Mon
Mar 12 2012 1:30pm

After the Ashes: Rereading Mockingjay

The third installment of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series picks up a month after the events of Catching Fire, and it begins with Katniss sifting through the (literal) ashes of her former life. In the opening paragraph of the novel, surrounded by the burned and broken remains of District 12, she does her best to find a point of reference, a way of locating herself in the charred heap of rubble that used to be her house, asking “How else could I orient myself in this sea of gray?”

In a sense, that question sums up the central concern of Mockingjay, and of the entire series by extension, and I think that one of the major strengths of the Hunger Games trilogy lies in the fact that, in the end, it offers up no easy answers to the problem of how to deal with unspeakable trauma, and eventually find meaning in the wake of atrocities and the moral and ethical failures perpetrated on all sides of the struggle for Panem.

Beginning with her trip to the charred remains of District 12, Katniss is utterly adrift in both a literal and metaphorical sea of gray throughout most of the novel, from the dull, efficient uniformity of District 13 and its order-obsessed denizens to the disordered and confused state of her own mind, muddled from the combined effects of a concussion, psych meds, painkillers, and psychological trauma. Furthermore, she feels a deep-seated ambivalence toward the leaders of the rebellion, and in particular Alma Coin, with her gray hair and eyes “the color of slush;” as her name implies, Coin is a deeply ambiguous character, showing one face to the public while harboring a darker side that Katniss immediately distrusts.

In the midst of this confusion and ambiguity, Katniss finds herself in familiar territory, taking on the role of Mockingjay and once again playing to the cameras—this time openly on the side of the rebellion, the survival of herself and the other victors dependent on her continued performance (as per her deal with Coin). Soon enough, the territory begins to seem a bit too familiar, as echoes and repetitions pile up both on a situational level as well as in random details: Katniss is reunited with her prep team from the Capitol, made over and outfitted in style by the (now absent) Cinna, put in front of the cameras; throughout the process, new and old footage of herself (and occasionally Peeta) is constantly being recut, edited, looped and repeated exhaustively.

Even Castor and Pollux, the twin cameramen assigned to her team reflect this sense of doubling and repetition, and Pollux, an Avox, further serves to remind Katniss of her former allies Darius and Lavinia, who were tortured and killed in front of Peeta. It’s as if the entire narrative itself were simulating the behavior of the mockingjay—carefully spinning out repetitions and variations on a theme, mimicking and echoing bits and pieces of everything that came before. And then there’s the fact that Katniss’s role as Mockingjay is orchestrated in large part by the Capitol’s former Gamemaker, in case there weren’t enough disturbing and often ironic parallels piling up already.

All of these flashbacks and repetition reach their peak when Finnick and Katniss realize that their imminent attack on the Capitol might as well be declared “the Seventy–sixth Hunger Games”—they’re entering a real-life arena, designed and controlled by Gamemakers: it’s literally the game to end all Games.

The realization seems somewhat inevitable, in hindsight. Each book has its own iteration of the Hunger Games, which seems to bother a lot of people, who feel that the later books didn’t deliver on the promise of the first installment. I’ve heard complaints from readers who viewed the premise of Catching Fire as uninspired and/or gimmicky, but when read as a whole, the repetition of events throughout the series, along with the hyper-repetitive, flashback-style quality of the narrative in Mockingjay can be seen to serve a larger purpose.

I’d argue that the structure of the overall trilogy serves to underscore the cyclical nature of the events unfolding in Panem: the repetition of the trauma suffered by the districts, brutalized by the Capitol, spending over seven decades watching their children slaughter one another. Built atop the ruins of one fallen civilization (the former United States), and self-consciously adopting aspects of another in the form of ancient Rome, Panem seems to have no history of its own beyond oppression, rebellion, brutality and retaliation in the form of the punitive Hunger Games. For me, the brilliance of Mockingjay lies in Katniss’ gradual, sickening realization that the cycle is beginning anew, as all her preconceptions about basic good and evil melt into meaningless shades of gray.

Midway through the book, it’s clear that Katniss is profoundly uncomfortable with the fact that the rebels are absorbing the tactics and strategy of the Capitol—following  “the same rule book,” in Gale’s words. When the extent of this imitation is revealed after the firebombing of the Capitol, however, it becomes clear that nothing has really changed by deposing Snow and bringing Coin to power (a reality underscored by the fact that there’s no way of knowing whose bombs killed Prim—in the end, it simply doesn’t matter, since both sides are equally corrupt). Coin’s plans to reinstate the Hunger Games, and the fact that there are ostensibly sane people who willingly support her plan, stands as the ultimate horror as the present begins to grind itself into old and blood-soaked patterns…until Katniss throws herself into the gears, as it were.

With Coin out of the way, leadership of the new republic transfers to Paylor, a soldier, not a politician. The last pages of the book raise the possibility that permanent change has been effected by the events of the rebellion, but the tone of the ending is one of uncertainty, not celebration or even optimism, necessarily. The final chapter and the epilogue are preoccupied with issues of remembrance—the primrose bushes Peeta plants, the book that Katniss begins to fill with memories, photos, mementos of those who died—and the question of how to tell their children about the past. Katniss mentions that memorials have been built, and the fact that children learn about the Hunger Games in school, but the question of how and what to tell her own son and daughter remains open.

A mockingjay is not a phoenix, and there is new life but no triumphant rebirth at the end of the novel—the ghosts of the past remain present, and Katniss notes that her children “don’t know they play on a graveyard.” More than anything, the ending seems to ask what lessons have been learned from the atrocities of the dark days, and how those lessons will be passed on and remembered. Katniss, who glimpsed both the insidiousness and the banality of evil closer than most, navigates the aftermath of those years by focusing on “every act of goodness” she’s ever witnessed—it’s a strategy for survival, but one day she will have to relive and attempt to explain, somehow, the past and her role in it. We get the sense that this will be as great a challenge as anything she’s faced so far.

It’s a troubling ending, in some ways, and not as upbeat as “destroy The Ring, restore peace to Middle Earth, grow old and diminish into the West” or “obliterate the Death Star/Empire, redeem father, collect spiritual high fives from Obi Wan, Yoda and Anakin,” but it’s important to remember that the Hunger Games was never about the hero’s journey. The trilogy owes far more to Orwell than to Joseph Campbell, and while the protagonist manages to bring the cycle of corruption and institutionalized murder to a halt, we’re left to wonder about the future of Panem—whether future generations will be able to separate Real from Not Real, and continue to tell the story, honor the fallen, and pass on what has been learned, or whether history will once again repeat itself.


Bridget McGovern somehow resisted the urge to just full on quote either Santayana or Marcus Aurelius throughout this whole post, but you can probably smell what the philosophical Rock was cooking, right?

This article is part of The Hunger Games on Tor.com: ‹ previous | index | next ›
23 comments
Kappi
1. Kappi
One of the questions I was left with after finishing the series was "What was the deal with Caesar Flickerman?" There is almost nothing about him in the last book. Did he totally buy in with the Hunger Games? Did he have any resentment at all about interviewing kids who he knew were going to die year after year?

Katnis in the end recongized that Alma Coin was not going to be much different from Snow, yet prior to that realization she still decides to support continuing the Hunger Games with Capitol children. I didn't fully understand that at the time. Was she still feeling vengeful after Prim dying?
Ben Frey
2. BenPatient
Maybe it's just me, but for most of this book, I found Katniss' lack of self-awareness to be unbelievable. She wasn't a dense character, so for her to meet the hidden leader of the opposition and not know it, and then be so shocked when he is revealed, it just struck me as an author painted into a corner and relying on the "naive young heroine" schtick a little too far into the series. She's been through one of the most cutthroat and mentally exhausting experiences a person could survive—Twice! Yet she's oblivious to the world outside her room when it suits the plot?

Anyway, I thought the bleak ending did something to restore the reputation of Collins, because if it had been a "Happily Ever After" kind of ending, I would have walked away feeling like I should have read 1 book instead of 3.
Rob Munnelly
3. RobMRobM
BIG SPOILERS. BE WARNED.

I actually liked the downbeat ending of this book and the absence of easy answers. But can someone explain why Katniss voted in favor of the final Hunger Games for the kids of the Capitol District? Is it that she had already decided to kill Coin and needed some form of punishment for Snow? I didn't get it.
treebee72 _
4. treebee72
@1 I read her agreement to continuing the Hunger Games as 'buying time' so to speak, not true support. Showing open resistance to Coin at that time and place could have caused Katniss problems and maybe taken away her opportunity to remove Coin from the picture.
Bridget McGovern
5. BMcGovern
@Kappi and RobM: I've always read the scene where Katniss votes to continue the Hunger Games as the moment where she decides to assassinate Coin--she's just going along with her plan for the sake of appearances, to avoid suspicion and mask her true intentions. A moment before she votes, she reflects on the people who chose to institute the first Hunger Games, and thinks, "Nothing has changed. Nothing will ever change now." She votes yes, and Haymitch grasps her logic and votes in kind, but their voting is simply a ruse to put Coin at ease before putting an end to things once an for all.
Constance Sublette
7. Zorra
The situation is reminiscent to that so many former slaves, now nominally free people, found themselves in after the Civil War. They couldn't be sold any longer, nor could their children. But opportunity systematically was denied them, while new laws came into place that became "Slavery By Another Name." But -- they could not be sold. So some managed to prosper, even if only relatively. They struggled on, if only in hopes of a better life for their children. And for many, this came to be, but the struggle is never over, not really, not ever.

That's the ultimate lesson we must take away from a fight against great and terrible injustice and evil.

Love, C.
Scott Silver
8. hihosilver28
Ugh, I really disliked this book. The gaps in logic were just astounding. I really liked the first, quite enjoyed the second, but by the midpoint of this one it just left a bad taste in my mouth. I liked the ending, but everything in between was everything I disliked about generic YA fiction.
treebee72 _
9. treebee72
@ BMCGovern - Yep, Katniss realized there was no way she was ever getting anywhere near Coin with a weapon if she didn't express some 'loyalty' in that scene.

The thing I enjoyed the most about this book was the idea of District 13 being just as frelled up and creepy as The Capitol. Even with all the other messed up stuff going on, I didn't really expect a YA series to completely abandon the concept of 'White Hats'.
Kappi
10. sofrina
i would third that katniss clearly votes 'yes' as a ruse, and add that she mentions that haymitch adds his 'yes' when he realizes what katniss is going to do.
Kappi
11. Cassadilla
Thank you for that super commentary.
I read the three books as a whole, too, and I had no complaints with the story like some have. I agree you do get a different, sharper picture reading them back to back. Within days, right? I felt such a enormous tye with Katnis. I cried, hoped and was often scared or frustrated right with her. I questioned myself the whole time; would she? But would I?
Our own modern world is becoming so discontected with the value of life. Then how precious is comfort and alluring is excess. Just like the citizens. Hah! and a reality TV show! I could see that happening. Also, isn't it interesting, the outrageous politics, and of the rich getting richer and poor getting poorer. I felt like I awoke from a misty dream as the books echoed my own discontent. I need to learn to shoot a bow and make a pultice. Just in case...
As I approched the end, I became so nervous. The books were so short! Such an emotional journey, I wanted good things but there were only a few pages left. And, yes, when she voted to continue the Games on the enemy! Oh, I was disapointed in her. But, it was a ploy. She shot Coin. I cheered aloud. I did. Perfect, how didn't I think of it myself?
Kappi
12. Berimon
This book lost me with the sewer access that's installed in a closet in the middle of an apartment block. I can't even begin to imagine why anyone would ever build anything like that, never mind the suburbs full of experimental death-traps. I mean, seriously, that isn't a games arena, it's just the 'burbs (or maybe the projects, I was never sure).
Kappi
13. Lynnet1
Mockingjay is by far my favorite of the three books. The only thing that marred it for me was the "the Capitol is another Game" conceit, which your review has reconciled for me.

One of the things I particularly appreciated about this book, which I haven't seen mentioned elsewhere, is the fact that Katniss spends the entirety of the three books disdainful of her mother for falling apart after her father's death. In the beginning of Mockingjay, we see Katniss falling apart after the trauma of the events of Catching Fire in almost exactly the same way that her mother did. Given Collins' objectives for writing the books, I can't imagine that the paralells are unintentional.
Katie Pi
14. Darth_Katie
Dude, you totally nailed it. I thought Mockingjay was a wonderful finish to the series, but I was having trouble articulating why. You have just summed it up wonderfully.
B H
15. Greyhawk
I am going to have to reread the section on Katniss' vote for the "final" hunger games. I couldn't beleive she did that and given our perspective of the scene from her mind I didn't think it was a ruse (I wanted to but didn't). I took her execution of Coin as payback for her belief that Coin was responsible for Prim's death (Coin being who authorized the parachute drop). Does anyone remember if the "final" hunger games was held? I don't recall (I really need to look at the end again) if it was expressly mentioned or not. That is also a reason why I am not certain Katniss' vote was a ruse--if the games were held and more importantly if she didn't speak out against them then what are we left with on that count. . .
Bridget McGovern
16. BMcGovern
@Greyhawk--the Games are absolutely abolished once Commander Paylor takes over and establishes a republic. I think if you go back and reread the very end of the book, you'll find it hard to believe that Katniss would ever have supported the continuation of the Hunger Games if it weren't necessary to her desperate ploy to assassinate Coin.
Peter Westlake
17. peter
I am so glad to have found this discussion! The moment where Katniss voted for the games really knocked me back and made me lose all faith in the book until I realized that it must be a ploy. It would have been nice to have a little more confirmation than that (though it's also nice to be treated as an intelligent reader!), so it's good to hear everyone say the same thing. Right near the end Plutarch says "Now we're in that sweet period where everyone agrees our recent horrors should never be repeated", and "Maybe we are witnessing the evolution of the human race". There's certainly no reference to any planned or recent games.

@Greyhawk: we do see things from Katniss' perspective, but we are only told that "I weigh my options carefully, think everything through". Crucially, we are not told what she thinks. Then there's @sofrina's point about Haymitch with the casting vote: Katniss is desperate for him to read her mind.
Peter Westlake
18. peter
I am so glad to have found this discussion! The moment where Katniss voted for the games really knocked me back and made me lose all faith in the book until I realized that it must be a ploy. It would have been nice to have a little more confirmation than that (though it's also nice to be treated as an intelligent reader!), so it's good to hear everyone say the same thing. Right near the end Plutarch says "Now we're in that sweet period where everyone agrees our recent horrors should never be repeated", and "Maybe we are witnessing the evolution of the human race". There's certainly no reference to any planned or recent games.

@Greyhawk: we do see things from Katniss' perspective, but we are only told that "I weigh my options carefully, think everything through". Crucially, we are not told what she thinks. Then there's @sofrina's point about Haymitch with the casting vote: Katniss is desperate for him to read her mind.
Jim Burnell
19. JimBurnell
I finished Mockingjay last week, and I enjoyed it, although it put me in a funk for most of a day.

One more point on Katniss' alleged support for a "final Hunger Games" to punish the children of the Capitol: I thought it was pretty clever of Collins to write this one section deliberately ambiguously.

Everywhere else in the series, we know exactly what Katniss is thinking, and we've gotten to know her well enough that we are 99.999% sure that the Katniss we know would never ever support having another Hunger Games.

Yet she votes for them, and for once, the narrative steps "outside" of Katniss. She makes up her mind to vote yes, but she doesn't tell us exactly why she makes that decision, which is really different from anything else in the series.

She thinks "All those people I loved, dead, and we are discussing the next Hunger Games in an attempt to avoid wasting life. Nothing has changed. Nothing will ever change now." That can be viewed either as complete resignation to the knowledge that Coin will be no better than Snow and there's no point in resisting anymore...or the realization that, with Coin's proposition, it doesn't matter anymore whether or not she ordered the firebombing of Capitol children; the fact that she would even consider something like this shows that she is no better than Snow.

Then, "I weigh my options carefully, think everything through" doesn't at all sound like someone who has given up. It sounds like the Katniss who understands strategy, able to evaluate a situation quickly and reliably get into the heads of her opponents. She knows that this is just another test. If the victors refuse to back her proposal, they will suffer for it. If they back Coin, she might still have a chance to make things right. Or...could she possibly be actually deciding this is the right thing to do? There's that little hint of doubt...do I really know this girl? Is it possible she really agrees with this proposal?

Her response is again totally ambiguous: "Yes...for Prim." On the surface, this is shocking: how could she ever agree to put any other child through what she's been through twice? Could she really be that vindictive? Or...is she really thinking "Yes, I will support this right here, right now in this room, to garner your trust, so that I at least have a chance to kill you...for Prim"? The reader has to decide, again based on how much he or she trusts his or her sense of who Katniss really is.

Then, as others have posted, the biggest clue to support the alternative explanation that she is voting yes not to support the Games but to give Coin a false sense of support is her desperate prayer that Haymitch will understand what she is doing: "This is the moment then. When we find out exactly just how alike we are, and how much he truly understands me." Why would he need to understand her if she was really voting yes because she really supported the Games? This is the point where I was almost completely convinced that her vote was a ruse.

And Haymitch's response "I'm with the mockingjay" is also wonderfully ambiguous. If at this point, the reader really believes Katniss might support this action, then "I'm with the mockingjay" can mean what Coin interpreted it to mean: "I vote yes". But if you believe instead that Haymitch did the extrapolation and saw the consequences of voting "no", and that he also reached the conclusion that Coin was as bad as Snow...or even that he didn't reach that conclusion, but he knew and trusted Katniss enough to know that she would never vote that way without good reason...then "I'm with the mockingjay" doesn't mean "I vote yes" but rather "I trust and support Katniss. I don't really agree with this proposal, but I see the consequences of voting 'no', so I will follow her lead and make a statement that appears to say 'yes' but in actuality means the reverse."

I think maybe Cooper wrote this section deliberately ambiguously, not only to make the reader a little disturbed at the possibility that Katniss actually might want a Capitol Hunger Games, but also maybe even as a mental game that Katniss was playing with herself: she knew how critical it was for Coin to truly believe that she had Katniss' support, so she even maybe convinced herself for a moment that exacting revenge on the children of the Capitol was the right thing to do.

But if so, only for long enough to choke out the words "Yes...for Prim." After that, her silent wish that Haymitch will understand her reasoning mostly gives her away...but not totally; there's still the slight possibility that she's not the Katniss we thought she was. That tiny bit of uncertainty is critical in enticing the reader on to the conclusion, thinking "She couldn't think that way...could she?"

Anyway, sorry to rant.
Kappi
20. JoeS
Wasnt paylor a victor? Why didn't she get a vote?
Kappi
21. Petertr
I also took the same conclusion about Katniss's "yes" vote - it was to get Coin on-side.
The thing is, when you read it, it doesn't seem like Katniss makes the decision to kill Coin until AFTER she sees Snow "against the wall" and reconsides the "we won't lie to eachother" agreement.
So I'm not convinced this explanation works.....

Also, it was so disappointing that her dialog, her thoughts and reasons were never put to the group - she was, not for the first time "locked away for "some time" until everything was tidied up. A very poor device for an author to use once in a story - never mind 2-3 times - half the timeline involved "stuff happening" while Katniss was sat around not eating / not talking.
Kappi
22. F. Pereira
I Think that the problem of the book is the absence of God. Or even true love. We know that the human rece is flawed, corrupt, and that the war destroys everything (as said in the Fallout series: "War. War never ends!")
Without god there is no hope and no redeption.
What is appaling to me is that we are talkink about books for young adults, and the final message is that our actions are worthless, because everything remains the same. And this is the most strong expression of relativism.
Kappi
23. EpicCenter
Most of the answers to the question of “why did Katniss vote yes” are answered by saying it was to gain Coins' trust to assassinate her. I have a hard time with this because how could she know that it would lead to an opportunity to kill Coin? And why would a no vote cause so much distrust of Katniss from Coin?


Also Petertr makes the best point
: "The thing is, when you read it, it doesn't seem like Katniss makes the decision to kill Coin until AFTER she sees Snow "against the wall" and reconsiders the "we won't lie to each other" agreement."

- He’s right. Why does she have a hard time reconciling if Snow is lying or not, AFTER the yes vote, just before she kills Coin? This line makes it seem like it was a spontaneous act.

I wish it would wrap up as tidy as all the other comments would like it; but not knowing when an assassination opportunity would present itself, and the mulling over whether or not Snow is lying, make it hard to accept that her yes vote is an attempt to assassinate Coin. But then that would mean that she voted yes out of spite and revenge. Not only does that seem out of character for Katniss, but also, her internal monologue just before she votes yes, indicates that she is disgusted with the idea of another Hunger Games.

I suppose that she only wanted Coins trust at first, but to what end? Was the inclusion of Katniss recounting the “let’s not lie to each other” conversation a mistake on the authors part? I really need to know so I can stop thinking about this horribly depressing book.

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