The ending to The Giver is sort of a "take it how you like it" deal. Either Jonas and Gabriel make it to Elsewhere, everyone is happy, and the world is right as rain, or… they die of exposure/starvation in the freezing snow.
Hmm. Not a lot of gray area there.
The first option makes a good case for the book being optimistic. Jonas, despite being raised in the highly controlled community, has come to value freedom and choice over contentment and ease. Gabriel, being a baby and all, could represent the opportunity for a better future. That they make it to their destination means there is hope for all of us.
The second option is a bit more flexible. Clearly, it could be a huge downer. The human spirit, the desire for individuality, etc., are nothing in the face of the rigid rules of Jonas's community. Once we've abandoned freedom for security, we can't ever go back.
Well, that's no good. Maybe you want to go with that other ending…
But wait. Even if Jonas and Gabriel do die, the ending might still be optimistic. The point isn't that Jonas succeeds, but that he tries at all. If he is willing to die for freedom and choice and individuality, then isn't that a kind of victory? He still escaped from the community. He still got "released," in one way or another. And, by leaving the community, Jonas released all the memories he had received from The Giver.
So it may be one small step for Jonas (and one baby step for Gabriel), but it's one giant pain in the butt for the Elders. And that's something.
He heard people singing. Behind him, across vast distances of space and time, from the place he had left, he thought he heard music too. But perhaps it was only an echo.
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Instead of waiting two weeks as he and the Giver had planned, Jonas is forced to escape right away. At the evening meal, his father tells the family that he tried to see if Gabriel could sleep through the night at the Nurturing Center, and that the newchild had cried all night. The staff, including Jonas’s father, voted to release him the next day. Jonas cannot allow this to happen, so he takes some leftover food and his father’s bicycle, which has a child seat, and leaves, relying on his own courage and strength instead of on the memories that the Giver had promised. Jonas has broken serious rules against leaving his dwelling at night and taking food. After riding all night, he and Gabe rest during the day, hiding from the planes that fly overhead searching for them. He transmits memories of exhaustion to Gabriel in order to make him sleep during the day, and in order to avoid the heat-seeking technology of the planes, he transmits memory of intense cold to both of them so that their body heat does not show up on the planes’ devices. After several days, when Jonas and Gabriel have left all communities far behind, the planes come less frequently.
The landscape around them begins to change: the terrain becomes bumpy and irregular, and Jonas falls and twists his ankle. He sees waterfalls and wildlife, all new things to him after a life of Sameness. He is happy to see beautiful things, but worries that he and Gabe might starve, since there is no sign of cultivated land anywhere around. He catches some fish in a makeshift net and gathers some berries, but they are only just enough. If he had stayed in the community, he would have had enough to eat, and he realizes that in choosing to leave, he chose to starve. But in the community he would have been hungry for feelings and color, and Gabriel would have died. The weather changes, and Jonas feels cold and hunger and pain from his twisted ankle. But he suspects that Elsewhere is not far away and hopes that he will be able to keep Gabriel alive.
One day, it begins to snow, and Jonas’s bicycle cannot climb the steep hill that rises before them. Jonas has lost most of the memories he received from the Giver, but he tries to remember sunshine and the feeling of warmth that it gives. When it comes, he transmits the feeling to Gabriel, and it helps them make it up the hill on foot, despite the intense cold and hunger they feel. When he can no longer remember sunshine, and is almost totally numb with cold, Jonas remembers his friends and family and the Giver, and the happiness their memories give him helps him to reach the top. He recognizes the snow-covered summit of the hill, and somehow finds a sled waiting for him there. He gets in the sled and steers himself and Gabe to the bottom, toward warm, twinkling lights that glow from the windows of houses. He feels certain that the families in those houses, where they kept memories and celebrated love, were waiting for him and Gabe. Ahead of him, he hears singing for the first time in his life, and he thinks that he hears the music behind him too.
In the last chapters of The Giver, Jonas truly begins to exist in the world of his memories. This begins when he makes the drastic choice to escape ahead of schedule with Gabriel in tow. Jonas is aware that he is breaking rules against leaving his dwelling and taking food, but in reality he is breaking a much more serious rule, one on which his entire society is based. He is making choices for himself as an individual, and in doing this he is making himself important as an individual rather than as a member of a society. He is also making the choice that Gabriel’s individual life is more precious than the convenience of the community. At the same time, however, Jonas is making choices that affect the entire community, acting in what he considers their self-interest. This choice, though, opposes another fundamental rule of the society: everything should be done to avoid pain and discomfort. Jonas’s escape will cause the entire community great anguish for long periods of time until they have come to grips with the difficult memories he leaves behind him.
After his journey becomes difficult, the consequences of freedom become clearer to Jonas than they were in his memories or his meditations on choice and individuality. Feeling pain, hunger, and cold, Jonas realizes that all of his present misery is a direct result of his own actions. He understands for the first time that one choice always eliminates another choice. His community has chosen peace and comfort over extreme joy and pain, order over freedom, and Jonas sees that each choice has its advantages and disadvantages. But when he decides that the life he has chosen is better than the one he rejected, Jonas affirms that the important thing is choice. People with free choice have to accept the consequences of their actions, but in the end they will be happier to have the choice.
Jonas’s powers of memory become undeniably magical on his journey. Earlier in the novel, the process of receiving memories has seemed mystical and mysterious, the opposite of the carefully reasoned, intricately explained rules of the community, symbolizing how removed the citizens are from the complexity of emotion. On the road, however, Jonas’s mental powers become so strong that they are able to defy the community’s sophisticated tracking technology and defeat the natural world. Memories of cold keep Jonas and Gabriel safe from the heat-seeking planes searching overhead, and memories of warmth help them to stay alive in the bitter cold. The extent of Jonas’s powers to defy technology indicates that feelings have triumphed over cold logic in the story, regardless of whether Jonas survives his journey.