The Trauma Games

Suzanne Collins, MockingjayWar is hell.  If General Sherman (and, I expect, many others) hadn’t said it first, I suspect Suzanne Collins might have chosen those three words as a subtitle for her Hunger Games trilogy.  As its predecessors did, Mockingjay dramatizes the physical and emotional consequences of war.  It’s especially adept at displaying the scars invisible to those of us who either have not been in a war or do not know people who have. The victors of the Hunger Games cannot sleep — as Finnick says, “I drag myself out of nightmares each morning and find there’s no relief in waking” (156).  They are haunted by what they’ve done, and by what they haven’t done.  Even if the physical wounds heal, the emotional ones linger.  Early in the novel, after Gale admits that he’d use a bow and arrow on people if it would keep Katniss safe, she thinks, “I don’t know what to tell him about the aftermath of killing a person. About how they never leave you” (68). Like the first two books in series, the third is about trauma.

It is also about torture, which — no matter what your government tells you — is not merely an “enhanced interrogation technique.”  It’s torture.  Characters in Mockingjay have been tortured by the agents of Panem, the totalitarian regime against which the Rebels (including our heroine Katniss) fight.  Appropriately, Collins does not invite us into the scenes of torture.  She shows us what happens later, how torture’s survivors cope.  The tortures of Panem are a sophisticated cruelty, a more subtle and more damaging type of the aversion therapy scenes in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971).  One character has been soaked in water, and then given electric shocks; now, rain, the shower, water of any kind triggers a flashback to that experience.  Another has been drugged with venom, conditioned not just to doubt but to kill a loved one.  Damage inflicted on the mind, the novel suggests, is the hardest pain to bear.  As Katniss says late in the novel, “I can’t believe how normal they’ve made me look on the outside when inwardly I’m such a wasteland” (366).

Though Collins understands why people would feel the need to fight a war, Mockingjay offers a more eloquent defense of pacifism than of, say, a “just war.”  There’s a line in the book that made me think of the lists of dead troops from America’s current wars, names of people who are almost always younger than I am — people in their 20s, and sometimes as young as 17 or 18.  To say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of children killed in those wars.  This is the line.  Considering the “creature” that is a human being, Katniss observes, “something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences” (377).

10 Comments »

  1. Monica Edinger Said,

    August 29, 2010 @ 3:43 am

    Absolutely. Exactly. I find it interesting to consider that some of the disappointed readers of this final book were led into expecting something more feelgood with all the pre-pub buzz (particularly the romantic angle which, to my mind, was never the point).

    I’ve got a post going up tomorrow addressing this same topic.

  2. kerry Said,

    August 29, 2010 @ 10:38 am

    YES. I felt uneasy and dreadful for about a full day after finishing MOCKINGJAY. Initially, I thought it was something wrong with the book that I hadn’t figured out yet; it took me a day or two more to see that it’s actually something very RIGHT with the book. The horror and desolation of this book – of the conclusion of the trilogy – is incredible; it’s the book’s greatest strength, I think.

    I concur with Monica about the romantic angle – “Team Peeta” was never the point, ever. When I mentioned that to my undergrads – that the fan community had taken on “Teams” – my students responded, a little snerkily, that they were “Team Katniss.”

  3. Philip Nel Said,

    August 30, 2010 @ 11:33 pm

    Thanks for your comments, Monica and Kerry. I concur: the darkness is an apt way to end the trilogy. And love the idea that your students were on “Team Katniss.” Me, too! Enjoyed yr blog post on the book. Can’t speak for Monsters of Men (which I’ve not read), but a “harrowing read” is an apt description of Mockingjay.

  4. Talking ‘Bout Mockingjay « educating alice Said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 6:35 am

    [...] Phil Nel’s The Trauma Games [...]

  5. Barrett Said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 2:18 pm

    I will take an alternate response to the book. It disappointed me greatly. Let me be clear. It was not the devastation of Katniss, Peeta, et al that bothered me. That was a tremendously realistic approach that Collins took to the story. It certainly made point her about war and torture, and she wrote what she chose to write well.

    However, I have a list of problems with the book after taking a week to sort through what really bothered me.

    1) I had trouble liking Katniss — I have no qualms with how she ended up due to the trauma, but along the way she never truly comprehended the power she had, that everyone else saw. Much like Cinna, I was always betting on her — not to be the Mockingjay, the president, or the hero, but to be who she was. I don’t think she ever was that.

    2) Katniss never had to choose between Peeta and Gale. She takes Peeta by default. I think she actually loved him, but we were never given that. I didn’t go looking for the romance; Ms. Collins brought that angle to my doorstep for most of the first two books. She could have given us a more concrete ending. I don’t care who she chose (let’s make her choose no one, or anyone), but make a decision.

    3) I thought the “war is hell” got a bit too preachy for me. Show it. Don’t underline, bold and italicize it for me. Trust your readers.

    4) I felt she abandoned most character development. Two books had me wondering about so many people/pasts/stories. I was given no wrap up or info (see: Cinna, Effie, Madge, Madge’s mom, etc). It’s the characters that drew me to the book in the first place.

    5) The ending gave no hope. To reference the already mentioned “A Clockwork Orange”, it’s as though we didn’t get our 21st chapter. Nothing of the ending gave me hope that this would not be repeated, that the kids would grow up better than their parents, that the human race is worth saving. What’s the point of arguing against war, if in the end, you don’t think we worth saving?

    Okay, that’s all. Attack at will. Big disclaimer: I am not in the literary biz. I am just an amateur reader who likes hearing what Phil has to say. So go easy on me.

  6. Okay, Mockingjay now. « All unattended children will be given an espresso and a puppy. Said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 2:18 pm

    [...] Thoughts on a potential subtitle: “War is hell.” [...]

  7. Philip Nel Said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 5:00 pm

    Hi, Barrett. Thanks for posting!

    On 1 & 2: I see her choices as limited by the world in which she lives. That is, re: 2 (Peeta v. Gale), I think it’s more complicated than that. She does love Gale (even if only, as he points out, only when he’s in pain), but Peeta she has come to love romantically — which is why the brainwashed Peeta is such a shock to her… and forces her to choose anew. Initially, she thinks she’s lost him… but decides to make the leap of faith back to him. This choice happens in stages, such as when she decides she could not see him “[b]ack in Snow’s hands. Tortured and tormented until no bits of his former self will ever emerge again” (290). Later, Peeta asks, “You’re still trying to protect me. Real or not real.” She answers, “Real. [...] Because that’s what you and I do” (302). Later still, when Peeta is “losing it” (313), she kisses him and brings him back (314). She does choose him.

    But her motives both have their ulterior side and are hemmed in by other forces. At one point, she asks herself, “Have I turned him [Peeta] into a piece in my private Games? That’s despicable, but I’m not sure it’s beneath me” (297). This is why the conversation at the end of Chapter 23 hurts her. After Gale says, “Katniss will pick whoever she thinks she can’t survive without” (329), she asks herself “Am I really that cold and calculating?” and — for a moment — decides “I can survive just fine without either of them” (330). But that claim comes from her wounded feelings, not from her heart. And I say her choices are hemmed in because, well, they are. The experience of going through the Hunger Games and the Quarter Quell has changed the way she sees the world: Gale’s not wrong to insinuate that she’s calculating, but then she has to become calculating if she’s going to survive.

    3) Too preachy? Well, fair enough. I expect that I didn’t find it too preachy because I’ve read far preachier stuff. One of the stories in Tales for Little Rebels (which I co-edited with Julia Mickenberg) has an illustration of a spider, capturing an ant in its web. The text asks us, “Is this a spider? It is. What is its other name? The capitalist system. Has he got an ant in his web? He has. What is the ant’s other name? Workingman. Does the spider like to have the ants organize? No, he prefers to deal with them ‘individually’” (That’s from Art Young’s The Socialist Primer). I guess I’m also willing to accept that literature of this sort will have a didactic component — the third volume of the His Dark Materials trilogy is more explicit in telegraphing its messages, too. But I’m OK with a bit of didacticism. However, I of course acknowledge the degrees of preachiness will be a matter of taste!

    4) Given that the whole narrative is focalized through Katniss, our access to character development is limited. I would say, however, that Prim, Gale, and Finnick all do develop as characters. So does Katniss — her development brings me to

    5) The ending. And here’s where I disagree with you most strongly, Barrett. Perhaps it’s because I’ve just taught Cormier’s The Chocolate War, but I definitely see hope in the end of this trilogy. Katniss, who has long maintained that she does not want children, now has many more reasons to argue against brining children into the world. But she makes that leap of faith, and her children (at the beginning of the Epilogue) “play in the meadow. The dancing girl with the dark hair and blue eyes. The boy with blond curls and gray eyes” (389). She wonders how she will tell her children about her role in the Hunger Games. She wonders about the future. She still struggles with the past. But she has chosen to live, even though the life of the trauma survivor will be difficult. As she says, “I’ll tell them how I survive it. I’ll tell them that on bad mornings, it feels impossible to take pleasure in anything because I’m afraid that it could be taken away. That’s when I make a list of every act of goodness I’ve seen someone do. It’s like a game” (390). Her willingness to pass forward those strategies for survival, and to not only to choose to live but to create a new generation, both convey hope, the possibility of a future worth living in. Will the future be worth living in? She doesn’t know yet.

    And, in our own world, neither do we. But if Katniss can summon enough hope to carry on, surely we can?

  8. Barrett Said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 5:18 pm

    Ooh, you’re good. You almost have me convinced.

    I do not disagree with your thoughts on Katniss choosing Peeta. I truly believe she knew she loved him (really from book 2) and all your points are true where she showed it. But I would have expected it to be more obvious, and less me being left to wonder. To me, it was somehow lost in the writing.

    And yes, I agree some characters were developed quite well – I loved Finnick’s journey and past, and Gale was interesting. Prim could have been more, but we get more of her darn cat.

    As for the ending, again, I can totally see your point. And, to make myself feel better, I convinced myself of that as well. Though her calling her kids “the boy” and “the girl” didn’t do anything to help me believe; nor did the fact that it seems Peeta had to beg her for 15 years. I will give slight credit to the “blink and you miss it” mention of Annie’s child – a little bit of Finnick survived!

    By the time I got to the end quotations you used, I think I was so bitter and in a dark place, that I couldn’t believe in it. And I even re-read the ending on three different days to try again.

    I was just frustrated by how she chose to write parts, and see how she could have done something else (for instance, where did her darn pearl from Peeta go? One last touch of that lodestone, and I could have been sure). By the end, I felt somewhat like Katniss and Collins was the Capitol making me ask “real or not real”: about Peeta and Katniss, about the hope for the future, about characters lost in the shuffle, about most of what I read.

  9. Philip Nel Said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 6:41 pm

    Hi, again, Barrett!

    Well, I don’t mean to argue that the ending is happy in any uncomplicated sense. Nor would I say that it’s extremely optimistic. So, I think we agree there. All I mean to suggest is that, given what she’s faced and the uncertainty of what will come next, this is as happy an ending as we’ve any right to expect.

    The decision to say “The dancing girl” and “The boy” rather than “My daughter” and “my son” frames the scene like a film: the camera (or the narrator’s consciousness) alights on these two figures in the meadow first. Next, she tells us that these are her children. So, we apprehend the scene first from a distance, and then close up. Also, “daughter” and “son” are more emotionally loaded words than “girl” and “boy”: in choosing those words, we might see Collins as carefully steering clear of anything that has even a whiff of sentimentality. Perhaps the absence of that lodestone also is a conscious veering away from the sentimental.

    But, you know, I didn’t expect this series to end happily in any conventional sense. I thought that either Gale or Peeta would be killed. Instead, Prue was killed. In fact, I expected an ending that was more dark than this one was. Also, I have a tendency to read a novel sympathetically — perhaps too sympathetically. I want to (inasmuch as I can) try to imagine why the author might have made this or that choice. So, perhaps I’m going too easy on Collins? It is a tendency of mine….

    Anyhow. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  10. Shoshana Said,

    September 6, 2010 @ 9:09 pm

    Hear, hear! I think the point of the book is evident in who ultimately dies (comment contains spoilers, obviously). That neither Gale nor Peeta does, and especially the unceremonious way Gale gets pushed aside, tells me that the romance isn’t that important to what Collins is trying to do. Much more interesting to me is that Prim was the very character Katniss tried to save by entering the Hunger Games in the first place. Should we fully regret that Katniss set this story in motion, since she eventually loses what she was trying to defend? Or should we just wish deeply that Katniss could have taken down two opposing villains without losing her sister?

    (By “Should we?” I think I mean, “Do I?”)

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