The Hunger Games: How Suzanne Collins uniquely avoids the question of morality.
January 13, 2011 § 11 Comments
I’m not a fan of science fiction, and by that I mean all those books that take place in “other” worlds where there is an entire new system of order and rules that have to be explained. Why don’t I like them? Because the author usually has to spend the good part of 75 pages just to explain the fictional world to the reader before the story really gets going. (Or in some cases, the main character whines about jaw lines and becoming immortal for four whole books.)
FYI: THIS IS A SPOILER ALERT.
Collins is not unique in coming up with her plotline for humans hunting humans. That one short story we had to read constantly during high school about the man that hunts the boy on his island–The Mysterious Game? The Hunting Place?–was the first thing I thought of when I began this book. And neither is the idea unique. The setting of a pseudo-post-apocalyptic United States is not either. (See The Road, Book of Eli). Plus, Collins has an annoying way of turning a phrase. For example, short phrases/sentences such as, “But it wasn’t her. It was the boy.”, and “The reaping isn’t til two. Might as well sleep in. If you can.” make for a disjunctive narration, create a drone sort of narrator’s voice, and are repeated from the beginning to the end of the book (props for consistency?) all while something ominous is happening, much like every thriller/suspense movie that comes to theaters.
But the redeeming factor of Collins’ book is how she avoids addressing the timeless argument of morality. That’s right, avoids.
So Katniss Everdeen is the heroine and protagonist of the book, and Collins immediately sets up up to be the stereotypical “good” girl at the very beginning when she takes her younger sister’s place in the hunger games–the capitol’s way of maintaining control over the districts by forcing 12-18 year old children to literally fight to the death. It’s an appalling plot line, one that forces Collins’ to create Everdeen’s character one that mirrors the thoughts of all the readers. Because you see, Everdeen has to also think the hunger games as atrocious, or Collins loses the attention of the readers who might regard not just the character, but the author herself, as a somewhat sick and twisted human being, and since Collins’ imagination already came up with a sick and twisted plot line, she uses Everdeen to redeem herself.
We follow Katniss to the Capitol as she and fellow District 12 partner and competitor prepare for the games. Collins creates other character/competitors who think it is an honor to compete for their district, who are looking forward to killing their peers, and the Capitol’s leaders make a terrible and obscene sport out of the whole game. Plus, the entire game is televised for the world to see and for rich Capitol people to place bets on hopeful hunger games winners. The voyeurism Collins sets up is the first example of what makes her book more unique than war and action plots. It’s another example of a sick and twisted imagination, but it’s also the very thing that makes the entire hunger games so terrible.
Okay, let me get to the morality point.
Yes, Katniss (and Peeta) is the winner of the hunger games. But I think it is very important to note that she doesn’t kill anyone.
I know what you’re thinking, she killed the boy from District 1 after he killed Rue. And this is, of course, obviously true at the beginning of the chapter when her “arrow drives deeply into the center of his neck,” and then the cannon sounds to further illustrate to the reader, to Katniss, to the other players, and all who are watching that the boy is dead. And yeah, she kills Cato at the end when he’s being eaten alive by those weird wolf/dead player mutations. I cannot deny that point either.
If you take the deaths out of the book’s context and put them into today’s cultural context–and by that I mean movies, TV, books, and the news itself–both killings are inherently not considered ruthless murderings. Collins’ sets up the love and friendship between Rue and Katniss that when Rue is killed, Katniss is only taking out her revenge on the boy. Subconsciously, this is recognized as justifiable, even reward-able. Not a single reader is going to look on this scene and condemn Katniss for her killing. Instead, Collins sets it up so that Katniss is forced to play the game, but will not be condemned by her readers.
In fact, Katniss even says, “To hat the boy from District 1, who also appears so vulnerable in death, seems inadequate. It’s the Capitol I hate, for doing this to all of us.” It’s in this loaded statement that sums up the entire morality of Katniss’ character as well as the hunger games themselves, that the Capitol forced her to kill, and forced Rue’s death.
And this is where Collins also redeems her writing skills, by creating a beautiful picture of Katniss and dying Rue that is so choked with sadness I could hardly take it myself. She sings the small girl to an eternal sleep, covers her with flowers, and mourns the death not of a competitor, but of a friend, of a sister.
Which then brings me to Cato, when Katniss kills him at the end. Cato begs her to end his life. She sees him, ripped apart by the mutations set by the Capitol and responds appropriately.
“It takes a few moments to find Cato in the dim light, in the blood. Then the raw hunk of meat that used to be my enemy makes a sound, and I know where his mouth is. And I think the word he’s trying to say is please. Pity, not vengeance, sends my arrow flying into his skull.”
Again, not only does Collins redeem her writing skills by creating this momentarily horrific scene of Cato as a “raw hunk of meat” not even identifiable “in the blood,” but she uses this pity to warrant Katniss’ killing, so that a reader, a spectator, also roots in Katniss’ favor thinking, “Man, if I was in the same position, I would want her to kill me, too.”
Even Peeta inadvertently kills Foxface with the poisonous berries. His one kill is an accident, and can’t be deemed ruthless or hard-hearted.
And this is how Suzanne Collins addresses the morality question: She simply doesn’t. She forces the two District 12 players to play the game along with all the rest, but all the while they maintain their own integrity and dignity and character as a person, unlike all the rest. She makes the statement “This is wrong” while at the same time saying “There is no way around it.” She uses Peeta to sum up a lot of the morality when he says, “‘Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to…to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their games,'” and I think most people would make the argument that it’s Peeta that is the symbol of morality in the face of such an awful turn of events. And I agree that he, too, is a moral character, or Collins wouldn’t have him win at the end, but it has to be Katniss that exudes goodness in the sight of evil. She is the example of the phrase, “There is always a choice.”
And she chooses right.