Social Criticism In The Hunger Games And Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland “Off with their heads!“ (Carroll 122) could be the motto of Suzanne Collins’ bestseller The Hunger Games. Published in 2008, the novel tells the dystopian story of Katniss, a young girl who has to participate in a fight-to-death-tournament with 23 other teenagers. Connoisseurs might have recognized the quotation of the classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, first published in 1865. Mostly known as a children’s book, the novel depicts the story of Alice a girl that finds herself in a wonderland, where she meets many curious people and gets confronted with arbitrary brutality. Although they don’t seem to have much in common at first glance and have a totally different date of origin, both novels provide room for comparison in terms of their claim to criticize society. The protagonists constantly find themselves confronted with the theme of government oppression whether it is Katniss, having to accept the arbitrary rules set by the Capitol, or rather the Gamemakers or Alice, who has to cope with the tyrannical queen. This confrontation leads to a reflection about the self, which both girls experience. Another theme worth comparing is therefore the depiction of identity formation and the chaos that comes with growing up.
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As a last issue I will concentrate on the way Collins and Carroll contrast artificial and natural elements in their fantasy worlds. Government oppression is a topic unfortunately still current in our world and as well relevant to Katniss and Alice. Katniss, who after sacrificing herself for her sister Prim has to participate in the Hunger Games, experiences the Capitol’s control on her own body. It is already in the beginning of the novel, where the reader gets to know that “Starvation is not an uncommon fate in District 12” (Collins 33). The Capitol doesn’t provide enough food for the residents in the poorer Districts and that is why Katniss knows the feeling of being “desperate enough to eat [rotted vegetables at the grocer’s]” (Collins 35). The governmental control is present in all parts of Panem but especially shown in the set up of the Hunger Games designed by the Gamemakers. They are free to change the rules and manipulate the games whenever they feel that these are getting less entertaining for the audience. This includes, for instance, setting up a fire wall to drive together the Tributes. Katniss states that “everyone knows they could destroy [them] all within seconds” (Collins 214) but that they “don’t want [her] dead” (Collins 214) because the audience is attracted by her.
This is why she “only” gets hurt badly but doesn’t get killed during the Gamemaker’s intervention. As they announce the rule change, which declares both Tributes from one District as winners if they are the last ones to survive, their whole power becomes obvious. This shows not only their capability to arbitrarily manipulate the Tributes physically, but also on an emotional level because Katniss now sees the chance to return home with Peeta. Just as Katniss, Alice experiences government oppression, carried out by the Queen of Hearts. Already at their first meeting, Alice gets to know her oppressive nature when all of her followers anxiously “[throw] themselves flat upon their faces” (Carroll 118) as the Queen arrives. The extent of her horrific character is underlined as one gets to know that the Queen punished three of her gardeners to be beheaded for no apparent reason. “Off with their heads!” (Carroll 122) seems to be her favorite phrase, since “The Queen had only [this] one way of settling all difficulties, great or small” (Carroll 128).
The Queen’s Croquet Game can be compared to the Hunger Games in terms of setting arbitrary rules which please the oppressor: If someone doesn’t follow the Queen’s unfathomable rules, he is declared to be beheaded. The use of these arbitrary death sentences is similar to the manipulation the Gamemakers perform. They all have the goal to play with the affected person’s fear as a tool of social pressure. The capriciousness of the Queen’s decisions becomes even more obvious when Alice attends a trial where the Knave of Hearts is accused for having stolen some tarts which the Queen had made. Not only that the reason for this charge seems ridiculous but when finding no evidence the Queen just overrules the jury and the judge, which again underlines the oppressive power she possesses. Both novels, The Hunger Games and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, therefore succeed in depicting arbitrary measures and brutality as a way to portray government oppression, personified by the Gamemakers and the Queen of Hearts. Being confronted with this oppression, both girls think about which place they take and self reflect their identities. According to Erik Erikson, an important developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst, “identity formation is one of the key tasks of adolescence.” (Beck, Earl 77). Relating to that, both novels deal with the fundamental topic of children’s development. Katniss, although being only age 16, can be described as comparatively mature, at first glance. Since her father died in a mine accident, she has to replace him in being the breadwinner of the family.
On closer examination, however, one discovers Katniss’ immaturity: she doesn’t seem to be able to organize her feelings, which lets her appear stubborn in some ways. This is for instance shown in the relationship to her mother who sinks into a deep depression after losing her husband. Katniss isn’t able to feel any compassion; her emotions could rather be described as contempt. Her insecurity concerning her emotions for Peeta underlines the impression of Katniss being an immature girl with puberty feelings. During the Hunger Games Katniss gets confronted with the effect her outward appearance and personality have on the audience, which gets her to think about who she is. This point marks the beginning of Katniss’ identity struggle that is led by the questions how she can preserve her (not yet found) identity in a world that forces her to kill and who she can trust in. Forced by the Capitol she takes the role of “the girl who was on fire”, pretends strength, even if feeling weak. Throughout the Games Katniss acts how she thinks the audience expects her to because she is dependent on its gifts and the goodwill of the sponsors. She never comes at ease with her personality and in the end still asks herself “who she is and who she is not” (Collins 450).The seven-year old Alice uses a very educated language, which makes her seem a lot more mature than other kids of her age, at first glance. But like Katniss, Alice shows her immaturity by her behavior, for instance by climbing into a rabbit hole “never once considering how in the world she was to get out again” (Carroll 8).
As Katniss, Alice isn’t able to cope with her thoughts and feelings, scolding herself “to go on crying in this way” (Carroll 22). With Alice’s entrance into the wonderland the identity struggle starts. She begins to ask herself if she has “been changed in the night” (Carroll 22) and “Who [she is] then?” (Carroll 26). Like Katniss, she is not sure what to trust in, which is shown when she finds the little bottle, because even if “it was all very well to say “Drink me”, […] the wise little Alice was not going to do that in a hurry” (Carroll 14). The process of shrinking and growing, which happens to Alice several times, can be seen as a metaphor for the puberty process and the chaos a child has to face while going through it. Just like Katniss, Alice gets confronted with the effect her changed outward appearance has on the characters that surround her.
She, for example, is prohibited from joining the trial, because “All persons more than a mile high [have] to leave the court” (Carroll 184). Additionally, the curious characters of the wonderland sometimes try to push her into a role, like the Pigeon that calls her “a serpent; and there’s no use denying it”, because it has “seen a good many little girls in [her] time, but never one with such a neck as that!” (Carroll 76). Even if Alice leaves the wonderland as a “giant” although entering it small, one never gets the feeling that she matures completely. Like Katniss’, Alice’s identity remains unstable till the end of the novel. All in all both girls see their selves in a situation, in which they are struggling with their identity, led by the question who they are, not coming to a conclusion. The two of them, Katniss and Alice feel themselves influenced by the pressure society lays on them by putting them into roles they don’t fit in. They are in a way captured in between their true nature and the artificial nature society wants them to be.
Both girls, Katniss and Alice, find themselves in fantasy worlds which are built up between natural and artificial elements. Katniss lives in the country of Panem, which is separated into the twelve Districts and the ruling Capitol. While the different Districts are left fairly natural, the Capitol builds the absolute contrast to these. When Katniss arrives in the ruling city she describes the “magnificence of the glittering buildings in a rainbow of hues that tower into the air, the shiny cars that roll down the wide paved streets, the oddly dressed people with bizarre hair and painted faces […]” (Collins 72) in colors that “seem artificial, the pinks to deep, […] the yellow painful to the eyes.” (Collins 72) As Katniss gets into the arena, the reader gets to know its’ set up, consisting of “a flat, open stretch of a ground […], a lake […] and sparse piney woods.” (Collins 180) But even if seeming quite natural at first glance there are as well artificial elements that characterize the arena. These are, for instance, the tracker jackers, a form of genetically altered wasps, which consist of “a distinctive solid gold body and a sting that raises a lump the size of a plum on contact.” (Collins 225) With this way of portraying nature and artificiality, Collins in a way also values these elements. Whereas nature, like the woods, represents a form of sanctuary for Katniss and therefore has a positive connotation, artificiality, as for instance represented by the members of the prep team, who are called “total idiots” (Collins 76) by Katniss, has a strong negative connotation. This depiction can also be transferred to Alice’ Adventures in Wonderland. As Katniss, Alice finds herself in a fantasy world that contains natural as well as artificial elements.
The setting of the wonderland can be described as quite natural, consisting of a pool, gardens and woods. However, there are also artificial elements that are represented by the wonderland’s inhabitants, mostly animals and game cards, which can talk and are called “mad” (Carroll 92). Not only in The Hunger Games but also in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland one can find genetically manipulated elements. These are, for instance, represented by a mushroom of which “’one side will make you grow taller, and the other side will make you grow shorter.’” (Carroll 72) or by a drink and a cake which lead to shrinking and growing as well. But, like for Katniss, it are the natural elements that represent security for Alice as she, for example, feels “herself safe in a thick wood.”(Carroll 60) With his way of connecting madness and manipulation to artificial and security to natural elements, Carroll, as Collins, attributes negative and positive connotations to these, leaving the reader with the question if the artificial state our society directs to is the right one. In summary, it can be stated that the two novels, even if seeming entirely different at first glance, take up similar points and use them as a criticism against society. It isn’t surprising that a topic like government oppression remains relevant in a period of over 100 years, since it has been current in the whole history of mankind.
Nevertheless, Collins and Carroll make us aware of the fact that, even if we feel ourselves living in a modern world, we are still oppressed and in a way demand to revolt against this. Another startling fact, presented by both authors, is the way social pressure influences our identity. Especially children can have a hard time, confronted with so many societal expectations they have to fulfill. It might be daring to say that Carroll uses the depiction of genetic alteration as a criticism of society, since he most likely couldn’t foresee the technical development our world has gained. Nevertheless, I would consider this way of contrasting artificiality and nature as a demand to contemplate to our true nature. Works cited Beck, John & Earl, Mary. Key Issues in secondary education. London: Continuum , 2003. Print. Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland/ Alice im Wunderland. München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH & Co. KG, 2012. Print. Collins; Suzanne. The Hunger Games. UK: Scholastic Ltd, 2009. Print.
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***Getty illustration courtesy of US Psychological Institute, personal communication.