Everybody likes ribbons, but in this story ribbons are another symbolic reminder of the way in which individuality is tied up and sameness promoted. All females under nine must have their hair in ribbons and tied neatly. Lily does not like the ribbons that keep her hair back; they always seem to come untied by the end of the day, and she even gets in trouble for having them that way. Having your hair down is a visual reminder of the individuality and strength of the human spirit, a spirit that is tied back and put away in this colorless community.
“Mirrors were rare in the community…” Mirrors represent a number of different things. When it comes to this story, mirrors are not used because they are a means to look at ourselves and our behavior; a means to see if what we see is good and actions right—they give us a way to make accurate judgments against the image we see. In this community everyone is the same, and the sameness tends to blur the idea of right and wrong that a mirror put up to the community would reveal.
An apple is a significant symbol in the story because it represents the point in which Jonas realizes that something has “changed” in his world. The dramatic color red makes a brief appearance and foreshadows the appearance of more knowledge in his life. The symbol of the apple also makes reference to the fruit in the Garden of Eden in which the apple again represents knowledge.
Sometimes it is very difficult to understand what dreams mean. In the case of Jonas, he doesn’t dream much, so when he does start dreaming, it is meaningful in the book. His dreaming is the beginning of his growing up process. The growing-up process—also called Stirrings in the book—is a time when young people get ideas that may not go along with the Sameness of the community, so they are given medicine to calm the Stirrings down. Jonas’s Dream is about the rebellion of an Old (a senior) and forecasts the rebellion of his own spirit when he will learn the truth in the future. In stories, the dream has functioned as a way to foretell the future for thousands of years.
Bicycles are the means of transportation, but they also are significant reminders of the growing up process in children. One of the levels we gauge our own growth process is how soon we can crawl, walk, and then ride bikes. It is the same in Jonas’s community where “at Nine [the bicycle] would be the powerful emblem of moving gradually out into the community, away from the protective family unit” (p. 41). It represents independence and the ability to move forward—as we also see in the ending of the book when Jonas uses his father’s bicycle to rescue Gabriel by fleeing to Elsewhere.
Because the world in which Jonas has grown up has no color, the appearance of color in the story is important and meaningful. Color represents Jonas’s “seeing-beyond” ability and flashes and stirs within him first with the apple—a forecast of knowledge yet to come— next with his friend Fiona’s hair, and then with the sled in the memory he receives from the Giver. Colors brighten and pattern our worlds in a special way and Jonas, coming from a colorless world, slowly seeing color shows that he is waking up to the real world, the real him, the world he has been receiving from the Giver.
There are no animals in Jonas’s community, so when Jonas realizes animals do exist, it is a startling revelation. The most important symbol animals represent in this story is the concept of feelings in the Giver. There are two very sad and distressing memories that Jonas receives from the Giver; both involve war and death. The first uses the elephant to evoke feelings of pain in Jonas, and the next is the horse, “its bridle torn and dangling, trotted frantically through the mounds of men, tossing its head, whinnying in panic. It stumbled, finally, then fell, and did not rise” (p. 118). When animals suffer, people can feel their pain and suffering. Animals also are indicators of joy and release, as we see in the final part of the book when Jonas gets to Elsewhere and sees, most importantly, the birds, which represent the freedom of the human spirit.
Names are an important part of the book because all names have come from different people, places, or things that have attached stories. A lot of times, the author’s choice of a character’s name can hold symbolic meaning. For example, the name “Jonas” comes from a character in the Old Testament in the Bible where he is swallowed by a leviathan (a whale) because he keeps running away from the truth. He is spit out after three days and three nights and goes on to tell the truth. Jonas’s sister’s name is “Lily,” which is an especially beautiful and sensitive flower, very similar to the character in the story. “Rosemary” is a fragrant herb that is associated with memory, as Shakespeare famously wrote, “Theres rosemary, thats for remembrance” (Hamlet iv. 5). The herb also has a lot of compounds that make it very healing for the body, and we know that the character of Rosemary is not only a healing reminder for both the Giver and Jonas, but she is also the inspiration that leads to the healing plan they formulate to change the community.