I’ve heard it bandied about that Katniss, the main character and narrator of The Hunger Games, is no heroine. In fact, some sources claim that she is an anti-heroine. This vexes me. I don’t pretend Katniss is above reproach, but I know that she’s a hero–better yet, she’s the hero for her world and people. She’s their only viable option.
“Wait, there are options?” you ask… Yep. There’s a triumvirate of viable characters just waiting to be the hero: Peeta, Gale, and Katniss.
For purists who are looking at for the “Shining White Knight” as their hero du jour, there is Peeta. He is merciful, kind, humane and always does the right thing – regardless of the consequences. Even after Peeta is captured and imprisoned, when he has an opportunity to warn the rebels (and Katniss) of an impending attack, he does so. He is beaten and tortured as a result, but despite the consequences, he took the moment to do the right thing. See that bloody pulp on the ground? There’s your classic hero.
Peeta spends the better part of the series being miserable, imprisoned, tortured, or some combination of all of those. He is even denied peace and refuge in his own mind as his thoughts and memories are hijacked and corrupted.
Another potential hero exists in Gale. He’s got all the physical traits for the hero application. Manly, strong, easy on the eye–he even loves Katniss. Clear hero potential here.
And yet…angry and violent, he not only throws himself into the rebellion, he seizes any opportunity to do as much damage as possible. It doesn’t matter to him if he’s fighting loyalists or punishing the citizens of the capital. Both Katniss and Peeta, survivors of the brutal Games, embrace mercy. Gale never even considers it.
So, we have Gale, the anti-hero, we have Peeta, the broken hero, and we have Katniss–who is somewhere in between the two. She has all the physical characteristics of a hero. She’s strong, she’s capable, and she’s deadly. She has courage in spades, but she also has something that Peeta doesn’t: She’s a survivor. And sometimes, that means she has to cross lines. From the first few pages, we understand that Katniss is a criminal–she crosses the boundary and hunts for food to save her family. By the laws of her land, this is a crime.
Once she’s chosen for the Games, she is forced to kill people in order to survive, by our laws this is a major crime. Not only that, she goes on to kill other children. To the reader, she should be anathema, but she’s not. Katniss acts with mercy. She supports the underdogs. She’s loyal, generous and honorable–when she has a debt, she repays it.
Katniss is my hero, but just to check, let’s see what the experts say:
In my literary definitions handbook:
Hero: the principal character of a play, novel etc..
There we go.I win, Katniss is the hero.
Ok ok, a little too easy, let’s look for something with a little more depth…
Hero: “In mythology, a hero is a man of godlike prowess and goodness who came to be honored as a divinity. That evolved into: a warrior-chieftain of special strength, ability and courage. […] A man of physical or moral courage, admired for bravery and noble deeds.
Ok, so godlike stuff aside: Courage? Check! Admired for noble deeds? Check! Yes! I win again…
Let’s try one more time:
Hero/Heroine: The principal sympathetic character in a literary work. Heroes and heroines typically exhibit admirable traits: idealism, courage, integrity, etc..
Katniss is screwed. Sure, she’s got courage and integrity, but she’s a teenager! She does stupid, impulsive, and aggravating stuff. Katniss can be bitter, angry and seriously violent.
Usually, her violent swings are in response to someone attacking innocents or her friends, but she still gets her murder on. Katniss does not always take the high ground and when she does, she’s usually dragged to that high ground by some obligation or debt.
So could Katniss be an Anti-Hero?
Anti-hero: “A central character in a work of literature who lacks traditional heroic qualities such as courage, physical prowess, and fortitude. Anti-heroes typically distrust conventional values and are unable to commit themselves to any ideals. They generally feel helpless in a world over which they have no control. Anti-heroes usually accept, and often celebrate, their positions as social outcasts.”
Hmmm. Katniss doesn’t quite fit this definition either. She has the courage, prowess and fortitude. She certainly distrusts conventional values (with good damn reason–killing kids is the major reality TV entertainment of her world). She is a pawn in a greater, deadly, game, used at will by President Snow and by Coin–I don’t think it’s possible for not to feel helpless.
But here’s the kicker: anti-heros are unable to commit themselves to any ideals. I’m torn here. Katniss doesn’t want to be the Mockingjay, she doesn’t really want to be part of anything–but she always ends up doing just that. She will sacrifice anything (including herself) to save her sister. She struggles to find a way to repay Peeta for a childhood kindness–despite the fact that she may have to kill him in the games.
Her honor, loyalty and mercy define her and shape all her actions. These are ideals, and she is committed to them.
And yet, when left with no choice, Katniss will survive–even if it means fighting, poaching, or killing. So therein lies the rub: If she were a real hero, surely she’d choose the “right” path, regardless of the consequences… right?
That’s crap. It might work great for Odysseus–he’s got Athena in his corner, but in the world of the Hunger Games, Katniss is the closest you can be to hero and stay alive. There are other options, but if you want a hero that survives, comes out fully functional (excuse the PTSD), and mostly admirable, Katniss is your girl.
She’s not perfect, but she’s what you’re left with.