It was against the rules for children or adults to look at another’s nakedness; but the rule did not apply to newchildren or the Old. Jonas was glad. . . . He couldn’t see why it was necessary. He liked the feeling of safety here in this warm and quiet room; he liked the expression of trust on the woman’s face as she lay in the water unprotected, exposed, and free.
In this quotation from Chapter 4, Jonas’s mild exasperation with some of the community rules, combined with the “trust” and “safety” he feels while bathing the woman, subtly foreshadow the intense feelings of rebellion and the deep longing for love that accompany his training for Receiver. We see that even before he was exposed to the world of beauty, diversity, and emotion that the Giver opens up for him, Jonas has some understanding of what is missing in his community, even though he still stays strictly within the rules.
Especially noteworthy is Jonas’s use of the word “free”: without her clothes, when she is “unprotected” and “exposed,” the old woman is also free. Since her age and nakedness make her completely vulnerable to Jonas, it seems odd that Larissa could be described as free: any decision she makes can be easily vetoed, and any action she makes can be suppressed. Yet she is free of her clothes, and because of her age she is free of the social code that requires citizens to conceal their nakedness. For Jonas, this freedom from the social code is the most significant kind of freedom there is, and freedom from clothing becomes a metaphor for freedom from social conventions and rules. To be emotionally naked, for Jonas, is to dispense with the formalities of strict politeness and precise language. Jonas’s use of the word “free” also reveals that he is already thinking about the limits his society puts on freedom.
The trust and safety he feels with the old woman also foreshadows his relationships with the Giver, an older man whom he begins to love like a grandfather, as well as his longing for a close relationship with grandparents. The description of the Christmas scene that teaches Jonas about grandparents evokes warmth and comfort in the same way that the scene with Larissa does, showing that Jonas is already sensitive to these pleasures.
“We failed in our last selection,” the Chief Elder said solemnly. “It was ten years ago, when Jonas was just a toddler. I will not dwell on the experience because it causes us all terrible discomfort.”
This statement, made in Chapter 8 by the Chief Elder at the Ceremony of Twelve, when she introduces Jonas as the new Receiver, is the first reference anyone in The Giver makes to the first choice of Receiver, which failed ten years ago. Later in the novel, we learn that the discomfort the community suffered was the result of the many complicated, troubling memories that were released into everyone’s minds after the failed Receiver-in-training, Rosemary, applied for release.
The Chief Elder’s description of the community’s feelings as “discomfort” is telling. It indicates that the community is so unused to disturbance of any kind that even discomfort is such a traumatic experience that no one in the community ever wants to even mention it again. As we soon learn, it is forbidden to speak the name of the person who caused this discomfort (Jonas does not learn Rosemary’s name until he asks the Giver.) At the same time, we realize that the community’s seeming overreaction makes some sense, since the discomfort they felt was by far the worst suffering they had encountered in their lives. Discomfort is the strongest word available to them, given their emphasis on precise language.
Rereading the Chief Elder’s words later, in the context of Rosemary’s actual experience—she was so traumatized by the memories she received that she applied for release—we realize that the word “discomfort” describes the community’s inability to deal with the memories that flooded their minds, but it also reveals that the community does not grieve for the loss of Rosemary or regret the suffering that caused her suicide. As a substitute for the grief a community should feel, the phrase “discomfort” rings hollow.
"We really have to protect people from wrong choices."
Jonas speaks these words in Chapter 13, moments after having protested that he wished colors still existed so that people could have the pleasure and freedom of choosing between them. After some thought, his protests give way to the understanding that, if people were allowed to choose between colors, they might get so used to making choices that they would want to choose their jobs and their spouses. These are decisions that will have a serious effect on their lives and on the life of the community, and a wrong choice could be disastrous. In saying, “We really have to protect people from wrong choices,” Jonas gives voice to the unspoken philosophy of benevolent oppression that pervades all aspects of life in the community. Jonas has probably never thought of it this way before.
Until this point, most references to the Committee of Elders emphasize the wise choices they make for the community but fail to mention that they are preventing individuals from making their own decisions. However, Jonas has been steeped in this philosophy all his life, and it comes out naturally when he tries to understand the structure of his own society. The very idea of “wrong choices” implies that Jonas has grown up believing that some choices can be objectively wrong. In a community as rigidly structured as his own, wrong choices exist: choices that can disrupt and damage the entire society. If the members of the community want the peace and order that the community provides, they must submit totally to the rules that keep the community running smoothly, and that means allowing other, more knowledgeable people to make choices for them.
However, in making this statement, Jonas has uncovered the negative aspect of the community’s decision-making policies. In offering solutions to people who need them, the leaders of the community also prevent people from making their own choices. That this is done to protect them and that the choices are potentially wrong still cannot disguise the limitations imposed on the community members. These realizations bring Jonas a step closer to rebellion. Even as he says these words, he remains frustrated with the lack of color and choice in the community, and he begins to realize that his community’s precise system of logic pales next to the wonders of his new experiences.
“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.
He heard people singing. Behind him, across vast distances of space and time, from the place he had left, he thought he heard music too. But perhaps it was only an echo.
These are the last lines of The Giver. The music that welcomes Jonas to the Christmas-celebrating town is the first he has ever heard in his life, and it signals not only his arrival in Elsewhere, where he can live life to the fullest as he wants to, but also his awakening to a new kind of perception, one that until this moment has been totally unavailable to him. This new sensory gift of music is a symbol of hope and regeneration. Though he has left the Giver and his store of memories, Jonas will experience countless exciting and terrifying things in his new home, things that exist in the real world and not just in memory. The singing also welcomes him to a new, different community. Here he will find human voices raised in beautiful music, ready to accept him and all of his differences and to appreciate his beauty and love.
The origin of the music that Jonas hears behind him is as ambiguous as the ending of the novel itself. It could be the music that Jonas’s old community learns to make after the Giver helps them to endure the memories that Jonas left behind him, an unmistakable signal that their plan worked and worked well. At the same time, the music may be merely an echo of the music playing in the town, reminding Jonas that behind him his community is perhaps discovering the delight of music at the same moment that he does. Alternatively, both the music behind and in front of him could be figments of his imagination, coming to him as he freezes to death with Gabriel on an empty hill. It could also simply represent Jonas’s close link to the Giver, who delights in music and wants to share most of his pleasures with Jonas.