In Defense of Suzanne Collins’ ‘Mockingjay’

It’s been years since Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” trilogy ended. As such, it’s been a while since the final book, “Mockingjay”, was released.

If I remember correctly, upon it’s release, “Mockingjay” received a fairly mixed reception. Many hardcore fans felt nothing but hatred and disdain for the book, along with a healthy dose of anger at Collins for writing what she did. ‘She’d let them down’, they’d say. I recall people saying that the book read as though it Collins simply threw it together, simply to be done with the behemoth with had eaten her life. Many people said that Katniss was no longer a badass heroine.

My feelings differ.

Logically, I think my feelings differ because of the way I read the books. I didn’t have the same experience as most fans – I hadn’t waited on pins and needles for the book, devouring it in a dizzy, sleepless night, hoping to avoid spoilers and to satisfy my gluttonous need for more of what the author had created. That had been my experience years ago, with the Harry Potter series, and it’s something I’ve not repeated since. Instead, I began reading the books after the series was completed – I believe I read them in preparation for the release of the first film.

I honestly, genuinely love ‘Mockingjay’ and it’s favorite of the series. Yes, it is a bit messy and chaotic and honestly, those qualities make me like it more. The first two books are interesting jaunts through a post apocalyptic world and a deadly contest. The third? The third is the chaos of a war.

It is obvious, of course, that Katniss, isn’t in control – it’s also rather obvious to me that Katniss suffers from PTSD, which is entirely understandable, given the events of last two books. Katniss is a mess – she’s been through two Hunger Games, she has lost her home and she’s lost a bit of herself.

People say that Katniss is no longer dynamic in “Mockingjay”. I’m just not sure exactly what they thought they’d get. Katniss was a teenage girl who had been put through an unspeakable amount of trauma. So, yes, I understand when it’s said that she moves through much of the book as a zombie. In some respects, I think she’s earned the right to be a bit of a zombie and to sort of float through.

It’s obvious – it’s right there in the text! – and implied that Katniss is simply a symbol of the resistance. She’s a figurehead – she has no real power, other than to inspire. The rebels have taken her one act of defiance in the first Games – an act born of desperation, fear and defeat – and gave it a life of its own by using it to spark a movement.

This isn’t something Katniss, as she was written in the first book, ever wanted or asked for. She never courted the attention she’s received. Her ploy with the berries was just a way out for Peeta and herself – a way to die during the Games while remaining, unequivocally, themselves. It wasn’t meant to be anything more.

Yes, of course, Katniss wanted to show the Capital that they did not and could not own the two of them. But her act wasn’t meant to go further. Had Seneca Crane not interrupted and announced Peeta and Katniss as winners, they would have eaten the berries and died. For Katniss, that act of defiance would have died with her. It wouldn’t have mattered how the Districts saw it. Katniss wouldn’t have been alive to be part of their plans.

That they were allowed to live, is what allowed Katniss to see the fire she never intended to spark. It cannot have been that Katniss’ one act dredged up anger against the Capital; it had to have been there previously, simmering beneath the surface. What Katniss did just lit a fuse and the resistance used this to fan the flames of discontent in the Districts – without Katniss’ approval (or knowledge, at first). Eventually, she agrees to be their mockingjay, for the same reason she took her sister’s place in the Games: to save those she loved. That’s it.

Katniss’ primary motivation in the first book is the primary motivation of the final book: to save those she cares for. Yes, the circle of those she cares for grows book by book, but her motivation remains the same.

Katniss’ motivations are hers, of course, but many of her actions are not. She’s a girl caught in the midst of something so much larger and greater than herself. And she didn’t necessarily throw herself into it wholeheartedly and with abandon. She is caught.

This is probably one of the reasons I like “Mockingjay” so much – Katniss is such a mess. She’s so out of sorts. She’s used. I guess this just works for me so much more than so many other YA novels I’ve read – I like that Katniss’ reluctance never really goes away. It’s realistic to me – it’s realistic that she doesn’t just wade into a fight with little thought or regret.

It has been said that Katniss is a Mary Sue, since both Gale and Peeta have feelings for her. I don’t see her as a Mary Sue. Yes, she’s fantastic with a bow – but this makes sense. This isn’t just a hobby that she’s picked up. This isn’t something that she’s learned just for the Games. It’s a skill she learned from her father and then honed with the need to feed herself and her family in the wake of his death.

Katniss is prickly, she’s not refined. She doesn’t become a better person due to her experiences. The rebels win and hold a council, debating if they should hold one final Games with the children of the Capital. Katniss’ vote? Yes. Instead of her wanting to shield others from the horror she’s experienced, she’s ready to send more children to their deaths to make them atone for the sins of their elders. Just as she and others were sent to slaughter to atone for the sins of people long dead.

When making that decision, she thought of her experiences. She thought of the hell she’d been put through and wanted those in the Capital to feel that pain as well.

I like that Katniss was that vindictive, even in the wake of Prim’s death.

Again, I’m not sure what people wanted from the book. Katniss as a character feels like the Katniss we should have, based on who she was and what she’s been through. Katniss’ personality and actions feel natural and earned, and infinitely sensible.

I feel like perhaps people wanted a Katniss who was entirely brave, entirely “together” and with complete and total agency. I don’t think there is anything wrong with wanting that. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that sort of ending. I just don’t think it makes sense with the events and emotions we were given during in the first two books of the trilogy.

We talk about ‘strong female characters’ so very often. The problem is that people always seem to equate a ‘strong female character’ with an ‘ass kicking female character’. That’s not all it can be.

When I talk about ‘strong female characters’, I don’t mean that these characters can’t have weakness or can’t fail. I’m referring to characters who are not vaguely drawn, who does not exist simply for the pleasure or pain of a male protagonist. I’m referring to characters who have life, who have emotions and actions. I’m referring to characters whose actions can be reconciled with the events of the book which contains them. I’m referring to characters that feel real and realized.

Katniss is that, in my opinion. I find her realistic in “Mockingjay” – scared, traumatized, desperate, upset, confused and begrudging. She’s the rebels’ reluctant mockingjay; the burnished jewel in their crown.

I see nothing wrong with that. In truth, I find it rather lovely.

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