The Hunger Games and Allegory for the Aughts

I had a hard time with allegory and symbolism in high school. Maybe this was a product of weekly church visits during which it was never made quite clear which stories were supposed to be literal and which intended to be parable. Maybe I was just as dull as my chemistry teacher told my mother I was. In any case, it seemed inevitable that any time a teacher would tell me that a writer was discussing the true nature of mankind or unrequited love, I would be convinced that it was really about hunting pigs on a desert island or the plain old color of roses.

Of course allegory is a tricky thing. For every C.S. Lewis novel with Jesus lions, there are other authors who swear that their stories are just that. For example, while I can understand why some people think that Sauron was merely Hitler stuffed into the friendly confines of Middle Earth, if J.R.R. Tolkein felt that theory was off base, I certainly don't feel compelled to disagree. More recently, and despite disagreement from some quarters, I doubt J.K. Rowling had satanic worship in mind when she penned the Harry Potter series. In short, even when someone thinks they have found allegorical meaning, it is nonetheless a difficult thing to ascribe intent to authors when allegory is the topic at hand.

That said, allegory is of course used, and it is used for many reasons. Whether or not one can understand those reasons is another matter. When I was in high school, the biggest problem facing America at the time was whether or not the president had received oral sex in the oval office. It was a pre-9/11 world. Slick Willy was 'crafty,' or 'sneaky,' but he wasn't a 'dumb, scary warmonger' like Bush or a 'foreign-born Muslim communist' like Obama. It was a time of relative peace around the world. It was an era of pre-bubble internet booms and pre-meltdown Britney Spears bubble-pop.

More personally, I lived in a pre-double digit unemployment double income household. I never went hungry and didn't have much to fear in day to day life. Maybe my problem with allegory wasn't religious shaping or idiocy, maybe it was that I had never really experienced the types of conditions typically alluded to by those who employ the device. A recent read reminded me that the world we live in today is quite a bit different, however.

During one of my recent long-distance journeys (those who read my quick pro-train post will know the one), I picked up The Hunger Games. I don't usually buy into teen lit crazes (I promise you won't get any posts about Twilight on this page any time soon), but 1) keeping up with the zeitgeist has its benefits, 2) I had aleady made it through my 'grown up' reading on the first 8 hour leg of the trip, and, 3) there isn't much available Union Station in DC at 8 p.m. aside from the bestseller section at Hudson Books. Despite not being first choice, it was a quick read, and I can see why (in a good way) it was quickly made into a movie.

While I admittedly had trouble with allegory at a younger age, I noted that probably had to do with a (lack) of life experience. Of course the world has changed a lot since the 1990's. War, unemployment, a tearing asunder of political discourse; the nation has experienced all of these since the Millenium occurred. Maybe I am finally well-equipped that I could easily pick up on Suzanne Collins' very thinly-veiled shots at what a dystopian America could be (is?). Without providing an exhaustive list (or writing someone's book report for them), Collins targets nationalism, wealth gaps, materialism, war-focused societies, the reality T.V. world, plastic surgery, and maybe most obviously, government interference in the lives of citizens. The children of the nineties and aughts, for all they are maligned by older generations, are surely equipped by life experience to identify at least some of these targets equally as well as I have.

While some might argue with the use of the term allegory given how obvious Collins' allusions are at times (she probably wouldn't have gotten this one through Soviet-era censors...) her targets are timely and pertinent in today's society. Maybe my radar is up a bit after writing so much about drones recently, but it doesn't seem out of place to say that Collins has written an Orwell for those born in the 90's and aughts. Thinly-veiled and Hollywooded-up is inconsequential; if The Hunger Games gets Gen Y reading and thinking, this can't be a bad thing.

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