Jonas's community is founded on the idea of Sameness—the elimination of difference in its members. In order to achieve this Sameness, individualism is discouraged, and rules and discipline matter most. Jonas learns from an early age that both breaking rules and being different is considered shameful. By celebrating group birthdays, allowing only one kind of clothing and haircut, assigning spouses, jobs, children and names, and eliminating sexual relations, Jonas's society stifles the things that allow for individual differences. Without mirrors, there can be no vanity or jealousy. Without sex, vanity loses its importance, and competition and conflict are eliminated. In Sameness, no one knows the meaning of loneliness, but no one knows true happiness either.
Young Jonas, however, is different in ways he cannot change. With his pale eyes and ability to see in color, he stands out in his community. While these traits at first make him uncomfortable, they give him the courage to be different in a more powerful way when he decides to escape from the community. When Jonas comes to recognize the value innate in every individual, he is horrified that his community leaders can so casually "release" their members, ending precious human lives.
In Jonas's community, no one makes choices. All choices about the community were made in the distant past when Sameness was created, and any additional changes involve painfully slow bureaucratic procedures. Without choice, no one suffers the consequences that come from making wrong choices, but they also don't experience the joys that come with making right ones. By sacrificing the freedom of choice, community members are guaranteed a stable, painless life. Consequently, the people lead pleasant—but robotic—lives.
When Jonas discovers memory, he realizes that choice is essential to human happiness. Choice, he learns, is power. He makes the first real choice in his life when he decides to escape from the community and take Gabriel with him. In making this significant and dangerous choice, he gives a windfall of pleasure and pain to the people he leaves behind, and gives the freedom of choice back to the community.
The people of Jonas's community don't understand genuine emotion or pain, because their lifestyles allow no opportunity to experience it. Birthmothers are not allowed to raise their own children. Sex is forbidden and sexual urges medicated away. Adults are not allowed to choose their own spouses. Identical twins are not both allowed to survive because they would be too close emotionally. Every decision made in the community serves a purely practical purpose and is based on the rules set down at the time of the community's establishment, promoting Sameness and leaving no room for sentimentality.
Jonas is unique in that he longs for human closeness even before he meets The Giver. When he bathes Larissa at the House of the Old, he realizes the beauty of touch and intimacy. When he begins his training as Receiver, he realizes that true emotion is only accessible to those who have memory and experience. He also realizes that one can only experience joy and love if one understands pain and loneliness. As he experiences the breadth and beauty of human emotion, Jonas comes to believe that it is cruel to allow people to continue living in numbness. His ultimate escape from the community is an act of love toward those who do not know how to love him in return. By leaving, Jonas is able to give them feeling.
The annual December ceremony, when the "birthdays" of all children are celebrated simultaneously, is a ritual full of rites of passage. As children grow older, these rites allow them more responsibility; at eight, for example, they are given pockets and stuffed animals are taken away. At Nine, children are given bicycles. At Twelve, children are assigned jobs and adult status is conferred upon them. After Twelve, age is not counted. Yet these rites of passage are purely external, involving the giving of objects or responsibilities. Rites of passage that involve internal development are stifled. For instance, children do not become adults when they become aware of their own sexuality. Instead, they're given a pill to stifle sexual desires. Adulthood is forced upon them at a predetermined time and is associated with the ability to work instead of with the physical, mental, and emotional changes of puberty or life experience.
The Giver is in many ways Jonas's coming-of-age story. Jonas reaches maturity only when he is given memory, and through memory, experience. In this way, Jonas becomes more mature at Twelve than the "adults" of his community. But The Giver also teaches Jonas the wisdom to recognize his own shortcomings. Jonas truly becomes an adult at the end of the novel, when he learns that true maturity comes through selfless love, when one is willing to sacrifice one's own life for another's.
Sometime in the past, Jonas's community decided to give up their memories in order to eliminate the pain and regret that came with them. They were trying to create a totally peaceful and harmonious society without conflict, war, or hate by eliminating emotion entirely. They succeeded: the community is almost perfectly stable and totally safe. Yet Jonas realizes that without memories, a person can't learn from mistakes, celebrate accomplishments, know love or happiness or any other deep emotion, or grow as an individual.
In The Giver, memory doesn't function as it does in the real world. Certain people have the power to transmit memories to others, and this ability is connected to the trait of blue eyes, which Jonas, The Giver, and Gabriel all share. Memory is also not just a mental exercise. Instead, it's an actual experience: Jonas literally feels the cold when he remembers snow. Finally, when a keeper of memories, called a Receiver, dies or leaves the community, all of his or her memories are released to the community. By bestowing upon memory these magical properties, Lowry emphasizes memory's preciousness and its power to influence, guide, and enrich life.