Thursday, July 17, 2014

What a 'Mockingjay' gives up: Sacrifice in the 'Hunger Games' trilogy

"The Hunger Games," a fantasy trilogy written by Suzanne Collins, begins with the sacrifice of children. The heroine also learns the meaning of voluntary sacrifice.

Originally posted to Helium Network on June 30, 2013.

"The Hunger Games," a fantasy trilogy written by Suzanne Collins, begins with the sacrifice of a couple dozen children. With varying levels of training as fighters, they are dumped into an arena with instructions to kill each other. The last one standing will “win.” It is part of their cultural expectation growing up, as the state reenacts the games annually: different year, different children chosen by lottery to be sacrificed. Some families whose children are not selected nevertheless prove themselves actively willing to risk the sacrifice; they agree to enter their children’s names multiple times in the lottery in exchange for extra food rations.

In the first book, "The Hunger Games," the heroine and narrator, Katniss, enters the arena on the premise of an additional, deliberate sacrifice: her sister has been selected in the lottery, and she offers to take her sister’s place. Once in the arena, Katniss must kill people whom she would, in other circumstances, have nothing personal against. This moral concession to circumstances is another sacrifice for her. She must form alliances with people she does not especially like, and in particular, she discovers that she must spark a romance (at least for the audience’s benefit) to stay alive. The boy truly falls in love with her, and at one point, he drops his weapon, signaling his willingness to be killed rather than to kill her, as only one of them is allowed to win. The moment at which the Games end hinges on their own threatened ultimate sacrifice that goes a step beyond this gesture of surrender.

It is no surprise that Katniss survives the Hunger Games (else, how could she narrate the story?). In the second book, "Catching Fire," she is forced to persist with the illusion of a romance, and she must enter the arena to fight again. Every detail of her life and death seems controlled by the state. Yet there are some positive aspects to these sacrifices. One individual follows her example, volunteering to take another’s place in the arena. Katniss herself decides that resolving to keep another person alive in the arena and giving up hope of her own survival is a worthwhile sacrifice that will give her something meaningful to fight for. She even gives up the opportunity to run away with someone who is interested in her, as his elopement plans do not include the rescue of anyone else Katniss cares about.

In the third book, "Mockingjay," Katniss’s ideals enlarge. Her life is no longer defined by the possibility that she might sacrifice herself for only one person, and she no longer assumes that the existing political order is an eternal given. She grows to be an icon as well as an active fighter in a movement to overthrow the tyrannical government. To be good soldiers, she and her comrades often think of themselves as willing to sacrifice themselves for each other, but this is primarily a mental strategy that keeps their task psychologically manageable and that reinforces their loyalty to each other. They are actually fighting with the possibility that they could sacrifice themselves for the cause. They don’t want just to survive the Hunger Games or to avoid the wrath of the ruler. They want to live in a world where everyone is free from the fear of cruelty and tyranny.

At times, Katniss is frustrated with belonging to the human race, since, as she puts it, “something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences.” This is sacrifice of a negative kind: the sacrifice of victims who do not consent. On her journey, however, Katniss also learns about voluntary sacrifices and makes many of her own. She learns that the full meaning of giving up a person to the enemy’s calculated plans or to the ravages of war depends on how much she cares about that person and how much she feels she owes them. She learns, furthermore, that taking on the responsibility of serving as the symbol of a rebellion – the "Mockingjay" – means letting go of most of one's private concerns and beginning to make choices for the welfare of a nation.

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