Room on the Bookshelf for Contemporary Tragedy

Ashley Chandler

I first heard about Suzanne Collins’ book, The Hunger Games, two years ago when one of my 8th grade students said to me, “You have to read this book, Ms. Chandler. You’d love it!” He was right. I did love the book, much to the confusion of some acquaintances and colleagues.

They assumed that I, a graduate of St. John’s College, a school known for its Great Books program, would read and promote only classic books.  I am well aware of the debate over classical and contemporary books, especially because I used to teach middle school Literature. As a former teacher, I know parents want their children to read A Tale of Two Cities, while their children want to read A Diary of a Wimpy Kid. (Full disclosure: I have read both.) During these debates, I found myself fighting for both sides.

As a teacher, I know that the familiar helps students understand that which is not familiar. For example, when I taught my 7th graders the qualities of an epic, I used Harry Potter to illustrate the qualities. This in turn helped them see the characteristics of an epic when we eventually read the Iliad and the Odyssey. Moreover, I found that when we read Orwell’s Animal Farm, many of my students made connections between that book and The Hunger Games, as both books have themes concerning rebellion and government.  Instead of replacing a great novel, their love for The Hunger Games helped them value and appreciate Orwell’s thoughts.

In spite of my attempts to bridge the gap, the debate continued.  The more administrators complained about sexuality and violence in contemporary literature; the more I began to wonder if they ever read Oedipus Rex or the Oresteia. And the experience raised the following questions: Do we put classics on a pedestal without examining them or seeing them for what they are? Do we brush aside contemporary books merely because they are not classics?

These questions came back to me recently, in light of the current buzz surrounding The Hunger Games movie and in light of a recent article by my colleague, Mrs. Thorne. Comparing The Hunger Games to Jane Eyre, Mrs. Thorne points out the value of classics like Jane Eyre that “deal with themes of life on earth that remain relevant through the centuries,” and references books such as Middlemarch and Candide (both written after 1758), clearly overlooking the violence in classical Greek tragedy which would not support her argument.  Perhaps she should replace with word “classic” with “Victorian.”

Objecting to the violence and role reversal of the main character, Katniss, who “doesn’t know how to be a girl,” she concludes, saying, “I didn’t improve my mind by reading it [The Hunger Games], or gain new insight into the human condition.”

The more I reflected on such objections, the more I realized that The Hunger Games reminded me of a Greek tragedy, that Katniss reminded me of Clytemnestra.  These thoughts led me to reread a work by one of my favorite philosophers, Aristotle, who defined comedy and tragedy in Poetics, which I will use to examine the characteristics of tragedy in The Hunger Games.

To begin, it must be understood that in the Hellenistic world Jane Eyre would be considered a comedy (i.e. a story in which a deserving character receives a happy ending), while The Hunger Games would be considered a tragedy. The deserving characters in The Hunger Games do not have a happy ending.  Even though the two main characters remain alive, they return to their lives filled with unrequited love, futile plans, and reluctant submission.

Aristotle continues to define tragedy, explaining, “The construction of the best tragedy should be complex rather than simple; and it should also be an imitation of events that evoke fear and pity [of an undeserving sufferer in which sufferings arise within close relationships].” He goes on to say that, “tragedy is an imitation of people better than we are.”

These characteristics of a tragic plot are clearly seen in The Hunger Games.  We pity Katniss and her family along with all of the residents of District 12. They suffer, going days without food, enduring the consequences of a rebellion that took place years before their birth, living under the control of a totalitarian government. Unlike the boys in The Lord of the Flies, the tributes are coerced.  We pity them because they don’t have a choice. We fear the thought of ever being in their shoes.  Yet, in the midst of these dire circumstances, a young woman remains steadfast. Just like Achilles, Katniss has her faults, but nonetheless, she is an imitation of a person better than me.  I only hope that I would be like her, one who would fight for a younger, weaker sibling; one who would take a death sentence in another’s place. 

Such a strong female character could take her place among those who came before her, more often seen in Grecian plays than in Victorian novels. Clytemnestra was not a governess who sat at home teaching her ward, falling in love with her employer. Rather, she fought the injustice of her daughter’s death the only way she could, by taking matters into her own hands and committing murder.  

While I do not possess an “appetite” for violence, I acknowledge the connections between violence and passion; violence and virility; violence and ambition. In The Iliad, the men of Troy and Greece alike fought for their name, for their glory. Could it be said that passion, virility, and ambition are more often seen in tragedy in opposed to comedy?  That through suffering true character is revealed?   Violence is never purposeless.  Collin’s poignant depiction of a country where violence masquerades as entertainment is supposed to disturb us, to awake us from complacency, to make us think of the consequences of apathy.

It is easy to feign discriminating taste by listing the classic books one has read and the contemporary books one has overlooked. Considering that every classic debuted as pulp fiction, I suggest reading both, examining both, and enjoying both.  Current books always point to the past, and as we compare current tragedies to past ones, we may find that they have more in common than what we assumed at first glance.

Image: Flickr otsukame

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