The Giver | Study Guide

Lois Lowry

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the symbols in Lois Lowry's novel The Giver.

The Giver | Symbols



Colors are among the most critical of the symbols in this novel. In the quest for Sameness, the leaders of Jonas's community have sought to eliminate color in all things, even skin tones. While they were not entirely successful in eliminating color—The Giver chuckles that Fiona's red hair is a reminder of the challenges scientists have had—they have somehow altered people's perception of their surroundings. Now, the entire world appears to the citizens in shades of black and white. These colors also effectively symbolize the black-and-white nature of the community as a whole, where rules must be followed and there are few "shades of gray" when it comes to acceptable behavior.

When Jonas first begins to "see beyond," he perceives a flash of red in an apple. Later, he sees flesh tones in people's skin and the red of Fiona's hair. He also sees red in the sled that is part of his first received memory from The Giver. Red is an appropriate first color for Jonas to experience, because it is often used to represent warmth, passion, desire, and the spark of life itself. For Jonas, red becomes his bridge to a previously unknown world. Eventually, he perceives the entire spectrum of colors, revealed when The Giver shares the memory of a rainbow. The colors of the rainbow represent the spectrum of human experiences and emotions, something that only Jonas and The Giver are able to understand.

Sled Ride

When Jonas first receives the memory of the sled ride, it is simply a wonderful, exhilarating experience. But Jonas continues to dream of the ride down that snow-covered hill, and "always, in the dream, it seemed as if there was a destination." Jonas cannot grasp what that destination is, but he wakes with the feeling that he wants and needs to reach something in the distance, and that the something is good, welcoming, and significant. He is saddened that he does not know how to get there.

At the end of the novel, Jonas takes his dream ride, although it is not clear to the reader whether the ride is real or something that is happening only in his mind. What is certain is that the ride is a symbol, or metaphor, for both an escape from the meaningless life of the community and a return to a world that values emotions, memories, individuality, choice, and love. The red sled ride, ultimately, is a symbol of Jonas's journey to freedom and understanding.

Fire and Candlelight

When Jonas experiences the holiday memory, the crackling fire and flickering candles have a powerful effect on him. He tells himself that the community was right to ban such potentially dangerous things, but deep inside he longs for the warmth and light they provide. Subconsciously, he appears to understand that warmth represents the feelings that come from a sense of community, and from human connections and love, while light represents understanding, knowledge, and perhaps hope. Jonas eventually realizes that both are as necessary to a full and satisfying life as food or shelter, and that neither exists in society as it presently is. At the end of the novel, though, as Jonas finally nears Elsewhere, he joyously becomes aware that "somewhere ahead, through the blinding storm ... there was warmth and light." But this time he thinks he knows with certainty that what is really waiting for him is love and understanding.


From the moment Gabriel appears "with his pale, solemn, knowing eyes," he is clearly different from most of the newchildren in the community. The eyes, readers later understand, are the traits of a potential Receiver. But Gabriel becomes something more in the story. As a child who is "different," he represents all the individuals in the society that are either a threat to the established order or simply unwanted because they do not fit the parameters of Sameness that have been established in the community. But Gabriel also comes to mean something else for Jonas and for the reader. The child is purity and innocence, laughing happily in the family dwelling and unaware of the danger he is in. He also represents hope. When Jonas steals Gabriel away from the community that would have killed him, he is also, in effect, trying to ensure a more hopeful and positive future, not only for himself and Gabriel but for all of those they left behind.

The River

The river is one of the few natural features that still exist in the community. Its water is clear, indicating that it may have been modified by the community leaders, but the river itself is still ever-changing and uncontrollable, adding small jolts of uncertainty to a community that values predictability and control. For example, the river caused the "loss" of little Caleb, who somehow fell into its waters despite the vigilance of the community. From that point on, the river becomes a euphemism for death or escape—as when The Giver warns Jonas of the dangers to the community were he to be "lost in the river."

The river also flows out and away from the community, subtly providing an indication that there is indeed a way out of the rigid structure of the society there. Jonas sees even more; he looks at the river and sees "all the light and color and history" it contains, and he thinks that "there was an Elsewhere from which it came, and an Elsewhere to which it was going." Even at the beginning of the novel, when Jonas considers the meaning of his and Gabriel's pale eyes, he imagines that they can see down to the bottom of the river, "where things might lurk which hadn't been discovered yet." The river is mystery, unpredictability, and escape, and in that way it becomes a symbol of hope for Jonas.

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