The Giver

by: Lois Lowry

The Giver

It hurt a lot,” Jonas said, “but I’m glad you gave it to me. It was interesting. And now I understand better, what it meant, that there would be pain.” The man didn’t respond. He sat silently for a second.

When Jonas says he understands what pain is like after experiencing the memory of a sunburn, the Giver is at a loss for words, his compassion wrestling with his sense of duty. The Giver knows why he must show Jonas memories of humanity’s darkest depths, but he still hesitates to inflict that pain on someone so unprepared and innocent.

This job has aged me. I know I look as if I should be scheduled for release very soon. But actually I have a good deal of time left.

The Giver reveals the extent to which he has sacrificed himself and his health for the community. The fact that the community barely knows enough to appreciate his sacrifice is tragic, but only makes the Giver’s commitment nobler. No one else but the Giver will ensure humanity’s memories are passed on, and so he must continue.

I have great honor. So will you. But you will find that that is not the same as power.

The Giver is passing on insight to Jonas about being a Receiver. The Giver knows doing the right thing is not always respected, and can make one easier to control. Someone who lives for nothing is capable of anything, while someone dedicated to an ideal is vulnerable because they have something to lose. This tradeoff is unfortunate, but goes hand-in-hand with the Giver’s teachings: Living a full life requires sacrifices.

“Oh, your instructors are well trained. They know their scientific facts. Everyone is well trained for his job. It’s just that… without the memories it’s all meaningless. They gave that burden to me. And to the previous Receiver. And the one before him.” “And back and back and back,” Jonas said, knowing the phrase that always came. The Giver smiled, though his smile was oddly harsh. “That’s right. And next it will be you. A great honor.”

As the Giver is reminding Jonas of the importance of their work, he can’t help but let his bitterness slip out. The phrase “a great honor” is almost sarcastic. Holding society’s memories has prematurely destroyed the Giver’s body, and the Elders only ask what more he can give. The Giver can’t help but resent the pain their ignorance has inflicted.

Overwhelmed by pain, he lay there in the fearsome stench for hours, listened to the men and animals die, and learned what warfare meant. Finally, when he knew that he could bear it no longer and would welcome death himself, he opened his eyes and was once again on the bed. The Giver looked away, as if he could not bear to see what he had done to Jonas. “Forgive me,” he said.

The narrator is describing Jonas as he wakes up from experiencing the Giver’s worst memory yet: the memory of war. We now see why the Giver was silent when Jonas claimed to understand pain after feeling a sunburn. Experiencing war firsthand would be horrible for anyone, but for someone as sheltered as Jonas, the memory is overwhelming. Despite knowing the importance of his duty, the Giver feared giving Jonas this memory would be nearly unbearable, and he was right.

She insisted that I continue, that I not spare her. She said it was her duty. And I knew, of course, that she was correct. I couldn’t bring myself to inflict physical pain on her. But I gave her anguish of many kinds. Poverty, and hunger, and terror. I had to, Jonas. It was my job. And she had been chosen.

The Giver reveals why he hesitates to give Jonas the hardest memories: He’s been through this process before, and the memories crushed his previous student. This moment is one of the few times we witness the Giver’s doubts. The Giver’s memories make him capable of great compassion, and his work often directly conflicts with that. This duty to harm for the greater good is the Giver’s heaviest burden.

The Giver told him, then, something he had not known. “All private ceremonies are recorded. They’re in the Hall of Closed Records. Do you want to see the morning’s release?” Jonas hesitated. He was afraid that his father wouldn’t like it, if he watched something so private. “I think you should,” The Giver told him firmly.

Here, the Giver urges Jonas to learn the true meaning of being “released.” In an extension of their work, the Giver needs Jonas to understand the full scope of what is happening, but this time the truth lies in the present, not a memory. Jonas must understand everything. Even the fact that his society casually kills its members. On some level, the Giver likely also wants someone with whom to share his rage.

There she was—my last glimpse of that beautiful child—waiting. They brought in the syringe and asked her to roll up her sleeve. You suggested, Jonas, that perhaps she wasn’t brave enough? I don’t know about bravery: what it is, what it means. I do know that I sat here numb with horror. Wretched with helplessness. And I listened as Rosemary told them that she would prefer to inject herself. Then she did so. I didn’t watch. I looked away.

The Giver reveals that he watched the release of his previous student, Rosemary, and that she took her own life. Her choice is the source of the Giver’s self-doubts, calling everything he stands for into question. The Giver says he doesn’t know what bravery means, but he implicitly teaches Jonas that bravery is facing trauma and pain with open eyes. However, when Rosemary faced her demise head-on, the Giver couldn’t even look at the screen.

If I go with you, and together we take away all their protection from the memories, Jonas, the community will be left with no one to help them. They’ll be thrown into chaos. They’ll destroy themselves. I can’t go.

When Jonas and the Giver plot Jonas’s escape, the Giver explains that he must stay. Jonas’s absence will return all the memories to the community, and they will have to confront all the pain they have so long ignored. The Giver’s decision to stay shows the compassion he has worked so hard to teach Jonas. Even though the community has been so cold to him, he still chooses to help them, at his own expense.

“I love you, Jonas,” he said. “But I have another place to go. When my work here is finished, I want to be with my daughter.”

Here, the Giver reassures Jonas that he is at peace with his decision to live out his days helping the community. He is unafraid of death, hoping his demise will reunite him with his fallen daughter Rosemary. After passing on his knowledge to Jonas, the Giver is finally satisfied that he has fulfilled his duty, and allows himself to dream of true, hard-won release, on his own terms.