Dark themes in teen literature

persecution, abuse, suffering -- these are common themes in literature and I am
not overly disturbed by them, at least in principle. Some happy stories—as much
as I love them—can seem disconnected from reality, and escapism’s comfort is
too fleeting to satisfy.

themes are a part of life, and even if they are difficult to face they can be
invaluable for testing character, proving virtue, and drawing out what is most
beautiful in human nature, as well as the worst. In teen literature, it all
depends how they are dealt with.

a story about evil, abusive powers provides a context for characters to choose
how to respond and bear responsibility for that choice, it offers something
invaluable. Even if characters go along with the evil, the narrative must not
absolve them from the responsibility of acting in that way.

on the other hand, the narrative claims that the characters had no choice but
were forced to act that way by circumstances, then it only helps to make
readers more confused.

in addition a novel turns violence into gratuitous entertainment, it only reinforces
negative themes and desensitises an age group that should be building their
emotional intelligence, not killing it.

the celebration of violence and social pathologies has reached critical mass in
teen fiction was highlighted by a recent article in the Wall Street Journal. The
writer notes that “kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are
now just part of the run of things” in young-adult novels and that profanities
are “so commonplace that most reviewers do not even remark upon it.”

doubt there are worse examples of this literature, but in my view the ultra-best-selling
series and soon to be movie The Hunger Games, is bad enough.

a dystopian vision of the near future, Hunger Games is a terrifying reality TV
show where twelve boys and twelve girls are forced to compete to the death. The
Capitol has imposed the games on the children of the twelve districts under its
control to remind them that rebellion is futile. Sixteen-year-old Katniss
Everdeen steps forward to take her sister’s place, and though she sees it as a
death sentence, she is determined to survive for the sake of her family.

Suzanne Collins conceived the idea for Hunger Games while channel surfing between reality TV shows and news
coverage of an actual war zone. It is not a particularly uplifting theme, yet
Collins has many readers convinced that the book’s ethics are clear: it is a
critique of the violent injustice it describes. I am not convinced.


the games, survival is the ultimate good and death the greatest evil; our
heroine never questions this. She and the other characters do whatever it takes to survive, and for games
contestants this means killing. Katniss is the good girl so she is subtle at
first, dropping an insect nest on someone’s head so they swell up and die "naturally",
or destroying another group’s food so they will starve. Her district companion
Peeta confesses that “to murder innocent people costs everything you are”, yet indirectly
and later directly, both he and Katniss still do it.

The experience is like reading a first hand account of a
Nazi soldier doing horrible things to others in order to stay alive. The fact
is, sometimes survival is not the most important thing and it is necessary to
be prepared to die rather than kill someone else.

Collins’ books, survival only loses its appeal when suffering makes death more
appealing than life, justifying the suicide and mercy killing which are rife in
the series. Towards the end the rebels—including Katniss—
a suicide bomb in case they or their friends are caught. Failure to kill a captured
friend is seen as a failure of friendship, and Katniss’ reluctance to use it is
a sign of her weakness. Darkness–1; Characters–0.

and “romance”

Next there is brutal desensitisation so the
characters won’t get so hurt (it is not acknowledged that this too is a form of
harm), and romance used as a tool of survival.

games are televised and sponsors must be sought to provide the food and
medicine contestants will need to survive. Body appearance is therefore important:
each contestant has a stylist who must first assess them without clothes (Katniss
‘bravely’ resists the urge to cover herself), and then a full body wax makes
them camera-ready. This is probably normal for reality TV, but don’t tell me
it’s brave.

first, the other contestants mock Katniss with explicit offers and gestures because
she is so "pure". But soon she "toughens up" and is able to laugh rather than
blush at their provocative displays, and shows less of a concern to protect
herself. As Katniss is "built up" (broken down), Collins seems to enjoy describing
the loss of innocence; it’s quite nauseating.

the start, a fake relationship between Katniss and Peeta is played up to win
sponsorship. "One kiss equals one pot of broth", so Katniss maintains a
star-crossed lovers’ routine with long, lingering kisses and imaginary tears,
and later the pretence that they are married and that she is pregnant.

himself falls for it, but Katniss is just confused about what she feels. This
doesn’t stop her from kissing, hugging and "comfort' bed sharing with Peeta,
nor prevent her kissing her old friend Gale "to make up for all the kisses I’ve
withheld, because it doesn’t matter anymore, and because I’m so desperately
lonely I can’t stand it." This petty, selfish, mockery of love is all that is
served up in Hunger Games.

so we have it; not only did Katniss embrace her progressive desensitisation and
confusedly false romance, but the book makes her a hero for it.
Darkness–2; Characters–0.

Feelings replace right and wrong

to ethics per se. Actions are deemed right or wrong based on how the characters
feel about them. For Katniss the pattern is repeated over and over: a
catastrophic situation is followed by her passionate but often unethical reaction,
then a soul-searching analysis of her feelings to deal with her guilt, followed
by defiant justification that she had no choice, or, if she had a choice, that
she was confused, which is the fault of those who created the catastrophe. Thus
she becomes the victim-hero: none of the evil—including that which she did
herself—is her fault: they made her do it.

there not a little duplicity in someone who curses the horrible culture that
sacrifices its children to settle its differences, when she herself has played
along with it the whole time?

“Heroic rebellion”

may claim that Katniss did rebel. Let’s look at these heroic acts of rebellion. First, her fake romance: What is rebellious or heroic about this self-serving tactic? Second, Katniss' and Peeta’s threat of double suicide to demand that they both be
allowed to live: after killing so many others her effort to spare a friend
rings hollow. Third, her placing of flowers on her dead friend’s body: but then she goes
on to continue the games, fighting and killing…

about the grand finale where Katniss joins the rebels to bring down the
Capitol? Running on hatred, bitterness and revenge, the rebels use bombs and
guns to kill hundreds of innocent citizens who get in the way. Katniss may not like
the large-scale killing, but she has no problem shooting a startled citizen who
blocks her path. Still, we are reassured, it’s not her fault.
Darkness–4; Characters–0.


all the above is the seductive sensationalism of the storytelling. It is like
watching a graphic news story that turns horrific events into entertainment,
using excessive detail and twisting the narrative to wrench every possible
emotion from the viewer, constantly driven to bigger and better shocks for
impact. The screaming, the blood, the broken bodies, the instruments of torture
and the damage they do -- when all this is no longer enough the emotional
impact of the slow and graphic death of some poor, innocent character we’ve
come to like is thrown in. I don’t know how on earth the movie will rate PG.

can this series be a critique of using injury and death for entertainment when it
does the same itself?! Thanks to the gratuitous graphic detail not only the
characters, but the readers too, are damaged.
Darkness–5; Characters (and readers)–0.

So, what do we do now?

should question the lack of freedom and responsibility of these characters.
Could they have chosen to act differently? Are they responsible for choosing to
act badly? Would we be right to do the same in their situation? Are they heroes
for acting as they did? If there is still confusion, ask the same questions
about Nazi soldiers.

think about the effect of turning horrible things into entertainment. Parents
may find some helpful analysis of the effect of desensitisation on our ability
to love in Wendy Shalit’s shocking book A
Return to Modesty

will also help to look at alternative novels. Birthmarked (2010) by Caragh M. O’Brien is a recent favourite of
mine. Though it’s also dystopian and deals with dark themes in a cruel future
world, the beauty of characters’ actions transforms the story completely.

heroine, Gaia, is an ordinary person who must learn from failures and struggle
to face her fears. Flash-backs to her childhood show that her parents’ depth
and wisdom nourished her character so that she was ready to face difficulties
with courage and selflessness.  At one
point her mother has doubts about something she did in obedience to the
government. Gaia would excuse her for not having had a choice but her father
corrects her: “You always have a choice, Gaia, you can always say no”. The
story shows that the consequences of such a choice are not always pleasant, but
sacrifice for what is right is a triumph of good over evil, which is far more
heroic than doing evil for fear of getting hurt.

own actions are true acts of rebellion: she risks her life by refusing to save
herself before trying to save her parents; she saves a baby from dying along
with its condemned mother; she rescues her mother and the child she is
carrying... And when she is called to leave one victim for someone who needs
her more, she is not governed by feelings but by trying to do what is right.

romance is realistic but perfect: the characters’ love for each other grows for
all the right reasons. They learn so much about each other and their flawed but
earnest characters are the antithesis of Edward/Bella sentimentally and
Katniss/Peeta falseness. What’s more, they demonstrate very real sacrifice;
there is no better sign of love.

in the midst of evil’s triumph, sacrifice for what is good produces a hope that
is even stronger than the evil that weighs upon it. Thus the characters are
victorious, even when the darkness seems to have the upper hand.

style may not be as slick and addictive as in Hunger Games, and perhaps a lazy
reader’s initial reaction may be that it’s not as good, but the characters
positively shine by comparison. It’s worth thinking about the after-effect of
books once the action fades and characters and story settle in your soul. That’s
the part that stays with you.

Birthmarked still contains some confronting scenes, so look out for my full Reading Matters
review before recommending it to younger readers.

alternative is The Book Thief (2006)
by Markus Zusak. In this interview the author describes the beauty of human
goodness which can be discovered in the midst of great evil.

are so many more great novels which explore dark or difficult themes but
clearly show protagonists taking responsibility for their actions.
Trash by Andy Mulligan (2010), The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom (1971), The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne (2006), The Scarlet Pimpernel by Emmuska Orczy (1903), A Rose for the ANZAC Boys by Jackie French (2008), Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford (2009), The Help by
Kathryn Stockett (2009, mature readers), Anne
Frank: the Diary of a Young Girl
(1947), Sophie Scholl and the White Rose by Annette Dumbach (1999, mature
readers), Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce
and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery
by Eric Metaxas (2007), Left to Tell by Immaculee Ilibagiza
(2006, mature readers), St Maria
Goretti: in Garments all Red
by Godfrey Poage (1998), Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl (1946), Life Without Limits by Nick Vujicic

and compare, and decide who the real heroes are.

Clare Cannon is the manager of Portico Books in Sydney and editor of
the soon to be launched
www.GoodReadingGuide.com. She is a
regular contributor to Mercatornet’s
Reading Matters.


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