Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
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.
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.
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.
Throughout The Giver, Lowry explores how Jonas’s community infantilizes people by requiring total obedience to rules, keeping people from thinking for themselves. Pointedly, the community has rules instead of laws. The word “rules” evokes the sort of guidelines that children follow—what they must do or must not do. In this sense, the relationship between the government of the community to its citizens is that of an authoritative parent instead of a governing body. Much like how adults use rules to provide structure in children’s lives, the many rules and regulations of the community ensure that people’s lives have a distinct structure that they cannot stray from, with the community going as far as regulating bicycle storage and stuffed animal usage. The most devastating effects of the community’s control are evident in Jonas’s father’s work at the Nurturing Center. After identical twins are born and the community can only keep one baby, Jonas’s father doesn’t consider whether releasing the smaller twin is truly humane because the rules of his job state that he must keep the stronger baby. Acting in accordance with the community’s rules means that Jonas’s father has relinquished his control over his own decisions and allowed the community to maintain full control over the actions of its citizens.
Within the novel, rituals tend to surround the moments in which community members can express limited emotions, such as dreams, aging, and death. These rituals almost always work to expel the emotions involved. For example, Jonas’s family holds an “evening telling of feelings,” a time after their supper in which they each share an emotion they experienced that day. After Lily tells of her anger toward the children visiting her school, Jonas’s parents quickly work to explain the feeling away so that her initial discomfort seems foolish. Other rituals, like the Ceremony of Loss or the morning dream-telling, also work to erase uncomfortable emotions, such as the grief of losing a community member or the confusing sexual longing in an erotic dream like the one Jonas has. Community members even ritualize the process of apologizing, requiring that after an apology, the wronged party must accept the apology and erase any feeling of wrongdoing. The calming effect of these rituals prevents people from fully experiencing the limited emotions they can feel within the community. Rituals, like rules, function to control people’s minds, in this case preventing Jonas’s community from feeling for themselves.