major sacrifices for their benefit, from indulging his daughter’s fondness for her comfort object to bringing baby Gabriel home to his family every night in the hopes of saving him from being released. His concern for the newchildren might be concern about his own personal failure as a Nurturer, but he obviously feels pain and regret when children are released. He also has an independent streak that is unusual in the community, demonstrated when he breaks a rule and peeks at Gabriel’s name in the hopes that it will help the child.
In the end, however, Jonas’s father is a product of his society. Under other circumstances, he probably would have loved the newchildren passionately and fought against all odds for their survival. But having grown up in a society where release, though an occasion for sadness, is not considered tragedy, Jonas’s father cannot access the deeper feelings that might be available to him. He regrets the release of newchildren, but he performs releases himself: not knowing the value of life as Jonas does, he cannot appreciate its loss, and never having felt intense pain, he cannot summon it for the death of a baby.