Mockingjay is the last of the novels in the dystopian Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. For my money, it is the best of the bunch because, much more than the two previous novels in the series, it manages to explore the moral ambiguities that inevitably arise in the struggle against dystopia and in doing so arms the reader against certain elements and political realities of dystopias specifically. and tyranny more generally in a way that allows the novel to serve as a survivors and rebels guide through both.
The dystopian areas where the Mockingjay has something particularly relevant to say are: the cult of fear that surrounds tyranny, the meaning and psychological nature of torture as a political weapon, the nature of revenge and desire for collective punishment, the moral dangers of insurgency, and the unpredictable, uncontrollable nature of political action and the relationship of such action to responsibility.
Pretty good for a children’s book.
One aspect that the Mockingjay brings to the fore is the cult of fear that surrounds tyranny. The foundation of Panem has been the Hunger Games that instill a sense of paralysis upon the Districts. Once the spell of this fear has been broken, as it was by the open defiance of Petta and Katniss in the Game, the regime does all it can to restore the balance of terror, engaging in a genocidal campaign against the rebellious Districts, burning District 12, which both Peeta and Katniss call home, to the ground leaving only those who can escape by their own wits alive.
We learn in the novel about the sphere of murder that surrounds President Snow. It is not merely the horrors of the Hunger Games and the civil war against the Districts that constitute this sphere, but a wave of secret murders and tortures which have brought and kept him at the pinnacle of power.
As Plato in his Republic told us: There are crimes from which there is no turning back. Once a tyrant has crossed a certain level of political violence, only further violence can insure his safety, as the deep desire for justice and revenge grows in those who have felt the lash of the whip. Such violence on the part of a tyrant results thus in more and more violence. The moral vortex only silenced with the tyrant’s end.
Collins did not foresee this, but this is precisely the situation we had in Libya before the end of Gaddafi, or in Syria right now as I speak, or, God forbid, in Egypt should the current machinations of the military open a floodgate of resistance.
A second issue the Mockingjay deals with is the nature of torture. In the novel Peeta has his very soul transformed by torture. The person he loves most in the world and has sacrificed everything for, Katniss, has been transformed in the form of re-engineered memories to appear to him as monstrous. Here, we should take away something very important about the role of torture in dystopian and tyrannical regimes, and for our own foreign policy. The role of torture, as any knowledge of the Inquisition or familiarity with Orwell’s 1984 or Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange tells us is not the infliction of pain, but the possession by the state of the soul. With torture, the state aims not merely to break but to shatter and make unreconstructable the heart of the individual. The purpose of President Snow’s torture of Peeta is not merely to assert ownership over the soul of this rebel, but to shatter forever the heart of the girl, Katniss Evergreen.
The only emotional response possible by the individual under these circumstances is the desire for revenge. One can forgive perhaps almost any crime committed against oneself, but how can one forgive the murder or torture of those one loves. Revenge becomes the only emotional anchor and monomaniacal purpose for persons who have suffered thus, as the desire for personal revenge against President Snow becomes the overriding purpose of Katniss after she learns the fate of Peeta. This desire for revenge, could it remain within bounds, might otherwise go by the name of justice were it not for the very real danger that it will become transformed into something else.
The problem is that the person at whom this desire for revenge is justly targeted often remains unreachable. The real criminals are hidden safely behind the fortress of power, so the danger for the person seeking justice becomes one of targeting those who can be reached. Far too often those reachable are total innocents connected to the tyrant by weak associations such as shared ethnicity or religion. This extension of hate to the collective, when combined with the implicit weakness of insurgencies relative to those in power, results in the horrors of terrorism. This danger is represented in the Mockingjay by the character Gale who turns his trapping skills not just on the armed forces of the Capital, but its innocent citizens as well. It is also seen in the willingness of even Katniss to bring down punishment on the children of the political criminals of Panem, as a form of collective “justice”.
A last thing that the Mockingjay teaches us well is the uncontrollable and unpredictable nature of our actions and what it means for our sense of moral responsibility. Everything Katniss does seems to unleash a chain of events that result in more and more suffering, and she is tortured by this suffering. Even her very freedom seems to be used as a tool of the leader of the rebel forces, District 13 for its own political purposes. Is she just a pawn in yet another game? If Katniss has caused so much suffering what is to separate her moral status for that of a tyrant such as President Snow? Surely it is not that she has “reasons” for her actions. President Snow has his reasons as well, namely to prevent the chaos and bloodshed of another rebellion.
What distinguishes Katniss from President Snow are two things: 1) she nowhere directly tries to cause suffering- such suffering results from the responses of others to the actions she takes, and her avoidance of action because of such an eventuality would result in moral paralysis if she heeded it and not the desire to overcome the systematic suffering that characterizes Panem. And more importantly: 2) Katniss feels responsible for her actions. There is no rationalization, as is the case with President Snow, there is none of the infamous “you need to break eggs in order to make an omelette” which has served as justification of all sorts of horrors in the name of revolution and counter-revolution alike. There is no blind faith that the violence she engages in will bring forth a better world or preserve a world better than the alternative. Katniss is, thus, the very opposite of a tyrant, and her story gives us insight how to not become tyrants, or much more likely, the servants or enablers of tyrants, ourselves.