SPOILER ALERT: I’ve been told I need to add a spoiler alert to these sorts of posts. I’ve never really understood this practice, as I’ve always assumed that if I am reading something, I am going to learn something about the subject at hand. Nevertheless, if you thought you were going to read this post and learn nothing about The Hunger Games, you have now been warned that this is not likely to be the case. Tread carefully.
Picking up from yesterdays post, “The Hunger Games” Trilogy … (part 1), I’d like to continue this discussion on The Hunger Games by asking a few more questions of the text. Let’s start with what does it mean to be human? In other words, does our status as human beings endow us with a certain dignity? Or are we like other animals? Do we have moral responsibilities? Or are we free to be whatever we choose from a moral perspective?
Once again, the answer to these questions surprised me. I would argue that Collins actually holds humanity in fairly high regard. While she is clearly concerned about our ability to descend into power-struggles in which we oppress our fellow man, she also paints this descent as being the descent of a few, not the descent of the masses. The vast majority of humanity continues to struggle for survival in relatively tight-knit communities that seems to genuinely care for one another. Now, is the “tight-knit”nature of the communities a genuine affection for one another, or is it a closeness brought on by the mutual need for survival. That remains to be seen.
Nevertheless, humanity is shown as having a moral center. Consider this conversation held by Peeta and Katniss, shortly before they enter the arena.
“Thinking about your family,” he asks.
“No,” I admit a bit guiltily. “All I can do is wonder aobut tomorrow. Which is pointless, of course.” In the light from below, I can see his face now, the awkward way he holds his bandaged hands. “I really am sorry about your hands.”
“It doesn’t matter, Katniss,” he says. “I’ve never been a contender in these Games anyway.”
“That’s no way to be thinking,” I say.
“Why not? It’s true. My best hope is to not disgrace myself and …” He hesitates.
“And what?” I say.
“I don’t know how to say it exactly. Only … I want to die as myself. Does that make any sense?” he asks. I shake my head. How could he die as anyone but himself? “I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not.”
I bite my lip, feeling inferior. While I’ve been ruminating on the availability of trees, Peeta has been struggling with how to maintain his identity. His purity of self. “Do you mean you won’t kill anyone?”
As you can see, Peeta is troubled by concerns greater than his own survival. And while Katniss doesn’t necessarily understand this, you can tell from the author’s writing that she sees this as a deficiency in her heroin’s character. As the story progresses, this is confirmed several times as Katniss pauses to engage in incredibly humane acts even though such acts endanger her own well-being. Being human involves more than merely surviving against the odds. Being human is an active choice to live in a way that refuses to be dragged down by the immoral actions of a depraved society.
All of this naturally leads to the final set of two, inter-related questions. First, how do we know what is right and what is wrong? Second, what is history about? Where is it going?
As one would expect in a novel of this nature, moral questions abound. But was noticeably absent at every turn is a grounding for the moral choices that were made. While Collins unmistakably wants to discuss the nature of war and violence and their effects upon children, she doesn’t tether the discussion to any moral center or transcendent source of authority. Why is it wrong to oppress other people? Why is wrong to live a life of luxury that is built upon the backs of others? The renowned German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would argue that it isn’t wrong to live in this fashion. In fact, Nietzsche would suggest that the most moral choice one could make is to have the strength of will to take that which one desires from this world. But Collins doesn’t want to follow in Nietzsche’s footsteps. Instead, contrary to the foundational plotline of the story, she wants to posit a fuzzy, moral goodness that lies at the heart of all people. Yes, life is to be valued, but not because it is endowed with the image of its Creator. Instead, life is to be valued simply because people are good and have the “right” to live. In this sense, Collins is a direct descendent of Enlightenment thinking, and in the midst of a very dark and violent novel, she is still trying to cry out: “But we’re making progress!”
In the end, people will want to know, “Is this novel worth reading?” Is it appropriate for young adults? As a Christian who is deeply committed to understanding and engaging the culture around us, as a Christian who believes that we need to train our children to ask probing questions of the culture, I would argue that The Hunger Games is an enjoyable read that can serve as an excellent resource for discussions centered on the grounding of morality, political resistance (both violent and non-violent), strength in women, and the nature of humanity. Highly recommended for ages 14 and up.