A Jungian Interpretation of The Hunger Games: A Myth that Defines our Times
My son Frazer Merritt, with input from Kevin Lu of Essex University, added to my article on this blog on April 17, 2012 titled "Hunger Games from a Jungian, Political, and Environmental Perspective". I included a new section on Trump as an archetypal Trickster figure. Scroll down till you run into the text of the article.
This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Jung Journal, 12:3, 26-44, on 10 Aug 2018.
Available online: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19342039.2018.1478558
Illustration by Debora Nicosia. Jung Journal: Culture & Psyche, Volume 12, Number 3, pp. 26-44, PrintISSN1934-2039, Online ISSN 1934-2047. © 2018 C.G. Jung Institute of San Francisco. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/19342039.2018.1478558. A Jungian Interpretation of The Hunger Games
A Myth that Defines Our Times
FRAZER MERRITT, DENNIS MERRITT, AND KEVIN LU
Since the first novel’s publication in 2008, The Hunger Games trilogy has skyrocketed in popularity to sell over 70 million copies in the United States, or one book for every five Americans (Scholastic.com, News Room). It has been translated into fifty-three languages, spent over five consecutive years on The New York Times bestseller list, and has even outsold the seven-part Harry Potter series on Amazon to make it one of the best-selling novels in history (Doll 2012; Rogers 2012; Scholastic.com, News Room). Equally impressive, the first film garnered approximately 700 million dollars; Catching Fire is ranked as one of the top fifty highest-grossing films of all time; and the four films combined have earned 3 billion dollars (Scholastic.com, News Room; The Numbers.com). With such phenomenal success, it is little surprise that in 2010 author Suzanne Collins was featured in Time magazine’s top 100 list of “the world’s most influential people” (Scholastic.com, News Room).
Clearly, Collins’s imaginative powers have touched a cultural nerve, striking something deep within us, beyond logic, beyond rationale. But what accounts for her stories’ astonishing popularity? More importantly, what does it say about us, our culture and society, and the zeitgeist of our time? C.G. Jung’s literary theories and mythological perspectives provide a trenchant insight into the stories’ underlying archetypal dynamics and help to elucidate the trilogy’s appeal. This essay examines the first Hunger Games book and film, focusing on the dichotomy of President Snow as a senex figure (also known as an Old King) versus Katniss, who represents a hero aligned with the archetypal Self. As an aged king without a queen, Snow’s reign has petrified and is in need of renewal and invigoration by new feminine unconscious energies, or eros. This more classically oriented Jungian perspective is complemented by a post-Jungian approach, as we explore the extent to which The Hunger Games is both a product of, and reflection on, the cultural moment of its creation. Although our analysis aims to highlight the potential insights of a classical approach, it also seeks to move beyond the temptation of simply aligning characters to archetypal figures. It is our contention that the efficacy of a Jungian and post-Jungian approach lies in a more holistic perspective that includes archetypal amplification without losing sight of the extent to which cultural products are shaped by their contingent context. We believe this to be a major contribution of analytical psychology: it aims to speak to both the general and particular aspects of human experience.
The tension between senex and Self is, we argue, central to the narrative and may provide a psychological interpretation for the series’ popularity. Mythic motifs, which according to Jung are expressions of archetypal imperatives, may compensate for the one-sided dominant attitude of an era (Jung 1922/1978, CW 15, ¶¶129-31). We suggest that The Hunger Games speaks not only to the present-day risk of further collapse of cultural and societal principles, but also to the continued conglomeration of power in the form of big corporations and intrusive government. The story, from a Jungian perspective, is a deep critique of us and where we are right now, serving as a clarion call to take action against the entrenched powers of the status quo.
The paper begins by outlining Jung’s thoughts on the role of the artist in society and his distinction between psychological and visionary art. We suggest that in writing The Hunger Games, Collins reflects the function of the artist Jung had in mind. We further contend that although the trilogy and subsequent films are products of popular culture that may be classified as psychological art, the story’s archetypal themes and social significance bring it closer to visionary art. To support this contention, we critically assess President Snow’s role as the senex and Katniss as the hero redressing the repressed feminine in Panem’s society. We then situate the text in the context of its creation, mainly, the George W. Bush presidency. We argue that the psychological themes of The Hunger Games provide a platform through which a poignant commentary and critique of society is made, pointing to a possible unconscious position that underlies the deep dissatisfaction and unease with the Bush administration.
Why Pop Culture?
One may question how a pop-culture story – which some Jungian thinkers would classify as psychological rather than visionary art – could contain deep psychological truths about ourselves and our current era. A pop-psychological analysis of The Hunger Games leads to superficial observations, such as “Katniss volunteers to replace her younger sister Primrose [because] it pays to self-sacrifice for siblings, especially if the benefits for them exceed the costs you make” and “Katniss forms an alliance with Rue [because] the ‘You-Scratch-My-Back-I-Scratch-Yours’ rule works better than fending for yourself” (Vugt 2012)! Such interpretations, insightful in their own way, fail to look beyond literal interpretations expressing commonsense truisms. Avoiding reductionism, a depth psychological interpretation of art applies psychological scrutiny without violating its innermost essence (Jung 1922/1978, CW 15, ¶99). It takes seriously the influence of a deep and dynamic unconscious that operates beyond conscious intention. A critical analysis of pop-cultural products is not anathema to a psychological lens that has always, since its inception, been concerned with society and culture (Kittelson 1998; Lu 2013). Jung puts it succinctly: “All conscious psychic processes may well be causally explicable; but the creative act, being rooted in the immensity of the unconscious, will forever elude our attempts at understanding” (Jung 1950/1978, CW 15, ¶135). Freed from the shackles of positivistic interpretations, an analytical psychological interpretation allows for art to be examined on a deeper and broader level.
Jung’s Understanding of Art and the Role of the Artist
Whereas Freudians may argue that Suzanne Collins is refashioning a sublimated sexual Oedipal wish into The Hunger Games, a Jungian might view Collins’s writing as a vehicle for the expression of a collective creative power stemming from the collective unconscious (Jung 1922/1978, CW 15, ¶125). Jung believed “the meaning and individual quality of a work of art inhere within it and not in its extrinsic determinants” (¶108). In other words, the creative process is a completely autonomous complex, like “a living thing implanted in the psyche” and “a force of nature” (¶115). Jung writes, “A work of art is not a human being, but is something supra-personal” (¶107, emphasis added).
Jung posits that it is a mistake to analyze literature solely on the basis of the artist’s biography and personal psychology – even though this does, of course, inform many aspects of his or her writing. Literature is the product of complicated psychic activities – seemingly intentional and consciously shaped – yet only inferences may be drawn about the artist from his or her art, and vice versa (Jung 1950/1978, CW 15, ¶134). Deeper wellsprings must be explored from which dreams, fantasies, the imagination, and myths bubble up: the collective unconscious, the realm inhabited by archetypes. From a Jungian perspective, one of the first questions to ask when examining a story is, “What primordial archetype lies behind this artwork’s imagery?” (Jung 1922/1978, CW 15, ¶124).
Psychological vs. Visionary Art
There are, according to Jung, two broad psychological divisions in literature: psychological (aka personalistic) and visionary (aka archetypal). The former consists of
Materials drawn from man’s conscious life – with crucial experiences, powerful emotions, suffering, passion, the stuff of human fate in general. . . . The raw material of this kind of creation is derived from man’s consciousness, from his eternally repeated joys and sorrows, but clarified and transfigured by the poet. (Jung 1950/1978, CW 15, ¶139)
Generally, this type of literature is concerned with tales of love, family life, crime, and society, which includes didactic poetry, a majority of song lyrics, and some comedic and tragic dramas (¶140). Although psychological literature is informed by archetypes and archetypal life situations, the work is self-explanatory, clearly understandable, and no effort is required by the psychoanalyst (hence, why Jung also called this psychological art – that is, the “psychology” has been consciously shaped by the author, with little to no participation required of the reader) (¶¶139-40). Visionary literature is far trickier and ripe for a deeper interpretation. Jung cites Melville’s Moby-Dick and the second part of Goethe’s Faust as prime examples (¶¶137-38). Such literature is heavily symbolic, and it is difficult to derive its deeper meaning, much as with nightmares, big dreams, and visionary fantasies. Jung remarks:
[Visionary literature] is a primordial experience which surpasses man’s understanding. . . . The very enormity of the experience gives it its value and its shattering impact. Sublime, pregnant with meaning, yet chilling with its strangeness, it arises from timeless depths [and] bursts asunder our human standards of value and aesthetic form, a terrifying tangle of eternal chaos. (¶141)
Visionary art evokes or speaks to that which is unconscious in the reader. It touches, in a compensatory manner, what consciousness has yet to realize and what society may be unprepared to face.
The Hunger Games as Visionary Art?
Arguably, The Hunger Games fits into the visionary category. First, the story’s archetypal and mythological nature may resonate with readers at the individual level, paralleling and amplifying motifs experienced in both conscious life and unconscious fantasy. Second, the more nuanced, post-Jungian approach we advance here examines the story’s societal, political, national, and cultural implications, that is, the psyche of the collective society. Accordingly, such an analysis may reveal what a society as a whole may be unwilling to acknowledge. Third, Jung notes that “literary products of highly dubious merit are often of the greatest interest to the psychologist” (Jung 1950/1978, CW 15, ¶136). Because Jungian literary criticism may focus on novels with “dubious merit” – such as The Hunger Games – Jung writes, “The public for the most part repudiates this kind of literature, unless it is crudely sensational, and even then the literary critic finds it embarrassing” (¶143). But Jung defends this embarrassment by explaining that literature touching the archetypal realm offers the richest opportunity for psychological elucidation, an elucidation that may guide us and our society to seeing what lies in the unconscious:
Whoever speaks in primordial images speaks with a thousand voices; he enthralls and overpowers. . . . He transmutes our personal destiny into the destiny of mankind and evokes in us all those beneficent forces that ever and anon have enabled humanity to find a refuge from every peril and to outlive the longest night. That is the secret of great art. (¶¶129-30)
Contentious as this may sound, The Hunger Games – at least from a Jungian perspective – may fit the criteria for being considered “great art” and explain why millions around the planet, particularly in the West, have become feverishly enthralled by this dystopian nightmare in which teenagers fight to the death.1 The story’s plot lacks the beautiful complexities of literary masterpieces; moreover, it fails to provide – at least on the surface – psychological depth and a trenchant examination of society. Collins’s writing style is simplistic and at worst ham-handed. The characters are two-dimensional and more memorable for the situations they encounter rather than the strength of their personalities and conversational prowess. Granted, Collins is a magician of suspense; she illustrates tense action sequences with ease, and her imaginary world continuously seduces one’s curiosity. The movie, too, is enjoyable to watch, but not exactly Oscar material (Ross 2012). The Hunger Games is, then, your clichéd “page-turner” and “popcorn thriller,” but what separates it from the thousands of others in the genre?
The futuristic premise of The Hunger Games is, quite frankly, bizarre: in the ruins of what was once North America, ravaged by civil war and climate change, a new nation has emerged called Panem that consists of the Capitol and twelve outlying districts. The war was lost by the districts seventy-four years prior, and as punishment they are enslaved on their impoverished lands and must harvest their resources for the Capitol, a high-tech utopian city of wealth and opulence. In an annual ritual known as the Reaping, the twelve districts must send an adolescent male and female, known as Tributes (sacrifices), to participate in the Hunger Games, a reality TV show in which the children fight to the death. Whoever survives this Roman gladiator-style thunderdome, filled with mutated beasts and traps that are controlled by the Gamemakers for audience appeal and higher ratings, is crowned Victor. Fame, money, and adoration are showered on the Victor by the Capitol’s citizenry – garishly flamboyant, superficial, uncompassionate, and always eager for next year’s bloody spectacle.
President Snow as Senex
Controlling all aspects of Panem’s political and economic scene is the totalitarian dictator, President Snow, yet his power is showing signs of strain in a decadent society. Much like in a fairytale or myth, Snow represents the archetype of the king who, according to Jung, “represents a dominant of consciousness, such as a generally accepted principle of a collective conviction or a traditional view” (Jung 1955-56/1970, CW 14, ¶424). The king is the embodiment of a society’s attitudes and behaviors, the arbiter of values who underpins and directs the political system. More than being a mere symbol, however, Jung details how the power of kings throughout history strongly depended on sacred theological assumptions. In Egypt, for example, “Pharaoh was an incarnation of God and a son of God. In him dwelt the divine life-force and procreative power, the ka: God reproduced himself in a human mother of God and was born from her as a God-man” (¶350). Regarding kingship in the Near East,
the psyche of the whole nation was the true and ultimate basis of kingship: it was self-evident that the king was the magical source of welfare and prosperity for the entire organic community of man, animal and plant; from him flowed the life and prosperity of his subjects, the increase of the herds, and the fertility of the land. (¶348)
“Primitive” societies believed the king or the chief of the tribe had magical qualities, mana, and they might die if they looked into the chief’s face (von Franz 1996, 51). When a king became sick, weak, or impotent, a younger king had to replace the old king and “re-embody” the king energy so the archetype could be “renewed in the lives of the people of the realm” (Moore and Gillette 1990, Kindle Location 725, hereafter “Loc.”). Kings essentially are, as Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette argue, mere mortals who are vessels of collective psychic energy; they are the “human vehicle for bringing this ordering and generative archetype into the world and into the lives of human beings” (Loc. 835-42). The fact that the concept of a sacred king in monarchies worked worldwide for thousands of years suggests that this king energy is a projection of a basic construct of humanity’s psyche.
The king is a symbol of the archetypal Self: the self-regulating, centering force of the psyche, the totality of consciousness and unconsciousness. Since the Self symbolizes psychic wholeness and is the goal for the process of individuation, how could it age and become an old king? Von Franz lucidly explains Jung’s position that over time religious ritual and dogma
lose [their] original emotional impact and become a dead formula. Although it also acquires the positive qualities of consciousness, such as continuity, it loses the irrational contact with the flow of life and tends to become mechanical. This is true not only of religious doctrines and political systems but for everything else as well, because when something has long been conscious. . . . It becomes a dead world. (von Franz 1996, 53, emphasis added)
Von Franz adds that resisting challenges to its dominant attitude “is typical behavior of the old king, and it can be stiffened into mistrust and real tragedy” (66). All systems and ruling ideas age, and what may be good for one epoch and generation may be terrible for the next. This includes President Snow, the aging senex of Panem.
One could surmise that when the Capitol rose to power after the Rebellion, strong centralized power was needed for that particular moment to reduce fear and chaos, but, over time, the system petrified. Collins does not provide an in-depth historical account, but this scenario is plausible given the current state of Panem and the real-life conditions in which strong centralized governments have thrived. Panem’s rulers may have never transitioned away from their military mindset during the civil war and were unable to relinquish their newfound power and return to America’s former democratic ideals. Accordingly, Panem was divorced from the will of its freedom-loving people, the revitalizing aspect of any functioning nation, and President Snow (like his namesake suggests, symbolizing that which is “cold” and “frozen”) has come to symbolize “a moribund system of spiritual and worldly order” (von Franz 1996, 152).
The aged President Snow is a faded image of the Self in need of replacement: “With increasing one-sidedness the power of the king decays, for originally it had consisted just in his ability to unite the polarity of all existence in a symbol” (Jung 1955-56/1970, CW 14, ¶471). Because kings are archetypal images of the Self, “being the dominant and most central symbol in the contents of the collective unconscious,” they are in special need of revitalization through contact with, and an understanding of, the contents and processes in the collective unconscious (von Franz 1996, 53-54).
The Missing Feminine
Another telltale sign of decline is the lack of the feminine, the absence of a queen. Neither the book nor the film adaptation mentions Snow being married. (However, Snow’s granddaughter is mentioned in Mockingjay, and she is briefly shown in the second film.) This motif of a king without a queen or children is not uncommon in myths and fairy tales (von Franz 1996, 50-51).
The queen in fairy tales and myths is important because, while the king represents the dominant logos content of the collective’s conscious position, the queen is his accompanying feminine counterpart – the emotions, feelings, and “irrational” elements of human nature so crucial to a “holistic” experience of life. She also signifies “a certain habit or style of life, a feeling style, and that Eros style in society influences how people relate to one another” (54). She is, put summarily, the feeling tone of the culture and society. A culture lacking a symbolic queen is sterile and without creativity because the eros principle – signifying relatedness to the feminine and the unconscious – has been lost. The Hunger Games poignantly expresses the problem of a dominant collective attitude that has become petrified, empty, and stiffened into rigid defensive positions because eros is absent (55).
In The Hunger Games film, when the Reaping begins, the town square is revamped for the TV audience: banners, large monitors, and a stage for the name drawing. The host, Effie Trinket (“trivial,” “insignificant”) appears in a garish purple dress, high-heeled shoes, and a face plastered with lurid makeup. She announces with glee, “Welcome, welcome, Happy Hunger Games! And may the odds be ever in your favor” (Ross 2012). For her, the Reaping and the Games are a joyous affair, an annual event that gives her television exposure to indulge in her narcissistic gluttony. She is a primary feminine figure – a sad symbol, indeed. Later, when the Capitol is explored, the full absurdity of its citizenry is displayed: they are all dressed like Effie Trinket, men and women alike, ridiculous in appearance, jubilant to meet the victims they are sending to slaughter. Trinket, then, is the feeling-tone embodiment of the collective mindset and the zeitgeist of the Capitol as power center: shallow, superficial, oblivious to the suffering of others, self-absorbed to a neurotic degree.
The Capitol is a city of gleaming skyscrapers, impressive architecture, and technological marvels, providing a life of leisure and ease for its citizens. Advanced science was used to create bioengineered beasts, force fields, hovercrafts, holographic windows, and so on, which are signs of a highly developed logos (logic, rationale, and ordered attitudes). This, in combination with the citizens’ superficial mindset and their militaristic society, shows a whole civilization that has lost contact with eros and is in need of redemption via “the dark, fertile loam of unconscious, archetypal processes of transformation” (von Franz 1996, 165). Von Franz suggests that in this type of story, “the general structure seems to point to a problem in which there is a dominating male attitude, a situation which lacks the feminine element, and the story tells us how the missing feminine is brought up and restored” (51).
Katniss as the Redemptive Feminine
The protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, is the missing feminine eros that is hidden among the “dirt” of one of the districts – the alchemist’s gold in the dung. Similar to the role of Sophia in Answer to Job, she embodies the instinctive impulse to restore the feeling connection with the depths of the unconscious and nature that is sorely missing in society (Jung 1952/1969, CW 11, ¶¶620-23). She represents a symbol of the Self that may bring greater balance between the dark and light aspects of the psyche (von Franz 1996, 165). Her name hints at the vital role she plays: “Katniss” sounds like “cat,” an animal associated with the archetypal feminine, sensuality, sleekness, and cunning (de Vries 1976). The book reveals that her father named her after the aquatic plant known as Arrowhead; probably without coincidence, her weapon of choice is the bow and arrow. The Arrowhead’s tubers can be boiled or baked to taste like a potato, thereby suggesting a strong connection with the earth and indicating a further connection to the feminine principle (Collins 2008, Loc. 550). “Everdeen,” her last name, sounds like evergreen, a tree symbolic of hope and rebirth. Her first action is to slip into the forest, beyond the District’s electric fence, and hunt for deer. The ability to transgress boundaries and return safely are traits of the psychopomp, like Mercurius/Hermes, that function as a bridge to deeper regions of the psyche (von Franz 1996, 119). Katniss embodies the qualities of Artemis (the huntress) and possesses the heart of an Amazon female warrior. She is connected with the earth and embodies the archetypal energies of what Jung called “the two million-year-old man within” (Jung 1977, 359-64). This is a link back to nature, a place where cleansing and regeneration can occur when, according to Jung, the overexposure to civilization has caused a deep psychological fissure or sense of disenchantment (Jung 1984, 142).
Katniss hails from the last of the districts, similar to the archetypal significance of Nazareth, from which Jesus came. This domain, often found in fairy tales, is that of an outlying, neglected realm – sometimes even attacked – and is, importantly, disconnected from the collective’s dominant values. Katniss is a young, passionate, courageous woman who has not been corrupted or destroyed by the ruling forces in her society. She represents the salt-of-the-earth working class of her coal-mining background, true to a value system that cares for another because of mutual poverty. At the age of eleven, Katniss’s father died in a mine explosion, leaving her mother incapacitated with severe depression, abandoning all caregiving and home duties. This experience traumatized Katniss as she was forced to adopt both a male protective role as well as a mothering position toward her little sister, Prim. But Katniss does not lose her resolve or heart. During the Reaping, she displays supreme compassion in offering to sacrifice herself for Prim. Katniss is an emblem of empathy, courage, fearlessness, and grit, qualities that Jesus said are required in this difficult world: “to be as cunning as serpents and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).
Katniss thus represents the possibility of new hope and change in a realm dominated by the constellation of senex energy. As Jung says, “At a certain level, therefore, woman appears as the true carrier of the longed-for wholeness and redemption” (Jung 1955-56/1970, CW 14, ¶500). Katniss’s symbolic role is nothing short of a redeemer figure for all of Panem, someone to carry it out of darkness and to restore its psychic wholeness. She is, therefore, an archetypal hero. In traditional mythological stories, it is the hero’s duty to save her country and its people from dragons, witches, and evil spells; to seek hidden treasure; to reconnect her people with the gods; to venture on a night-sea journey and enter the belly of the whale, saving those who were swallowed before her (Campbell 1949, 90-95; von Franz 1996, 58).
Regardless of the task, the hero is the restorer of balance between the conscious personality and the unconscious, a potential wellspring of creativity and vitality. Katniss can usher in the change required to end the collective neurosis (or, as in The Hunger Games, the collective psychosis). Von Franz writes, “[Heroes are] the one ego that restores to healthy, normal functioning a situation in which all the egos of that tribe or nation are deviating from their instinctive, basic totality pattern” (von Franz 1996, 62).
Heroes are fascinating figures because they can represent either the ego or the Self – but, in truth, they are both. As von Franz explains,
The hero is an archetypal figure which presents a model of a functioning ego in accord with the Self . . . . He serves as its instrument and completely expresses what the Self wants to have happen. In a way, therefore, he is also the Self, because he expresses or incarnates its healing tendencies. (1996, 62-63)
Von Franz further expands on this concept in The Feminine in Fairytales by explaining that
The hero represents the ideal ego-complex in accordance with the requirements of the psyche. He is the one who cures the sterility of a country and restores total health through a flow of life in healthy forms. . . . When the heroine functions in accordance with the requirements of the psyche, she becomes the pattern of the conscious feminine personality. (von Franz 1972, 19)
Katniss’ responsibility, therefore, is to operate as this ego-complex by acting in accordance with the Self in order to become the conscious feminine model for her culture. Although she is put into deadly situations in the Games and is forced to take violent action and kill in self-defense, she still remains, psychologically, in tune with the Self. As von Franz suggests, “If the woman is in Tao and functioning according to the inner laws of her being she can afford that kind of feminine nastiness and it is not animus” (34). The Self as the totality is the dormant, inherent possibility in a person “that needs actual conscious life with its tragedies, conflicts and solutions to bring the total into reality” (19). Indeed, throughout the series, Katniss has her fair share of tragedies and conflicts to resolve as she brings the narrative arc to its climax.
Throughout The Hunger Games, Katniss displays compassion in accordance with the ways of the Self. As mentioned previously, she sacrifices herself to save Prim in an act of altruistic surrender, which means “needs are met by fulfilling the needs of others rather than one’s own” (Klein 1993, 3-13). Time and again, Katniss expresses that the prime reason she acts – and tries to survive – is for Prim. For example, during the Games, Katniss uses Prim as motivation for her thoughts or actions: “My thoughts turn to Prim. . . . For her sake, I try not to look desperate” (Collins 2008, 205). Katniss lives for Prim; she negates or sacrifices herself in the name of family love and duty. Prim is the archetypal child: innocent and full of potential. Through her sister, Katniss sees what is more pure, vulnerable, innocent within herself, and in need of protection: the snake eyes for the dove.
In the Games, Katniss allies herself with a waif of a girl, Rue, who is so small that she has no chance of winning. Katniss starts caring for Rue because she reminds her of Prim, which is established the first time she notices her: “Rue. Primrose. Neither of them could tip the scale at thirty kilos soaking wet” (Collins 2008, 121; Ramberg n.d., 6). When they join forces in the arena, Katniss admits Rue “reminds me of Prim” (Collins 2008, 244; Ramberg n.d., 6), a clear indication that a psychological process of projection has occurred. When Rue is impaled with a spear, Katniss sings her a death song and covers her corpse with flowers, a gesture that incites a riot in Rue’s home district, the first incendiary incident that begins the slow downfall of Panem. It should be noted that Rue (“regret,” “sorrow”) is black and from an agricultural district in the Deep South that is heavily patrolled and abused, recalling America’s slave history. The parallels between District 11 and America’s treatment of African Americans seem intentional on the part of both Collins and the filmmakers. Katniss’s compassion for Rue may be read as a redemptive act for America’s history of racism and slavery.
The most important act of eros is when Katniss and Peeta emerge victorious at the end of the Games. The Gamemaker increases the tension by revoking a rule allowing two winners from the same district. With only one winner allowed, either Katniss or Peeta will have to kill the other. When Peeta rips off his bandage and threatens to bleed to death, Katniss pleads with him: “‘You’re not leaving me here alone,’ I say. Because if he dies, I’ll never go home, not really” (Collins 2008, Loc. 3886). Peeta represents a masculinity more attuned to cooperation with the feminine. Katniss engages in an act of rebellion that forces the senex energy of the state – the repressive rule of the father – to temporarily submit to the energies of the feminine and, by extension, the Self. She takes out poison berries from her pouch and together with Peeta decides to eat them, thereby committing suicide and guaranteeing no winner. The rule of the senex is dethroned by the values represented by the feminine – an altruistic act of surrender and love. Realizing the severity of the situation, the Gamemaker frantically announces they are the Victors, thereby securing their release, much to the delight of the Capitol’s citizenry. The rule of the father is maintained for the time being, but ultimately the damage has been done and the wheels of change have been set in motion. The Gamemaker is executed, since this is the first major defeat for President Snow, and it is the first real threat to the Capitol. The profound act of eros, which was desperately lacking in the culture, creates a strong affinity between the citizens and Katniss and inspires a rebellion from outlying districts, which is explored in the later films and books.
The Cultural and Social Significance of The Hunger Games
So far we have spoken to one of the main tasks of a more classical Jungian literary critique, namely, critically deciphering the archetypal foundation behind the characters and imagery in The Hunger Games. Our second task, although it may prove more difficult, speaks to a post-Jungian ethos that aims to address the implications of such theoretical interpretations for society and culture. What are these archetypal constellations in The Hunger Games compensating in the dominant one-sided attitude of the collective society and culture? Given the extent to which the series has resonated with Western society, what unconscious aspects has it touched? Stated another way, what collective psychic imbalance is being corrected by the story’s archetypal manifestations?
For the individual, the psyche’s rebalancing – realized through the correction of the ego’s myopic attitude – happens primarily via dreams and fantasies that arise from the ancient well-springs of the collective unconscious. This process occurs naturally and is, for the most part, beyond our control; its purpose is to move an individual into becoming more complete and whole, which should not be confused with perfection. Art and literature may be understood as dreams for the collective, which have the effect of bringing a culture’s one-sided, unadapted, inferior, or dangerous state of consciousness back into equilibrium (Jung 1950/1978, CW15, ¶152). Jung suggested that a nation’s epoch is like an individual – with inferiorities, limitations in conscious outlook, blind attitudes, hypocrisies, and so on – and therefore requires compensation in the form of archetypal images in art to better understand itself (¶153). Although the use of an individual’s psychology to explain collective phenomena like art is not entirely unproblematic (Lu 2013), the central archetypal themes of The Hunger Games speak poignantly to the current social and cultural framework that has become so enamored with Collins’s trilogy. As Jung describes the social significance of art,
It is constantly at work elucidating the spirit of the age, conjuring up the forms in which the age is most lacking. . . . The artist seizes on [the archetypal] image, and in raising it from the deepest unconsciousness he brings it into relation with conscious values, thereby transforming it until it can be accepted by the minds of his contemporaries. (Jung 1922/1978, CW 15, ¶130)
These archetypal images primarily appear in fairy tales, myths, and formal literature, and they are the works of the imagination guided by general human principles and patterns (Jacoby 1992, 64-65). Without archetypes, we would be unable to re-experience the content and structure of a work of art; we would not be able to enjoy the deep connection that allows us to feel a piece of art as it expresses and mirrors the human condition.
According to a classical reading of Jung, basic motifs that articulate human experience have not changed drastically in 3,000 years of written tradition. There is evidence that certain themes in tales go as far back as 25,000 years before Christ, practically unaltered (von Franz 1996, 4). The most basic and concise expressions of archetypes are found in fairy tales, “the purest and simplest expression of collective unconscious psychic processes” (1). Fairy tales are the “international language of mankind” because any fairy tale can be repeated in any culture, no matter how diverse, and the tale will be understood since it portrays our basic psychic patterns, mirroring the barebones anatomy of our psyches (27-28).
Myths, however, are different in some respects. Although they, too, are manifestations of archetypes, there is an overlay of cultural material, what Jung himself distinguishes as the difference between an archetype and an archetypal image (1). Whereas myths are archetypal, their manifestations as archetypal images align them with the cultural, collective consciousness of the nation in which they originated, thereby expressing the problems of that nation in that particular cultural period (27).2 For example, Grapes of Wrath reflects the social inequalities between laborers and business owners in the 1930s, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird addresses racism and the maltreatment of blacks in 1960s America. Such novels offer a psychological snapshot of a nation’s collective psyche, revealing the collective psychic imbalances of that era. Authors, therefore, play a crucial yet underappreciated role in society: they may educate us on the defects of our national character, where we have gone wrong and where we need to pay attention, and conjure stories to challenge and change the zeitgeist.
It is interesting that Suzanne Collins has said in interviews that a major inspiration for The Hunger Games was the myth of Theseus (Margolis 2008). As punishment for antagonizing King Minos of Crete, Minos orders Athens to send seven boys and seven girls to be thrown into the Labyrinth and be devoured by the Minotaur. This scenario is repeated every nine years until Theseus volunteers and decapitates the Labyrinth’s beast. There are obvious parallels here to Collins’s story, and she remarks that “Katniss is a futuristic Theseus” (2008). It is not that Suzanne Collins “copied” Theseus or the Theseus myth is “purer” because it was the original, but rather The Hunger Games and the Greek myth share the same constant source that is available for all people in all eras: the instinctual realm of the collective unconscious (Hinz and Teunissen 1992, 196). In many ways, then, Collins’s Hunger Games seeks to “dream the myth onward” by re-creating and re-imagining the original myth to make it more relevant to contemporary society (Huskinson 2008). Yet with the differences also come similarities: as much as The Hunger Games is an updated, modern version of the Theseus myth, it remains a direct revelation of how we are and how we have always been. The central message of the text continues to resonate today: we are at risk of creating a heartless senex society and losing our eros connection to each other and the replenishing source that is the unconscious (Hinz and Teunissen 1992, 198).
Although we cannot thoroughly ascertain the cultural conditions that co-created the Theseus myth, we do know the contemporary times in which Collins was writing The Hunger Games: the George W. Bush years in America.
One night I was lying in bed . . . and I was channel surfing on television. I was flipping through images of reality television where there were these young people competing for a million dollars or a bachelor, and then I was seeing footage from the Iraq War. These two things began to fuse together in a very unsettling way and that was the moment I got the idea for Katniss’s story. (Scholastic.com)
The novel was published in September 2008, weeks before the election of Barack Obama, in what was arguably one of the darkest periods in recent American history. There were several disturbing incidents during the George W. Bush years that many considered unmitigated disasters. These failures, in turn, betrayed the nation’s core values and diminished its trust in the government, a government influenced by frightening Evangelical Christian fictions and neoconservative imperial fantasies of worldwide dominion (Lifton 2003). Not surprisingly, the presidency of George W. Bush is regarded by historians across the political spectrum, even at this early stage, as one of the worst in the nation’s history. A survey conducted by History News Network in 2008 reported that of 109 historians, 98 percent considered Bush’s presidency to be a failure (The Editorial Board 2008). As to whether he was the worst in history, 61 percent said “yes” (2008). The Bush presidency began with the Florida election debacle in 2000 in which he won by a mere 537 votes owing to disruptive protests instigated by Republican Congressional staffers to shut down the vote counting, a canceled statewide recount, disenfranchisement of 58,000 ex-prisoners’ right to vote, and an unprecedented one-off Supreme Court ruling. It was just the beginning of the loss of democracy (Berman 2015; Greenwald 2007, 29-30, 32; Margolick 2014).
Then September 11 happened. It was an ideal nightmare for the Bush administration because it gave them political cover to pursue their radical neocon agenda. Chief – and worst – among Bush’s legacies is the Iraq War. Iraq had not attacked, had not threatened to attack, lacked the capability to attack the United States, and had no ties to al-Qaeda or Osama bin Laden (Gannon 2012, 6; Greenwald 2007, 5). It was an unnecessary war based on false pretenses, such as the discredited purchase of uranium oxide in Niger, nonexistent aluminum centrifuge tubes, alleged stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, mobile production laboratories for WMDs, unmanned aerial vehicles for WMD delivery, and Iraqi training of al-Qaeda terrorists (Gannon 2012, 96). No Bush official ever explicitly said they could prove Saddam planned 9/11, but they issued innumerable misleading statements, such as Iraq “could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year”; “there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction”; “Iraq has trained al-Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases”; and “Saddam Hussein is harboring terrorists and the instruments of terror, the instruments of mass death and destruction,” to name a paltry few (Greenwald 2007, 9, 108, 109-10). The propaganda campaign worked: six months prior to the invasion an astonishing 70 percent of the American people believed Saddam Hussein personally participated in the planning of the 9/11 attacks (107).
From White House officials, there was a stream of exaggerations, half-truths, and blatant lies proffered to justify the Iraq War (Gannon 2012, 92). Literally on a daily basis, the administration’s exaggerated claims were published on the front pages of American newspapers as though they were uncontested facts, even in the once-venerated New York Times (Greenwald 2007, 111). The Democratic Party offered pitiful resistance because the administration had conjured a powerful and uncompromising mythology that blinded the nation: a Manichean war of Good versus Evil (98). Fearful of being cast as Evil, the media and Democratic Party relinquished their critical faculties and abdicated their roles as adversarial watchdogs (108).
Foul myths – or the conscious creation and manipulation of myths – have consequences: 100,000 Iraqi civilians were murdered and 2 to 4 million made homeless (Gannon 2012, 77). Thousands of American troops were rendered disabled and 4,000 died (77; Trotta 2013). The direct and indirect costs of the war added up to $2.2 trillion (Trotta 2013). Estimates predict the final cost, still to be determined, could be $6 trillion (2013).
Another appalling incident the Bush administration forcibly enacted was the secret approval of torture, “justified” by two infamous Torture Memos drafted by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2002 without the public or Congress’s knowledge (Gannon 2012, 119). The program was, disturbingly, “modelled on the inhumane Chinese torture of American prisoners to induce false confessions during the Korean War,” which, at that time, Americans had deemed in violation of the Geneva Conventions (108). The Abu Ghraib atrocities occurred not because of a few “bad apples,” as the administration claimed in an attempt to scale the pinnacle of hypocrisy, but because they were hatched in the vice president’s office and approved by the president (101-102, 117). The torture techniques were used at secret prisons throughout the world, known as “black sites,” where a suspect was transferred in order to avoid due process, a program known as “extraordinary rendition” (113).
Equally as disturbing as extraordinary rendition, the Military Commissions Act of 2006 (MCA) vested power in the president to order American citizens to be detained and imprisoned indefinitely without having been charged for any crime or provided with a lawyer or court to determine innocence (231). Such power is one of the most tyrannical any leader can possess. One of the core rights established against the British king by the Magna Carta was to prevent such abuses – which means that the MCA literally vested in President Bush a power no British king has possessed since 1244 (231-32).
One of the most shocking events of the Bush years was the revelation that the administration had ordered the mass wiretapping surveillance of US citizens. Rather than obtain a warrant through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA), Bush decided to illegally bypass them and direct the CIA and NSA (traditionally used against foreign countries) to spy on its own citizens. Warrantless wiretapping was a felony, a violation of the Constitution, and a potentially impeachable offense (Greenwald 2007, 93; Stout 2006). Whereas articles for impeachment against Nixon included the wiretapping of seventeen individuals, Bush had wiretapped thousands (National Public Radio, 2005). This felony was wholly unnecessary because the FISA court has almost always allowed presidents to do almost any eavesdropping they desired (Greenwald 2007, 93). Journalist Glen Greenwald conjectures that Bush committed this crime “because he wanted to violate the law in order to establish the general ‘principle’ that he was not bound by the law, to show that he has the power to break the law” (94).
Other administration blunders included the slashing of the Army Corps of Engineers’ budget by $500 million in 2001 and the inept response to Hurricane Katrina (Gannon 2012, 135); the alteration, censorship, and suppression of climate change reports(139-43); the squandering of a Clinton budget surplus of $236 billion to a $1 trillion deficit (Editorial Board 2010; Gannon 2012, 128); income inequality worse than the Great Depression (Madland and Pawlak 2008); and massive tax cuts benefiting the richest 1 percent (Goldfarb 2013).
The list goes on. All of these stories were floating in the media miasma, permeating the culture and society, and Suzanne Collins would have sensed the nation’s mood, for these elements of war, social inequality, climate change, loss of democracy, and an authoritarian state are reflected in The Hunger Games. The parallels are striking to say the least.
Many Americans had hoped President Obama, a thoughtful and intelligent African American capable of rhetorical genius, could usher in a brighter future. But working-class voters, particularly in the Midwest Rust Belt, experienced eight years of acute failure to address the adverse consequences of globalization, growing income inequality, and the consolidation of corporate and government power. The fact that Trump was elected despite his many glaring weaknesses and character flaws speaks to voters’ desperation for fundamental change in society and a disruption of the senex position. We now face the cultural and political crisis of the Trump phenomenon, and here too an archetypal discernment can provide a deep analysis and understanding of the problem we are dealing with.
Trump has been diagnosed as an extreme narcissist (Buser and Cruz 2016) – although, it should be noted, not unproblematically given the inherent difficulties with psychobiographies – but Narcissus was so self-absorbed that he harmlessly faded away by being captivated by his image. Trump does not present a passive form of self-absorbed energy, but an aggressive in-your-face bravado. This is in line with the Trickster archetype, where narcissism is but one attribute of its character. Tricksters can wantonly muck around in the unseemly sides of life, grossing out people with crudeness and sexual displays. They are the archetypal deceivers and untrustworthy characters, doing and saying anything to get what they want. Nonetheless, Tricksters serve an important cultural function by upsetting the status quo and overthrowing static, decrepit forms in an unheroic manner. Trump’s skillful destruction of an entire field of Republican primary candidates suggests that he is a near-perfect incarnation of the Trickster archetype. Ultimately, he could usher in a profound change in American society. His brash exposure of covert hypocrisies in both Republican and Democratic parties – around such issues as racism, Christian self-righteousness, neglect of the middle class, incompetent policies on immigration, and so on – make them impossible to ignore any longer.
An important function of the Trickster is to raise consciousness, and it is better to see the Devil in front of you than have it lurk in the shadows. Many have been shocked into awareness of how serious and deep the structural problems are in our social and economic systems. Many are finally getting politically involved. We are in a period of dangerous and chaotic transition into a new paradigm, and, like any major transition, it could end badly.
The Hunger Games initially appears as an absurd story about teenagers killing each other in a television survival show; however, upon closer examination with a Jungian lens, much is revealed about the neglected aspects of our society and culture, indicating a dangerous one-sided attitude that must be addressed. “Every myth [is] an important psychological truth,” Jung proclaimed, and The Hunger Games reveals the truth of the ugliness we have allowed ourselves and our society to become (Jung 1931/1970, CW 10, ¶190). Myths are expressions of archetypal resonance that, in turn, are historical signposts of any given time (in the form of archetypal images) (Lu 2011). The Hunger Games is a keyhole through which we may glimpse the cultural moment of its creation. It reveals that at this particular time, in this particular place, our society had become caught up in a deleterious psychic dynamic. If a myth is, according to Jung, “the textbook of the archetypes,” then Suzanne Collins’s trilogy is a map showing us an overly powerful senex in the form of government intrusion, corporate power, and plutocracy that needs to be replaced, in addition to a missing feminine eros as personified by Katniss Everdeen that needs to be introduced (Jung 1988, 24). Granted, the actual overthrowing of such a system may belong to the realm of fantasy, but read psychologically, a radical revolution in the minds of individuals – who, together, ultimately make up any given society – is a precursor to change in societal institutions.
Since the book was written during the Bush years, it is reflective of an America that was losing its democracy, its moral sensibility, and its soul. The message of The Hunger Games is that if we follow the lead of a hero like Katniss, who is in tune with the Self, and align ourselves closely to unconscious energies, we activate the potential to restore our psychological selves and, in turn, to begin a parallel process in society. By studying Suzanne Collins’s myth and interpreting its possible psychological significance, we can become conscious of our personal and cultural shortcomings and muster the courage to change. We can make that which is unconscious, conscious. Stated another way, if we listen closely to the artists of our time whose work accesses what is missing in our society, we can achieve greater psychological insight and give ourselves a chance to be the vehicles of transformation.
1. This is not to say The Hunger Games is original when it comes to dealing with these themes. Parallels to the plot can be seen in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale. The latter’s film adaption is regarded as a cult classic. See Haikasoru’s Battle Royale Slam Book: Essays on the Cult Classic by Koushun Takami.
2. Joseph Henderson posited the existence of a cultural unconscious, although the origins of the idea have been challenged by Lu (Lu 2013).
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FRAZER MERRITT, MST, obtained a master’s in Creative Writing at the University of Cambridge after receiving a bachelor’s in English Literature & Mythology from the University of Essex. He currently works as an assistant editor at Lutterworth Press and James Clarke & Co. He has published an article about the economics of helping refugees in Left Foot Forward, a travel essay in Crack the Spine’s Anthology 2016, and op-eds in Z Magazine. Correspondence: email@example.com.
DENNIS MERRITT, LCSW, PHD, has a doctorate in entomology from UC Berkeley and is a graduate of the C.G. Jung Institute-Zürich. He practices as a Jungian analyst and ecopsychologist in Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His book publications include the four-volume The Dairy Farmer’s Guide to the Universe – Jung, Hermes, and Ecopsychology. Correspondence: The Integral Psychology Center, 1619 Monroe St., Madison, WI 53711. Email: DennisMerritt4@hotmail.com.
KEVIN LU, PHD, is director of Graduate Studies and director of the MA Jungian and Post-Jungian Studies at the University of Essex. He is a former member of the Executive Committee of the International Association for Jungian Studies and a member of the adjunct faculty at Pacifica Graduate Institute. His publications include critical assessments of the theory of cultural complexes, the possibilities of a Jungian psychohistory, the Chinese-Vietnamese Diaspora, and depth psychological approaches to understanding comics. Correspondence: Department of Psychosocial and Psychoanalytic Studies, University of Essex, Wivenhoe Park, Colchester, CO4 3SQ, United Kingdom. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
C.G. Jung’s literary theories provide insights into the archetypal dynamics behind Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games and help elucidate the trilogy’s astonishing global popularity. President Snow represents a senex archetype whose reign has petrified and is in need of renewal, whereas Katniss represents a feminine hero aligned with the Self. Jung believed myths compensate for the one-sided dominant attitude of an era, and it is plausible The Hunger Games speaks to the present-day danger of an overly powerful senex in the form of big government and corporate power. Published in 2008, the story offers a metaphoric understanding of the deep dissatisfaction with the Bush administration.
archetype, George W. Bush, feminine, The Hunger Games, C.G. Jung, Jungian, Katniss, myth, President Snow, Senex, Suzanne Collins, visionary art, Marie-Louise von Franz