It started when I was little. I would always have a problem with the books we were reading in school. Unluckily for me, I think I discovered cynicism before most of the kids in school, so I had no problem slamming Harry Potter for plot holes, or Animal Farm as ham-fisted when I was a kid. My literary snobbery only got worse as I grew older, went to college, and actually got some good books under my belt. But apparently, I wasn’t paying very much attention to the great literature I was reading, because the snobs are always the worst characters. Take Elizabeth Bennett’s mother in Pride and Prejudice. She’s controlling and ridiculous in her obsession with names, wealth and reputation. In In Search of Lost Time, Proust gives us dozens of examples of snobbery in all its forms, from the pathetic salon of the Verdurins, to Legrandin’s poor social graces, and even the supposedly irreproachable Guermantes. They all let their snobbery show, and the consensus time and time again, is that snobs are always miserable. They see the worst in people and things, instead of the best.
So, I decided to let literature actually perform its function, and let it teach me something. I originally neglected the Hunger Games trilogy out of hand. Anything I see prominently displayed as I walk into Barnes and Noble usually ends up in the dustbin of my mind. But since I have Amazon Prime, I borrowed the first one for free on my Kindle, and gave it a shot. I didn’t expect much, but what I found was far better than I could have hoped for.
Like so many readers of this series, I stormed through the first book in a flurry, and then devoured the next two immediately thereafter. I’d say the entire series took me about five days to read. To get it out of the way, I did have some problems with the books. For one, while the prose is crisp, and as evidenced, it pulls the reader in and moves the plot along, sometimes it feels as if that’s all it’s doing. Suzanne Collins is never going to blow anyone’s mind with her lush descriptions, or challenge the conventions of the novel as an art form. Sometimes the books feel like laundry list of events. One thing happens, Katniss kills something, she thinks about it. I wasn’t sure how many more descriptions of wilderness meals I could endure by the time I finished Mockingjay.
No, the charm of these novels lies not in their structure, nor their flowing elegant prose, but in the most important component of fiction: the characters. It was not Collins’ gift for intense, suspenseful writing that kept me turning the pages, but rather my sincere concern for the characters. And for me, the characters were compelling because they were all wrestling with themes that are so central, so human, that I couldn’t not find out how they resolved their problems. Truly, there may be nothing new under the sun. Collins writes about the things man has always written about, love and loss, war and peace. But she does so through the lens of characters we care about, which makes her work more compelling than a dry text on ethics or philosophical meanderings on right and wrong.
No character is more emblematic of this than Peeta. As much as Katniss might be the narrator, and the “main” character, this is really Peeta’s story, because in the end, it’s a story about good triumphing over evil. However, even in its triumph, good does not emerge without its scars and regrets. As we get older, and read more “advanced” texts, we’re told that simple two dimensional characters are no longer good enough. The perfect hero, who never makes any mistakes, is not complex enough, he’s not true enough to life. Of course, this is a matter of artistic taste, as many literary traditions have glorified the perfect unsullied hero. Perhaps it says something about our culture that we want, even need faults, even in our heroes, lest we feel badly about our fallible, fragile selves. I found the opposite with Peeta. He was so simple, so unswervingly good, that I came to rely on him, just as Katniss did, as a touchstone of morality, a compass that would always point in the right direction no matter what the gamemakers threw at them.
One of Peeta’s most interesting qualities is actually his lack of them. He isn’t particularly fast, or skilled with weapons, especially after he has his prosthetic leg implanted. Katniss is a much better warrior and survivor. Peeta sort of bumbles through, making lots of noise, and forcing Katniss to save him time and time again. Especially for a male character, this seems strange. But Peeta, crucially, has something that Katniss doesn’t. He has that unrelenting constancy of goodness, that saves not only him, but Katniss as well. Katniss may be the girl on fire, by the time she gets to the Hunger Games, but Peeta prevented her spark from being snuffed out in the rain and the cold all those years earlier. Indeed, Peeta giving Katniss the burned bread is really the “beginning” of the whole story. Without that one, crucial act of love and kindness, Katniss wouldn’t have survived the winter, and the entire shape of Panem history would have been different. If that one event drives the whole plot, there must be something special about it. And there is. It was special because, it was that special kind of love, that acts for no reason. It’s a stupid love in the best sense of the term. It sees no consequences, like the slap that awaits Peeta from his mother. It’s the same love that made Katniss volunteer for Prim, or that made Gale set off into the woods with 800 people after District 12 was bombed. Peeta got slapped, Katniss got sent to the 74th Hunger Games, and Gale got caught up in the war. But for all of them, there was never really a choice. They were victims of that irrational sense of compassion for other human beings that looks ridiculousin a context of consequences and self-preservation, but is really the best in all of us.
We’re taught a cruel accounting of cost and benefit. Help people, but help yourself first. But Collins reaches us through these characters because they aren’t calculators. We’re constantly warned to never act on our emotions, but these characters do, and somehow, it just seems right. That’s because they act on the one emotion that can never lead astray. It’s that emotion, that natural human feeling that no amount of Hunger Games nor Quarter Quells, nor Peacekeers can suppress. It’s the human spirit that Winston Smith says won’t let the Party and O’brien get away with what they plan to do in 1984. It’s something that defies control, like the Mockingjay. The Mockingjays were the descendants of the Capitol Jabberjays, but as Katniss says at one point: “they pick up on other bird’s melodies, replicate them, and transform them into something new.” The characters who act out of selfless compassion are rebellious in the same way, and are therefore just as big a threat to the Capitol. This is because the Capitol can’t plan for them. It can’t foresee when a Katniss might volunteer, or when Johanna will sacrifice herself to remove Katniss’ tracker. These acts defy logic. There is no risk benefit analysis beneath them.
Owing someone is a huge theme for Katniss. She feels indebted to Peeta, and so she shows him compassion. She even goes back to the bread scene, many years ago, and says “It’s always the first gifts that are the hardest to pay back.” And she’s right, because she can’t pay it back, because it doesn’t work like that. Peeta did what he did for no other reason than that he loved her, in a very human way. He couldn’t stand to see her suffer. Katniss continues this line of thinking even when Finnick rescues Peeta from the fog. Haymitch tells her that she could live “a thousand lifetimes and still not deserve him (Peeta).” But even that isn’t right because “deserve,” isn’t a word that applies to those feelings, and to those selfless actions. This kind of moral, balance sheet just won’t balance when you run into an inexhaustible supply of good like Peeta. He completely changes the game, which is exactly what he explains he wants to do in the first place, at night on the roof before the first Games.
Peeta refuses to play by the rules, and in fact, he can’t. He’s too good for the situation he’s been thrust into, and so he needs Katniss to bail him out, and sometimes make the tough decisions. In the end, that’s what Katniss admires about Peeta the most, and what is best about him: his defiant humanity. He’s tossed into an inhuman situation, but he still clings to his love and compassion for Katniss. If this series is about love and compassion in the end, it’s also at least partly about control. Even Snow only does what he does for fear that Panem would spiral out of control and into barbarity. But these two concepts are intertwined. Because the Capitol is a harsh and cruel place, that compassion will necessarily be defiant, like the Mockingjay, or Katniss and Peeta holding hands, or of course, the poison berries.
And that defiance is critical, because of what it awakens in everyone else. Very few would have had the defiant attitude and the presence of mind to eat the berries. It didn’t matter though, because once the rest of Panem saw it, they were affected. Perhaps infected might be a better word. Infected with the notion that things didn’t have to be the way they were. We can’t predict rare events, because well, they’re rare. Those uncalculated acts of kindness, compassion and love that keep Peeta and Katniss going are rare events. The Hunger Games operates on the assumption that the tributes will descend into barbarity and kill each other like animals. What it doesn’t account for, what it can’t account for, are the rare events, the outliers, the blips, the selfless acts that destroy Katniss’ accounting of who owes what to whom. It took 73 years for two contestants to act the way Katniss and Peeta did, but in the end, they did. Selflessness, that special kind of stupid love, may be rare, but it exists. And when it does finally show itself, and it will, it is impossible to ignore. It took Peeta to put that one spark of life into Katniss on that cold winter day. It took both of them to spark the revolt when they chose the berries. Collins does an admirable job of showing us that just one spark can start a fire. I wish more young adult books could include such an uplifting and moral message.