Saturday, July 12, 2014

The struggle for power in 'The Hunger Games' trilogy by Suzanne Collins

In the "Hunger Games" trilogy by Suzanne Collins, the teenage heroine and narrator Katniss comes to grips with the power that the state wields over her life.

In the "Hunger Games" trilogy by Suzanne Collins, the teenage heroine and narrator Katniss comes to grips with the power that the state wields over her life. The state has no qualms about killing its own citizens, including children, in psychologically damaging ways. The state expresses no concern about fairness. Growing up, Katniss learns that “power” is the ability to squash someone like a bug. Her coming-of-age journey is about discovering her own power and the power of the masses to rise up.

In the first book, "The Hunger Games," she looks out for her mother and sister’s welfare but acknowledges that she’s "powerless against the reaping" – that is, the lottery that could call her sister into an arena to fight to the death as a form of entertainment for the state’s wealthier classes and as a method of subduing the rest of the population. The game "is the Capitol's way of reminding us how totally we are at their mercy." It is Katniss, not her sister, who ultimately winds up in the arena. Katniss is clear that “it's the Capitol I hate, for doing this to all of us,” not her fellow condemned tributes who are forced to slay each other. She believes that, if she survives, she doesn’t want to marry or bring children into this sort of world. In this situation, she says, "I feel my impotence. There's no way to take revenge on the Capitol. Is there?"

In the second book, "Catching Fire", Katniss must contend with having accidentally sparked a rebel movement. The cruel president wants words with her. Katniss suggests to him that, if her spontaneous, clever actions threaten the Capitol, then the Capitol “must be very fragile.” The president responds: "It is fragile, but not in the way that you suppose." The meaning of this isn’t immediately apparent, but he is referring to the Capitol’s derivation of its wealth from exploiting the poorer districts. If the districts were to rebel against the existing order, the Capitol would collapse economically. He demands that Katniss distract the public from the rebellion she has inadvertently started by pretending to be a silly girl in love. He wants her to provide an alternate interpretation of her actions in the arena: she is to say that she was motivated by personal passion, not by political beliefs. He does not make his agenda quite this explicit, but Katniss gets the idea. She knows she must do as he says.

The state uses violence, swiftly and publicly, to make its points. After her friend Gale is publicly whipped, she reports that “most of the square has emptied, fear getting the better of compassion. But after what just happened, I can’t blame anyone.” Katniss is not convinced that, even if she complies with the president’s orders and marries her ostensible fiancé, Peeta, that she and Peeta (and perhaps Gale and everyone she knows) won’t be killed anyway. She must wear a prescribed wedding dress that may have “power” to “manipulate the crowd.” But what will happen to her when she is no longer useful to the president as part of his televised entertainments?

The police force known as the Peacekeepers attempt to kill her or at least contain her with an electric fence. Luckily, she manages to sneak out of it. She knows she could be arrested for any reason, “based on past crimes,” which include subsistence hunting, “but maybe he has to have something really irrefutable to do it, now that I’m a victor.” In other words, Katniss feels her power rising. Having survived the Hunger Games and gained the status of a victor, she is a public figure. She begins merely as a celebrity. If the state arrests her for no reason, she may become a symbol, inflaming a rebellion. This status gives her bargaining power.

Information is also presented as a kind of power. In this story, the useful information regards how the state is attempting to corner and kill the rebels, including through hostile people who may appear to be individually motivated but whose fundamental reason for violence traces back to the fact that they live in an oppressive state. One of the most dangerous mistakes is to misjudge someone’s true loyalties or intentions.

In the third book, "Mockingjay", the rebels have joined an underground society to stay alive. They talk about forming a democracy, but for the moment the social system is based on precise control of everyone’s diet and daily schedule. When Katniss sees someone bruised, she remembers “how impotent I am.” Yet this sensation is turned on its head when she realizes that an up-and-coming leader must “publicly remind her people that I am not in control.” As a symbol of a revolution, “I have a kind of power I never knew I possessed,” she thinks. This enables her to make a public statement in favor of the rebels declaring “freedom” from the Capitol.

The Hunger Games trilogy is about the state having the power to decide who will be permitted to eke out survival and who will meet a precisely predetermined demise. It is about an awakening that life could be different and that individuals can have power to change the political situation. The uprising is not without violence, and the understanding of power within the story generally includes the capacity to physically defend oneself or to ally with someone who can.

Article originally posted to Helium Network on July 1, 2013.

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