Will the Real Katniss Everdeen Please Stand?: Understanding Identity in ‘The Hunger Games’ Through Locke and Sartre
The girl who was on fire, the Mockingjay, the star-crossed lover, the fierce survivor, the cold-hearted archer…which of these really defines the hero of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games? Answer: all of them, and none of them. Below the much more obvious and pressing conflict that is surviving the Hunger Games, Katniss faces a subtler fight internally. She doesn’t know who she is, and why should she? She is forced to adapt to a series of ever-changing circumstances that disrupt her ability to distinguish reality from fantasy. Analyzing her inner turmoil through dualism, Locke’s social contract theory, and Sartre’s theory of human reality, the question of what Katniss Everdeen’s identity is defined by proves to yield just as many conflicts as the Hunger Games themselves.
From an early age, Katniss is taught to put up a facade for her own protection, becoming cold and callous (Collins pg.6). At various points in the story, she claims that this guarded demeanor she adopts both is and isn’t her true self, The first instance of this is very early on, “In the woods waits the only person with whom I can be myself…Gale says I never smile except in the woods.” (Collins pg. 6). The logic of this statement is as follows: Gale is the only person with whom Katniss can “be herself”, therefore Gale is the only person who knows her true nature, which gives him a trustworthy ethos from which we can believe his statement, and assume that this smiling version of Katniss in the woods not only exists but is her truest self. Before settling on this conclusion, however, it must be taken with a metaphorical grain of salt, for — while the point about her smiling is never directly contradicted — its implication is challenged later in the story.
Gale’s statement does not differentiate whether it is the natural environment of the woods that brings this smile out of her or the sense of privacy, yet both of these present clear problems, in the context of the Games, when Katniss smiles to the cameras after leaping down from the tree above the career tributes (Collins pg.163). This is problematic for a number of reasons, first of which being that the two conditions that elicited smiles share few similarities. The environment is an artificial reconstruction of nature, which is not identical to nature itself; the presence of cameras destroy any sense of solitude that she might otherwise get from the actual woods; and finally, the fact that Katniss was allegedly pretending poses its own set of problems. If she was pretending, then the smile (which is a quality indicative only of her private self, and foreign to her public self), is false, and if she was not pretending, then the initial supposition was false.
A still bigger problem that stems from this is the fact that Katniss has an increasingly difficult time deciphering the difference between what is real and what is role-play. For a majority of the story, Katniss proves that her ability to dissociate herself from her environment is her strongest survival factor, and occupies an entirely different world within her head than within her surroundings. From a dualist perspective, this would answer the question of who Katniss is: the actor who deals with public life on a fundamentally different level than private life. (Carney pg. 136). The problem with this conclusion, however, is the assumption that she is indeed a separate entity from the character she plays in the Games. These two realities are a distinction Katniss has an increasingly difficult time drawing a line between, especially in the publicity events that occur after winning the Games. “The closer we get to District 12, the more confused I get.” There is a justification for this if it is assumed that Sartre’s claim that “the true nature of a person is revealed when put under extreme stress is true” (Sawyer 9/28). The Games are inarguably a state of extreme stress, and, in being removed from that state, Katniss is left to grapple with the difference between the person she was before the Hunger Games, and the person she is after. The story itself hints that she becomes her “true self” within the “state of nature” that the Games provide “As long as you can find yourself, you’ll never starve.” This however still faces its share of problems.
For one, the artificial reality of the Games defies the definition of a “state of nature”, at least the John Locke sense. “‘Men living according to reason, without a common superior on earth, to judge between them, is properly the state of nature.’ Many commentators have taken this as Locke’s definition, concluding that the state of nature exists wherever there is no legitimate political authority able to judge disputes and where people live according to the law of reason.” (Tuckness). The obvious problem here is that the Capitol has free reign to manipulate the environment of the arena if the show isn’t going the way they want it to, in so doing “judging disputes”, although not quite in the same sense. The other difficulty is that the “law of reason” that they follow is a corrupted imposition of society, and constrained to a specific set of rules, the most problematic of which is entertainment value.
According to Sartre, Katniss’ humoring of these entertainment values keep her in a perpetual act of “bad faith”. Throughout the Games, she plays a character that is largely indicative of the kind of person she thinks the public wants her to be, thus by extension, who she wants to be (but factually isn’t). This is Sartre would consider “bad faith”, as it denies what he calls her facticity in favor of transcendence. Conversely, outside of the Games, she doesn’t allow herself to ponder on her ability to overcome the facts that dictate her life, also “bad faith”, but in the opposite extreme, denying herself the possibility of transcendence in favor of facticity (Sawyer 9/28). Katniss denies that both of these things constitute who she is, by the sheer fact that they would seem to be at odds if they didn’t synthesize.
This synthesis is a logical conclusion to the problem, as it is here that the aspect of “identity over time” is realized. “The endurantist and her four-dimensionalist foe agree that personal identity over time is analyzed as…a relation between something that exists wholly present at one time and something that exists wholly present at another time.” (Merricks pg. 987).
By this extension, Katniss’ true identity is the common ground between these extremes of herself, but when so much of these extremes is based on pretense, where is the line definitively drawn? This is why it is easier to say from the outside that Katniss is simultaneously every aspect of her characterization and none of them than it is for her to decide on the inside who she really is. Although, if Katniss did know who she really was, the story very well couldn’t have continued into a trilogy. Perhaps this is true in reality as well. If an individual truly and definitively knows who they are, then their story is effectively at an end, and really, who wants to live like that?
Carney, James D. “The Compatibility of the Identity Theory with Dualism.” Mind ns 80.317 (1971): 136-40. Web.
Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. London: Scholastic, 2010. Print.
Merricks, Trenton. “Endurance, Psychological Continuity, and the Importance of Personal Identity.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 59.4 (1999): 983-97. Web.
Sawyer, Dane. “Sartre’s Theory of Human Reality.” Philosophy in Literature. University of La Verne, La Verne, CA. 28 Sept. 2016. Lecture.
Tuckness, Alex. “Locke’s Political Philosophy.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, 2005. Web. 02 Oct. 2016.
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