The Hunger Games on

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?


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