Symbols in The Giver

Instructor: Liz Breazeale
Symbols are everywhere in literature, and they provide insights into big issues. Lois Lowry provides a myriad of symbols in her book ''The Giver'', and in this lesson, you'll learn about a few of the biggest ones.

What is a Symbol?

You've probably heard of symbols before - but what does that word mean in a literary context? A symbol is a person, place, or thing used to represent a larger, more abstract concept. Authors use symbols to engage readers, but also to make a point about a theme or topic. It makes something tough to discuss, like love, and makes it more manageable and concrete.

In this lesson, you'll look at three symbols from The Giver by Lois Lowry: Gabriel, the sled, and the river.


Gabriel, or Gabe, is a new child in the book. This means he's a baby, pretty much. But since Gabe doesn't really speak or have his own desires or motivations, he acts as a symbol of hope and new beginnings for Jonas. Jonas sees Gabriel and can hope for a brighter future for himself and for the community - which he eventually escapes from.

Gabriel is a doomed child within the community. He'll be released, which is a fancy way the community says 'euthanasia', and this automatically makes him sort of exist outside the natural community order. He's too small, too fussy, and he can't adjust to the rigid structure of Jonas's world, so the community's way of dealing with him, and all people who fall out of the realm of 'sameness', is to release him.

But even though Gabriel can't exist in this rigid community, Jonas ultimately doesn't want to, either. In Gabriel he has found someone like him. He can transmit memories to Gabe, he can bond with him, and he truly loves the child. He's found a brighter outlook, a hope for the future. He eventually kidnaps Gabe the morning he's due to be euthanized and runs away from the community, out into the wide world, where the two can make whatever life they want. That's pretty hopeful, you have to admit.

The Sled

The sled symbolizes Jonas's journey through memories. This also means it's a symbol of Jonas's journey of discovery, too, since Jonas only truly learns who he is and learns his place in the world through his journey through The Giver's memories. The sled appears in Jonas's first memory given by The Giver; he races down a snowy hill in the cold on a sled, and he finds this exhilarating and beautiful.

The sled symbolizes journeying through memories

The Giver even directly compares the sled to receiving and understanding the memories. First, you're excited and happy from the wonderful, heartwarming memories of parties and love and animals...but before long, it's exhausting and draining. Jonas learns this after he sees violent memories of war and poaching, as well as memories of loss and pain. So like the sled propels Jonas through his first memory, Jonas must propel himself through the memories.

The sled makes other appearances, too. It's present in Jonas's first experience with real pain when he receives a memory of falling off the sled and breaking a limb. This symbolizes the immense pain that comes from being the only keeper of memory. At the end of the novel, Jonas finds a real live sled on the top of a hill when he and Gabe are about to freeze to death. You could interpret this ending in different ways, as meaning the two die of exposure and the sled symbolizes their journey onward, or they survive and ride the sled downhill into a real town, symbolizing the new reality Jonas has truly become a part of, one of color and sensation, where he can make his own memories.

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