Beware of [YA Dystopias] Bearing Gifts?

Beware of [YA Dystopias] Bearing Gifts? April 29, 2012

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.

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