A theme is that emotions, both good and bad, are part of the human experience.
Theme refers to the author’s message, or the moral of the story. An important possible theme for The Giver is that emotions are part of the human experience. As many times as I have read this book, this is what stands out most to me. You will find other themes, such as the importance of individuality, or choice, the value of love, or the inevitability of change, but fundamentally this is a book about the fact that humans are emotional beings. The strongest element that relates to this theme, you will see, is setting, but you will also see me relate it to character (Jonas) and plot
You can see this first in the fact that the community has tried to limit emotions. They do this in several ways. First, they control emotions through careful use of language. They call this precision of language, and train children to use it carefully. This is why Asher was beaten for saying the wrong word as a child. The Chief Elder shares the story about how Asher even stopped speaking because he was smacked so often as a child for asking for a “smack” when he wanted a “snack.”
"When he began to talk again, it was with greater precision. And now his lapses are very few. His corrections and apologies are very prompt. (Ch. 7)
The point here is not that the community lacks empathy (although they do, because empathy is also an emotion). It is that they value precision of language, because it limits emotions and keeps individuals from standing out from one another. It keeps things calm and even.
Another way they limit emotions is more obvious—the telling of feelings.
It was one of the rituals, the evening telling of feelings. … Their parents, of course, were part of the ritual; they, too, told their feelings each evening. (Ch. 1)
The purpose of telling the feelings, we soon find, is to get rid of them. The feelings are simple, and simply dismissed. By making sure that all “feelings” are immediately addressed, they can make sure they are eliminated before they grow into real emotions. Notice that Jonas doesn’t want to take his turn because he is experiencing genuine emotions and is having trouble putting them into words. His parents are quick to address them, to try to get rid of them right away.
Finally, there are Stirrings. When Jonas has a dream about Fiona in a bathtub, his parents tell him he has had Stirrings and needs to begin taking a pill every day.
"But you mustn't forget …. If you forget, the Stirrings will come back. The dreams of Stirrings will come back. Sometimes the dosage must be adjusted." (Ch. 5)
It is easy to dismiss Stirrings as an adolescent fantasy, or only sexual feelings. But they are more than that. The pills that eliminate Stirrings essentially prevent everyone in the community from becoming an adult (except, presumably, birthmothers). This limits their maturity and their consciousness. The pills seem to be preventing more than just feelings of a sexual nature. They seem to be preventing all emotions. It is the only way to explain how the community can allow release to go on without batting an eye. The pills are keeping these people numb, in an emotionless state, so that they do not question their reality.
When Jonas begins his training, he experiences memories, and suddenly sees real emotions of the first time. He sees love, and pain. Yet although he goes far enough to see suffering and death, he fixates on love. He realizes that while the community his made a choice to eliminate emotions in favor of preventing pain, they have lost the most important parts of being human. When he asks his “parents” if they love him, he gets nothing but a lecture on precision of language. Jonas knows what love is though. He is saddened with what he sees as a loveless, emotionless community. He reaches out to baby Gabe in one of the most poignant lines of the book.
The newchild stirred slightly in his sleep. Jonas looked over at him. "There could be love," Jonas whispered. (Ch. 16)
In the end, Jonas has to flee the community when he finds out that Gabe is going to be released. His other objective is to return the memories to the community, to make it a better place with actual emotions. This act of rebellion reinforces the theme that humans need emotions, because Jonas and The Giver feel so strongly about it that they are willing to risk everything in order to return the memories, and emotions, to the community.