Why is it bad that the people in The Giver don't understand feelings and emotions like we do?

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Lois Lowry is too good a writer to tell us why it’s bad that the community isn’t able to understand feelings and emotions as we do. Instead, she shows us the outcome of being stunted in this way. Let’s look at a few examples from Jonas’ perspective.

While volunteering in the House of the Old, Jonas is told that Roberto has just been released. Everyone is happy that Roberto experienced this milestone, Jonas included. Later, Jonas learns what it really means to be released. He comes to understand that people who are deemed burdensome or confusing are killed, not sent elsewhere. Jonas struggles to reconcile his feelings of disgust with his feelings of affection toward his father and friend Fiona, who both work in fields that require them to euthanize the vulnerable. Jonas’ father and Fiona are able to feel happiness and frustration, excitement and shame, but their depth of emotion is tempered by the medication they are forced to take. If they could feel as Jonas does, they would likely be less able to perform the tasks necessary to enforce Sameness in the community.

Community members are able to feel some degree of shame because shame is an important motivator. It often makes us choose to do the culturally-acceptable thing, rather than what we’d do if no one was watching. It’s important that the people in The Giver feel enough shame to motivate them to fulfill their obligations, but not enough that they feel guilty about the obligations themselves. Can you think of any historical events that occurred because something shameful became culturally acceptable?

Consider how this applies to other feelings and emotions you can identify in the book. For example, when Jonas asks his parents if they love him, they scold him for using imprecise language. Recall that it is not only the children who are placed with the parents but the parents who are placed with one another. It is important that the family unit has some kind of connection, but this connection is not love. What problems might arise if the adults could feel romantic love? What problems are avoided by the adolescents not experiencing this feeling? Now, what is lost?

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I would argue the inability to feel emotions makes someone not fully human, and Lois Lowry's The Giver shows the high cost of suppressing emotion. Without emotions, we are not really that different from robots, and are easily led and controlled. Emotions motivate us and give us our drive. When we are stripped of these, as the people in the story are, the Elders can do what they please. After all, it takes a certain amount of anger to revolt. In the story, people have been deprived of not just the opportunity to be unhappy, but also the opportunity to be happy. They do not experience envy or jealousy, it appears, but they also do not experience love or sexual desire. Only when the Giver shares memories of love and pain does Jonah understand what he and the community have been missing. It does not seem possible to experience positive emotions without also being able to experience negative emotions. Even negative emotions can lead us to a good result, such as overthrowing a tyrant or leaving a bad relationship. In the story, the people have no such choices because they cannot feel anything. To feel is to be human.

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