In the realm of literature, a certain bias persists in regards to young adult literature, specifically, the belief that young adult literature represents a substandard form of literature, particularly when compared to classic literature. This bias typically manifests most obviously in the classroom. The following paper will comprise two distinct parts. In the first part, the paper will study the differences between classic literature and adolescent literature, with a primary focus on utopian and dystopian writing, as defined in the paper. The two main texts that this paper will compare and contrast are the classic literature text 1984, written by George Orwell and published in 1948, and the young adult literature title The Hunger Games, written by Suzanne Collins and published in 2008. The paper will discuss the differences and the similarities between these two novels, specifically in regards to each author’s use of feminism, historical connection, media control, and totalitarian control to create and sustain the dystopian futures they describe. The paper will focus on how these two main texts are essentially the same story; both novels are remarkably similar, even though their authors wrote them over 50 years apart.
The second part of the paper will then focus on the education approach to these texts, as of 2011. George Orwell’s novel 1984 is consistently taught in the English classroom. Why then is The Hunger Games not included in the English curriculum as a precursor or preparatory text to 1984? The Hunger Games contains a teenage protagonist, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen; the character battles essentially the same totalitarian regime as the middle-aged adult protagonist Winston Smith of 1984. The main goal of the paper will be to show that students can develop the same level of interest toward reading and learning about classic literature as they have toward their young adult literature. Teaching The Hunger Games in the classroom as well as 1984 creates a bridge between young adult literature and classic literature in the classroom. Essentially students develop an awareness of the dystopian genre and its politically charged themes through an accessible protagonist Katniss Everdeen, someone their age with similar developmental characteristics, and then graduate to Winston Smith, an older protagonist’s experience of the same themes and similar plot.
Young adult literature and classic literature
Some titles in the young adult literature genre often function as escapism; their choice of the theme remains light, their tone paints a relentlessly optimistic view of life and the way that these novels treat real-world issues such as war, poverty, death, violence, economic oppression, terrorism, and social injustice is at best cursory. However, other titles in the young adult literature genre contain “all the traditional literary elements typical of classical literature…[including] well-rounded characters, flashbacks, foreshadowing, allusions, irony…[and] metaphorical language – though they are used less frequently and at less sophisticated levels to match the experiential levels of readers” (Herz and Gallo 11). Essentially, the pervasive view of many education critics remains that adolescent literature serves as mere entertainment and does not promote the cognitive growth that classic literature texts facilitate in young readers. Many critics view young adult literature as secondary literature to the “real” literature, the classic literature. Many teachers also have an ill-informed and prejudicial view of young adult literature as “supportive reading,…as an alternative literature curriculum for lower-level English classes,…[or] an expurgated version of a required classic” (Herz and Gallo 11). This bias informs the exclusion of young adult literature titles from the majority of secondary school English classes in the United States (Herz and Gallo, p. 11). Teachers relegate young adult literature to the “remedial reader or the unmotivated reader who cannot handle the prescribed readings in the traditional English curriculum” (Herz and Gallo, p. 11). The implicit bias perpetuated by this erroneous view of young adult literature harms young readers, according to Herz and Gallo:
Early on our students get a clear message from us: if they want to be considered literate and educated adults, they must learn to appreciate good literature. Enjoyment of reading is not a consideration, discovery and exploration by students are immaterial, and allowing them to select what they want to read or are interested in is ignored by many of us. Our love of reading and literature presupposes that what we select and what we interpret is best for our students. Too often reading for pleasure is not a goal, and students’ opinions are irrelevant (p. 16).
Classic literature concerns itself with complex characters and dark themes; often the more advanced language found in classic literature challenges its readers to expand their vocabularies, and the complexity of plotting and writing style furthers the development of literacy. However, in many cases, the student’s experience of reading these required classics undermines whatever benefits the language, style, or complexity of plotting might provide. In the book From Hinton to Hamlet: Building Bridges between Young Adult Literature and the Classics, co-author Donald R. Gallo shares the results from a 1982 study that quantified the attitudes and reading experiences of a group of 3,400 students that attended high school in the grades between 9 and 12 (Herz and Gallo, p. 17). The results spoke to a less than positive reading experience for a large percentage of the students surveyed. Among the junior grades, 40 percent of the male students and 35 percent of the female students “seldom or never liked required selections” (Herz and Gallo, p. 17). In the higher grades, 41 percent of the male students and 23 percent of the female students also “seldom or never” liked the classic literature texts they were forced to read (Herz and Gallo, p. 17). The students from Gallo’s study protested that the classic literature texts were “antiquated, contained unfamiliar words, and were too historical, old-fashioned, and dull. One 10th grade boy exclaimed…these books have nothing to do with me [while] a 10th-grade girl commented…reading literature is keeping in touch with the dead…Many students agreed with another 10th grader, who stated…our teacher doesn’t want you to enjoy literature” (Herz and Gallo, p. 17).
Over twenty years have passed since this study; however, time-honored classic literature texts continue to dictate the secondary school English curriculum. According to Knickerbocker and Rycik, titles from young adult literature can be found in as many as 38 percent of lower secondary school grade English classes; however, by the 12th grade, the English curriculum reading lists almost exclusively contain classic texts such as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (p. 197).
In the classroom, theories abound as to the preferred role of young adult literature. While certainly, the thematic resonance of these types of novels appeals to young readers, it remains unclear as to whether or not adolescent literature spurs curiosity about other forms of literature. As Knickerbocker and Rycik explain, “in an ideal literature program, all students would experience a seamless curriculum that empowered them to grow increasingly fluent as readers, increasingly able to employ the strategies to interpret complex texts, and increasingly willing to read more challenging texts” on their way to university (p. 196). However, many critics doubt the ability of young adult novels to catalyze any real interest whatsoever in the so-called higher forms of literature. The critical view of most young adult novels is that they are suitable as pleasurable materials exclusively; adolescents may read them as such, but since they lack the density necessary to expand mental acuity, they do not belong in the classroom environment, because they do not foster any real form of learning. Classic literature, on the other hand, actually expands the minds of readers. However, a young adult novel often promotes the act of reading itself, and herein rests its ultimate value, according to critics on the other side of the debate. According to Knickerbocker and Rycik, “the classroom teacher…walks a fine line between having students read for the pleasurable act that it is and having them read to increase the powers of literary analysis that enable them to become members of an educated, literate society. The reality many students face, however, may be a welter of conflicting goals and methods – particularly as they make the transition from the middle grades to high school” (p. 196). While the impact of the classic literature may be more enriching on the mind of the young adult, this fact becomes irrelevant if students have no interest in it and avoid reading it. Thus, the teachers charged with designing a curriculum of literature face a daunting challenge: how to make the benefits of classic literature – the expansive use of vocabulary, the complexity of themes and behavior, and the richness of character and plot – available and accessible to students whose experience of literature remains relegated to young adult literature. “Although most English language arts teachers agree that understanding and appreciating quality literature is a worthwhile goal, identifying what literature will be read by what students at what time and for what purpose appears to be a dilemma” (Knickerbocker and Rycik, p. 196).
No consensus appears to exist between critics as to whether or not the adolescents that read fluffy, juvenile literature with light themes ever progress to the advanced literary themes exemplified by “serious” classic literature. Numerous critics remain steadfast in their belief that the only way adolescents progress in their comprehension of literature is through reading literature for and about adults. For example, in her book With Rigor for All: Teaching Classics to Contemporary Students, author and teacher Carol Jago argued that even though she firmly believes that “young adult fiction has a place in the recreational reading life of teenagers, I don’t think these titles are the best choices when the goal is the study of literature. Few young adult books employ rich language or explore complex themes. The characters are often one-dimensional and almost always teenagers themselves” (p. 80). Thus, the logic behind keeping young adult fiction out of the classroom appears to relate to the function of teachers and the style of teaching currently employed in the North American secondary school English system. According to the author’s Knickerbocker and Rycik, “the choice of young adult versus classic adult literature is closely related to issues concerning the classroom context for reading literature – particularly the balance between teacher-directed scaffolding activities and student-directed peer discussions and response activities” (p. 197). Essentially, the critics opposed to young adult literature in the classroom assert that because the students do not require as much assistance from their teachers to understand the world of the young adult novel, they are less likely to benefit scholastically and their literacy skills will languish. According to Jago, even though “students benefit enormously from small-group discussions about a YA book they have read in common, they don’t need instructional guidance to get through the text. That’s the beauty of young adult books! Instead of co-opting these titles for classroom use, let’s keep putting them in students’ hands for independent pleasure reading” (p. 81).
Meanwhile, critics encamped on the other side of the debate promote the use of young adult literature and classic literature in parallel as a means of bridging the time gap between works that were written hundreds or even thousands of years ago and works published during the 21st century (Knickerbocker and Rycik, p. 197). Young adult literature of a certain quality and similar choice of topic can assist young readers with imagining worlds and cultures of the past. In his article “With Themes for All: The Universality of the Young Adult Novel,” Ted Hipple refers to the value of employing young adult literature as a bridging tool for the older classic literary texts (Hipple, p. 2). This bridging action can be achieved when teachers pay attention to the themes that high-quality young adult fiction pursues, as opposed to focusing on the genre conventions of young adult novels, including simplified plot lines, teenaged characters, and specific young adult locations such as high school (Hipple, p. 2). Hipple sees a pivotal role for young adult literature in the secondary school English curriculum (Hipple, p. 2). “Those less familiar with young adult literature tend sometimes to believe that its thematic treatments are slight or superficial – teenage if you will. They are not. Like the best of literature written for adults, good novels written for adolescents possess themes that merit and reward examination and commentary” (Hipple, p. 2). While reading development, skill and interest levels vary widely from student to student, the secondary school does mark the transition into the mature form of reading characterized by the personal motivation that will carry students through into their post-secondary education (Knickerbocker and Rycik 198; Hipple, p. 2). As such, maturing readers hone their critical reading skills and develop a critical stance toward the texts they read, understanding them as fiction that furthers a specific point of view and message, and as readers, they can “argue…back at the book” (Knickerbocker and Rycik, p. 198). Mature readers also engage in syntopical reading, wherein they will read several contrasting texts on one topic, as well as aesthetic reading, in which the reader takes pleasure in the beauty and poetry of the author’s use of language, or lack thereof (Knickerbocker and Rycik, p. 198). At this crucial stage of literacy development, high school-aged readers come into the personal tastes, values, and needs in regards to books and other forms of learning designed to expand the knowledge that will follow them into adulthood. Therefore, to “support students’ motivation, teachers must help students see the relevance of the reading content to their lives,” which points to an obvious role for young adult literature (Knickerbocker and Rycik, p. 198).
Young adult literature confers a bridging effect between the current time in history and the time in history that the novel describes, as well as a way into themes that may be unfamiliar, strange, or completely outside teenage experience. As Herz and Gallo explain, young adult literature “provides teenagers an opportunity to read books that speak to them; these books allow the reader to compare himself or herself to the struggles of the main character…This process encourages independence and respect for the individual reader and helps them to understand how literature might be useful in their struggle to comprehend the complexities in human relationships and contemporary society” (20). The value of young adult literature for teachers is the engagement these titles engender with students, which translates as an opportunity to promote the value of reading overall.
Dystopian literature describes a type of literature typically set in a period of the future that the author creates. In this fictionalized world, the citizens live under the mercy of an oppressive regime that employs corporate, bureaucratic, technological, religious, philosophical, military, or totalitarian control to maintain its power. The dystopian novel seeks to function as a cautionary tale; it criticizes a particular element of the society that the writer lives in and warns against the consequences if the author’s current society does not redirect or permanently arrest whatever trend, societal value, or political system the novel criticizes. Often, the societies featured in dystopian novels promote themselves as utopias; the citizenry believes that it exists in the perfect society. Thus, dystopias contain many psychological elements, including delusion, denial, mind control, and brainwashing, and the threat of physical or psychological violence, though often masked, remains palpable. Propaganda manipulates the people of dystopian novels, and severe restrictions exist on access to information, freedom of thought, civil liberties, and personal and sexual freedom of expression. Often, the dystopian citizenry worships a government leader through elaborate rituals. Fear, constant surveillance, conformity, and violence populate these novels. The people have little or no access to nature; they typically live disconnected from their bodies, their sexuality, and their sense of personal agency. Uniformity among the citizenry is rewarded, while individuality and opposition are punished. Citizens who inform each other receive rewards; therefore, most dystopias feature distrust and betrayal as central themes. Examples of some famous dystopian works include Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and We.
The protagonist of 1984 is a self-effacing, middle-aged clerk named Winston Smith who edits records at the Ministry of Truth. He cuts a “smallish, frail figure, the meagreness of his body merely emphasized by the blue overalls which were the uniform of the party” (Orwell 8). The plot of George Orwell’s 1984 “reveals a process in which the protagonist, originally in a fairly prestigious position and reasonably well adjusted to an oppressive society, experiences a quasi-mystical awakening to his true self through a woman who makes him challenge the dictatorship’s strict rules about sexuality [and]…join…the underground organization of the Brotherhood to overthrow Big Brother” (Gottleib, p. 59). In adult dystopian literature, sex – specifically human intimacy that begets emotional connection – represents the wild card, the one truly unpredictable element of human nature with the power to destabilize even the most organized and militarized oppressive regime. When Winston Smith falls in love with a woman named Julia who works in the Fiction Department, he begins to doubt the validity of the omnipresent propaganda, popularized by the slogan “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU,” and befriends O’Brien, a fellow party member (Orwell, p. 7). Winston Smith sees O’Brien as a fellow dissenter when for “a fraction of a second when their eyes met…an unmistakable message had passed. It was as though the two minds had opened and the thoughts were flowing from one into the other through their eyes. I am with you, O’Brien seemed to be saying to him, I know precisely what you are feeling. I know all about your contempt, your hatred, your disgust. But don’t worry, I am on your side” (Orwell, p. 25). Unfortunately, O’Brien’s identity is later revealed as that of a Thought Police officer; in this role, O’Brien belongs to the party goon squad that tortures any citizen who attempts to shirk the rule of Big Brother. Winston Smith ends up tortured by O’Brien until he swears his allegiance to the party.
The terrible betrayal that O’Brien represents is a common theme in dystopian fiction. The party itself corresponds to George Orwell’s fears surrounding the onset of the Cold War following the conclusion of the Second World War. O’Brien tells Winston Smith that the party is “not content with negative obedience, nor even the most abject submission. When you finally surrender to us, it must be of your own free will. We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us: so long as he resists us, we will never destroy him…It is intolerable to us that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be” (Orwell, p. 318). Orwell’s primary criticism explored through the action of 1984 represents the consequences the author feared would result from the presence of the totalitarian regime personified by the Soviet Union between 1945 and 1991.
The Hunger Games
The Hunger Games title refers to the televised live combat ritual at the heart of the novel. This young adult dystopia takes place in a post-apocalyptic world known as Panem. In this nightmarish future, “starvation is a very real part of life, and the tyrannical central government, which rules from a geographically protected Capitol, keeps the citizens of 12 outlying districts hungry and subservient while exploiting their natural resources and cheap labor” (Blasingame, p. 724). Every teenager between 12 and 18 years old from the 12 districts enters a lottery, and those who win participate in a televised media tour of the Capitol before they partake of the gladiatorial fight to the death. Katniss Everdeen comes from District 12, a mining province that has seen better days. She tells the reader that Hunger Games were designed to punish the inhabitants of the outlying districts who staged a revolt against the Capitol in the distant past and that the games are designed to humiliate, torture, and degrade the participants and their families. There are a total of 24 contestants who are known as tributes – they are culled from each district and forced to participate. The inhabitant of their districts must endure the televised debauchery.
Suzanne Collins, the author of The Hunger Games, criticizes the media-dominated culture of the United States in the 21st century, specifically the pervasive and invasive celebrity culture of reality television. “The 24 newly famous teenagers are the guest stars of several days of festivities, all of which are televised, including pageants and interviews and up close and personal profiles, which attempt to make them the darlings and heroes of the general populace [before] they are dropped into a combat zone and fight each other to the death” before a global audience (Blasingame, p. 724).
The protagonist of The Hunger Games is 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, a self-sufficient hunter who lives in the poorest district. Katniss Everdeen is brave, resourceful, and eminently practical. She does what is necessary to survive, regardless of the risk. “Electrified or not, the fence has been successful at keeping the flesh-eaters out of District 12. Inside the woods, they roam freely, and there are added concerns like venomous snakes, rabid animals, and no real paths to follow. But there’s also food if you know how to find it” (Collins, p. 5). When Katniss Everdeen volunteers to participate in the Hunger Games in place of her sister Prim, the sudden attention from her neighbors surprises her. “Then something unexpected happens. At least, I don’t expect it because I don’t think of District 12 as a place that cares about me. But a shift has occurred since I stepped up to take Prim’s place, and now it seems I have become someone precious” (Collins, p. 24). The main criticism that Collins explores in the novel is the effect of the media on human interaction. The dystopian future is full of sensationalized media campaigns that Katniss Everdeen lives in speaks to the consequences that the author fears will result if the overly invasive media machine that we currently employ to generate celebrity status is not checked.
Dystopian literature is essentially the literature of fear. Significantly, young adult dystopian fiction remains conceived, written, and published by adults. As Miller explains, “it somehow fits the paranoid spirit of these novels that adults are the ones who write them, publish them, stocks them in stores and libraries, assign them in classes, and decide which ones win prizes. Most of the reader reviews posted online seem to be written by adults as well” (p. 7). Thus, this type of literature concerns itself with what adults fear; it may or may not genuinely reflect or represent the actual fears of adolescents on the doorstep of adulthood. “Depending on the anxieties and preoccupations of its time, a dystopian young adult novel might speculate about the aftermath of nuclear war…or the drawbacks of engineering a too harmonious social order…or the consequences of resource exhaustion” (Miller, p. 4).
The popularity of young adult dystopian novels has been building for “decades” (Miller, p. 2). As critic Eric Norton explains, “dystopian fiction for youth also has a long history, moving from early titles like William Sleator’s House of Stairs through Lois Lowry’s The Giver to more recent titles like Nancy Farmer’s House of the Scorpion” (p. 38). The publishing industry recognizes this “thriving genre, [and] themes and motifs get swapped around from other genres and forms” (Miller 2). Young adult dystopian novels, similar to the adult dystopian genre exemplified by the classic literature of Orwell, favors “the post-apocalyptic scenarios in which humanity is reduced to subsistence farming or neo-feudalism, stuck in villages ruled by religious fanatics or surrounded by toxic wastelands, predatory warlords, or flesh-eating zombie hordes” (Miller, p. 2). A number of critics encourage that young readers adopt a critical stance toward these literary texts, with an eye to “the generational politics involved in writing young adult stories…[because even though] adult writers of these texts are exploring issues relevant to young people…such explorations are necessarily coloured by the writer’s adult worldview” (Giardina, p. 83). In her article “Is He Still Human? Are You? Young Adult Science Fiction in the Posthuman Age,” Elaine Ostry posits that one of the most common authorial agendas witnessed in recent adolescent dystopian science fiction has been to “mediate the posthuman age to a young audience” (Ostry, p. 223). That said, dystopian fiction as a genre speaks to a larger and pervasive societal fear that the behaviors, political systems, leadership styles, values, and attitudes hasten the destruction or subjugation – both physical and psychological – of the human species. In this regard, the dystopian fiction titles geared toward adults do not differ significantly from those marketed toward high school-aged readers. “While the cautionary element is present in dystopic novels for young people, they also serve a bibliotherapeutic purpose, allowing teens to face their fears of the future, whether outlandish or all too possible. As history rolls onward and the world changes, fears of possible futures also change” (Norton 39). Teenage readers, Norton argues, are no less concerned about where the world is going than their adult counterparts. “Not only are readers concerned with future totalitarian states but also with anarchy, environmental degradation or collapse, and infringement on emotional and reproductive freedom” (Norton, p. 39).
Young adult dystopian fiction may also speak more to the actual profoundly negative reality that many teenagers experience during their high school years. As Miller posits, “adults dump teenagers into the viper pit of high school, spouting a lot of sentimental drivel about what a wonderful stage of life it’s supposed to be. The rules are arbitrary, unfathomable, and subject to sudden change” (p. 5). The oppressive regimes that feature prominently in many young adult dystopian novels may mirror the upper echelon of power in the high school hierarchy, wherein a “brutal social hierarchy prevails, with the rich, the good-looking, and the athletic lording their advantages over everyone else. To survive you have to be fake” (Miller, p. 5). Survival seems to be a recurrent theme in young adult dystopian novels – typically survival against outrageous odds – and alienation also appears regularly in many young adult protagonists, which also highlights the teenage experience. “Adults don’t seem to understand how high the stakes are; your whole life could be over, and they act like it’s just some “phase”! Everyone’s always watching you, scrutinizing your clothes or your friends and obsessing over whether you’re having sex or taking drugs or getting good enough grades, but no one cares who you are or how you feel about anything” (Miller, p. 5). The idea that high school is itself a dystopia may explain the enduring popularity of young adult dystopian fiction.
1984 and The Hunger Games are essentially the same stories told from two contrasting protagonists’ points of view. Winston Smith lacks the resourcefulness and practicality of Katniss Everdeen, while Katniss Everdeen has none of Winston Smith’s intellectual analysis of the regime or romantic notions of overthrowing the regime. However, they both fight the power in their way, for different reasons: Winston Smith seeks to find an outlet for his true experience of living, to counter the dogma of the Party that “told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears” (Orwell, p.102). Katniss Everdeen simply volunteers for the Games through her devotion to the idea of family allegiance, to save her sister Prim, “who no one can help loving,” from certain death (Collins, p. 24).
The dystopian societies that these characters inhabit are remarkably similar. Winston Smith lives in an environment of constant surveillance from “telescreens [and] hidden microphones” that record the comings and goings of the populace (Orwell, p. 363). The Party blasts its dogmatic messages from all corners, overseen by the Thought Police; these party fanatics torture the citizens to maintain the rule of Big Brother. Similarly, Katniss Everdeen lives in the shadow of and subservient to the Capitol – a corporate machine similar to Big Brother in its pervasiveness and control – and she remains ever aware of the eyes trained on her every move, even going so far as to “pause a second, giving the cameras time to lock on me” (Collins, p. 164). The Peacekeepers that patrol the districts in The Hunger Games – trained officials from the Capitol who terrorize the inhabitants of the outlying districts – bear a striking resemblance to Orwell’s Thought Police. Both novels explore the world from the insider perspective, someone who has found a way to survive in this world, through either obedience or disobedience. In the case of Winston Smith, he tows the Party line quite literally until the relationships he develops with O’Brien and Julia expel him from his comfort zone. Katniss Everdeen, on the other hand, disobeys the edicts of the Capitol openly and willingly by hunting in the woods; however, her motivation for the dissenting behavior is not political but practical – she hunts because she and her family are hungry and need the game to stay alive.
1984 and The Hunger Games both explore feminist themes, although differently. In 1984, Winston Smith’s lover Julia gains an appreciation of the natural world and her own body through the awakening of her sexuality, as well as the time the two of them spend outside, believing that they are away from the prying eyes of Big Brother. “With Julia, everything came back to her sexuality. As soon as this was touched upon in any way she was capable of great acuteness” (Orwell, p. 167). When Winston Smith and Julia encounter a thrush singing in the meadow after they have had sex, “Winston and Julia clung together, fascinated” (Orwell 156). As Bowen and Daniels explain, in 1984, the female members of the Party “are encouraged to spend any spare free time volunteering for Junior Anti-Sex League, a political organization whose purpose is to advocate…celibacy…Women are trained from a very early age to repress their sexual instincts and are given monthly talks conditioning them to hate sex” (p.432). Thus, the feminist act of ownership over one’s sexual life becomes an act of dissension in the dystopian world created by Orwell.
The awareness of sexuality does not factor into The Hunger Games, largely because the genre does not typically explore sexual themes. Most teenage readers of young adult literature are still virgins or have a very limited sexual experience. The feminist elements explored in The Hunger Games consist mainly of Katniss Everdeen’s developing sense of self and her ability to outsmart the Gamemakers through the cameras themselves. “Yes, they would have to have a victor. Without a victor, the whole thing would blow up in the Gamemakers’ faces. They’d have failed the Capitol. Might even be executed, slowly and painfully while the cameras broadcast it to every screen in the country” (Collins 344). The self-reliance and survival instinct that Katniss Everdeen demonstrates marks her as a feminist role model, particularly for young women.
The historical connection found in the novel 1984 points to the traumatic aftermath of the Second World and the societal fears toward the Cold War, specifically the Soviet Union, in the early post-war years. 1984 was written in response to the turbulent political situation that George Orwell experienced at the end of the Second World War, as close to Armageddon as the human species has come in recent years. With Europe completely decimated and the presence of the Nazi death camps coming into public awareness, Orwell’s novel 1984 contains a deep, desperate fear that shouts from every page of the novel. Orwell’s dystopian classic criticized a “series of other targets – American capitalism and Soviet Communism; state planning and eugenics; sexual, pharmacological and mass-media induced hedonism; Keynesian economics and Lawrentian primitivism” (Milner, p. 338). As Milner notes, the deeply pessimistic ending of 1984 highlights one of “the central political dilemma of dystopian fiction: if its serious purpose is in its warning, then the more grimly inexorable the fictive world becomes, so the less effective it will be as a call to resistance” (Milner, p. 333).
The historical connection examined in The Hunger Games speaks more to the 21st-century preoccupation with celebrity status, particularly that which is achieved through competitive television shows such as Survivor. In this regard, The Hunger Games differs significantly from 1984, in that Collins’ version of dystopia does not describe “a future to be averted; it’s a version of what’s already happening in the world they inhabit” (Miller, p. 1). Collins mirrors the pervasiveness of celebrity culture in the daily lives of young adults through Katniss Everdeen’s experience with the cameras watching her at every juncture; though she becomes comfortable with them, she maintains an awareness of their presence.
A 2003 collection of essays known as “Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Young Adults” examined the differences between the intended readers of adult dystopian fiction compared to young adult dystopia fiction. Critic Kay Sambell understands the main difference between the two genres to occur in the ending, as the “narrative closure of the protagonist’s final defeat and failure is crucial to the admonitory impulse of the classic adult dystopia” (p. 166). The dystopian novel written for adults draws from elements of the author’s present-day to demonstrate to its adult readers “how terrible things will become if our deplorable behavior continues unchecked. The more utterly the protagonist is crushed, the more urgent and forceful the message” (Miller, p. 4).
Conversely, the authors of young adult dystopian fiction remain “reluctant to depict the extinction of hope within their stories,” thus they tend to offer an upbeat ending or at the very least a way out for the main character which may be tinged with sadness or loss (Sambell, p. 166). This is true of The Hunger Games in that Katniss Everdeen keeps her life but loses Peeta. Campbell believes that the dystopian novels written for adult and adolescent readers have essentially similar goals; these types of books seek to warn the public about the disastrous long-term consequences that the authors foresee if the current trend continues unmitigated (Sambell, p. 135). In the case of 1984, Miller understands this to be the case, as the novel “details the consequences of political authoritarianism and feckless hedonism” (Miller, p. 4). While The Hunger Games is most certainly an “indictment of reality TV,” it also contains a sophisticated and poignant theme of betrayal similar to that explored in 1984 (Miller, p. 4). Katniss Everdeen’s loss at the end of the book is extremely significant; she has saved herself and Peeta, certainly. However, the cost of their lives is the relationship itself, an extraordinarily high price to pay for adolescents and adults alike. In this way, Miller takes issue with the idea that The Hunger Games is a dystopia at all. The critic does not “regard social criticism as the real point of Collins’s novel. The Hunger Games is not an argument. It operates like a fable or a myth, a story in which outlandish and extravagant figures and events serve as conduits for universal experiences. Dystopian fiction may be the only genre written for children that’s routinely less didactic than its adult counterpart. It’s not about persuading the reader to stop something terrible from happening—it’s about what’s happening, right this minute” (Miller, p. 4). Similarly, the critic Andrew Milner does not view the ending of 1984 as the ending of the story. Rather, the critic points to the fact that “Nineteen Eighty-Four ends at the conclusion to the appendix on Newspeak, with…It was chiefly to allow time for the preliminary work of translation that the final adoption of Newspeak had been fixed for so late a date as 2050” (Milner, p. 337). Orwell writes this appendix in standard English, which Milner argues is a clue that the Big Brother regime has fallen (Milner, p. 337). Small clues such as this might be lost on young readers not accustomed to the authorial tricks certain adult writers employ to send messages to the reader; these messages in many cases contradict their texts. However, where The Hunger Games is to be introduced into the English curriculum as a preparatory text for 1984, the students would be prepared to respond to the dystopian world that Orwell describes, because they would have experienced the trickery, deception, betrayal, and manipulation that features prominently in the world that Katniss Everdeen inhabits.
Media control remains pervasive in both 1984 and The Hunger Games. One difference exists: in the world that Winston Smith inhabits, the telescreens and microphones remain hidden. The secrecy of the surveillance underscores one of the main themes of the novel, the lack of privacy that the citizenry lives in and the complete lack of personal space they endure. In The Hunger Games, the surveillance is overt and omnipresent: “Through the window, I can see the platform’s thick with cameras. Everyone will be eagerly watching our homecoming” (Collin, p. 373). The characters in The Hunger Games know that the cameras are there, and often play to them or in Katniss Everdeen’s case, use them to their advantage. “Condensing several weeks into three hours is quite a feat, especially when you consider how many cameras were going at once. Whoever puts together the highlights has to choose what story to tell” (Collins, p. 362). Essentially, the characters in The Hunger Games differ from those in 1984 in their expectation of privacy. The world that Collins criticizes is our world, where little expectation of privacy exists and news media cameras often capture the most private moments of people in the throes of death, grief, or agonizing pain. Katniss Everdeen does not expect anything to be private; rather, she begins to manipulate the cameras to her benefit. Winston Smith, on the other hand, still wants to find a place where he and Julia can be alone, unobserved, and enjoy each other’s presence unfiltered and uninterrupted, and he longs for human contact outside of the dictates of Big Brother. “O’Brien’s political orthodoxy was not perfect. Something in his face suggested it irresistibly. And again, perhaps it was not even unorthodoxy that was written in his face, but simply intelligence. But at any rate, he had the appearance of being a person you could talk to if somehow you could cheat the telescreen and get him alone” (Orwell, p. 18).
Media control affects both protagonists similarly in the lack of ease that the constant media presence engenders in both characters. In young adult dystopian novels, in particular, recent years have seen media control factor prominently in the subject matter. “Since the late 1990s, however, the emphasis has shifted from economic and knowledge-based paradigms to social and political ones. In an age where technology is ubiquitous, hyperconnectivity is the norm and the information flow is constant, the perceived quality of the information available…is increasingly subject to critique” (Giardina 84). Young adult dystopian novels are now “more likely to consider the purposes of information and misinformation, the motivations of those controlling the information flow, and the effect of…information and communication technologies…on average people, their societies and their culture” (Giardina, p. 84). Though in The Hunger Games “the informed teen triumphs,” it is media savvy that saves Katniss Everdeen (Giardina, p. 84). She understands the political significance of the cameras to the Capitol and the Gamemakers and uses their weakness – their need for a spectacle to maintain their political status – to save herself and Peeta. As Giardina cautions, “one of the problematic features of these texts is that while they claim to represent real-life issues of youth and technology at least metaphorically, these representations remain ideologically-laden fictional constructions designed to position readers to respond in certain ways. Thus, such texts may have varying degrees of relevance to the lives of young people” (p. 86). Young adults of 2011 would likely be unable to empathize with Winston Smith, as accustomed as they are to complete media saturation of both private and public spaces. However, where The Hunger Games to be used as a bridging text, it would lead to some interesting class discussions about the way that expectations of privacy have completely transformed since George Orwell’s time.
Both 1984 and The Hunger Games feature oppressive totalitarian regimes running the dystopian worlds of Oceania and Panem respectively. “In George Orwell’s 1984, we are presented with an unforgettable account of the impoverishment of public discourse. Citizens in this totalitarian society have been dumbed down to the point where they are no longer able to express their true thoughts and feelings to each other…with no public talk – no civic discourse – permitted to them” (Parker, p. 111). The dryness, coldness, and staleness of the language of Big Brother reflect the complete divorce that Winston Smith and the other characters have from their bodies and the natural world. While Miller explains, in The Hunger Games, the televised fight to the death “doesn’t make much sense…as a tool of practical propaganda…They lack that essential quality of the totalitarian spectacle: ideological coherence. You don’t demoralize and dehumanize a subject people by turning them into celebrities and coaching them on how to craft an appealing persona for a mass audience” (p. 4). However, the totalitarian regime at the heart of The Hunger Games employs a different tactic of control and “ideological coherence” (Miller, p. 4). Sensationalism and blood sports televised the world over nets have the same effect. The citizenry remains impoverished, worked to the point of death, dried up, and killed off young, much like the drones that Orwell describes in 1984.
Theme of Betrayal
“Out of the corner of my eye, I see Peeta extend his hand. I look at him unsure. One more time? For the audience? he says. His voice isn’t angry. It’s hollow, which is worse. Already the boy with the bread is slipping away from me” (Collins, p. 373). The betrayal theme features prominently in both 1984 and The Hunger Games. In the latter novel, the treatment of this theme is much more subtle than the overt treatment it receives in 1984. Under torture, Winston Smith betrays his lover Julia in the most egregious manner – he wishes his punishment on her. “He had suddenly understood that in the whole world there was just ONE person to whom he could transfer his punishment – ONE body that he could thrust between himself and the rats. And he was shouting frantically, over and over. Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don’t care what you do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones. Not me! Julia! Not me!” (Orwell 358). When he and Julia meet again at the end of the novel, Winston Smith realizes that his lover has done the same thing to him. “I betrayed you, she said baldly. I betrayed you, he said. She gave him another quick look of dislike. Sometimes, she said, they threaten you with something, something you can’t stand up to, can’t even think about. And then you say, Don’t do it to me, do it to somebody else, do it to so-and-so. And perhaps you might pretend, afterward, that it was only a trick and that you said it just to make them stop and didn’t mean it. But that isn’t true. At the time when it happens, you do mean it” (Orwell, p. 365). The act of betraying essentially kills whatever feelings the characters had for each other.
In The Hunger Games, betrayal is much more subtly handled as the withholding of a certain key piece of information and exploiting the needs of the Capitol and the Gamemakers to portray a love story to the audience. “Coaching you? But not me, says Peeta. He knew you were smart enough to get it right, I say. I didn’t know there was anything to get right, says Peeta. So what you’re saying is,…that was just some strategy you two worked out…It was all for the Games” (Collins, p. 372). Katniss Everdeen’s feelings toward both Peeta and Gale remain ambivalent to the end of the novel; however, the ambivalence has less to do with Katniss Everdeen’s preference for one over the other. Rather, her indecisiveness speaks to the low sense of self that living in District 12 instilled in her. Her feelings remain ambivalent therefore because she does not believe that she deserves either one. “I want to tell him that he’s not being fair….That I did what it took to stay alive,…That it’s no good loving me because I’m never going to get married anyway and he’d just end up hating me later instead of sooner…I’ll never be able to afford the kind of love that leads to family, to children” (Collins, p. 373). The theme of betrayal in both novels, therefore, is quite similar; both Winston Smith and Katniss Everdeen discover something untoward about themselves as a result of the betrayal, a truth that renders them both incapable of true human feeling.
As of 2011, the educational approach to teaching literature favors classic texts over those from the young adult canon. George Orwell’s novel 1984 features prominently in the secondary school English classroom. Knickerbocker and Rycik propose that the employment of young adult literary texts and the ensuing prominence of peer discussion of young adult texts relates to the teaching approach favored by the middle school English curriculum (Knickerbocker and Rycik 197). The authors argue that the prominence of the classic texts and adult literature support the teacher-directed scaffolding approach to teaching literature found in the majority of high school English curricula (Knickerbocker and Rycik 197).
One of the main benefits of young adult dystopian fiction is the bridging action it provides for the more advanced dystopian works of fiction such as 1984, as well as Brave New World and We. Young adult dystopian novels feature many of the same themes found in the classic novels, including betrayal, media control, and totalitarian control, and because the protagonists are teenagers, a closeness, and affinity between the young adult reader and the young adult dystopian fiction protagonist becomes more likely. As outlined earlier, these novels facilitate understanding between different periods of history. In the case of The Hunger Games, so many of the ideas and themes explored in this novel directly mirror those discussed in 1984. Therefore, The Hunger Games would serve as an excellent preparatory work for students to read before their teachers assigned them the more complex literary work 1984. The Hunger Games’ betrayal plot is also sophisticated enough so that the story of Winston Smith and Julia will have more resonance with young adult readers who come into the story having read about Katniss Everdeen’s betrayal of Peeta.
Most importantly, The Hunger Games opens a dialogue between students and teachers about the themes and ideas explored in 1984, specifically loss of privacy, desire for privacy, media saturation, and media control. Students that develop the desire to read may do so through lively and stimulating classroom discussions about The Hunger Games. “Developing the strategies and skills to read is integral, but they are distinct from developing a desire to read…as every teacher who struggles to engage even the most capable readers is aware” (Knickerbocker and Rycik 198). The value of classroom discussions “involves a purposeful exchange of views – a dialogue – among the participants themselves,” and opening a classroom discussion of the more accessible dystopian fiction exemplified by The Hunger Games prepares students for the more challenging work of 1984 (Parker 111). As Parker explains, teachers often have “difficulty…helping students enter the discussion with their prior knowledge and cultural vantage points present and working. Furthermore, how can young students learn what adults generally have not: to use discussion to seek insight rather than victory? True discussion requires participants to switch loyalties from defending positions and winning arguments to seeking understanding, really hearing others, and struggling to articulate reasons and opinions that are in progress” (Parker 112). The sophisticated treatment of similar themes between the two novels facilitates class discussion in a more timely and targeted manner. Furthermore, a good class discussion about books inspires teachers to “value discussion…[to] deploy different models to suit different curriculum purposes…[to] help their students hold discussions, and [to] engage their students in the same curiosity they feel about the question at hand” (Parker 116).
Thus, the value of young adult literature becomes evident as a teaching tool. These works of fiction can serve as the “way in” for numerous classic texts, providing the means for students to expand their vocabulary, awareness of literary devices, and sophistication of reading without sacrificing empathy or affinity for the protagonist. Young adult novels also support class discussions of literature, which as Parker points out “despite the obstacles, the discussion is worth the effort: understanding and democracy both depend upon it. As well, discussions nurture we – a democratic culture – by allowing participants to decide together how to solve problems,” especially those problems that involve the future that our current actions and values will shape (Parker 116).
The main goal of this paper has been to demonstrate the fact that students can be more interested in reading and learning about classic literature as much as they do about their adolescent literature, particularly if the two forms of literature are utilized in a complementary manner. Young adult literary texts create a bridge between classic literature and adolescent literature in the classroom. High-quality young adult dystopian fiction such as The Hunger Games can be used in the classroom to facilitate critical discussion among students in preparation for the most advanced classic text 1984 and provide students with the well-rounded, highly developed education that each state requires while engaging the students to learn and continue to read into their adult years.
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