Dystopian States of Mind: Identity, Mental Health, and the Private-Public Sphere in The Hunger Games and Chaos Walking

Roslyn Weaver | 

Although science fiction is maligned in some quarters as escapism, two recent, popular young adult dystopian series offer themes that parallel realities of contemporary teenage life, primarily around identity in a world where internet and social media have dissolved the boundaries between private and public spheres. The following discussion focuses on these issues, with brief reference to the themes of mental health that become linked with identity in the two series: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and Chaos Walking, by Patrick Ness.

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games is the most well known dystopian young adult series of recent times, and includes The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay (2008-2010). The series is set in Panem, a post-apocalyptic USA that is comprised of thirteen Districts governed by oppressive leadership in the Capitol. Previous failed rebellion against the Capitol left most Districts in severe poverty while Capitol residents exist in self-indulgent idle luxury.

In an effort to remind the Districts of their past transgressions and its own power, the Capitol runs an annual televised event called the Hunger Games, in which teenagers from each District are sent into a specially designed arena to fight to death until one remains. The protagonist is Katniss Everdeen, who survives the Games after volunteering to replace her sister. To win fans and help her survive the Games, Katniss fabricates a romance with fellow competitor Peeta and must maintain this facade for their own safety following the Games. Katniss also, unwillingly, simultaneously becomes the face of the emerging District rebellion movement against the Capitol, and war begins again in the third novel. The rebels win the war, but Katniss is left psychologically damaged by her experiences.

The Hunger Games book trilogyBy the third book, Mockingjay, Katniss is described as “mentally disoriented” (2010: 22), and spends much of the third book confused, hysterical, sedated, hospitalized, dealing with psychologists, hiding in small spaces, seeking escape in pain medication. Peeta is also unstable after being brainwashed into believing Katniss is the enemy, with his disorientation taking the forms of attempting to attack Katniss and unable to tell reality from lies. Indeed, many characters are so traumatised by their experiences in and out of the arena that they self-medicate with painkillers, alcohol, or a range of other unhealthy coping strategies.

For Katniss, however, her psychological difficulties are caused not only by the violence but also by her attempts to reconcile competing public and private identities. She becomes known as the Mockingjay, a hybrid creature that is the result of mockingbirds mating with jabberjays, which are genetically engineered weapons. This reflects Katniss, who is a mix of the natural and the artificial: she is most at home in natural surroundings, with her name meaning an edible water plant; but she is forced to adopt a very artificial public identity and ultimately becomes a weapon created by others. Katniss’ method of coping is to remind herself of her identity and hold on to her sense of self: “I start with the simplest things I know to be true and work towards the more complicated. The list begins to roll in my head . . . My name is Katniss Everdeen. I am seventeen years old. My home is District 12 (5). And in this lies the heart of her psychological problems and her struggle around identity: the impossibility of authenticity in the entirely constructed, created, manipulated public sphere.

It is not difficult to see parallels between the series and our real world, and Collins has linked the ideas in her novels to reality television:

I was channel surfing between reality TV programming and actual war coverage when Katniss’s story came to me. One night I’m sitting there flipping around and on one channel there’s a group of people competing for, I don’t know, money maybe? And on the next there’s a group of young people fighting an actual war. And [. . .] the lines began to blur in this very unsettling way . . . (2008: 457)

Collins continues this theme in her use of Panem in the series, a word from the Latin expression panem et circenses, found in Juvenal’s Satire meaning bread and circuses, or bread and games, referring to Roman ideas about appeasing people with superficial distractions and entertainment instead of good policy (Clawson 2012), themes that are evident not only in the series but in our world too. In Collins’ dystopia, nothing really changes by series end. After the rebel forces successfully overthrow the Capitol, they plan a reality singing television program to distract attention from the war. Katniss finds some measure of peace and hope in the end, but she is seemingly permanently damaged from her struggles to cope with the violence and with the disconnections between her private and public identities.

Chaos Walking, by Patrick Ness

The Chaos Walking trilogyThe Chaos Walking trilogy includes The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer, and Monsters of Men (2008-2010), and contains similar themes to The Hunger Games: resistance against oppressive authorities in a violent dystopian world, war, death, torture, and psychological manipulation. In this series, the setting is New World, where humans have travelled by spaceship to start a new utopian Eden-like settlement. War broke out between humans and the alien Indigenous inhabitants, the Spackle, and a germ on the planet led to the ‘Noise’, meaning men’s thoughts are now audible and they cannot stop their thoughts from being heard or stop themselves hearing other people’s thoughts, all the time – but this is only true for men, not women.

The name of the trilogy comes from this information overload, and readers are told “The Noise is a man unfiltered, and without a filter, a man is just chaos walking” (2008: 42). Noise can also be used as a weapon in psychological warfare. Todd hates this unstoppable force of Noise around him and finds it confusing, and uses a technique to help him cope with the Noise and remember his true identity:

I am Todd Hewitt, I think to myself with my eyes closed. I am twelve years and twelve months old. I live in Prentisstown on New World. I will be a man in one month’s time exactly. It’s a trick Ben taught me to help settle my Noise. You close yer eyes and as clearly and calmly as you can you tell yerself who you are, cuz that’s what gets lost in all that Noise. (2008: 17)

This is almost identical to Katniss’s coping strategy in The Hunger Games. Like Katniss, Todd’s mental health also suffers from not only witnessing violence but also attempting to maintain a coherent sense of self in a bewildering world. He loses compassion and humanity when he becomes involved in acts of cruelty against Spackle, and then women, becoming rather detached as he loses his sense of identity, although his mental health is never as compromised as Katniss’s.

As with Collins, Ness has linked his book to our real world:

the world is already pretty noisy, especially if you’re a teenager. There is so much information coming at you all the time from mobile phones, from texting, from the internet, from facebook [. . .] it’s hard to live privately anymore, particularly if you’re young. Everything you do goes online. If you make a mistake, it goes online. If you tell somebody a secret, it goes online. (Ness, n.d.)

Dystopia and Mental Health

Despite the fantastic setting of these speculative works, then, Collins and Ness are grappling with some complex areas of modern life, particularly for teenagers who are forging their own identity during adolescent years. Dystopia proves apt for such themes; it is a popular genre for young adult fiction, and many critics have already linked dystopia with the challenges young people can face in moving into adulthood and finding their own identity (Campbell 1995; Hintz and Ostry 2003). The themes around mental health also prove apt for a young audience, considering that most mental illness in adults is said to first emerge in childhood and adolescence (Merikangas et al. 2010; Kessler et al. 2005). Mental disorders are often stigmatised and presented with negative stereotypes in popular media (Hyler 2003; Wilson et al. 2000), which potentially can affect the self-identity of people with mental disorders (Stuart 2006). Although such the treatment of mental health in such popular texts as these two series is only discussed briefly here, it is an area well worth further analysis.

Although readers are unlikely to experience the extreme physical and psychological trauma outlined in these series, these series do reflect some real-life adolescent issues, particularly around the gradually dissolving boundaries between private and public spheres, and the mental anguish this can cause, with just some examples including cyber bullying, trolling, and poor decision making in posting inappropriate content online that can have serious consequences. Thus, the settings of these two series may be dystopian worlds far removed from reality, but the themes are very real to many young readers.



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Roslyn Weaver has a PhD in literature. Her published research includes Apocalypse in Australian Fiction and Film, Werewolves and Other Shapeshifters in Popular Culture, and many other publications.


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