“There’s nothing we can do. It’s always been this way. Before me, before you, before the ones who came before you. Back and back and back.”
Jonas says this in Chapter 20 in an outburst of bitterness and despair at the Giver’s suggestion that the two of them might be able to devise a plan to return the memories to the community. In saying “back and back and back,” he parrots a phrase used by the Giver in early training sessions to explain the role of a Receiver within the society. The phrase “back and back and back” is meant to express the inevitability of the current situation: Sameness is not a historical moment that has a beginning and an end, but an endless, changeless state, something beyond time and space and human intervention. The words have an incantatory quality, creating an atmosphere of mystery around the origins of the community’s traditions and conventions. This is an effective way to stifle revolution—if people do not know that the status quo of society has ever been unstable or uncertain, they cannot conceive of destabilizing it. This quality of “back and back and back” is a major factor in the society’s success. No one thinks to question structures that are so ancient and unchanging that they seem perfectly natural, and even though Jonas and the Giver know that life existed before Sameness, they have no memories of Sameness ever being defeated. In saying “back and back and back” the Giver becomes complicit with the history-less, memory-less community, resigning himself to a culture where nothing changes and the possibility of change is not acknowledged.
When Jonas takes the words “back and back and back” for his own, he has assumed the world-weary, resigned attitude of the Giver, abandoning his dreams of change for a hopeless, changeless vision of the future. Since the words “back and back and back” constitute an acceptance of the community’s most important illusion—that nothing has ever existed but Sameness—this moment could be seen as a moment of defeat, in which Jonas feels utterly crushed by the strict structures of the society. Luckily, however, the role reversal is complete, and the Giver gains energy and hope even as Jonas begins to despair.