Beware of [YA Dystopias] Bearing Gifts?

This post contains vague spoilers for the Hunger Games trilogy.  I’m speaking in generalities about the moral development of some of the characters, but do not discuss any specific plot developments.  Consider yourselves warned.

I really enjoyed the Hunger Games series (and had a great time dressing up for the movie) but I’m mainly pitched it to people in tragic terms.  Unlike many other YA dystopian hero/ines, Katniss is marked and warped by the cost of bringing down her society.  During parts of the third book, she’s scarcely functional.  I saw the series as a kind of sin-eater story, where transformation and redemption requires that someone (or a group of someones) become broken.  The major choice, I thought, was whether the protagonists acknowledged and mourned their losses (as Katniss does) or deny that they’ve been wounded and prefer to devalue their former innocence and goodness (Gale).

James R. Rogers has a fascinating alternate reading at First Things.  He finds a positive moral arc for Katniss (that, perhaps not surprisingly, went right over my head).  He writes:

But while Katniss freely sacrifices for those she loves, she has a much more difficult time being the recipient of a self-sacrificial gift.

In recalling a gift to her years before her selection for the Hunger Games by Peeta, the boy selected to represent the district with Katniss—two loaves of bread which Peeta gave to her when she was starving, and for which Peeta’s mother beat him severely—Katniss feels resentment, despite (or perhaps because of) the importance of those loaves in sustaining her and her family. Years later she reflects, “I feel like I owe him something, and I hate owing people.”

Similarly, when the people of Rue’s district provide Katniss a loaf of bread during the Games for the kindness she showed to Rue after she is killed in the Games, Katniss reflects,

How many [in Rue’s district] would’ve had to do without to scrape up a coin to put in the collection for this one loaf? It had been meant for Rue, surely. But instead of pulling the gift when she died, they’d authorized Haymitch to give it to me. As a thank-you? Or because, like me, they don’t like to let debts go unpaid?

The only real moral progress that Katniss makes during the series of three books is in her willingness to accept the sacrifice of others as a gift rather than as a debt. It is this aspect of Katniss’s moral psychology that makes the otherwise trite love triangle between her, Gale, and Peeta, of any interest.

Now I want to go back and reread to see how well this reading holds up.  But, accurate or not, it’s a bit of a kick in the pants to me to realize I read right past some of the passages Rogers cites because I thought there was nothing out of the ordinary in them.  There’s still plenty of work to do on the accepting-gifts-from-others project I started in Lent.  I’ll need some new ideas.

Perhaps I should turn back to Beggars in Spain, a scifi trilogy by Nancy Kress.  Limiting myself to mild spoilers: although some of the protagonists in the series are the kind of unusually talented heroes I’m used to, a group of people ends up conquering through weakness, using their desperate need as a way to redeem antagonists.  I had mixed feelings about the series (the first book in the trilogy is best) but this plot thread gave me the heebie-jeebies.

It was a while into my study of Catholicism that I realized that this was a distinctly Christian idea, arguably central to the faith.  And my immediate reaction whenever I run into it undimmed by any decent draparies (most notably in Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals and Stephen Sondheim’s Passion) tends to be a flinch.

Oy gevalt, here's some spiritual reading
Engagement, A Bibliography
Mercy, Justice, and How To Tell The Difference
Hedgehogs of Redemption and the Comedy of Grace
About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011 and lives in Washington DC. She works as a news writer for FiveThirtyEight by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • anon athesit 78

    I don’t see this as moral progress. If more people would see a sacrifice as a dept the world would be a better place.

  • Peter S.

    I read most of the third book in the series with the understanding that Katniss has become an unreliable narrator due to severe PTSD.

  • TR

    1. Beware of geeks bearing gifts?

    2. Two fellows at Cambridge were arguing over which religious idea is unique to Christianity. C.S. Lewis meandered by, and they put the question to him. Without hesitation he replied, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”

    3. Derrida explored the gift as an “undeconstructible,” an idea that can’t be deconstructed into something else. To him, though, if the receiver of the gift gave thanks, that meant the gift wasn’t pure. And if the giver gave for the satisfaction of benefiting the donee, then the gift wasn’t pure. So we need a gift unknown to the giver and to the gifted. Derrida couldn’t be sure if such a mysterious idea was possible, so he talked about the undeconstructible, “sil n’y en pas” – if there is one!

    • Caravelle

      Except IIRC people have done psychological experiments on it, and “pure” gifts by Derrida’s definition are those that are the least well-received.

      Which makes sense when you consider gift-giving as a relationship. In a relationship we like to have an idea what the other is thinking, what is expected of us so we know how to act. If you can’t understand at all where a gift comes from and why it was given it’s unnerving.

      And that makes a “pure” gift the most selfish one of all, because it’s about making the giver as virtuous as possible without taking the recipient’s feelings into account at all. By trying to deny a relationship is there it makes it worse because now the recipient is under pressure to be as perfect as the giver was.

  • Michael H.

    I need to write my own review of these books…

    • leahlibresco

      You really do! I’ll see you at commencement and get a preview though?

  • Christian H

    You think it’s unusual for dystopian hero/ines to become broken or warped? I’m used to them starting broken or warped and then getting worse. I know you did specify YA, and maybe that’s the difference, because I’m thinking adult books with child protagonists (say, Ender’s Game). But still, I think I’d find that refreshing, because they’d at least have been innocent once. Maybe I need recommendations from you about optimistic dystopian YA.

    I have been intending to read this series, but maybe I won’t now. I already have a reputation for being a martyr (which I dispute on the grounds that martyrs want attention or credit or some kind of political response, and I want to help people, invisibly if possible), and these books might tempt me to further acts of altruistic asceticism. Not that I’m wholely convinced that that is such a bad thing. However, if there is an arc about how one should accept help from others, then maybe I should read it. I don’t react negatively when people offer help, but I do often deny help on what feels to me like altruistic grounds; I realize afterwards that sometimes accepting help is altruistic, because other people want or even need to help. I might need to retrain that impulse, so if Rogers is right, this might be of use to me. Let us know what you think on a re-read? I’d like to know…though, depending on how the book I’m working on goes, I might beat you to it.

  • Joe

    “A true gift is not something that creates a reciprocal obligation.”
    I think this could be some help to you. There are people that I have had in my life that have made such enormous sacrifices for me that even if I regarded their gift as a debt I could never pay it back, at least not to them anyway. I think the self sacrificing gifts of others should act as an inspiration for us. It should inspire us to sort of pay it forward not always reciprocal. Even if our sacrifice doesn’t match up to the one given on our behalf we ought to try to do the same or similar others. Thats how faith or grace “WORKS” in love. I think? Also it might help to imagine what a nightmare a romantic relationship would be if both parties were constantly keeping score when it came to gifts of self sacrificing love.

  • Beth

    I have always felt that people – even fictional persons – project their own motivations and feelings onto others. That Katniss could not accept a gift without feeling a debt incurred implies to me that her attitude/belief is that that gifts should be reciprocal, not one-way. This isn’t an uncommon attitude at all and, I suspect, heavily influenced by the culture of one’s upbringing. In another fictional series, “The Game of Thrones”, one particular culture, the Dathraki (sp?), is described as regarding a trade as ‘exchanging gifts’ rather than ‘buying’ and ‘selling’ items (such as a princess). Nevertheless, a great deal of negotiation might be involved prior to the exchange taking place.

  • The Ubiquitous

    Fr. Barron’s take is pretty interesting. Invokes René Girard and everything.