How Monsters Shape Identity: An Analysis of Mutts in The Hunger Games

By Cassandra Grosh

Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games is a coming-of-age novel with a twist: horrific, murderous monsters. These monsters are man-made mutations, called “muttations” or “mutts,” that serve as another means by which the characters die or kill each other. The mutts cause pain and suffering to the characters, but they also serve as a way for the characters to inflict the same pain and suffering on others. When the mutts are used for personal gain, the characters must face the murders they have just committed and accept responsibility in another person’s death. This new responsibility forces the characters to question their identities. While the mutts of The Hunger Games are monstrous beings designed to inflict pain and torture, the characters, through contrast with the mutts, learn to accept their responsibility within the Hunger Games and define their own identities in accordance with this new sense of responsibility.

The Hunger Games follows Katniss Everdeen, a sixteen-year-old girl living within the fictional country of Panem. She volunteers to enter the Hunger Games, an annual event where one male and one female between the ages of twelve and eighteen from each of Panem’s twelve districts must be randomly chosen and placed in an arena where they will fight to the death. Katniss volunteers to enter the games not out of a death wish or desire to prove herself but in order to save her younger sister from being sacrificed to the games. Her sacrifice shows her priority, her sister, but it also jeopardizes everything else she knows and believes. No longer can she be a rebellious girl from District 12 who looks down on the cruel and selfish behavior of the Capital; she now must be a strong warrior to avoid unnecessary attention from the Capital and return home to further protect her sister. In order to do that, she must participate in a barbaric ritual and overcome murderous mutts.

Tracker jackers are the most prominent mutated creatures within The Hunger Games. Tracker jackers were created to kill so that the moral conscience of man could remain clean. These creatures are killer wasp hybrids that inject poisonous venom into the victim. The poison causes delusions and, as is often the case, death. Tracker jacker stings act as a physical shock to a person’s system that can physically and mentally cripple the victim. The injection site “raises a lump the size of a plum,” and the venom drives “people to madness” (Collins 185).

These killing monsters were originally utilized by the Capital to enforce compliance and passivity. Capital-employed law enforcement officers, or Peacekeepers, as they are ironically called, never have to literally spill blood through the use of tracker jackers. In District 12, Katniss’s home, tracker jackers live along the outside of the district’s border (Collins 186). This location forces the residents to stay inside the border or risk death. Keeping tracker jackers at the border also facilitates control of the citizens. Peacekeepers do not have to keep track of individuals because very few have a death wish, and, if these people do die while escaping, the death is not the fault of the Peacekeeper.

Tracker jackers are the first murderous creatures Katniss encounters within the games. Cleverly, she uses them to her advantage, but she does not foresee the guilt and identity crisis that follows association with these monsters. When cornered in a tree, Katniss cuts a tracker jacker nest from a limb in an attempt to kill and distract her enemies, so she could escape. In this attempt, Katniss herself is stung three times and enters a delusional state (Collins 190). Within this state, she sees a young, dying girl, Glimmer, with “limbs three times their normal size,” a “putrid green liquid” around the girl’s wounds, and flesh that disintegrates to the touch (Collins 192). These visions act as a moral punishment to Katniss. It is directly her fault Glimmer has died, and the visions are punishing Katniss by showing the dying girl undergoing unimaginable suffering. Katniss is clearly overwhelmed by becoming a murderer within the arena of the Hunger Games, and her weakened psychological state manifests her guilt. This guilt makes a clear statement about Katniss’s identity: she is not a monstrous murderer but simply someone seeking to stay alive.

The final, and potentially the most gruesome, mutt encountered in the novel is not given a name. Referred to solely as “mutts,” these creatures “resemble huge wolves” and balance “easily on . . . hind legs” (Collins 331). For clarification purposes, this species of mutt will be referred to as wolf-like mutts. Upon closer examination, these wolf-like mutts have “razor-sharp” four-inch claws that are used in an attempt to rip the remaining three tributes limb-from-limb (Collins 332). However, the menacing nature of these wolf-like mutts is not the most horrifying part. Katniss’s shock over the physical characteristics of the wolf-like mutts provides readers with a chilling physical description, and a twist no one saw coming:

I realize what else unsettled me about the mutts. The green eyes glowering at me are unlike any dog or wolf, any canine I’ve ever seen. They are unmistakably human. And that revelation has barely registered when I notice the collar with the number 1 inlaid with jewels and the whole horrible thing hits me. The blonde hair, the green eyes, the number . . . it’s Glimmer. (Collins 333)

These wolf-like mutts are not just murderous creatures created to kill those remaining but horrific monsters that resemble the now-dead tributes. The wolf-like mutts act as a physical representation of how the remaining tributes have themselves become murderous monsters throughout the course of the game.

Much like the delusions brought on by the tracker jackers, the wolf-like mutts act as a physical manifestation of guilt. The difference is that these wolf-like mutts are created by the Capital to remind the remaining tributes of their murderous deeds, while the tracker jackers simply allow for Katniss’s psyche to wreak havoc. These wolf-like mutts also act as a visual challenge. Katniss must keep her eyes on them to avoid their deadly grasps, but she also wishes to avoid gazing at a physical manifestation of those now deceased; the wolf-like mutts act “at once [as] the to-be-looked-at and not-to-be-looked-at” (Thomson 57). For a whole night, Katniss opts not to look at the wolf-like mutts as they shred the still-living body of a rival tribute. She claims, “the real nightmare is listening to Cato, moaning, begging, and finally just whimpering as the mutts work away at him” (Collins 339). Those in charge of the Hunger Games are trying to force Katniss’s hand: will she kill the mutilated tribute or attempt to deny the killer that the games have made her?

It is as the sun rises on a new day that Katniss comes to terms with her identity within the Hunger Games: she is a killer. Katniss’s final kill within the games is a mercy kill as she ends the suffering of her once rival, the boy the wolf-like mutts have spent all night torturing (Collins 341). The wolf-like mutts might have been created to act as a physical reminder of everything Katniss does not wish to be, but, as the game draws to a close, these monsters act as a physical reminder of what Katniss still is: human. Despite the Capital’s attempts to destroy any shred of humanity within the tributes, Katniss is able to maintain her humanity and spare another human unnecessary suffering.

Monsters are typically considered creatures that thrive on fear and power and exist to torture and inflict pain. A similarity between the actions of monsters can be found in those who rule in the Capital of Panem. In order to manipulate and maintain their power, rulers within the Capital create mutts to punish and inflict pain upon the enemies of the Capital. These mutts find their homes in the Hunger Games as murderous creatures, but the mutts also cause an identity crisis for those left in their wake. When defining oneself in contrast to a monster, be that monster a mutt or the rulers of the Capital, the benevolence associated with humanity becomes a powerful part of one’s identity.

 

 

Works Cited

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. Scholastic Press, 2008.

Thomson, Rosemarie Garland. “The Politics of Staring: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography.” Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities, edited by Snyder, L. Sharon, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, and Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Modern Language Association, 2002, pp. 56-75.

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