Jonas begins The Giver feeling uneasy about the upcoming Ceremony of Twelve, where he will receive the Assignment that determines his vocation for the rest of his working life. That night, at the nightly sharing of feelings, after his sister, father, and mother discuss their emotions, his parents comfort him about his worries. They remind him that his life will change after the Ceremony, but they reassure him that the Committee of Elders has been watching him closely and will give him an appropriate Assignment.
Jonas's father brings home a newchild who needs extra care, and they call him Gabriel, although Father is not yet supposed to know the child's name. Lily decides that she will begin volunteering hours at the Nurturing Center after she turns Nine, and Jonas recalls a strange incident where he saw an apple suddenly change before returning to the same nondescript shade as his shirt. The next day, he joins Asher and Fiona at the House of the Old, where Larissa tells him about Roberto's release ceremony, after which Roberto will go Elsewhere. Then, after a sexually charged dream involving Fiona that forms Jonas's first Stirrings, his parents give him the pills that will suppress these Stirrings.
At the Ceremony, Jonas sits through the Naming at the Ceremony of One, which Gabriel will miss because the Nurturers have decided to give him an extra year of care before deciding whether to assign him a family unit or to release him. Lily turns Eight, and the new Nines receive bicycles as a sign of new independence. The Ceremony of Twelve begins uneventfully, as the often hasty but always good-humored Asher receives the Assignment of Assistant Director of Recreation and Fiona receives that of Caretaker of the Old. However, the Chief Elder skips Jonas, which mortifies him until they announce that he has been selected as the new Receiver of Memory for the community, an important position that requires intelligence, courage, and the Capacity to See Beyond, which Jonas has previously experienced with the apple.
Jonas feels nervous and isolated at his selection, and his instructions are strange in that they allow him to be rude, ask questions, and lie, while prohibiting him from taking medication for his training and from applying for release. The old Receiver, who calls himself The Giver, informs Jonas that he is now the new Receiver and will have to receive the memories of generations of the whole world, which The Giver transmits by touch and remembrance. Jonas's first new memory is that of riding a sled down a snowy hill, and The Giver explains that after the establishment of Sameness and Climate Control, many of these things have been eliminated. The Giver also gives Jonas the memory of sunshine and sunburn to give Jonas a hint of the pain that is to come in his training.
After seeing a change in Fiona's hair, Jonas informs The Giver, who concludes that Jonas has the capacity to see color, unlike other members of the community. Scientists tried to get rid of color at the onset of Sameness, but they did not entirely succeed. Jonas and The Giver discuss how Sameness has gotten rid of individual choice, although it may perhaps have made the world safer by eliminating the possibility of wrong choices, such as in choosing spouses, although as The Receiver, Jonas will never be able to share his whole life with a future spouse, since he cannot speak of his work. They also discuss the previous Receiver-in-Training's failure, after which unwanted memories escaped into the community and caused havoc, an incident that reminded the community of The Receiver's role as the vessel for these memories.
Jonas asks for more painful memories, so The Giver introduces him first to a broken leg and later to more serious pains such as starvation and neglect. These memories give The Receiver wisdom to advise the Elders, who do not want to bear the memories themselves. At home, Jonas discovers that Gabriel is capable of receiving memories, and at his training, he eventually helps ease The Giver's suffering by taking from him the terrible memory of war. As recompense, The Giver transmits some joyful memories, including that of family, grandparents, and love, all of which are missing in the community's family units. Jonas instinctively feels that the absence of love is wrong, although he initially denies his instincts in favor of what his society has taught him. Others in the community do not understand Jonas's thoughts, as his parents deride the term "love" as imprecise and as Asher fails to understand why Jonas does not approve of the imitation war games he plays with the children.
When Jonas's father is scheduled to release a newchild because it is a twin, Jonas asks The Giver about release, who mentions that in his previous failure, his daughter Rosemary became the Receiver-in-Training but chose release because she did not want to bear all the memories of pain. The Giver then shows Jonas a tape in which Jonas's father is shown to release the infant by euthanizing him through lethal injection. Jonas is devastated by this revelation, and he and The Giver decide that he should run away so that the memories will be released into the community. They both hope that The Giver can teach the community to regain wisdom and emotion through the memories rather than to force the memories away.
Jonas is forced to leave ahead of schedule in order to save Gabriel from release, so he sets off with inadequate supplies. As they leave the community, they experience first the joys of nature and wildlife and then the fear of cold and starvation as they leave the area of Climate Control into a snowy region. Finally, Jonas finds what he perceives as the hill from his first transmitted memory, and he hears music and sees Christmas lights, believing that he has found an Elsewhere that has what the community lacked. However, the ending leaves unclear whether Jonas has truly found Elsewhere or is simply hallucinating as he freezes to death.