The Hunger Games: On Moral Ambiguity

I’m only two chapters, covering thirty-three pages, into this book. Even in so short a span, Suzanne Collins has already given a very sophisticated look at the hazy moral lines that exist in the world of Panem. It’s something that she constantly brings up, elaborating on it in small doses at a time, and it’s vitally important, as readers living in a comfort-driven society where everything is conveniently provided for us, for our understanding of the characters.

I’ve heard people complain about, of all things, the fact that Katniss hunts poor, innocent animals for food. What I’ve learned from the past two chapters is that those people are sitting on a moral high horse and don’t understand just how vastly different the culture in District 12 is from 21st century American culture. Katniss may speak the same language that we do, but she sees and understands the world in ways that someone who has never experienced anything outside of Western society can’t even begin to comprehend.

Trigger warnings: This post contains discussions of violence, murder, starvation, parental neglect and abuse, and abandonment. It’ll be gloomy in general. You have been warned.

In my review of chapter two, I discussed the reaping hostess Effie Trinket and how she represents a culture as different from District 12’s as it is from ours. From what we’ve seen so far, the Capitol is a Western-style, first-world society like the ones that we are all accustomed to, with one small alteration that creates a monumental shift: Those who live there are so obliviously detached from the world outside their paradise that everyone outside the Capitol border has become dehumanized in their eyes.

Making children from the Districts slaughter each other is meant to be a punishment, yes, but watching those children slaughter each other has become a chosen form of entertainment. The Hunger Games are such a celebrated “art form” that some Districts have seemingly begun seeing this punishment as a glamorized honor.

At this point, I trust that those who live in the Capitol sincerely believe in the righteousness of their position and are truly excited at the prospect of The Hunger Games. Cultural consciousness is deeply ingrained in all people, and theirs is brutal and toxic. But what if Trinket was, at least in part, as much a victim of circumstance as Katniss? Hypothetically, what would happen to her if she stopped smiling and tried to use her microphone to tell the world about how awful these Games are? Is she anymore safe from censorship or punishment for speaking out than those in District 12? Panem is clearly a dictatorship with the Capitol as the seat of power, but what if the general population that lives there is as much controlled and restricted as those who live in the Districts?

Of course, that doesn’t make District 12 saintly in comparison. It doesn’t even necessarily make it any better.

“Starvation’s not an uncommon fate in District 12. Who hadn’t seen the victims? Older people who can’t work. Children from a family with too many to feed…And one day, you come across them sitting motionless against a wall…”

This is a place where people die out in the streets on a regular basis, where everyone knows that if they hear a cry coming from inside a house, one more body will be added to the pile. Then they avert their eyes and keep walking, because if they don’t, they’ll starve and die as well.

“For three days, we’d had nothing but boiled water with some old dried mint leaves…By the time the market closed, I was shaking so hard…”

“Suddenly a voice was screaming at me and I looked up to see the baker’s wife, telling me to move on and did I want her to call the Peacekeepers and how sick she was of having those brats from the Seam pawing through her trash.”

In all fairness, these people are as desensitized to death as the people of the Capitol. Like those in the Capitol, they put their own needs and wellbeing before that of others. What is the difference? That the people of District 12 still suffer from it all while the Capitol takes pleasure in that suffering?

Katniss feels no remorse for killing innocent animals, gutting them, skinning them, and cooking them. Is she a bad person for not feeling bad? Is she a bad person for wanting to save her family from suffering and death?

“There was a clatter in the bakery and I head the woman screaming again and the sound of a blow…”

“The boy never even glanced my way, but I was watching him. Because of the bread, because of the red weal that stood out on his cheekbone. What had she hit him with?”

“My parents never hit us. I couldn’t even imagine it.”

Peeta’s mother abuses him. She attacks him physically, and she screams at him and calls him a creature. She dehumanizes him and overall sounds like an awful woman. She grew up in an awful world. Katniss’ mother was always loving, never abusive. But she neglected both Katniss and Prim. She let them starve and almost die. Peeta’s mother never let him starve; she made sure he grew up healthy and strong.

“I was terrified…At eleven years old, with Prim just seven, I took over as head of the family. There was no choice.”

“Because at home was my mother with her dead eyes and my little sister, with her hollow cheeks and cracked lips.”

So which mother is better?

Is there a right answer?

Last but not least, I’d like to mention the crowning moment of the story that is surely the least selfish thing we’ve encountered so far: Katniss volunteering to take her sister’s place. By contrast, none of Peeta’s brothers do the same for him.

“Effie Trinket asks for volunteers, but no one steps forward. He has two older brothers, I know, I’ve seen them in the bakery, but one is probably too old now to volunteer and the other won’t. This is standard. Family devotion only goes so far for most people on reaping day. What I did was a radical thing.”

Was her radical choice honestly the right one? Is she any better than Peeta’s brothers for what she did? She’s the one who brings home food and money; her mother and sister can’t survive without her. Katniss never taught Prim to hunt, and her mother won’t work. If she’s not there to provide for them, they’ll die. And what about Gale, who relies on her help and partnership to hunt so that he can provide for his family? Will he suffer for her absence? Will he use his own meager resources to try to help Katniss’ family at the expense of his own?

Will the people she loves suffer because of her radical selflessness? Should she have maybe let her sister go off to die?

I’m not saying that she made the wrong choice or a bad choice. I just want to make you all think. Everyone has their problems in this story, and it’s not as clear-cut as saying that one thing is good and another is bad. All actions have their consequences, and sometimes there is no right or wrong answer. There’s only circumstance and the choices we make.

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