On the Hunger Games trilogy

The Inevitable Decline of Decadence

By Adrienne Kress

The goal of every culture is to decay through over-civilization; the
factors of decadence—luxury, skepticism, weariness and superstition—are constant. The civilization of one epoch becomes the manure of the
next.

—Cyril Connolly

The Hunger Games trilogy deals with many themes: war, rebellion, the manipulation of media. But it was its concern with societal decadence and its inevitable downfall that made the first book’s release timely. The bestselling YA dystopian series came onto shelves just as the world’s economy took a tumble. For years we’d been living in comfort and excess. Consumerism was rife, and shows like Sex and the City glorified consumption by extolling the virtues of shoes worth hundreds of dollars. Then, suddenly, the party was over, and the world became concerned with trying to save money rather than spend it. Today the idea of wasteful consumption turns our stomachs.

It isn’t as if this is the first time our society has gone from a period of great decadence to a time of recession; the pattern seems to be predictable. Yet despite the fact that rampant self-indulgence never lasts, those in the moment still somehow manage to think it can. Why is it that those in power truly believe that this time, this time, decadence will win out? Probably because decadence can be so much darn fun. The problem is, in order for these few people to continue to live this kind of lifestyle, many others must sacrifice a great deal of personal freedom. And it is the dissatisfaction of the many forced to make this sacrifice that inevitably leads to the decadent society’s downfall.

First, before we look at the books themselves, a definition of decadence is in order. Most of us think of decadence as being a matter of pure indulgence. Going to the spa. Sleeping in past noon. Being fed chocolates by a handsome young man while another fans you with a large palm leaf. That kind of thing—a moment of pure selfishness, where a person’s own desires are met. And truly, there isn’t anything wrong with going to the spa, or sleeping in, or being fed chocolates—once in a while. It can be a huge release to take a moment to do something that has no practical purpose aside from relaxing the body and indulging the senses.

Decadence in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact it’s probably even a necessary thing, every so often, to experience a moment of indulgence, especially as so often we spend our lives working and doing things for others. A bit of selfishness can have remarkable restorative powers, allowing us to rejuvenate ourselves and carry on with the daily grind of life. It can be the reward for having to do something particularly trying. The dessert at the end of the healthy meal.

The trouble with decadence, like the trouble with most things, comes from over-indulging in it—a lack of moderation. To live a life that consists solely of decadent experiences would be to live a life that is very unproductive. Sleeping all day and then going to the spa and eating chocolates? When would you get anything practical done?

The other problem with decadence is that, after indulging, it can be difficult to go back to the regular grind of work. Why get up at seven-thirty in the morning to get chores done when you can sleep in? Why feed yourself when hunky guys can do it for you? (Okay, the whole hunky guy argument is rather solid. But I digress.) We have to live our lives. We have to make money so that we can put food on our table. We have to cultivate and grow that food in the first place.

What happens, then, when someone wants to live a decadent lifestyle all the time? Well, it means he has to find someone else to provide all the other stuff for him. He needs to find someone else to make the products that he is indulging in. He needs to find someone else to clean his apartment. To raise his children. Self-indulgence becomes the worst kind of team effort, the many working for the benefit of the one.

What’s more, spending one’s life focused solely on one’s own pleasure, aside from affecting one’s physical well being—sleeping all day, that can’t be good for muscle strength—can also have an even more dangerous effect on the psyche. When a person’s purpose in life becomes indulging himself, it’s tempting to start believing that anything that gets in the way of the indulgence must be stopped, and anything that helps achieve it should be promoted. And when you care only about yourself, why should you care about the people who make it possible for you to indulge? Why should you care about your “team”?

This is how a world like the one in the Hunger Games series can come into being. But instead of being about an individual who is interested in self-indulgence, the books are about an entire society. Such a society isn’t a fictional construct. We have seen such societies in the real world, as well. Ancient Rome was known for its decadent parties, where servants were on hand to wipe spittle from the faces of wealthy citizens indulging in feasts while reclining on couches in rooms with walls painted gold. The time of Marie Antoinette was well-known for extravagance, not only in clothes and food, but also in the complete indulgence of fantasy. The queen was infamous for so thoroughly not understanding the suffering and starvation of her people that, when told they had no bread to eat, she said, “Let them eat cake.” She took this oblivious decadence to a whole new level when she had a miniature hamlet built at her palace of Versailles, adjacent to her villa Petit Trianon, where she could pretend to be a common shepherdess or milkmaid and enhance her fantasy by petting her animals, milking cows, even collecting eggs from chickens—playing at what was, for many of her subjects, a difficult daily reality.

What’s worse, such societies can actually convince themselves that this self-indulgence of the few based on the work of the many can actually be a good thing for everyone. That it is better to curtail part of the population’s rights and freedoms so that the society as a whole can remain intact.

In The Hunger Games the excuse is to prevent nuclear holocaust. We are told it almost happened once before, which is why District 13, the district that produced nuclear weaponry, was supposedly destroyed. The country now lives under the watchful eye and mighty thumb of the Capitol, not as a punishment, but to prevent total annihilation. A little suffering, the reasoning goes, is better than oblivion. It is better for all to work toward one positive goal, the supposed preservation of the country, and to give up certain personal freedoms such as how much one can eat or how laws are enacted and enforced, than to live a life that could destroy society. In the Hunger Games individual rights and freedoms are dangerous toys for a careless populace.

And, as any good child knows, if you can’t play with your toys nicely, you lose them.

*

When we are first introduced to the dystopian future of the Hunger Games trilogy, the reader can easily draw the conclusion that we are being painted a picture of a gloomy impoverished future: a post-apocalyptic world where everyone must fend for themselves. Of course, we conclude this because we are introduced first to District 12, one of the poorest districts in the country. What we don’t realize until later is that this series isn’t about people surviving in a world where there are no commodities, but rather about a world where most exist in terrible conditions in order to support those who have great luxury and food aplenty. These lucky few simply don’t live in the districts (though some districts do have more than others). These lucky few are the citizens in the Capitol, a city state reminiscent of ancient Rome.

Examples of decadence come to us in drips and drabs. The first indication that things are different elsewhere is Effie Trinket’s colored wigs. The absurdity of her appearance is in stark contrast to that of the citizens of 12, who can barely afford to clothe themselves, let alone decorate themselves to no practical purpose. But our first example of true decadence is served on the train to the Capitol—in a very visceral moment when Katniss is presented with not only enough to eat, but too much.

Food is a huge metaphor in the books. The country is even called “Panem,” which means “bread.” Food is life. We learn that it is what initially brought Katniss and Peeta together as children when he saved her life by giving her slightly burnt bread. Food gave her hope when she and Gale were able to hunt and provide for her family. Food becomes a symbol of strength to her in the arena when, during her first Hunger Games, District 11 sends her bread as a gift of gratitude. Food is what keeps people alive. It’s what shows others that they care. And so when we see food treated as trash, when we see people simply throw food away because they have too much of it, we understand that we are witnessing the ultimate display of decadence and overindulgence: life being tossed aside.

For each piece of food wasted, we the reader can only imagine how much that food would have helped someone in one of the districts. Nothing in the entire trilogy achieves a more disgusting display of decadence than the party in Catching Fire, where people eat as much as they possibly can only to vomit it back up so that they can eat more: “All I can think of is the emaciated bodies of the children on our kitchen table as my mother prescribes what the parents can’t give . . . And here in the Capitol they’re vomiting for the pleasure of filling their bellies again and again.”

Here we have another clear allusion to ancient Rome, where it was commonplace to vomit up one’s meal in order to partake of more—or at least to vomit post-meal after having partaken of too much. As Cicero is thought to have said of Julius Caesar: “[He] expressed a desire to vomit after dinner.” As if eating until one threw up was the way things worked, and not representative of overindulgence.

Another demonstration of indulgence in the series is the luxury of taking care of one’s outer self. For Katniss, clothes are a means to guard against the elements. Her one sentimental garment is her father’s hunting jacket, and even it still serves a practical purpose. She does so little to take care of her appearance that her style team has to work very hard just to get her to a starting point of which they approve. We see in comparing her way of life to that of the Capitol how extreme its way of life really is. Not only do its citizens dress in extravagant clothes and wear ridiculous wigs, but they surgically alter their appearance by dyeing their skin bright colors and even by making themselves look like animals.

Of course, this obsession with superficiality should feel familiar to any of us reading these books. It reflects not only habits of the past, but our current modern obsessions. In ancient Rome the citizens were wig-obsessed, as were those living in the Restoration Period in England and the time preceding the French Revolution, where women’s wigs could reach upwards of three feet high. Even today, we see an obsession with hair pieces and extensions.

But the idea of surgically altering a person’s appearance purely for aesthetic purposes is a truly modern idea. We cut and slice and dice ourselves and stitch it all back up together in an effort to look younger or more attractive. A sign of true wealth and decadence is a woman who is more plastic than flesh. And, of course, we have all seen the pictures of those who overindulged. Images of the “Cat Lady,” a woman who attempted to look cat-like through surgery, became infamous around the world. It’s hard not to think of her real life example when introduced to Tigris in the books, a character who exemplifies going too far—so far, in fact, that she is beyond ridicule, and instead we pity her.

As it stands in current society, the purpose of plastic surgery is to make a person appear as if she hasn’t had any, unlike the characters in the Hunger Games about whose cosmetic surgery there can be no doubt. But is it that impossible to think things won’t shift? After all, it used to be that we recognized older people because of the lines on their faces. Now we recognize the typical “rejuvenating” procedures: skin pulled back so tightly that there is little expression left on the face; work done around the eyes to make them look cavernous. Such an appearance used to be considered unnatural; people would gossip disdainfully about anyone who looked that way. But now the tell-tale tightness is becoming so common that people hardly notice it as unusual. What’s to say adding a tail eventually wouldn’t be considered just as normal? And fun to swoosh around.

Decadence is also seen in the neo-classical architecture of Panem’s grand columned buildings, reflecting the Roman influence once again. The purpose of the architecture in ancient Rome was to demonstrate Rome’s power over the rest of the world, and its wealth. It was large, it was audacious, it was decadently decorated with frescos, friezes, and other forms of statuary, sometimes even painted in gold. We get glimpses of comparable architecture in Catching Fire at the celebration in the Capitol. The banquet room has forty-foot-high ceilings, musicians seemingly float on white clouds halfway up, the floor is covered with flower gardens and ponds are filled with exotic fish. And tables are replaced by sofas “so that people can eat and drink . . . in the utmost comfort” just as the ancient Romans did (Catching Fire).

And though not ancient Roman–inspired, architecture as decadence can also be seen in President Snow’s greenhouse in Mockingjay. Such a building requires a great deal of upkeep and money to maintain, and the purpose of Snow’s is not even food production—it’s the ability to grow roses year round. Its description as too sweet, almost suffocating in its heat, is a great reminder of the excess it represents.

Thanks to the way the series begins, with Katniss in District 12, the reader has no doubt that behind all this decadence is a large population working to support it. Like the bottom row of cheerleaders in the pyramid, the job of the districts is to prop up the Capitol. Each district provides a particular resource to the rest of the country. Or so it is said. From the beginning of The Hunger Games, however, we know there is not enough food to go around, not enough building supplies to construct solid homes to protect people from the elements. Product is being made, but it is clear that the Capitol is getting the lion’s share. None of it is being consumed by the districts.

We see even more grotesque examples of the many supporting the few, most notably with the Avoxes who serve at the pleasure of the Capitol’s citizens. Yes, they are supposedly being punished for crimes by having their tongues cut out and being forced to work as slaves. But through Katniss we are well aware that the crimes they are being punished for are not always things such as murder and rape, but rather speaking out against the Capitol, or trying to run away from a horrible situation. Or being difficult. They are the perfect metaphor for the power structure of Panem: like the districts, they serve the Capitol in silent obedience.

Of course, you can’t turn everyone into an Avox; You can’t punish an entire population, though it appears the Capitol has tried to do just that. And when an entire population grows restless, the result is change. A society of workers who might be weak from lack of nutrition but still strong from day labor has a definite advantage over a society of overripe, unhealthy citizens who haven’t lifted so much as a pen in recent memory.

What history has shown us is that a state of decadence simply can’t last. Invariably such a society collapses. There are usually two ways the breakdown happens. The first takes place when the economy of the decadent society simply cannot support its citizens’ lifestyle. When people spend more and indulge more than they actually can afford to do. We saw something similar happen recently, in the last recession. The drive to have “things” caused people to spend what they didn’t have, and banks were granting loans to people who could not afford to pay them back. When a society is founded on a lie, like on fake money, well, that’s not going to end too well. Like a house built on sand, eventually it’s going to sink.

The other way that such a society comes tumbling down is through revolution. A system of the few living off the many simply cannot last. When the majority of people are the ones creating the products that sustain just a few people, in the end all those hard-working people are going to realize, “Hey, wait a minute. There are more of us than of them.” History has witnessed this pattern time and time again. The fall of Rome. The French Revolution.

Usually it’s a combination of both financial irresponsibility and the few holding down the many that leads to the inevitable fall.

So really it should come to no surprise to anyone in power that such a revolution takes shape in the world of the Hunger Games. After all, the Games themselves exist specifically to demonstrate the Capitol’s power over the populace, to help prevent such a revolution from happening.

Thus the Games represent more than just the decadence of a society seeking greater and greater thrills. They are, at the same time, a demonstration of how to keep the masses in their place. But the Games also end up serving as a catalyst for revolution, a means to reach the millions of citizens whose shoulders are starting to ache horribly from holding up the rest of the pyramid.

Truly, it’s been a long time since the title of a series was so apt.

This really is the story of the Hunger Games.

*

Collins says it best in Mockingjay when she has Plutarch, in conversation with Katniss, directly reference Ancient Rome:

Panem et Circensestranslates into ‘Bread and Circuses’. The writer was saying that in return for full bellies and entertainment, his people had given up their political responsibilities and therefore their power.”

I think about the Capitol. The excess of food. And the ultimate entertainment. The Hunger Games.

The idea here is that, by entertaining the citizens of the Capitol, the government can distract them from realizing what it is doing to the rest of the country. Focusing on small details of the Games, on the odds of who will win, on the costumes worn by the contestants, and the excitement of the Games themselves replaces greater concerns over politics or the state of poverty elsewhere in the country—even the truly cruel nature of the Games themselves.

The Capitol isn’t the only area being entertained to distraction, however. The goal is also to distract the districts. After all, you have to give people something to take their minds off their suffering or all they will do is dwell on it. And dwelling on it can lead to unpleasant results, like coming to the conclusion that it might be a neat idea to revolt.

So the Hunger Games become like the gladiator combats of old, set even in their own coliseum, though the arena for the Games is much more elaborate and the action is relayed not to an audience in the stands but rather to all of Panem with the help of television. Entertainment on a massive scale.

We can see how such distractions are used in our own society: the film boom in the ’30s during the Great Depression, for example. And even now as our world is in serious financial trouble we have fantastical epic films rising in popularity. These films allow an audience to escape the less pleasant aspects of their lives compellingly and completely.

Not only does such entertainment distract during the actual Games, it also becomes something aspirational. So just as we have people today longing to be famous for no other reason than to be famous, the Hunger Games provide a similar opportunity. Not only is there pride and celebrity in being the winner of such a huge event broadcast to the entire population, there are the rewards given to the winning tribute’s district as well, like extra food. So instead of the Games’ being horrific events to try to avoid, for some—like the “Careers” in Districts 1 and 2, children who are trained from a young age to compete in the Games—it becomes a mark of honor to win. And yet ironically, by supporting the Games in order to earn such benefits as food rewards, these districts are supporting the very thing that keeps them down and prevents them from having enough food in the first place.

But of course, the Games’ most nefarious purpose is to remind the masses who is in charge:

As our yearly reminder that the Dark Days must never be repeated, [the government] gave us the Hunger Games . . . Whatever words they use, the real message is clear. “Look how we take your children and sacrifice them and there’s nothing you can do. If you lift a finger we will destroy every last one of you.” (The Hunger Games)

It is hard not to fear a power that can so easily, thoughtlessly sacrifice the lives of children. If they are willing to do that, well, what else might they do? Better to stay obedient and alive than risk a worse form of retaliation.

And yet, in the end, the Hunger Games become a message of good, the platform for revolution. Of course, Katniss doesn’t realize how her small act of rebellion will start a greater one, but for people to see sacrifice in a place where everyone only indulges in their own selfish wants, her small gesture in threatening to eat the poisonous berries rather than killing Peeta to save herself is enough to spark hope in people. The metaphor of the girl catching fire is very apt.

However, the Hunger Games isn’t telling the story of a society’s return to goodness, of the fall from decadence to the rise of equality. It is instead telling our story—the story of our world and the continuous cycle civilization seems to spin over and over again. It isn’t focused on black and white, good and bad, but rather on highlighting the grey. The saviors of the country—the rebels—are presented in stark contrast to the Capitol. On the one side we have President Snow, a man who epitomizes decadence turning to decay, who epitomizes wastefulness and indulgence. He’s an overripe fruit verging on rotting, and even smells a little too sweet. Never has something as beautiful as a rose seemed so threatening and sickening.

On the other side we have Coin, the President of District 13 and the incarnation of pragmatism. Her world is one of strictly enforced limits, where everyone gets enough to eat, but only just enough. Pleasure is secondary to survival. In 13, citizens have their schedules dictated to them and must not indulge themselves in anything, an imposed restraint that is for the benefit of the community at large.

We see in Snow and Coin two ends of a spectrum who oddly have much in common. Both have a deep distrust of the masses and believe they must be kept on a tight leash. And when Coin, upon winning the war, suggests doing one last Hunger Games as a logical solution to show the citizens of the Capitol who’s in charge now, well, we see the exact same rationale for the Games that Snow used.

Coin has so much in common with Snow that it is easy to envision a government with her in charge ending up in a familiar place. The people would be yet again subjected to harsh rules “for their own good,” this time rules of self-restraint. They would eventually reach a breaking point and once more seek to change the way they are being forced to live. After so many years without any kind of luxury or indulgence, who wouldn’t want to be a little selfish? A society of indulgence will slowly develop and the cycle of decadence and downfall will begin all over again.

The Hunger Games suggests the only way to break out of the cycle is a third choice: moderation. Neither Snow nor Coin. The world of Mockingjay’s epilogue is hardly one that is bright and new. But it is one where the Capitol no longer has power over the other districts, where District 12 shuts down the dangerous mines and turns to producing medicine instead, and where, importantly, the history of what happened before is taught. It is clear that this is a society that understands that remembering the mistakes of the past is the only way to prevent them from recurring in the future. But the biggest sign that the society has truly changed is the toppling of a symbol—the end of the Hunger Games.

Can a cycle ever truly be broken? Is society always doomed to repeat the patterns of the past? Certainly our own history seems to reflect that theory. Time and time again people indulge in decadence until we self-destruct, only to do it all over again. But the end of Mockingjay seems to suggest otherwise. Though many have found it bleak, I personally see a great deal of optimism. Suzanne Collins could have chosen to give us Coin as president, an example of a continuous pattern, mistakes just waiting to be made again. Instead she gives us a song. And children. And though “they play on a graveyard” (Mockingjay), the important thing is that they are free to play.

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