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.

From the Districts to the Arena: The Exploration of Slavery, Natal Alienation, and Deracination in The Hunger Games

By: Bryce Longenberger

Many scholars have discussed Suzanne Collins’ book, The Hunger Games (2008), by using contexts that concern the overthrowing of authoritarian governments, social and economic inequalities, and the ultimate form of love. In addition, I believe this novel also parallels the degradation and depravity of slavery in our own world.

Orlando Patterson has conducted extensive research on the subject of slavery in his book Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (1982). For this blog post, I will focus on  Patterson’s discussion of “natal alienation” and “deracination,” two of the major facets of institutional slavery that he identifies. Patterson describes natal alienation as the “alienation of the slave from all formal, legally enforceable ties of ‘blood’” and from all “‘rights’ or claims of birth” (7, 5). What natal alienation entails is the fact that a slave’s social connection and relationship to the people of his birth and heritage is not constituted as legally binding in the eyes of the law. A parent and child may still have a relationship, but that relationship holds no legal standing or rights. Because of this, Patterson notes, “the master [has] the power to remove a slave from the local community in which he or she was brought up” (6). Patterson labels this action as “deracination,” or the loss of native status for any person by being physically removed from their home. In this way, natal alienation provides the threat of separation, and deracination fulfills that threat in the physical uprooting of slaves from their homes. But even though not all slaves are deracinated, Patterson states that the fact that separation is possible was enough to “strike fear in the hearts of all slaves and to transform significantly the way they behaved” (6).

In The Hunger Games, the annual reaping enforces the natal alienation and enslavement of all of the citizens in the districts of Panem while also providing the threat of deracination. At any moment, a child’s name can be called at the reaping. The citizens’ relationships with their children are not legally enforceable because the threat of separation is always present in the reaping itself. And since every citizen is natally alienated, it is at the very moment in the reaping when the child’s name is called when the threat of separation is finally fulfilled and the child, now a tribute, is uprooted from his home and taken to the Capitol. Coupled together, the natal alienation of the citizens and the constant threat of deracination subjects the citizens of the districts to a constant state of terror and fear.

In describing the slave’s natal alienation, however, Patterson identifies several “ritual aspects” that accompany it, and two of these social rituals are present in the novel. The first ritual that Patterson outlines is the rejection of a slave’s own past (52). This ritual occurs in the novel in the hour the tributes are given before they leave for the Capitol, which is the “time allotted for the tributes to say goodbye to their loved ones” (Collins 34). In that hour, the tributes are forced by the Capitol to part with their pasts and renounce their families. After they say goodbye, they are then deracinated and physically uprooted from their home districts and forced to ride a train to the Capitol where they will eventually be imprisoned.

Along the way, though, they are forced to endure many symbolic rituals of natal alienation. On the train, the tributes are given “[their] own chambers that have a bedroom, a dressing area, and a private bathroom with hot and cold water.” The life of luxury that the tributes will live in until they enter the arena greatly contrasts with their meager standards of living in their districts, where they “didn’t have hot water at home” unless they boiled it (Collins 42). Not only are their living arrangements extravagant, but they also gorge themselves on rich and elegant food, more than they’ve ever been able to eat before in one sitting (Collins 44). This life of luxury mimics Patterson’s idea of quasi-filial fictive kin relationships between masters and slaves in that the tributes most likely start to believe that they are somehow part of the Capitol’s inner group. They will eventually have to enter the arena, though, and so this form of “luxury” turns out to be a form of manipulation and control instead. But even though they are forced to live under such luxury, the fact that this new life severely contrasts with their life in their districts further alienates them by incorporating them into their new roles as tributes of the Capitol and erasing their ties to their natal origins.

If we think of deracination as a process, the fulfillment of this process concludes when the tributes enter the arena. This occurs in the novel in the form of Patterson’s last ritual of natal alienation: the slave’s assumption of a new role in the master’s household (52). At the very moment the tributes enter the Hunger Games, they are no longer innocent boys and girls who are citizens of their districts. Instead, they are forced to live in a new home, the arena, where they will become weaponized pawns of the Capitol as they are forced to kill one another and serve as reparations for the districts’ rebellion and disobedience. In this way, the interlocking control of natal alienation and deracination of the tributes seals their fate as sacrificial slaves.

In Panem, however, we must remember that the reaping is used to ultimately terrorize the citizens of the districts, who are in every way working slaves, and to simultaneously create a group of gladiator-style slaves who are used not only to fuel the terror being unleashed upon the citizens but also as a distraction from the corrupt nature of the Capitol. In this way, we can see that analyzing The Hunger Games through Patterson’s framework uncovers the interlocking and interchanging forms of oppression and slavery within the very nation of Panem itself.

Sources

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic, 2008. Print.

Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1982. Print.