Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Importance of Memory
One of the most important themes in The Giver is the significance of memory to human life. Lowry was inspired to write The Giver after a visit to her aging father, who had lost most of his long-term memory. She realized that without memory, there is no pain—if you cannot remember physical pain, you might as well not have experienced it, and you cannot be plagued by regret or grief if you cannot remember the events that hurt you. At some point in the past the community in The Giver decided to eliminate all pain from their lives. To do so, they had to give up the memories of their society’s collective experiences. Not only did this allow them to forget all of the pain that had been suffered throughout human history, it also prevented members of the society from wanting to engage in activities and relationships that could result in conflict and suffering, and eliminated any nostalgia for the things the community gave up in order to live in total peace and harmony. According to the novel, however, memory is essential. The Committee of Elders does recognize the practical applications of memory—if you do not remember your errors, you may repeat them—so it designates a Receiver to remember history for the community. But as Jonas undergoes his training, he learns that just as there is no pain without memory, there is also no true happiness.
The Relationship Between Pain and Pleasure
Related to the theme of memory is the idea that there can be no pleasure without pain and no pain without pleasure. No matter how delightful an experience is, you cannot value the pleasure it gives you unless you have some memory of a time when you have suffered. The members of Jonas’s community cannot appreciate the joys in their lives because they have never felt pain: their lives are totally monotonous, devoid of emotional variation. Similarly, they do not feel pain or grief because they do not appreciate the true wonder of life: death is not tragic to them because life is not precious. When Jonas receives memories from the Giver, the memories of pain open him to the idea of love and comfort as much as the memories of pleasure do.
The Importance of the Individual
At the Ceremony of Twelve, the community celebrates the differences between the twelve-year-old children for the first time in their lives. For many children, twelve is an age when they are struggling to carve out a distinct identity for themselves, differentiating themselves from their parents and peers. Among other things, The Giver is the story of Jonas’s development into an individual, maturing from a child dependent upon his community into a young man with unique abilities, dreams, and desires. The novel can even be seen as an allegory for this process of maturation: twelve-year-old Jonas rejects a society where everyone is the same to follow his own path. The novel encourages readers to celebrate differences instead of disparaging them or pretending they do not exist. People in Jonas’s society ignore his unusual eyes and strange abilities out of politeness, but those unusual qualities end up bringing lasting, positive change to the community.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The motif of vision runs throughout The Giver, from the first mention of Jonas’s unusual pale eyes to the final image of the lights twinkling in the village in Elsewhere. For most of the novel, vision represents all perception, both sensory and emotional. Jonas’s eyes, which appear to be “deeper” than other people’s, are actually able to see more deeply into objects than other people’s eyes: Jonas is one of the few people in the community who can see color. Jonas’s perception of color symbolizes his perception of the complicated emotions and sensations that other people cannot perceive: he sees life differently from the rest of the community. Jonas shares his abilities with the Giver and Gabe, both of whom have eyes the same color as his. Although the ending of the novel is ambiguous, we know that Jonas sees the village in his mind, even if the village does not really exist.
In Jonas’s community, it is forbidden to look at naked people, unless they are very young or very old. Moments involving physical nakedness are closely related to the idea of emotional nakedness: Jonas feels an emotional connection with the old woman, Larissa, when she trusts him to wash her body, and his training involves receiving memories through his bare back. Both situations involve trust and intimacy; both are curiously related to the idea of freedom. Jonas thinks of the naked woman as “free,” perhaps because he associates her physical nudity with a mind bare of the constraints his society places on human behavior, and the information that the Giver transmits to him is liberating in much the same way—it helps him to look beyond the community’s rules and beliefs. Nakedness is also related to innocence and childishness: the Old can be seen naked because they are treated like children, and Jonas’s relationship to the Giver is like a child’s to his father or grandfather.
Though few people know it, the word “release” actually refers to death—or murder—in Jonas’s society, but throughout The Giver, the word means different things to different people. At the beginning of the novel, most of the characters truly believe that people who are released are physically sent to Elsewhere, the world beyond the limits of the community. Release is frightening or sad because no one would want to leave the community, not because it involves violence or death. Later, when Jonas discovers the real meaning of release, the word becomes ominous. At the end of the novel, however, when Jonas escapes despite the fact that he is forbidden to request release, he changes the meaning of the word once again, restoring its original meaning—an escape from the physical and psychological hold of the community.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Newchild Gabriel
For Jonas, the newchild Gabriel is a symbol of hope and of starting over. Babies frequently figure as symbols of hope and regeneration in literature, and in The Giver this makes perfect sense: Gabriel is too young to have absorbed the customs and rules of the community, so he is still receptive to the powerful memories that Jonas transmits to him. Jonas takes Gabriel with him to save Gabriel’s life, but his gesture is also symbolic of his resolve to change things, to start a new life Elsewhere. His struggles to keep Gabriel alive reflect his struggles to maintain his ideals in the face of difficulty.
The sled, the first memory Jonas receives from the Giver, symbolizes the journey Jonas takes during his training and the discoveries he makes. It is red, a color that symbolizes the new, vital world of feelings and ideas that Jonas discovers. Before he transmits the memory, the Giver compares the difficulty he has in carrying the memories to the way a sled slows down as snow accumulates on its runners. The novelty and delight of the downhill ride are exhilarating, and Jonas enjoys the ride in the same way that he enjoys accumulating new memories. But the sled can be treacherous, too: the first memory of extreme pain that he experiences involves the sled. Pleasure and pain are inevitably related on the sled, just as they are in the memories. When, at the end of the novel, Jonas finds a real sled, it symbolizes his entry into a world where color, sensation, and emotion exist in reality, not just in memory.
The river, which runs into the community and out of it to Elsewhere, symbolizes escape from the confines of the community. When little Caleb drowns in the river, it is one of the few events that the community cannot predict or control, and Jonas and the Giver are inspired to try to change the community by the idea of the river’s unpredictable behavior.
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