In spite of the plan to leave in two weeks, Jonas is forced to leave shortly after dark that night, although he has to dodge work crews and has no time to go to the Annex. He leaves without regret on his bicycle, although he feels sad at leaving The Giver without saying goodbye. The reason for the rush is that at today's evening meal, his father said that when they tried having Gabriel stay overnight at the Nurturing Center, he cried all night, so even Father had to vote for his release. Horrified, Jonas then learned that Gabriel would be released in a hurry tomorrow morning, since Naming Ceremony preparations are looming. He is therefore absconding with Gabriel.
Upon reaching the opposite side of the river, Jonas looks back at the community and realizes that his orderly, easy life without a past has ended. He has broken too many rules now to let himself be caught, such as leaving his dwelling at night, stealing leftovers, and taking his father's bike because of its child seat. In addition, he has stolen Gabriel, who is sleeping behind him with the soothing memory of lying on a hammock on a beach.
Jonas rides as far as he can, avoiding all communities as much as he can. The next morning, he feeds Gabe in an isolated area near a stream. They sleep hidden in the trees after Jonas transmits a memory of contented exhaustion.
After many days, Jonas's legs have become stronger, showing that he does not need The Giver's memories of strength that he would have received. However, he wishes for more courage every time he sees a search plane. Remembering that they use a heat-seeking device, he shares memories of snow and cold with Gabe whenever a plane approaches in order to hide them, although the memories grow shallower as he moves farther away from the community--just as he hoped and planned. He watches vigilantly for planes, but eventually the planes cease searching.
The road becomes bumpier and narrower, and at one point Jonas runs against a rock and falls, twisting his ankle. He begins riding in daytime when the searchers stop coming, and he becomes wary of the unfamiliar land. They eventually see waterfalls and wildlife, and when Gabe next calls at what he thinks is a plane, Jonas realizes that the child has actually seen a bird. The experience of animals and wildflowers after a life of Sameness makes Jonas extremely happy.
At the same time, Jonas begins fearing starvation. He manages, after attempting some failed methods, to catch a fish with the makeshift net of Gabe's blanket, but he remains hungry. He tries to immerse himself in fading memories of delicious food, but he realizes that he is starving. However, he also knows that he could not have stayed in the community, if even to remain well fed. He never would have had love or real color, and Gabriel would be dead. When he finally sees hills, it is difficult for his sprained ankle to navigate on a bicycle, and the addition of weather and cold rains makes the journey increasingly miserable. Both he and Gabriel cry in their hunger and weakness, and Jonas fears that he will not be able to save Gabriel, let alone himself.
Jonas begins to sense instinctively that he is approaching Elsewhere. However, he realizes that he might not make it, now that they are faced with snow. Jonas stops his bike and holds Gabriel against his chest while they huddle in the blanket. He tells the feeble and unresponsive toddler about snowflakes before remounting the bicycle and making a futile attempt to climb a steep hill. Exhausted, he dismounts and thinks about how easy it would be to go to sleep in the snow, but he pulls himself together and gives Gabriel a memory of sunshine, although it is much weaker at this distance from the community. They hug each other, feeling briefly renewed, and Jonas begins to walk up the hill. The memory fades after a few moments, but Jonas forces himself to continue, his will to survive somewhat rekindled. After he falls due to lack of strength, he again manages to find a memory that he passes to Gabriel, who stirs, but when the memory fades, he feels colder.
Jonas wishes The Giver had given him more memories of warmth. He continues to the top of the hill. His exhaustion increases, but he suddenly feels happy, remembering his family, his friends, and The Giver, and as he reaches the summit, he feels certain that he knows this place, although it is not from The Giver's memory. He finds the sled at the top of the hill and sleds down the hill with Gabriel, heading toward a place that he knows will be Elsewhere. Finally, he forces his eyes open and sees Christmas lights in front of him. He hears music and singing for the first time, and he even thinks he hears it from behind him in the place he left, although this might only be an echo.
Chapter 21 is in large part not only a narrative of Jonas's escape but also a conclusion to the continuing theme of the importance of individual choice. First, the rules of the society in The Giver again reduce Jonas's range of choice by forcing him into leaving the community ahead of schedule in order to save Gabriel from release. Then, when Jonas reaches the opposite bank of the river, he sees that his decisions have permanently separated him from the community and thus that returning home will merely lead to an early release for both him and Gabriel. Yet, because he made the decision of his own will and because he chose the possibility of a richer human life over mere safety and order, he regrets nothing.
In running away with Gabriel, Jonas creates a family that is more loving and complete than any of the family units that currently exist in the community, including Jonas's own. Although his family unit at first appeared to be loving and caring, his parents rejected the term "love" as too imprecise. In addition, his father effectively tells Jonas that despite his affection for Gabe, he voted to kill the child merely because of its weakness, expressed by its inability to sleep peacefully at night without Jonas's presence. Gabriel and Jonas, in contrast, show a strong bond with one another other, which is fueled by the power of shared memories and by Jonas's protectiveness with respect to his de facto brother.
During the course of his travels away from his community, Jonas begins to see that the reach of the communities is not as far or as complete as one might have imagined. He receives confirmation of his received memories in the form of new, real experiences of animals, hills, and variable weather. The new memories accumulate just as his old borrowed memories begin to fade away and return to his community, in effect replacing an artificial memory with a natural and more permanent one.
The unfortunate consequence of his new experiences is that although Jonas now fully understands the beauty of nature, he also undergoes the negative aspects of his newfound freedom, such as fear and hunger. These are not memories from which he can easily awaken. At the end of The Giver, Jonas returns full circle to December and to the fear that was foreshadowed in the first sentence of the novel, but this time he has experienced true fear, and his December is no longer the December of Climate Control but the December of snow that he has glimpsed in The Giver's transmitted memories. However, his suffering on his journey has enabled Jonas to accumulate a set of memories based on the love that he feels for his family and friends. Where his strength and his fading community memories fail, he still can take some joy in his own memories.
The final paragraphs of the novel gain an increasingly magical quality, as Jonas suddenly feels joyful while also Hearing Beyond and perceiving music for the first time. Simultaneously, he finds the familiar sled of his first transmitted memory, which promises to take him beyond the hill to a place that he has only sensed in his dreams. It is unlikely that the sled is real, so it is doubtful (but a possible interpretation) that Jonas survives his ordeal and finds the Elsewhere that he has always hoped would exist. More likely, he is succumbing to hallucinations and eventually to death. One might compare the conclusion of the novel to that of Herman Hesse's Magister Ludi, in which the priest-like protagonist in a highly scientific future time also leaves the security of his normal life for an experience of the real world, which quickly turns out to be something for which he is ill-prepared, and he drowns.
As for Jonas, even though the ambiguity of Jonas's future leaves the ending open to our interpretation, in any case Jonas feels optimism rather than regret as he reaches the end of his quest and his old life. Just as with the protagonist in many such totalitarian or communitarian dystopias, Jonas is wiling to suffer in his individualism because at least he has the chance to live his own life in freedom. As for his community, we do not know if any aspect of his and The Giver’s plan will succeed, but it may well be too late for The Giver to transmit his memories to a selected Receiver, and with so many entrenched forces perpetuating the status quo, it is hard to see how The Giver’s books and memories could overcome the dystopian regime.