Tuesday, July 8, 2014

'If we burn, you burn with us': Rebellion in the 'Hunger Games' trilogy

Katniss Everdeen learns about rebellion the hard way in Suzanne Collins's "Hunger Games" trilogy, in which a miserable populace rises up against an oppressive government.

Rebellion is one of the most complex themes in the "Hunger Games" trilogy. In this fictional dystopia created by Suzanne Collins, the government known as "the Capitol" keeps its twelve districts geographically and informationally isolated from each other, leaving them in varying degrees of poverty. Most famously, each year the Capitol forcibly drafts a boy and a girl from each district by random selection to fight to the death in a technologically enhanced wilderness arena. With 24 teenagers pitted against each other, only one can survive. The Capitol's purpose behind this exercise is to remind the public of a failed uprising that had occurred 75 years previously, emphasizing its victory and continued power and warning them against attempting to rise up again. Despite this expressed intent, on practical and symbolic levels this arrangement cannot but foment politicized anger, and while the motif of the first novel mostly focuses on the morbid thrill of the game, the second and third books in the trilogy follow the citizens' rebellion.

The teenage heroine, Katniss Everdeen, is a rebel from the beginning. It is not that she has a naturally rebellious personality, but she has a fighting spirit, so, for example, she hunts game to ensure that her mother and sister do not starve in their poor district despite the illegality of hunting. In a limited sense, this already makes her a rebel against the Capitol's power.

Book 1

The first instance of collective rebellion occurs early in the first book, "The Hunger Games," when Katniss is chosen to be sent to fight to the death in the Hunger Games arena. Her younger sister was chosen by lottery, and Katniss publicly volunteers to take her place. The master of ceremonies shouts, "Let's give a big round of applause to our newest tribute!" But, according to Katniss's narration, "To the everlasting credit of the people of District 12, not one person claps...[this is] the boldest form of dissent they can manage. Silence. Which says we do not agree. We do not condone. All of this is wrong." Additionally, Haymitch - one of the officials who helps to run the Games and who will become her ally - says that Katniss has lots of spunk, and then points to the camera and says: "More than you!" Katniss wonders if he is "taunting the Capitol."

Katniss performs small acts that resist authority if she believes she can get away with them. Before the Games start, when she is in training at the Capitol, she eats with her fingers and wipes her hands on the tablecloth to protest the assumptions of her handlers. When the Gamemakers pay more attention to their dinner than her archery during training, she shoots an apple out of their roasted pig's mouth and leaves "without being dismissed."

Friendship is a kind of rebellion in this kill-and-be-killed society. When a younger girl, Rue, dies in the arena, Katniss decorates her body with flowers - a gesture that the Capitol does not show on the retrospective video. Before the games begin, Katniss's stylist recommends that she publicly hold hands with the boy tribute warrior from her district, which Haymitch calls "just the perfect touch of rebellion"; at the end of the games, the rebellion is far more brazen, when she and the boy threaten to commit suicide together. She is compelled to argue publicly that this was an act of romantic passion, not a calculated act of rebellion.

Book 2

At the beginning of "Catching Fire," Katniss recalls:

"All I was doing was trying to keep Peeta and myself alive. Any act of rebellion was purely coincidental. But when the Capitol decrees that only one tribute can live and you have the audacity to challenge it, I guess that's a rebellion in itself."

She knows the president will never forgive her for this. She apologizes: "I didn't mean to start any uprisings." He replies: "I believe you. It doesn't matter."

Now, when the public sees her appear as a victor of the Hunger Games, they greet her with a special salute: a kiss blown with three fingers of the left hand. This is an active gesture of resistance, rather than the passive gesture of silence that they offered when she was drafted. Something has changed in the public's consciousness. They are honoring the image of a mockingjay - a kind of bird in their fictional world - simultaneously to honor Katniss and to symbolize their rebellion. The double meaning of the symbol is kept secret from the Capitol to maintain its usefulness.

"When they chant my name, it is more of a cry for vengeance than a cheer. When the Peacekeepers move in to quiet an unruly crowd, it presses back instead of retreating. And I know there's nothing I could ever do to change this."

Katniss feels upset that her actions, meant only to promote her own survival, have somehow triggered an uprising in one of the districts. She tells her friend Gale that she wishes everyone could be safe. Gale responds excitedly that the people want freedom, not safety. "It's finally happening!" he says, speculating that the uprising could spread across all the districts.

It was Katniss's threat in the arena to kill herself and the other tribute from her district that has inspired the districts to rebel. When she thinks back to that action, she wonders what she intended by it.

"I realize the answer to who I am lies in that handful of poisonous fruit. If I held them out to save Peeta because I knew I would be shunned if I came back without him, then I am despicable. If I held them out because I loved him, I am still self-centered, although forgivable. But if I held them out to defy the Capitol, I am someone of worth. The trouble is, I don't know exactly what was going on inside me at that moment."

Katniss continues to feel torn between Gale and Peeta, who see each other as romantic rivals. Both of them are associated with the rebellion: Gale because he has the fire in him, Peeta because he has charisma.

Gradually it becomes apparent that the rebellion is widespread, and the government is using bombs and public executions to quell it. The Capitol experiences shortages of the goods that it normally depends upon the districts to produce. The president makes it clear to Katniss that she is expected to marry Peeta; he hopes that a celebrity wedding will distract the people's energy away from politics. They are kept away from past victors of the Hunger Games.

Before Katniss and Peeta are sent back into the arena to fight again, they each make a display of resistance: Katniss hangs an official in effigy, and Peeta paints a picture of the young girl, Rue, whose corpse Katniss had decorated with flowers, "to hold them accountable, if only for a moment. For killing that little girl." At this point, she is consciously hoping to "give hope to the rebels" by her own unassailable defiance. She is also willing to sacrifice herself in the arena to save Peeta, in part because she believes that he is more valuable to the rebellion.

One of the last powerful images in "Catching Fire" occurs when Katniss's stylist creates a dress for her that, to her surprise, dissolves into smoke while she is on camera, revealing feathers underneath that make her look like a mockingjay. It sends a message to everyone who knows that a mockingjay symbolizes the rebellion. Even though Katniss is not always savvy about politics, outreach, or "messaging," others are able to use her fame to create this kind of language.

Book 3

The last book in the series, "Mockingjay," begins with Katniss's understanding that she must accept her destiny as the face of the rebellion. The rebels continue trying to groom her body and her language for her television appearances, just as the Capitol had done when she was televised on the Hunger Games. Eventually, however, they realize that their effort is backfiring because it makes Katniss seem less authentic: "Every time we coach her or give her lines, the best we can hope for is okay. It has to come from her. That's what people are responding to." Katniss spontaneously comes up with the line: "Fire is catching! And if we burn, you burn with us!" This is the first time in anyone's memory that an explicitly "anti-Capitol statement" is made on television.

There is another leader, Alma Coin, who seems to ally with Katniss, and Katniss expresses her intention to kill President Snow who is responsible for the political oppression, using the line: "Just one more thing. I kill Snow." Katniss's understanding of rebellion is not purely destructive; she has, for example, the optimism that her younger sister could have a career in medicine.

Katniss remembers a song that she heard as a child and had never understood properly. She realizes now why it was banned by the Capitol. In the song, a hanged man asks his lover to hang herself, too. Why? So she won't become the enemy's; so she can avoid turning her knowledge over to them. As she explains it, "the man wants his lover dead rather than have her face the evil that awaits her in the world." She thinks of this song later when she leaves Peeta with a "nightlock" suicide pill.


The trilogy is fundamentally about rebellion, which can be seen even in the titles of the books: "The Hunger Games" are the primary source of the people's misery; "Catching Fire" expresses how an uprising takes hold and begins to spread without necessarily having a single leader who orders and directs it; "Mockingjay" refers to the power of an image to inspire people.

Throughout the series, the themes of rebellion are complex, in part because Katniss is a narrator who does not always understand her own motivations and who, despite caring passionately about others' welfare, has a good deal of emotional confusion and inconsistency. She learns about political rebellion the hard way, by being thrown into it, and the experience defines her entry into adulthood.

Article originally posted to Helium Network on Jan. 3, 2014.

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

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