We are introduced to Jonas, the eleven-year-old protagonist of the story, as he struggles to find the right word to describe his feelings as he approaches an important milestone. He rejects “frightened” as too strong a word, recalling a time when he had really been frightened: a year ago, an unidentified aircraft flew over his community—it was a strange and unprecedented event, since Pilots were not allowed to fly over the community. As Jonas remembers the community reaction to the event, we learn more about the society in which he lives. It is extremely structured, with official orders transmitted through loudspeakers planted all around the community. As a punishment, the pilot was “released” from the community—the worst fate that can befall a citizen. Jonas decides he is apprehensive, not frightened, about the important thing that is going to happen in December. Jonas and his society value the use of precise and accurate language.
At dinner that night, Jonas’s family—his father, mother, and seven-year-old sister Lily—participate in a nightly ritual called “the telling of feelings.” Each person describes an emotion that he or she experienced during the day and discusses it with the others. Lily says she was angry at a child visiting from a nearby community who did not observe her childcare group’s play area rules. Her parents help her to understand that the boy probably felt out of place, and she becomes less angry. Jonas’s father, who is a Nurturer (he takes care of the community’s babies, or newchildren), describes his struggles with a slowly developing baby whose weakness makes it a candidate for release. The family considers taking care of the baby for a while, though they are not allowed to adopt him—every household is allowed only one male and one female child. We also learn that spouses are assigned by the government. Jonas explains his apprehensiveness about the coming Ceremony of Twelve—the time when he will be assigned a career and begin life as an adult. We learn that every December, all of the children in the community are promoted to the next age group—all four-year-old children become Fives, regardless of the time of year when they were actually born. We also learn that fifty children are born every year. The ceremonies are different for each age group. At the Ceremony of One newchildren, who have spent their first year at the Nurturing Center, are assigned to family units and given a name to use in addition to the number they were given at birth. Jonas’s father confesses to his family that he has peeked at the struggling newchild’s name—Gabriel—in the hopes that calling him a name will help the child develop more quickly. Jonas is surprised that his father would break any kind of rule, though the members of the community seem to bend rules once in a while. For instance, older siblings often teach younger siblings to ride bicycles before the Ceremony of Nine, when they receive their first official bicycles.
Jonas’s parents reassure him that the Committee of Elders, the ruling group of the community, will choose a career for him that will suit him. The Committee members observe the Elevens all year, at school and play and at the volunteer work they are required to do after school, and consider each child’s abilities and interests when they make their selection. Jonas’s father tells him that when he was eleven, he knew he would be assigned the role of Nurturer, because it was clear that he loved newchildren and he spent all his volunteer hours in the Nurturing Center. When Jonas expresses concern about his friend Asher’s Assignment—he worries that Asher does not have any serious interests—his parents tell him not to worry, but remind him that after Twelve, he might lose touch with many of his childhood friends, since he will be spending his time with a new group, training for his job. Then Jonas’s sister Lily appears, asking for her “comfort object”—a community-issued stuffed elephant. The narrator refers to the comfort objects as “imaginary creatures. Jonas’s had been called a bear.”
At the beginning of The Giver, we have a difficult time figuring out the setting of the novel. We do not know what it is that Jonas is afraid of—from the reference to unidentified aircraft, we might think that he lives in a war zone. When we find out that it is against the rules for Pilots to fly over the community, we know that Jonas lives in a community that is different from our own, but we do not know at first how different it. Lowry allows the small details about life in Jonas’s community to build up gradually into a more complete picture.
Initially, the picture we get of Jonas’s society is positive. From the emphasis on precision of language and the considerate, careful way in which Jonas’s family shares its feelings, we learn that his society values the clear communication of ideas. We also know that members of the community pay attention to each other’s feelings and try to solve each other’s problems in rational, reassuring ways: the family helps Lily to control her anger and encourages her to feel empathy for visitors in unfamiliar surroundings, and they resolve to help their father take care of a struggling baby. The community must be very safe and peaceful indeed if the only time Jonas can remember being frightened is when an unidentified plane flew over his community.
Some aspects of life in the community are startling, but they are easily explained. The loudspeakers transmitting orders to the people in the community are somewhat unsettling—the idea of a disembodied, faceless authority with the power to control many people’s actions is reminiscent of police states and dictatorships. At the same time, it is a convenient public address system that was able to reassure many frightened people. The fact that the government chooses people’s spouses, jobs, and children for them is also unsettling, but the picture we get of Jonas’s family life is full of tranquility and comfort—the system obviously works pretty well. We know that the society is extremely orderly and peaceful, and that everyone has a job that he or she enjoys and can do well. There seems to be very little competition in Jonas’s community. Jonas is not hoping for a desirable or prestigious position, just one that he will be able to do well. In general, the society seems to be an almost perfect model of a communist society, one in which everyone in the community works together for the common good and receives an equal share of the benefits of living in the community.