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Literature Needs Hope

Last week I read all 3 books in the Hunger Games series, since I had the time and my 12-year-old was going through them. Dystopian sci-fi isn’t my first pick for any of my kids, but since their friends had read the books and seen the movies, and they do watch other intense movies, I didn’t have a compelling reason to prevent them.

Though the writing is basic, the plot moved quickly and the dialogue wasn’t painful (as some sci-fi or fantasy I’ve tried), and I felt invested enough in the characters to keep going. The author had set up a complex and plausible scenario and I admired the strength of the characters as they were pushed to their limits. But ultimately, the series ended on a down note.

The rebel leader turns out to be just ruthless and oppressive in her own way as the decadent Capitol leader they are overthrowing. The main character realizes she is a pawn in the rebel scheme, in a way reminiscent of the Hunger Games, though the rebels want her alive as their symbol. Several of the characters become more ruthless and lose their humanity and morality as they are tested. By the end, Katniss seems broken, not triumphant, even though in most parts of the story she made the right choice and retained as much of her humanity as possible.

The depressing feeling after the ending, then, is not that the main characters suffered, but that Katniss just barely is able to move on with her life. I have no doubt this is the result in many cases after several years of harrowing events, and Katniss begins the story with a fair share of childhood baggage before she goes through any of that. But she’s a strong heroine with kind and loving instincts, so if she can’t work through this, who can?

Ultimately, this is my problem with much of modern literature. It’s just average or better-than-average people feeling lost as they try to do reasonable things, not able to see their own motivations, not seeing the purpose or meaning of it all. There is no moral framework, just decent gut instincts. It’s the same feeling one gets at the ending of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr - broken people living in a broken world and barely working out a life for themselves.

There’s a place for this kind of writing. Lots of us have days to months like this in our own lives. But it should be a small portion of all our stories. It’s not helpful to wallow in uncertainty and sadness. Even if this reflects the experience of many, we don’t have stories to see a statistical average all its detail; we have stories to make sense of experience.

In many cases, this involves the hero triumphing over his pain, and this is not a fantasy - people do this every day in real life. You know these people - the ones who find humor in their misfortunes, who don’t bear a grudge against the world, despite what they’ve been through. Often they have faith; always they have perspective.

Esther Perel’s description of her parents’ desire to live a full, rich life after they survived the Holocaust is just such an example. This article from the New York Times about the nature of the brain and happiness is another. The fact is, many of us will adapt, better than we think we could, to even the most challenging circumstances. People feel guilty for laughing a week they lose a friend, or a month after their spouse dies, but this is how it’s supposed to work so we can be present for the people around us.

When I was a teen, a close friend died suddenly, and after two days of school canceled for grieving and the funeral, and a few more days of letting us mope around, the headmaster stood up and told us that my friend would not want us to be sad, and we owed it to her and everyone else to get back to our normal lives. He wasn’t being callous, he was being realistic about the long term. He had buried two of his own children.

So this is my problem with the end of the series: the feeling that Katniss has hung on rather than moved on. She doesn’t want to see anyone except her husband and the children she was barely willing to have. There no mention of rebuilding the community where they live, or what she takes joy in, or any belief that overall the sacrifice of life was worth the peace and stability which has ensued. I doubt it was the author’s intention to show that war is more harrowing for women than for men, but it sure looks like that if we consider this as psychologically realistic. In the course of the 3 books, Katniss becomes unhinged and unstable in ways that the guys - from the good to the ruthless to the bad - simply don’t.

I’m glad I read it for the sake of discussing it with my daughters; sometimes the imperfect books provide the most material for conversation. I’ll end up pointing out what the story didn’t have, as much as what it did, and looking for her next read to be just as suspenseful, with a more inspiring ending.

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