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How the 'Hunger Games' heroine learns to kill and to regret killing

Unpacking the meaning of the violence in 'The Hunger Games' is key to understanding the story and the depth of the characters.

Article originally posted to Helium Network on June 30, 2013.


Violence is a dominant theme in the "Hunger Games" trilogy. Author Suzanne Collins creates a fantasy world in which the teenage heroine, and everyone around her, suffers from chronic violence on multiple levels, both physical and psychological. Unpacking these different types of violence and the characters’ responses is key to understanding the story and the depth of the characters.

When the father of Katniss, the heroine, died in a mine explosion when Katniss was eleven years old, “there was nothing even to bury.” Her family lives in a society where stealing is punishable by death, capital punishment being best understood in this context as a kind of violence wielded by the state. The threat of being called by lottery to fight to the death in an arena hangs over the head of every child. Families who live in wealthier areas train their children in martial arts, but when Katniss is called to the arena as the first book opens, she has only her self-taught skill with a bow and arrow (gained at great personal risk by illegally hunting to provide food for her family), and she cannot be sure that she will be provided with this type of weapon when she enters the arena. Katniss knows it will be easier to kill other children if she can dehumanize them and pretend she’s targeting game animals.

To maximize the entertainment value for the viewing public, the children are provided with interesting tools with which they think of innovative ways to kill each other. When Katniss is stuck in a tree, she is nevertheless able to dump an especially venomous bees’ nest onto her pursuers below. She says “technically I’d get credited” for killing two people by this maneuver, but she feels somewhat detached from the consequences of the action. She is more troubled by a different kill, who was “the first person I knew would die because of my actions." Later, in the second book, "Catching Fire", she is disturbed to learn the name of one of the people she killed. It was easier for her not to have that human connection.

In "Catching Fire", Katniss comes to learn more than she ever wanted to know about the cruelty and manipulation perpetrated by the ruler of the land. She has to tell her friend, Gale, that “President Snow personally threatened to have you killed.” In reply, the teenager gives “no real show of fear or astonishment.” He simply asks who else is on the hit list and what they need to do to avoid their fate.

When she enters the arena a second time, Katniss already knows that, regardless of what she feels for other victors, “all of them must die” – as she herself must die – “if I’m to save Peeta,” one of her friends and love interests. However, anticipating and contributing to the deaths of others is difficult after alliances are built. These alliances are supposed to be temporary, because, after a certain point, every person is in the game for himself or herself, as there can only be one victor. But Katniss is troubled by the prospect of harming those who have only recently saved her life and Peeta’s. She has a strong sense of loyalty that tempers her willingness to use violence. She also is attuned to the idea of sacrifice.

The greatest act of violence, solely measured by the number of casualties, must be the government’s annihilation of Katniss and Peeta’s home district. In the third book, "Mockingjay", there is a strong people’s rebellion against the government in response to this offense. Peeta makes the first-ever truthful, personal statement on state-controlled television about what it’s like to fight in the arena: “It costs a lot more than your life. To murder innocent people? It costs everything you are.” (Katniss is also personally familiar with “the aftermath of killing a person…how they never leave you.”) Soon afterward, television is in the hands of the rebels, and Katniss makes the first-ever televised statement against the government.

"Mockingjay" reflects upon the proper use of violence in justified rebellions and in the rules of war, with the aim of minimizing casualties, even on the enemy side. Katniss’s childhood friend Gale doesn’t see anything wrong with luring bystanders into an area that is about to be bombed or with annihilating large areas without giving people a chance to identify themselves and to surrender. Katniss, on the other hand, while possessing a fire for vengeance, has no liking for permanent war. “We almost went extinct fighting one another before. Now our numbers are even fewer. Our conditions more tenuous,” she worries. “Is this really what we want to do? Kill ourselves off completely? In the hopes that – what? Some decent species will inherit the smoking remains of the earth?”

The "Hunger Games" trilogy explores violence in different scenarios. It examines the reasons the powerful and the powerless use violence to achieve their goals. The novels implicitly accept that there are certain scenarios where violence may be necessary for the otherwise powerless and oppressed to remain alive, but they leave a gaping question about whether all-out war can ever be justified or will ever be productive.

Image by: Wikimedia Commons user 'Rama' © 'Free software' under CeCILL (www.cecill.info)

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