Tag Archives: Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay: Not Really about That

Cover of Mockingjay

Title: Mockingjay

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.

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Catching Fire: About That Consent Thing

Cover of Catching Fire

Title: Catching Fire

Author: Suzanne Collins

Publication Date: 2009

LC Call Number: PZ7.C683

Here I am with another “one more thing” post, because after I wrote my earlier post, I found myself thinking further about Katniss and things that happen to her, and the things that I hadn’t written about. So here it is. (yes, this one has spoilers too)

Many of the scenes that I didn’t write about but that nevertheless caught my attention had in common Katniss’s body, and as I considered it further I began to notice all the ways in which control over her body has been wrested from her. This seems like a strange thing to suddenly bring up in a story which has mostly involved her being forced to battle other teenagers to the death, but there are specific gendered and sexual losses of control that happen above and beyond that which seem to be particular to her.

The scene that made this clear to me was the one in Catching Fire in which she is reunited with her fashion team, and she notes that there are no secrets between her and these people when it comes to her body. She’s already said that she will be unrecognizable when they are finished with her, which seems to indicate a certain separation from her body as presented to the public. They construct her in the mode of an idealized femininity, which is absolutely not under her control and is not at all what she would choose. It has a certain appeal to her, just as it does to the crowds–she expresses admiration of Cinna’s work in particular–but her appearance is very far removed from her identity.

But her lack of control over her gendered appearance is only the first step. There is also a fairly comprehensive co-opting of her sexuality. Of course, that really started with The Hunger Games, with Peeta’s declaration of love and Haymitch’s support of this as a plan, and the need to act this out in order to survive and so on. But in Catching Fire, this gets worse. She isn’t just required to perform her way through extreme circumstances with the hope of surviving and going home. Now, there is no going home, because she is asked to make her entire life conform to this story. The pregnancy story is an interesting one, because like so many things in Catching Fire, it directly parallels something in The Hunger Games, the declaration mentioned above, but unlike that, it turns out to be unnecessary. It’s hardly played up at all and it doesn’t really seem to make much difference to the story, which brings us once back to the question of how well justified this behavior was. It seemed justified in the first book because it worked, but here, where it doesn’t… maybe less so. We’re forced to revisit this question even if we (like Katniss?) had reconciled ourselves to it before. This is a way of using her presumed sexuality for show, and both times, it’s nonconsensual. It doesn’t really touch her body, but it controls how her body is understood, perhaps even affecting how she understands it herself.

So Katniss doesn’t control how her body is maintained, nor how it is seen. And then, of course, she also doesn’t control how she gets to use it. She sees that she will be forced into marriage and strongly suspects that her childbearing capabilities will be harnessed by the state to create new, exciting tributes. In other words, she will be forced to conceive children with Peeta (and, obviously, this is rape, even if we concede it isn’t Peeta’s fault and assume he doesn’t want this), and undergo forced childbirth. She has already been more or less forced to carry out a physical relationship with him, though it hasn’t come down to actual rape yet. Given where this seems to be going, though, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a rape in Mockingjay.

All of this stuff is so obvious that it’s hard to see why I would bother making a post about it, but there are two things that I wanted to say about it. First, I wanted to put all these violations of Katniss’s bodily autonomy together to show how they’re related to each other (and Peeta’s comments to her throughout the book, which I mentioned in the other post, seem to contribute to this, as he is making assumptions about what he gets to say to her without regard for her feelings). Second, it’s interesting that Katniss identifies marriage as a right that the District Twelve people have been able to rely on, which is now being taken away from her, directly as a result of her willingness to challenge these power structures. Using sexuality to control rebellious women, hmm, there is a political statement in there somewhere.

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Catching Fire: This Again, From a New Point of View

Cover of Catching Fire

Title: Catching Fire

Author: Suzanne Collins

Publication Date: 2009

LC Call Number: PZ7.C683

I was a little concerned about reading Catching Fire because I’d heard it wasn’t as good as The Hunger Games.  This is true—but then, The Hunger Games was really good. Catching Fire is definitely another page turner, and it made me want to read Mockingjay right away—but I’ll wait, nevertheless. I don’t know how much I really have to say about this book, but here are some things I noticed…

Oh, and this post is full of spoilery spoilers. Beware.

The scope of Catching Fire is a little broader than the scope of The Hunger Games, which was really about Katniss and the injustice of the world in which she lives—and how she could see through it.  Catching Fire is more about figuring out what the rules really are, how much freedom one has within them and where they can be bent or pushed.  In pursuit of this goal, the novel finds itself interested not only in Katniss but in other characters as well.  In The Hunger Games, other people were seen mostly in terms of their effect on Katniss; Catching Fire makes more of an attempt to understand who they are and why they do what they do.  This may be partly because Katniss has matured a little; it also seems to be because Collins is setting up some things that will happen in Mockingjay. The most interesting character development in the book is, surprisingly, Haymitch’s.

In the first book, Haymitch is, to Katniss, part of the Games.  She’s very upset that he is the only person she can turn to for help, and she is disgusted by both his alcoholism and his cynicism.  Throughout the first book, though, she learns that she can communicate with him on a strategic level and, in a way, they understand each other. It’s not that we like him, since he is essentially pushing her into a nonconsensual relationship with Peeta, but we see how he is useful.  Now that she is a survivor of the Games, he’s a little more humanized in her eyes, and, ultimately, in ours too. He laughs at the idea of an uprising, not because he is naturally cynical, but because he has spent his entire life being beaten down by the Capitol. It’s almost as if he has seen something like this before. In any case, we feel much more sympathy for him as we begin to see what the aftermath of the Games is like and the way that it leads to a life of being tightly controlled and constantly retraumatized.  The Games aren’t over when they’re over, and although we kind of knew this, Catching Fire really drives it home.

It’s hard to imagine Katniss having any interest in Haymitch’s experience in the arena in the first book—but in the second book, she does, and so do we.    I said above that this book is really about finding out where the boundaries of freedom are in this world and how they can be pushed, and it was only as I typed that that I realized that Haymitch does this very literally when he seeks out the bounds of the arena and ultimately uses them to his advantage.  The new arena also literalizes this; it’s all about finding that invisible wall and making sure that you don’t run into it and get killed. Getting near it is dangerous, since they don’t know exactly where it is, but also important, because the available area is quite small, and because they need to be near it in the puzzle-solving moment at the end.  So it’s not that different from giving speeches in District Eleven, where Katniss needs to express her gratitude and condolences to Rue’s and Thresh’s family and friends, but also needs to avoid activating the wrath of the state.  She runs into the wall in this case. She’s still learning, but it tells us that she’s willing, at least sometimes, not to err on the side of caution.  She’s still a rebel. Naturally, the Capitol is also playing this game—trying to figure out how far they can push people before they have a problem—but their motivations are a little less clear.

In any case, Katniss’s commitment to behaving like decent human being as much as possible within the constraints imposed upon her isn’t consistent throughout the book.  Her behavior in District Eleven is in contrast to what she tells President Snow when he turns up at her house.  It’s not surprising that she would make different choices at different times, of course, but in general she seems to be a little more willing to rebel on someone else’s behalf than her own. I’m not sure what this means exactly.  If it’s intended to make her more sympathetic to the reader, then I have a problem with it, because it plays up some cultural ideas about self-sacrificing women that are dangerous in any case but especially in a context like the one Collins has set up here.  I don’t think that’s it, though, if only because there is a moment in which Katniss questions her own motivations and tries to figure out what she thinks of herself because of them.  I think, more than that, it’s about how necessary solidarity is.  Katniss certainly can’t bear the entire weight of the revolution on her shoulders, but in the prisoner’s dilemma of life, she can be the loyal partner.  This was true in the first book with the berries; this book doesn’t have such a clear parallel but it does show how the Capitol wants to divide and conquer, how eager it is to set up distinctions among people in order to prevent them from cooperating with each other.

It’s also interesting that not all of Katniss’s problems derive from the malice of the Capitol. Her anger at the very end of the book, when she discovers that the revolution has been going on without her and she’s been made an unwitting symbol of it, is very important.  Control isn’t only the privilege of despotic governments; it’s also present among the people who should be her friends.  Their motives aren’t that dissimilar, either.  They want a good show, just as the Capitol does, though for different reasons. It’s not just at the end that Katniss’s friends seem to have turned against her, though. Peeta really began creeping me out in this book.  He keeps making these comments that might be appropriate if he and Katniss were actually in a romantic relationship, but are kind of gross given that she’s already told him that she doesn’t really want that with him, or at least, not at this time—and it’s even worse under extreme circumstances where they are thrown together in a hostile environment and also likely to die.  Surely this is stressful enough already?

A couple words about the plot—I was really skeptical about the decision to put Katniss and Peeta back in the arena again. Haven’t we done this already? It turned out that there were pretty important differences between the way the arena worked in the first book and the way it worked in this one, in terms of both plot and characterization. It’s very different with the new cast of characters (and Mags, my god).  Still, I thought this would be very repetitious unless it was somehow interrupted—and it was, so I guess I have the choice between thinking that it was predictable and just saying I called it. Either way, I guess I’m surprised Collins didn’t think of a new horrible thing to have happen.

So that’s where I am with this.  I’m excited about reading Mockingjay and will when I get a chance. I’m pretty concerned about Cinna.

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The Hunger Games: Politics and the Extreme

Cover of The Hunger Games

Title: The Hunger Games

Author: Suzanne Collins

Publication Date: 2008

Call Number: PZ7.C6837

So I was waiting for my ILL request for Gender Trouble to come through, and I’d already finished the Third World Women  anthology, and of course I can’t just be between books, and so.. I had the opportunity to read this fantastic YA book.  I really love YA literature, far more than my blog so far would indicate, but I hadn’t seen anything like this before. I remember the dueling editorials about “dark YA” a few months ago, and I can’t remember whether The Hunger Games was discussed in that conversation, but let me tell you, if this is dark YA, sign me up, I’d like to read more.

Mild Spoilers Ahead – beware. I don’t spoil the ending or anything here, but I do give some details that only become clear over the course of the book.

The very premise is totally devastating: in the future, the former U.S. has been reduced to twelve districts run from a central Capitol with apparently unlimited political and economic power.  Every year, this Capitol forces each district to send one boy and one girl to compete in a giant, weeks-long melee (aka the Hunger Games) until only one of the original twenty-four is still alive. Further details about how this is managed, how the competitors are chosen and the cultural meaning of the Hunger Games only make things seem even worse.

There’s a lot to praise about this book—the quality of the writing is very high, and Katniss is a great character—but this isn’t a book review, so I’ll refrain (but seriously, read it, it’s excellent).  I’d heard a little about the premise and I expected the book to be good, but what did surprise me at least a little was how political it was.  There’s a strong awareness throughout the book that both the Hunger Games themselves and all the other circumstances of life in Panem are determined by political realities that come from far beyond Katniss’s sphere.

The choice of Katniss as a narrator does a lot to give the reader this perspective.  She’s from  District Twelve, and wealth and security seem to gravitate somehow toward the lowest numbered districts—that is to say, District Twelve is the most impoverished and the least important, a coal mining community where people barely survive. Within that district, she is from the Seam, which is a slum.  She spends most of her time trying to get food for herself and her family.  So on the one hand, I really like Collins’s choice to make the central character of her book someone from there very bottom of the social ladder rather than have someone halfway up or near the top looking down and noticing how terrible everything is.  And on the other hand, Katniss’s experience allows her to be both cynical and perceptive as regards the social order under which she lives. She understands that she is living under an oppressive structure, because from her point of view, it’s rather obvious (after all, she does not have the luxury of seeing the Hunger Games as an entertainment event, as some in the Capitol presumably do), and she knows that it’s really a structural issue and not determined by the people who carry it out.  She knows that the Hunger Games are an intimidation tactic and that this is why everyone is forced to watch them on TV.  And she understands the economic factors behind the Hunger Games—she explains matter-of-factly the mechanism by which it is assured that the poor are much more likely to be selected to participate than the rich.

So while the book never makes itself into a polemic, it very definitely includes an analysis of the nature of political power and its relation to spectacle. The Hunger Games do a lot for the Capitol. As Katniss notes, they reinforce the power of the Capitol by flaunting the ability of the powerful to control the lives of those in the districts (and of course, the chances of victory are very different from one district to another, which also helps the Capitol to remind everyone of the hierarchy among the districts).  They also allow the Capitol to flaunt its wealth with parades and everything, to keep everyone entertained and duly impressed. And, no doubt, they bring money into the Capitol as well.  At the same time, by directing the attention of the audience toward the actions of the participants in the arena, where this audience may identify with certain tributes over others, or hold their breath in suspense or shake their heads in pity, the Capitol has skillfully deflected attention from the horrifying power that put them there in the first place. The most privileged in the audience, whether they are directly involved with the Games or not, are of course complicit in the deaths of children, whether it is by sending gifts into the arena or only by cheering at the parade.

There are even some moments that make clear the relationship between culture and economics; Katniss comments more than once on “the Capitol accent” and how ridiculous it sounds. Since there is no attempt to represent this accent in the text, the reader cannot judge for him-or-herself whether the accent sounds silly or not, leaving us to reflect on the close associations of accents with social class.  It sounds affected to her because it is the accent of people who can participate in respectable culture more easily than she can, and who have never had to experience struggles like hers.  It’s not the way words are pronounced that makes the accent sound silly, it’s the cultural distance between her and its speakers.

The strength of this political critique makes one wonder, as a reader, whether there is any analogy in our world for the Hunger Games.  Sporting events? Reality TV? Media coverage of war and other violent political events?  In each case, we’re tempted to point out the things that we think make it different.  Yes, athletes in sporting events are often seriously injured, but they’re adults and they agreed to participate of their own volition, and besides, they’re very seldom killed! Reality TV is only a social and emotional battle, not a physical one! Wars aren’t intentionally arranged to be televised by our government for the purpose of entertainment! All of which are important points, but I think what really matters is that by making these arguments, by being forced to bring up these differences, we need to think about where these ethical boundaries are or should be, and what makes it okay or not okay. So the Hunger Games, in which the participants are randomly selected children who are forced to kill each other, are a very extreme example, inviting us to think about how far over the line they are and where the line really is.

In view of this, what you really want as a reader is not to see Katniss win, but to see her bring down the whole thing.  But it’s very clear from the outset that she can’t. Katniss is a very capable person but she is forced to operate under the circumstances that are dictated to her—in fact, the same is true of all the characters that we meet. She is not exactly in a position to stand up and tell everyone that this is wrong; in fact, we see her choosing her words very carefully to minimize the danger to herself.  As a reader, I found myself (appropriately and intentionally, I think) frustrated that this cannot be changed and impressed by the choice to let us live with that frustration.  Although this is the first book of a trilogy, it’s a self-contained story about Katniss’s experience with the Games, so we end the book still worried about this milieu.

In any case, I’m very much looking forward to reading Catching Fire.  I have a guess as to who the Avox is, so when I get a chance to read it, we’ll see if I’m right.

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