Spoiler Alert- If you are about to read this but have not yet finished reading The Hunger Games trilogy, stop. Read the books first, then come back to my post!
I read something yesterday that burrowed in my brain and gnawed at it for a while. I don't remember the site or the names (I read a lot yesterday) but someone guest blogged for someone else and listed his top ten reasons for liking or disliking The Hunger Games. All well and good- excellent art always inspires controversy- but the part that stuck with me was that this reviewer didn't seem to understand the main character, Katniss Everdeen, one little bit. I got the impression he thought her character was cold, undeveloped, mercenary, and not very likeable.
My impression was quite different. Within the first few chapters, I recognized something very important about Katniss. She is a trauma victim. Think about it. She lives in a harsh, demanding world that seeks to control and punish its inhabitants both physically and psychologically. She not only loses her father at a very young age, but sees the explosion that kills him. Her mother then has a mental breakdown, and Katniss, who is still a mere child, is left to figure out a way to provide for her self, her baby sister, and their invalid mother.
In our world, a girl experiencing these events would probably be diagnosed with PTSD, medicated, and in therapy for the rest of her life.
In Katniss' world, she can either lay down and die, thus also allowing her sister and mother to die, or she can shut off the warm, fuzzy notion that adults protect children and get down to the business of survival. She chooses the latter, which is what many, many children of today are also forced to choose. I certainly can't speak for the author's intentions, but to me, Suzanne Collins was clearly illustrating the challenges our youth today also face.
I work with adults and teens who have experienced trauma, and this was the face I recognized on Katniss. Many trauma victims shut off their ability to experience a full range of emotions, because they fear they too would collapse in upon themselves like Katniss' mother does. In order to keep putting one foot in front of the other, they begin to see the world around them, and the people in it, very differently than people who have never experienced a traumatic event.
In Katniss' world, the people you trust end up betraying you, even if they don't mean to. Her parents both do, by "leaving" her and her sister. Feelings are almost never logical; we can't help what we feel in response to situations. It takes her a very long time to even see the possibility that Peeta burns the bread on purpose in order to give it to her, yet this was something many of us recognized immediately.
She makes a vow to her sister that she will do her very best to survive the games, and she realizes that in order to do this, she cannot become friends or trust anyone else involved in the games, including Peeta. Does she use him? Absolutely. How many of us wouldn't choose to do the same in her situation? She has no reason to be loyal to him, and again, the very world she lives in eschews the idea of interdependence, trust, and friendship.
It's a futuristic world emulating the brutal and sadistic Gladiator days of ancient Rome. Kill or be killed. We are told that even Katniss' volunteering as Tribute in place of her sister is a completely foreign concept to the inhabitants of this world. When she finds herself realizing that Peeta is truly trying to help her and has feelings for her, she immediately tries to shut off this dangerous line of thinking. Dangerous, because it can't be trusted. People she trusts betray her, remember?
At one point in the story, Gale tells Peeta that Katniss will choose whichever one of them will help her survive. Initially, I had the thought that this meant she would choose Gale. He is the hunter, the schemer, the survivor. He is most like her. When she ends up with Peeta, I understand a different meaning to Gale's statement.
Ever hear the saying, "Everyone has baggage. What's important is finding someone who can help you unpack." Peeta is the balm that can heal Katniss' damaged soul. His kindness, his unswaying values, his forgiving and generous nature, and his patience are the very traits that will be what allow her to survive herself.
Katniss may not be written as the pious, self-sacrificing hero many of us are familiar with, but she is honest. Humans have ugly thoughts. We use other people to get what we need. We do what is necessary to live another day. We are products of our environment. And if we are lucky, we meet someone like Peeta who balances out our damaged side.