by James D. Witmer
I had no intention of reading The Hunger Games Trilogy. Mostly because I’m tired of the literary (and especially film) convention that equates “strong female character” with “warrior chick.” You want an assertive female character with real strength? I recommend Wendell Barry’s Hannah Coulter.
But I gave the ‘Games a try because my friend Dan K made them sound complex and meaningful. And lent me the books.
The story is complex, tackling issues of poverty, tyranny, media and politics. Katniss Everdeen is the protagonist. She is brave and resourceful, but she has some problems.
Katniss wants to be a good person. She wants to protect the ones she loves. But she is deeply selfish, cynical, and emotionally damaged.
Katniss wants to do the right thing, but she isn’t very insightful.
More than anything, Katniss wants to live on her own terms. She fights both to survive and to keep her identity. But Katniss doesn’t fight only against cruelty and injustice – she battles even the call of love.
Most tellingly, Peetah gives his love without demanding anything in return. Katniss turns to him when no one else can help her, and he offers everything he has – including his life. Each time the danger passes, and she feels capable on her own, she turns away from Peetah, going back to the life and boy she knew before the Games. Each time she is thrown back into chaos and danger, she clings again to Peetah, and he holds her up; not reproaching her fickleness, not making her live with the choices she made in comfort.
At all times, whether she is embracing him or holding him at distance, Peetah works quietly for Katniss’s good. He thinks ahead, planning for her safety and well-being.
I find myself rooting for Katniss not because she is good, but because she wants to be good, somewhere beneath the fear, stubborn pride, selfishness and anger. Her courage is admirable and inspiring, but it’s not enough. I don’t find myself rooting for Katniss to get what she wants, but for her to become the woman Peetah sees in her.
Peetah begins this process early in the first book, when he declares his previously-unsuspected love for Katniss on national television. Katniss does not appreciate it.
“He made me look weak!” I say.
“He made you look desirable! And let’s face it, you can use all the help you can get in that department. You were about as romantic as dirt until he said he wanted you. Now they all do,” says Haymitch. “The most I could say about you after your interview was that you were nice enough, although that in itself was a small miracle. Now I can say you’re a heart-breaker.”
Katniss changes with painful slowness; in emotional fits and false starts. But along the way, she chooses over and over to care instead of hardening herself, to adapt instead of rage.
We cannot say this is all to her own credit. When she is robbed of Peetah in the third book, suffering his (drug-and-torture-induced) hatred, she lapses almost entirely into self pity and hate. (A lapse only worsened by the short-sighted vindictiveness of her other love interest.)
And when she finally, finally breaks; when anger and justice are no longer enough to sustain her against a world of loss, it is Peetah who rebuilds her. It is his love that pieces Katniss back together as a woman who battles fear with thankfulness instead of cynicism.
I love this story because I am, in so many ways, Katniss Everdeen. And if you are a follower of the Way, I suspect you are too.