by Angela E. Hubler
August 29, 2014
The majority of young adult dystopian and utopian fiction is shaped by the Cold War horror of a collective. It’s rare to encounter a dystopian novel like Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and its sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay: what’s targeted isn’t Cold War-era mind control but economic inequality, totalitarian rule, and oppression maintained by brute force. The novels even depict a revolution that overthrows this oppression.
More surprisingly, The Hunger Games has been on the New York Times best-seller list of children’s series for 161 weeks (at number one for 128 of those weeks) — and was released as a film in 2012, with the first sequel appearing in 2013 and two more based on the third book planned for 2014 and 2015.
A scene from the film adaptation of The Hunger Games.
The success of The Hunger Games invites comparison with the recent history of the utopian/dystopian genre. Generations of children, in the United States at least, have read Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, in which the Murry children learn the value of individualism and freedom.
In Camazotz, the novel’s dystopia, “all of the children on the street bounce their balls in strictly exact unison.” (Hintz and Ostry, 7) The protagonist returns home to the United States, the novel’s real good place, where, despite the suffering experienced by those who are different (in this case, the magical clairvoyants) experience, difference is tolerated.
L’Engle won the Newbery Medal for this novel in 1963. To ensure that children in the United States continue to treasure individualism, the American Library Association awarded the 1994 medal to Lois Lowry’s The Giver, assuring it, like A Wrinkle in Time, best-seller status and a semi-permanent position in the classroom.
In The Giver, Lowry warns that dystopia results from efforts to construct an ideal society, and that a loss of individual freedom is the cost of utopian striving. Rather than social change, in the third book of the tetralogy inaugurated by The Giver, she prescribes a religious remedy for social conflict. Like L’Engle, Lowry stresses the dangers of mind control, affirms the current U.S. status quo, and discourages collective efforts to improve on it.
Other old chestnuts typically assigned to middle and high school students — George Orwell’s 1984 and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, for example — reiterate L’Engle’s and Lowry’s ideological themes. Some recent young adult dystopian novels offer a more radical perspective on the theme of mind control, demonstrating how technology can enforce the capitalist imperative to consume, for example M. T. Anderson’s Feed.
There are now 23 million copies of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games in print according to Scholastic Press, compared to more than five million copies of The Giver. Of the two writers, however, Lowry is the more lauded, and her books have a firm place in the school curriculum: one of my sons read The Giver in the sixth and ninth grades, and the other was assigned the book in two different classes as well!
Generically, Lowry’s and Collins’ trilogies are similar, and like most dystopian writers, both promote individual resistance to totalitarianism. But while both depict dystopian societies, their representation of these societies is very different. Collins is more pessimistic than Lowry in assessing the United States — suggesting a dystopian future if her warnings against dangerous tendencies are not heeded — and more optimistic about the possibility of collective efforts to achieve social justice.
Despite their generic similarities, then, Lowry and Collins represent two historical antinomies: Lowry Anti-Utopia and Collins Utopia.
Utopia and Anti-Utopia
The distinction between Anti-Utopia and Utopia is based on Tom Moylan’s critical framework for dystopian narratives. Moylan distinguishes between literary forms — utopia, anti-utopia, dystopia, pseudo-dystopia — and “historical antinomies.” (Utopia and Anti-Utopia, 157)
Drawing on the ways that these terms have been utilized by Darko Suvin, Lyman Sargent, Fredric Jameson, and other critics, Moylan argues that literary texts must be understood both formally and in terms of the sociopolitical positions that they represent. Moylan calls Utopia an “impulse or historical force” that can be distinguished “from its various expressions (as texts, communal societies, or social theories).” (155)
This “impulse” can be understood, Sargent explains, as “social dreaming — the dreams and nightmares that concern the ways in which groups of people arrange their lives and which usually envision a radically different society than the one in which the dreamers live.” (Sargent, 3) While the proponents of Utopia imagine a better world, Anti-Utopia is an “outright rejection of both Utopia and the historical changes it informs and helps to produce.” (Moylan, 134)
In 1991, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union, when Fredric Jameson gave the lectures published as The Seeds of Time, he noted that “it would seem that the times are propitious for Anti-Utopianism.” (53) Jameson’s comment illuminates the popularity of Lowry’s The Giver and its dystopian sequels. (The Political Unconscious, 20)
Political Unconscious in Lowry’s Fiction
Lowry claims: “I don’t make political statements.” (Hintz and Ostry, 196) Jameson argues, however, that “there is nothing that is not social and historical — indeed, . . . everything is ‘in the last analysis’ political.”
The imagination that we envision to be walled off from the social and historical is in fact shaped by it, constituting what Jameson calls “the political unconscious.” In fact, Jameson insists that attempting to distinguish between “cultural texts that are social and political and those that are not becomes something worse than an error: namely, a symptom and a reinforcement of the reification and privatization of contemporary life.” (Political Unconscious, 20)
Jameson reveals the impossibility of Lowry’s claim. While her novels depict the horrors of collective and totalitarian societies, Lowry’s desire to champion the individual while refusing to “make political statements” paradoxically suggests that the attempt to create a truly free society is futile.
The historical events shaping the novels’ political unconscious include the Cold War horror of the collective and of the threat of a totalitarian society. Moylan notes that in the 20th century, “Anti-Utopia . . . found its most powerful vocation in shaping the hegemonic reaction against communism and socialism.” (131)
Indeed, as Lowry herself remarks, “I think, on one level, the book [The Giver] can be read supporting conservative ideals — it challenges the tendencies in any society to allow an invasive government to legislate all lives.” (Silvey) Her tetralogy is Anti-Utopian in suggesting that the attempt to create a better society is “more dangerous than it is worth.” (Moylan, xiii)
In The Giver, the protagonist Jonas lives in a society shaped by utopian desires for social harmony and safety. Strict population control has been instituted to eradicate hunger, and while the novel does not explicitly articulate that this has been done in part to eliminate racism, genetic engineering has made all skin color the same. (111, 94)1
Potential sources of conflict — love, anger, pain, sexual desire and other intense emotions — have also been repressed. Individuality and choice have been sacrificed for “Sameness.” (94) It is “considered rude to call attention to things that were unsettling or different about individuals.” (20) Color too has been eliminated, symbolizing the sacrifice of that which gives beauty and meaning to life, the cost of utopian desire.
Jonas, however, is one of a few people who have “the Capacity to See Beyond,” meaning he can perceive color and “receive memories” of what has been sacrificed in constructing the society. (63)
When Jonas discovers that those who are too much trouble to care for — the very old, newborns requiring excessive nurture, repeat criminals — are killed rather than innocuously “released,” as he has been told, he escapes with the baby Gabriel, a fussy baby who has been scheduled for release. (7–9) After days of searching without success for Elsewhere — another community in which they will be safe — Jonas and Gabriel find themselves starving, and Jonas questions his decision:
“You have never been starving, he had been told. You will never be starving.
“Now he was. If he had stayed in the community, he would not be…. Once he had yearned for choice. Then, when he had had a choice, he had made the wrong one: the choice to leave. And now he was starving…. If he had stayed, he would have starved in other ways. He would have lived a life hungry for feelings, for color, for love.
“And Gabriel? For Gabriel there would have been no life at all. So there had not really been a choice.” (173-174)
The novel, then, refuses to say “No to deprivation” (Bloch, The Principle of Hope, 5), sighing that while it would be nice to eliminate racism, sexism, war and hunger, the cost is too high: feeling, individuality, humanity itself. So, Lowry suggests, we really do live in the best of all possible worlds here in Elsewhere, or in the United States of America.
In the novel’s conclusion, Jonas sees the lights of a village below, and while his arrival and rescue there is not narrated, it is suggested. As he descends holding Gabriel, “all at once he could see lights, and he recognized them now. He knew they were shining through the windows of rooms, that they were the red, blue, and yellow lights that twinkled from trees in places where families created and kept memories, where they celebrated love. . . . Suddenly he was aware with certainty and joy that below, ahead, they were waiting for him; and that they were waiting, too, for the baby.” (179-180)
The phrase “waiting for the baby” has more than one connotation here. One is indicated by the phrase “lights that twinkled from trees” — Christmas trees decorated with colored lights, which suggests that Elsewhere is a Christian community anticipating the birth of the baby Jesus at Christmas. The syntax of the sentence also indicates that the “families” are waiting for Jonas and Gabriel (whose name also suggests a messenger of God).
In an interview, Lowry claims: “If I had begun to think in literally Christian terms, I would have backed off the project because I have no interest in writing ‘religious’ books. Still, clearly, the theology is there, inherent in the story.” (Silvey) Paradoxically, while the novel’s deep logic is Christian in that virtually all that is revealed about Elsewhere is its Christian character, Elsewhere’s Christianity is only obliquely indicated to the reader, particularly the child reader who may miss the subtle clues.
“Elsewhere,” however, offers an alternative only to the dystopia within the novel, not to social reality outside of it. The components of Elsewhere that define it as a refuge are central to U.S. ideology: individual choice, the family, and Christianity. The Giver contains not a glimmer of Utopia, or as Ernst Bloch puts it, “hoping beyond the day which has become.” (10) On the contrary, the dystopia confirms the normative status quo of U.S. society.
The protagonist of The Giver’s sequel, Gathering Blue, is Kira, who lives in a postapocalyptic society in which family life is devoid of marital and parental affection, the seriously injured are dragged to a field to die, girls are forbidden to read, and the gifts of a tiny group of artists are controlled by the ruling Council of Guardians. (24)
But an alternative to this hell, the Elsewhere of The Giver beckons: Kira’s father is rescued by its inhabitants when he is injured and left for dead by a rival. He tells her, “There is no arguing. People share what they have, and help each other. Babies rarely cry. Children are cherished.” (205) Thus, the dystopian society’s inhumanity is countered by harmony in the novel’s refuge.
The third novel in the sequence, Messenger, establishes human incapacity to create and sustain a true political utopia. By the time the novel opens in Elsewhere — called Village by its inhabitants — it is being transformed by “selfishness:” a newcomer has opened a “Trade Mart” where villagers barter not material goods but “their deepest sel[ves]” to satisfy their greed and desire.(34)
As they trade away more of themselves, the villagers decide to close the town to newcomers. This challenges the utopian possibility that Elsewhere appears to offer in The Giver and Gathering Blue.
The novel does not depict the political and economic factors that lead to immigration or that might result in hostility to immigrants. Instead, Lowry offers a religious allegory in which the “illusion” that has spoiled this utopian aspect of the Village is vanquished by the sacrificial death of a Christ-like figure, Matty, whose supernatural healing power cures the village of evil at the cost of his own death.
The logic of this sacrifice, however, is unclear. Is Matty’s death atonement for the villagers’ evil? How does his death remove conflict from the village? This confusion, or “misunderstanding,” René Girard argues, is a necessary part of sacrifice. (Violence and the Sacred, 7)
Girard rejects atonement as the logic of sacrifice: “Rather, society is seeking to deflect upon a relatively indifferent victim, a ‘sacrificeable’ victim, the violence that would otherwise be vented on its own members, the people it most desires to protect.” (4) Sacrifice, then, prevents uncontrolled violence from “dissensions, rivalries, jealousies, and quarrels” (8) within societies without a judicial system.
One wonders what the significance of this sacrifice — or the novel — might be. To assert the fallen nature of humanity: a proclivity to selfishness that makes violence inevitable? A consequent need for periodic sacrifice?
This conclusion locates the novel, if not the entire series, within the mythic rather than the historical realm. Conflicts appear irresolvable through political and social change, which is displaced by a universal truth about the selfishness of human nature that ensures social conflict regardless of social organization. This situation requires divine intervention.
The authors of New World Orders in Contemporary Children’s Literature assert that “the qualities which distinguish Village as a utopian community echo national mythologies of the United States as a haven for those from dysfunctional and impoverished communities.” (Bradford et al., 110)
Accordingly, Lowry locates political threat outside of the United States. She notes the similarity of Kira’s village in Gathering Blue to Afghanistan, where the Taliban denied women the ability to read and are guilty of “subjugation of women, and brutality toward the weak.” (“A Conversation,” 7)
With this, Lowry deflects any attention to women’s oppression in the United States. Never mind that the United States’ support for mujahideen efforts to overthrow the Afghan government set the stage for the Taliban to take power. Instead, social criticism implicit in the novel is deflected outward: American ideology is celebrated and the United States contrasted with countries lacking the traditional liberties we are supposed to enjoy.
Material Basis of The Hunger Games
Unlike Lowry, Suzanne Collins acknowledges that her writing is motivated by political and utopian desires. She says that she hopes dialogue about the wars represented in her Gregor and Hunger Games series will help eliminate war: “Obviously, we’re not in a position at the moment for the eradication of war to seem like anything but a far-off dream. But at one time, the eradication of slave markets in the United States seemed very far off. . . . We can change. . . . It’s not simple, and it’s a very long and drawn-out process, but you can hope.” (Margolis)
In another interview, Collins says that she sees the series as “an exploration of ‘unnecessary’ war and ‘necessary’ war, when armed rebellion is the only choice.” (Italie) Thus, while the media has described her trilogy as antiwar or even pacifist, Collins’ sympathy with those who rebel against their oppressors, even violently, suggests that her position is more complex.
The Hunger Games trilogy is set in Panem, “the country that rose up out of the ashes of a place that was once called North America.” Panem, “a Capitol ringed by thirteen districts,” emerges from a war for survival after natural disaster, climate change, and famine. (The Hunger Games, 18)
A map representing Panem’s possible location within North America. Map created by Maria Rizzoni.
Those in the districts “battle starvation” as they labor to provide the elite inhabitants of the Capitol with the food and consumer goods that make it a material paradise. (19)
After a failed rebellion against the Capitol in which rebelling District 13 is “obliterated” (18), Hunger Games are imposed upon the 12 remaining districts. The games are a yearly televised spectacle in which 24 “tributes,” a boy and a girl from each district, fight to the death, leaving just one victor alive. This brutal competition punishes the districts for their rebellion while entertaining the Capitol.
However, when the trilogy’s 16-year-old protagonist Katniss is selected as a tribute, she teams up with the male tribute from her district, Peeta, and with the aid of their mentor, Haymitch, a District 12 victor from an earlier games, both survive the games.
When Katniss and Peeta are again selected as tributes in the next games, tributes from five other districts join in an act of rebellion against the Capitol and ally themselves with Katniss and Peeta. A full-scale armed rebellion ensues that succeeds in overthrowing the Capitol and forming a democratic republic. (Mockingjay, 83)
Collins represents this rebellion as a response not to ideological but to material factors. The plot follows the trajectory outlined by Ernst Bloch in The Principle of Hope. If hunger, he says “increases uninterrupted, satisfied by no certain bread, then it suddenly changes. The body-ego then becomes rebellious, does not go out in search of food merely within the new framework. It seeks to change the situation which has caused its empty stomach, its hanging head. The No to the bad situation which exists, the Yes to the better life that hovers ahead, is incorporated by the deprived into revolutionary interest. This interest always begins with hunger, hunger transforms itself, having been taught, into an explosive force against the prison of deprivation.” (75–76)
Like Bloch, Collins represents the revolutionary force of hunger. Far from being the necessary evil it is in The Giver, hunger motivates those who rebel against Panem. In Panem, Collins indicts a country in which some are sick with excess and others starve. At a hedonistic party in the Capitol, Katniss is appalled by the contrast: “All I can think of is the emaciated bodies of the children at our kitchen table . . . And here in the Capitol they’re vomiting for the pleasure of filling their bellies again and again,” (Catching Fire, 80)
Collins makes clear that such scenes are extrapolated from contemporary society, saying that “real world events influenced the story. . . . I think it’s crucial that young readers are considering scenarios about humanity’s future. In The Hunger Games I hope they question elements like the global warming, the destruction of the environment. How do you feel about the fact that some people take their next meal for granted when some people don’t have enough to eat?” (Tanenhaus)
Collins may be referring here to the more than seventeen million U.S. children who lived in food-insecure households in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Hunger is of course the result of poverty, which has been increasing in the United States in recent decades, along with income inequality, also problematized in the trilogy. The poverty rate for children in the United States reached its lowest level in 1969 at 14%, whereas by 2009 it had risen to 21%. (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, and Smith 56)(2)
These statistics are a consequence of the current economic crisis, which is itself the culmination of long-term trends. Johanna Brenner says, “For all families headed by adults aged 25–54, the last thirty years have seen median family income plummet by 29 per cent in the lowest income families — the bottom 30 per cent of all families — and by 13.2 per cent for families in the middle 50 per cent of the income distribution. Meanwhile, rather than losing ground, median income rose for families in the top 20 per cent.” (Brenner, 68)
Whereas Lowry represents restrictions on individualism as totalitarian evil, Collins shows how the ruling class uses individualism to oppress working and poor people. Conflict in the Districts, for example, is fostered not only by the Hunger Games but also by the tesserae, tokens which allow poor children to receive a year’s supply of grain and oil per family member in exchange for additional entries in the drawing to select tributes for the games. (The Hunger Games, 13)
Gale, an inhabitant of the Seam, the coal mining part of District 12, believes the tesserae are a “way to plant hatred between the starving workers of the Seam and those who can generally count on supper and thereby ensure we will never trust one another. ‘It’s to the Capitol’s advantage to have us divided among ourselves,’” he says. (14)
The trilogy’s Hunger Games remind readers of both our own reality television programming and the gladiatorial games of ancient Rome, referred to in the Latin word for bread, panem, which is the name of the country in which the trilogy is set and part of a phrase, panem et circenses (bread and circuses) coined by the Roman satirist Juvenal, describing how the state pacified its subjects by distracting them from political reality and civic responsibility.
Reality television functions similarly. One subgenre, the makeover variety (What Not to Wear, The Biggest Loser, Bridalplasty, etc.), reduces human needs to commodity consumption, while another, initiated by “Survivor,” promotes individualism and the profit motive.
Collins has said that the idea for The Hunger Games came to her as she “was channel surfing between reality TV programming and actual war coverage. . . . On one channel there’s a group of young people competing for, I don’t know, money maybe? And on the next, there’s a group of young people fighting an actual war. And I was tired, and the lines began to blur in this very unsettling way, and I thought of this story.”
Collins identifies several problems with reality television: “the voyeuristic thrill — watching people being humiliated, or brought to tears or suffering physically. . . . There’s also the potential for desensitizing the audience, so that when they see real tragedy playing out on, say, the news, it doesn’t have the impact it should.” (“Conversation”)
Resistance and its Costs
In Katniss, Collins depicts a character who challenges the competitive individualism of reality television. At the end of the first Hunger Games competition, Katniss and the other remaining tribute, Peeta, are incapable of killing one another to win. But Katniss initiates a game of brinksmanship with the gamekeepers when she suddenly realizes that the games must have a victor: she and Peeta begin to eat poison berries and are halted by a last-minute announcement declaring them joint victors.
Katniss’s mockingjay pin.
Katniss’s motives for her risky ploy aren’t clear, even to her. What is clear, however, is that the Capitol understands her action as resistance, and her pin with a mockingjay is seen as the emblem of the growing uprising.
Even when Katniss learns of this, she proposes not to join the rebels but to escape with her closest friends and family members. Gale convinces her otherwise. She realizes that “it isn’t enough to keep myself, or my family, or my friends alive by running away. . . . Even if I could. It wouldn’t fix anything. It wouldn’t stop people from being hurt.” (Catching Fire, 118)
Her commitment to individual self-preservation shifts to political solidarity with those who share her condition. Solidarity among the oppressed is the only force capable of overthrowing the Capitol, which Haymitch reminds Katniss of before her second Hunger Games: “just remember who the enemy is,” he instructs. (Catching Fire, 260). This insight is critical to instigating a rebellion through solidarity.
While the trilogy supports the districts’ rebellion, it also represents the cost of their victory. Some of the tributes allied with Peeta and Katniss sacrifice themselves in the second Hunger Games to keep alive Katniss, the symbol of the uprising, and Peeta, whom she has dedicated herself to saving.
For example, when Katniss is unable to carry Mags out of a nerve gas attack, Mags walks directly into the gas — which kills her — so that Finnick can carry Peeta. Unlike the religious sacrifice of Matty in Messenger, however, Mags’s action is practical: She believes her sacrifice will preserve Katniss and Peeta and allow them to lead a revolution against the Hunger Games and the Capitol. Her sacrifice is rewarded, and the uprising succeeds.
The cost of this success, however, is high. Peeta “clutches the back of the chair and hangs on until the flashbacks are over” and Katniss “wake[s] screaming from nightmares of mutts and lost children” (Mockingjay, 388) Such passages illustrate that war scars even the victors in ways that traumatize them decades later.
These passages evoke recent events, as Collins says that “our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the popularity of reality television, and the state of the environment have had an effect” on her trilogy. (Tanenhaus) This realistic depiction of the psychological consequences of violence suggests that Collins’ support for violence is limited.
Moreover, more than 15 years after the success of the revolution, Katniss fears that what has been achieved can still be lost. Thus Collins, like Lowry, is aware of the ways that efforts to improve society can be betrayed. The sober conclusion of the novel does not offer the closure of utopia achieved.
But while Lowry does not offer even the hope that society can avert dystopia without supernatural intervention, Collins does. Despite the fact that humans are “fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction,” Plutarch, the new secretary of communication, suggests that “we are witnessing the evolution of the human race.” (379)
The many proponents of Lois Lowry’s dystopian fiction assert that it empowers readers as “potential agents of positive social change” (Latham, Hanson) and urges them to utopian commitments. (Hintz) However, as I have argued, the ways Lowry’s novels manifest suspicion of utopian projects and project a static view of human nature as selfish and incapable of maintaining a just society without supernatural intervention align her not with the forces of Utopia but those of Anti-Utopia.
Collins, in contrast, offers the hope of a better society through the collective efforts of ordinary people.
Angela Hubler is Associate Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Kansas State University. She would like to express gratitude to Tim Dayton, Michele Janette, and Naomi Wood for their invaluable support in writing this essay.
- Susan Stewart elaborates on racial difference in the novel.
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- This is based on official U.S. government measures of poverty. In 2009, poverty for a family of four was defined as annual household earnings below $22,050. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University, “research shows that, on average, families need an income about twice that level to cover basic expenses. Using this standard, 42% of children live in low-income families.”
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