Author: Suzanne Collins
Date of Publication: 2012
LC Call Number: PS3603 .O4558
So, I’ve finally finished this series! I waited too long to write this post, so it will not be good. Sorry.
(And I’m going to spoil the heck out of this one, so be warned.)
I’d heard conflicting things about Mockingjay, the last book in the Hunger Games series. I’d heard it was the best book in the series, and I’d also heard that, whatever book in the series is best, it definitely wasn’t this one. Some of my interlocutors were of the opinion that the writing had been weakened by Collins’s awareness that the book will be made into a movie, and there was, in fact, more drama in this one, along with a less structured plot. As for me—I still think that the first book was the best, and I’m not sure exactly how much I liked this one. I think I liked it; in any case, it is interesting.
We return almost immediately to the question that comes up at the end of Catching Fire: to what extent are the rebels really better than the Capitol? It quickly becomes obvious that they lead a strictly regulated, very prison-like lifestyle, which they are perfectly willing to impose on anyone who ends up in District 13. Over the course of the entire series, there is very little time during which Katniss is not a prisoner; her sojourn in District 13 doesn’t really count as one of those times. It’s really interesting how Collins builds up the relationship between Thirteen and the Capitol for the reader, actually. The Capitol is a huge, composite panorama of everything that is decadent and wasteful, totally willing to overdose on pleasure and take it beyond the point where it is even enjoyable at all—remember the vomit pills? Thirteen, on the other hand, is utterly parsimonious. There is no consideration of pleasure and a very strong sense that everyone must be engaged in the war effort on one level or another. In the Capitol, people have huge parties during which they eat as much as possible and, actually, even more than that; in District 13, people eat exactly as much as they’ve been scientifically allotted to serve their need to stay alive. Time, too, is a resource that is carefully budgeted in a top-down way—and of course, this is the part, more than anything, that makes it feel prison-like.
What is Collins doing by building up this contrast? It would be pretty disappointing for this series to end up with the sentiment that as bad as the Capitol is, the rebels are just as bad. One of the things that really impressed me about the first book was the way that it made clear to the reader that Katniss’s victory was never a sufficient goal. While the reader was concerned about Katniss, there was an underlying strong critique of the Capitol, what they do and why they do it. For the book to condemn the rebels as no better would be kind of a cop-out; I don’t want Collins to throw up her hands and say that it’s impossible to do better than a society in which the Hunger Games exist, along with extreme class differences, a violent and repressive state, controlled media, etc, etc. She doesn’t quite do that; by the end of the book, she pins a lot of this on Coin and apparently when she is gone, the rebels can set up a better government without too much trouble—not that this is exactly realistic either. But Katniss’s decision to shoot Coin, and her suspicion that the rebels ordered the bombing that killed her sister, are disturbing in their anti-idealism. Gale has become kind of scary, especially his reasoning that the rebels are justified in using any tactic that the Capitol might be willing to use against them (deeply suspect).
There’s a lot throughout the series about retaining one’s personal integrity or at least one’s sense of identity under extreme situations; by this book, attempts to do this are all failures in one way or another. Peeta’s hijacking is the most obvious example of this, but by the end, Katniss is referring to “the old Katniss” as someone she can barely remember, Gale is unrecognizable, and pretty much everyone else is dead.
It’s an interesting move. I like that the book acknowledges that people are changed by things that happen to them. I can’t assess the accuracy of the way that Katniss’s trauma is shown, but it’s certainly believable and compelling. She is “mentally disoriented” and prone to emotional breakdowns. She suffers from self-doubt and fears it is all her fault. She has strong reactions to small things like the scent of roses. It’s easy for me to understand that this is frustrating to readers who were initially drawn to Katniss because she was a competent, compassionate and intelligent girl who was equally at home kicking ass and critiquing her social structure. It’s really appealing to come across a female protagonist who doesn’t suffer from crushing self-doubt and trusts her own judgment, and it’s frustrating for this same character to end up as kind of a mess. But I think it’s justified; she doesn’t need to be an untouchable superhero, after all, and her reactions are actually reasonable. Katniss is actually not overreacting to what she’s been through. And she still resists—sometimes reasonably and sometimes not—but I’m still impressed by her bravery and intelligence. She still tries to protect the people she believes need protection; her deal to protect the other tributes near the beginning of the book is so Katniss. The end is the same as it is in the other two books—Katniss sees the options that are presented to her, thinks carefully, and comes up with another possibility that suits her better. So in that way, she really hasn’t changed.
The books are about resisting being used by others to accomplish—whatever it is they want to accomplish. Katniss has been turned to other people’s purposes in almost every way conceivable. I wrote in about the manipulation of her appearance and sexuality in my post on Catching Fire, saying that I wouldn’t actually be surprised to see a rape in Mockingjay. Rape is indeed referred to, but it’s Finnick’s. Huh. I guess this is one way of reminding us that It Is Not All About Katniss. But then, maybe it is, after all. The end of the book mostly ignores the political plot and focuses on Katniss’s attempts to rebuild her life and how well they have worked. Ultimately, Collins does not really concern herself with the process of nation building and it’s not really about how well the rebels can govern. It’s only about how destructive all these things are—oppression, resistance, and rebellion—and the choices that this particular character makes. Am I satisfied with this? Maybe. Not sure.