Katniss Everdeen. She’s emotionally daft, which might be my favorite detail in the narrative. The kid – and she is so young – honestly doesn’t know what to do with her feelings or the feelings of others. She can track tiny animals through the woods while hunting, but she gets thoroughly befuddled by people feeling stuff. She has basically no clue when she’s feeling a feeling, which leaves her annoyed with all these other people and their messy feelings. Many a young character has brooded Hamlet-like in the middle of beautiful landscapes. Katniss would push Hamlet out of the way to try and kill a bunny with an arrow.
Why is Katniss a terrible student of emotions? There’s simply no time for it in her world. No time at all. Katniss is painfully aware that she walks the knife-edge of survival. Who has time to pause and feel, to read the softness in others’ eyes? All is hard edges underneath.
When pressed to decide which boy she loves or whatever, Katniss’s response is to scowl and feel embarrassed. Hell, when Peeta announces to the nation that he loves her, she reacts by shoving him into a plant. She doesn’t even articulate herself. Can’t say why she’s irritated. Can’t search the source of her own bafflement. If she had the self-awareness to apprehend and describe her feelings, an awareness that she absolutely does not have, she’d say, “I’m sorry, I was so busy fighting starvation for most of my life that I haven’t really thought about all that.”
As it is, she scowls at people and gets kinda rude and assumes they want to manipulate her. Which they do.
Katniss is accustomed to a world that does not bow to her wishes or even her basic needs. That’s the thing in dystopian worlds: the world has nothing left to give. It is neither lush nor welcoming. Katniss is habituated to a universe in which she has to fight to survive, fight to help her sister survive. She does not effortlessly dominate her surroundings or even expect that she will. In this world, tiny success is arrived at with great cost. She doesn’t have the spare energy for smiles. She wants her sister to have them. Her sister, who gets blown up. (Sorry about all that sacrifice, kid.)
The heroics of Katniss Everdeen, in other words, are startling in their realism. It is quite clear, after all, that we are not in control of most of our own lives. We aren’t. It can seem that way, yes, absolutely. I am fully able to make a whole lot of fun little decisions about the various details of the day. But that has a way of concealing just how elusive most of my freedom is, and it conflates deciding something with freely willing something. “Not every act is free,” says Bernard Lonergan. It may seem obvious, what he says, but the phrase closes a long reflection over whether we’re free at all. Because, mostly, we are not.
I’d scowl at that. I’d scowl the hell out of that. I do scowl at that.
It is notable that Katniss is a young woman. In a strange way – whether or not the author intended this – Katniss Everdeen struggles under the weight of grim vulnerability rather than overcoming obstacles with some titanic inner strength. Whether this kind of shuddering danger – also supremely real in all of us in this world – would be acceptable in a man is an open question. What would we think as an audience? Could we tolerate a young man shivering in a dark closet, terrified of the ghosts in his head? Maybe. In a woman, we consent to the image all too easily. I cannot help but think of that.
Katniss is made a national celebrity and the symbol of an entire rebellion. (No pressure, you emotionally stunted, already-traumatized teenager, you.) She accepts the role of “Mockingjay” to encourage the rebels, to try to do something good, and, mostly, to rescue the boy she’s survived horrible things with. She’s dragged this way and that at the behest of higher powers with unspoken plans. The boy is left to suffer, and when he returns he is not himself. Very, very not.
Sometimes good intentions don’t matter.
Katniss, as a symbol, is negotiated like a symbol. Those with power seek to exert their wills through her. Or they straight-up try to execute her. Either way, becoming a symbol diminishes Katniss’s self-possession in part because it externalizes her identity, which makes her negotiable. An object on a chessboard to be assessed and moved.
This is what being made into a symbol does to a human being. At least in the sense of the word as I use it now. Sometimes we say “stereotype” to mean something like it: the person serves a principle or presumption rather than as a self. It is more than mere stereotyping, this negotiating of someone else’s identity through symbols. It is a willing over someone else, a willing in someone else, despite and without that someone else. But first they can’t be someone else. Not if this is going to work. They’ve got to be emptied out into some image or symbol first. Then they are robbed of themselves.
Katniss is robbed of herself in more than one way. Each is a haunting thematic gesture toward the ways we might be killed with symbols: violence (you are not a person but a thing), expectations (you are what I want you to be), love (your desire is mine and not your own). Expectations and love – I will leave violence aside – can be wonderful and good. But they can be flattened into a knife that threatens another into acquiescence. Pressed down into a flat image, a narrowed understanding, a stiff notion.
To do something like that is profoundly different than, say, seeing the significance of a person who shares our humanity or seeing a human being as a sacramental image of God. Those latter kinds of symbols do not view another human being as a vessel for someone else’s power, and they do not understand symbols as separated from the thing symbolized. In other words: if someone is dignified because they are an image of God, that dignity is theirs and it is nonnegotiable. Katniss is important because she’s Katniss.
But these are things that her world, and ours, struggle to grasp. Refuse to grasp.
It does not end well for Katniss Everdeen. At the age of eighteen, she’s been exiled to her home district and declared insane. She’s got burn scars all over her body, severe PTSD, and the sister she gave everything for is dead. Most of her friends are dead, and almost everyone from her hometown is dead. Katniss Everdeen is a broken wreck. And that’s exactly why we should pay attention to her.
No giant success offers her back to herself. No triumph. No inner enlightenment, or outward praise, or miraculous event. Somewhere in the quiet of her exile with that boy who is not himself, she grows. With him. The most interesting part of the story is left a mystery. Somehow that small space of existence lets her find the someone that she is. Someone who can feel and choose and rest. Someone who can be with someone else.
In a dystopian world rather unreal, Katniss Everdeen is strangely – powerfully – realistic.