Longing for 'Home' in the Hunger Games

by Angeline lilesLatest Article | New Apprentices | News & Prayer

Home is where the heart is. But what else defines ‘home’? Do we recognise it by bricks and mortar, or by the relationships it embodies? The idea of ‘home’ is subtly in perpetual flux throughout The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, which recently surpassed J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series as Amazon’s most-sold series of books. Collins has successfully trodden that rare path of writing Young Adult fiction that captivates grown-ups too.

Set in a post-apocalyptic dystopian America, the first-person narrative voices the internal thoughts and extraordinary events in the life of 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen. Ruled by the totalitarian government of the Capitol, the world of Panem is split into numbered districts, distinguishable by the produce with which they supply the wealthy Capitol. The greater the distance from the Capitol, the poorer the district, and the Everdeen family inhabits the distant District 12. Katniss bluntly describes the hardships of her mining district, calling it ‘District Twelve. Where you can starve to death in safety.’ She talks of her community as ‘men and women with hunched shoulders, swollen knuckles, many of whom have long since stopped trying to scrub the coal dust out of their broken nails and the lines of their sunken faces’.

Unsurprisingly, Katniss expresses bitterness towards the Capitol for wilfully imposing these conditions of poverty and desperation. Then there’s the small issue of the Hunger Games. Held every year as punishment for an earlier uprising of the districts in a failed revolt against the Capitol, this event sees two children from each district randomly selected to battle to the death in the infamous arena. The Games are broadcast to all of Panem, and the districts watch on, anxious for their young, while the Capitol delights in placing bets on who they think will be the Victor, the sole survivor. So when Katniss’ little sister is selected, and Katniss volunteers to take her place, it’s not hard to guess that the old order of things is about to get shaken up in Panem.

The curious thing about Katniss is that she struggles towards something better than what she currently calls home, with no surety that anything better is actually possible. She knows nothing other than the deprivations of District 12, and yet she knows that because of all the wrong she sees, there must be a right. Her reaction to injustice is to long for justice, a response common to all humanity and best articulated by C.S. Lewis: ‘If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world’ (Mere Christianity). For something to be wrong, it must be able to be right, and as the trilogy progresses, Katniss comes to embody for others the ideal of this ‘right’. She aches for it and becomes a national symbol of rebellion against the wrong. Her actions and behaviour in the arena are defined by this unaccountable hope. When they are broadcast to the rest of Panem, the populace catches her vision, recognises its own desire for change and unites to stage a revolution. Unlike Christians, Katniss and the people of Panem do not have the certain promise of a redeemed and perfect home, and her role as a national symbol of hope is no substitute for a saviour.

What will the perfected ‘home’ look like? ‘“Katniss, there is no District Twelve”’, her friend Gale Hawthorn informs her at the end of book two, Catching Fire. Physical home has been destroyed by the Capitol, and she will spend the entirety of the next book, until the closing pages, displaced. ‘Home’ cannot be just bricks and mortar, then, as she continues to work towards it despite this displacement. The romance curve of the trilogy concerns Gale and Peeta Mellark, with Katniss trying to decide who is the boy for her. Peeta is something of a saviour for the Everdeens, rescuing them from starvation years before. Katniss voices a significant realisation in the first instalment: ‘the idea of actually losing Peeta hit me again and I realised how much I don’t want him to die. […] And it’s not just that I don’t want to be alone. It’s him. I do not want to lose the boy with the bread.’ This introduces another aspect to ‘home’ – it must not only be a place where justice reigns, but also where this is lived out in relationship. Although in the first book she admits: ‘if he dies, I’ll never go home, not really’, she doesn’t realise until the end of the trilogy that Peeta’s presence will define ‘home’ for her, and that without him she will not have one.

At the conclusion, 'home' is not a building, or a place, although Katniss does return to District 12 and a Victor's mansion. After all the trauma and aching, the resolution – home – is not just a transformed political system, although that is crucial, but is also a relationship. In the wish-fulfilment world of Young Adult fiction, this is where it must end. But Katniss returning 'home', back into a redeemed relationship with Peeta, is a shadow of the ultimate relationship we in our world are to be saved into. Until Christians are reunited with Jesus, they will long for home. Those who don't yet know Christ will yearn for and search after that relationship, that home, all their lives. God’s people are promised an eternal, physical presence with their Saviour, and it is that relationship which defines heaven. Heaven is not defined as a nice place to be, but by being Jesus’ dwelling place. He is where our home is.

Why has The Hunger Games trilogy, in both book and film, been so universally popular? Like many other Young Adult crossover series, it temporarily fills the void left by the loss of the grand narrative of old, which tied together our individual stories into one, larger purpose, now so unacceptable in our post-modern climate. The Hunger Games offers us a potent but fleeting satisfaction by providing a fictional narrative in which we can each participate for a brief time. The meta-narrative of our reality rightly belongs to God.

Angeline Liles was a 2011-12 Apprentice and now writes for ‘Threads’ online magazine, www.threadsuk.com whilst working for Cambridge University Library

Quotations from The Hunger Games (2008), Catching Fire (2009) and Mockingjay (2010) Scholastic Press
Angeline Liles, 26/11/2012