A brief recap: in The Hunger Games piece, we examined a two-level voyeuristic scaffolding built by Suzanne Collins as the book meditates on our attraction to violence and suffering. The Gamemakers create a brutal world into which teenagers are plunged to fight to the death for the amusement of thousands in the fictional dystopia of Panem and, simultaneously, Collins herself is constructing that world as the author for the amusement of, by now, over a million contemporary readers. In our indignation against the Gamemakers for the horrors they perpetrate, we are ultimately drawn into a split between our own enjoyment of and demand for violent literature, on the one hand, and our moral outrage against its interior reflection in Panem, on the other. These sides of our nature clash (Romans 7), producing introspection and godly sorrow (2 Cor). The Hunger Games, at its conclusion, leaves two crucial questions unanswered: (1) why are we humans so attracted to violence and (2) what do we do about it? These set the thematic stage for Collins’s brilliant sequel, Catching Fire.
Although the meditations on our destructive demand to consume stories of other people’s violence are all but vanished in the second book, this works to pare down its thematic scale from the cultural to the personal. If we must address the problem of corporate violence, the trilogy’s structure implies, we must journey deeper into the realm of psychology, personality. Thus Katniss’s struggles with suffering and romance persist, but her internal search for her identity as a public figure gradually emerges as the most pressing psychological question in Catching Fire. We see her struggling to find the proper way to exercise power: how can she challenge the power of the Capitol and navigate the brutality of the Games? Will she match power with power, or is there another way?
Although Catching Fire lessens in its outrage against voyeurism and violence as spectacle, it continues the first book’s preoccupation with our demand for conventional storylines, its preoccupation with the way in which the Capitol’s script for Katniss’s life constrains her, imprisons her. To placate the audiences of the Games, President Snow demands that she fit the script: girl who grew up suffering, which empowered her as a tenacious survivor, who found love and conquered through romance in the 74th Hunger Games. This is the script we as readers demand commercially which is, incidentally, the reason why there’s often clichéd and poorly written books on the bestseller lists. Katniss, however, wishes to break from the narrative that the Capitol wishes to impose on her, and Collins is determined to do the same with her plotting.
Conventional pulp fiction plotting relies on its characters’ strength and our desire to identify with their skills or virtues – James Bond’s savvy with women, Jason Bourne’s deadliness, Alex Cross’s gritty determination (James Patterson) – but the answer to both the problem of violence and our curved-in attraction toward ‘plotlines of glory’ lies in the ‘aestheticization of weakness’, a term John Jeremiah Sullivan coined to brilliantly describe Christianity’s embrace of surrender and informity. Now that Katniss has gained an identity as a survivor, a victor, she enters into a second period of testing to see if she will choose the way of violent strength or self-denying weakness. If this sounds familiar, it is: see Matthew 4, as well as Dostoevsky’s and Capon’s brilliant commentaries on it, for an archetype of these trials, the contest of strength against weakness. Violence, the lynchpin of the entire Hunger Games system, is the war of the strong against the strong, battling in their ‘lust for mastery/domination’ (Augustine).
Peace doesn’t get rid of violence or, at the very least, it’s not the answer to it. Katniss has achieved a nominal peace at the end of the first book, but the solution to violence goes as deep as violence’s source. This is why Collins retreats into the personal in book two – a society’s violence is unmanageable, but we are able to examine its roots in our individual obsession with being strong, with competition, with narratives of progress and glory.
The most distinct facet of Catching Fire’s characters is that all the protagonists are cruciform. Katniss dies to herself at the end of the Victory Tour when President Snow shakes his head, letting her know that no amount of pretending to be in love with Peeta can save her. With this realization, her anxiety and depression dies – delivered from the demand to pretend she’s strong enough to fix things herself, she begins to sleep soundly for the first time in months and her countenance changes; Snow’s condemnation has freed her for spontaneity, for…freedom. Now that she accepts her death at the Capitol’s hands, she lives for the higher cause of revolution, placing her entire life at Peeta’s disposal, to ensure he survives. Peeta, meanwhile, has the sole aim of making sure Katniss survives. Indeed, all of the victors (!) in their alliance make themselves weak, disposable, becoming as nothing and emptying themselves, refusing to grasp after strength. From the time she chooses not to kill the dangerous Finnick onward, Katniss’s identity doesn’t come from strength, but rather self-denial. This willingness of the group to view others as more valuable than themselves is the only remedy for violence – though outwardly they must kill those who try to kill them, there’s been an inward renewal in their ability to die for each other. Violence is ultimately predicated on strength, and it’s the characters’ embrace of weakness which begins to disrupt the cycle. Sure, the revolution of course must rely on power to some degree, but what makes it worth fighting is the internal spirit of self-denial.
How, then, do they acquire this counter-ethos of personal weakness? It’s safe to say that it happens to them. Katniss becomes more cruciform the more she becomes self-loathing, looking back over her choices with an unflinching honesty. The other characters becomes cruciform as they are brought, as their older and wiser selves, for the second time into a situation they have minimal chances of surviving. Even the strongest cannot defy the Capitol, the motto for this year’s Games go, and it’s true. Once the victors become the hopeless, they die to themselves and, in their cruciformity, gain freedom for reliance upon their strength in the war of all against all. Hopelessness, self-control and temper issues, extreme self-reproachment, and ignorance of the revolution’s plan: these are not what typically make for commercially successful protagonists, and yet it’s the aestheticization of weakness within the structure of a pulp bestseller that forms the brilliance of Collins’s work. She uses the violence we demand (she claims that writing violence was the emotionally toughest part of creating the series) in order to reach a wide audience, draw it in, and protest our voyeurism. And yet, pointing out the problem, or diagnosis, is only the first step toward fixing it if, indeed, it can even be fixed. To protest violence properly, one must delve psychologically into its roots of strength and pride, and her alternative vision consists not in utopia but in violence’s only alternative, the embrace of human infirmity.
Remember who the real enemy is, Katniss tells herself before the great soteriological movement of the book, her rending of the barrier between Hobbesian violence and freedom. Once she embraces her weakness, she loses a little bit of her need to compete with the strength of the other participants in the Games. Indeed, all along the group alliance of these Games have shifted her identity from survivor to searcher, and it’s only this new identity that gives her enough respite from competition to consider the real enemy and destroy the force-field with an arrow. In a flash, he indignation is directed away from her competition with contemporaries and against the closed circle (um, sorry, hemisphere) of the 75th Games and the violence of human versus human. In foregoing self-defense to destroy the barrier, and thus admitting complete desperation, she allows for rescue from the brutality of competition and, we presume, into a real community of other desperate people who have died to themselves, and thus can live for the revolution against, more so than even the Capitol, the cycle of competitive individual-versus-individual violence that it perpetuates.
Stay tuned, Mockingjay review coming soon. And may the odds be ever against you!