Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games (2008) and Cormac Mccarthy’s The Road (2006) are both successful post-apocalyptics texts featuring young protagonists. They describe the development of youths’ morality within apocalypses. Analyses of the texts have largely surrounded ethical implications of choices characters must face. In an environment where their survival is constantly threatened, selfishness is the easiest road to survival (WalkerTexasDanger, 2013).
Both texts are similar in their portrayal of the post-apocalyptic world. They largely strip the apocalyptic situation to its essential element, drawing very distinct tensions between morality and survival. The Hunger Games places teenagers in a controlled environment – an arena – where the only goal is to survive by any means possible. The Road disregards the importance of the apocalypse itself, choosing to focus only on the protagonist’s journey to make it to the south alive (Hillier, 2017).
However, despite similar conditions surrounding 16-year-old Katniss, protagonist of The Hunger Games, and the boy, protagonist of The Road, the development of their morality within the apocalypse differs. In The Hunger Games, Katniss is forced into an annual game where twenty-four teenagers, aged 12-18, must compete in a televised battle to the death. Katniss’ internal dialogue shows her constant struggle with her morals. Katniss knows she will inevitably have to face killing Peeta, who has shown her kindness when she once needed it most. She “feel[s] like [she] owes him something”, that she has to repay his kindness but she realises she must kill him to survive – “somehow it [thanking him] won’t seem sincere if I’m trying to slit his throat.” (32) By the end of the games, Katniss has killed multiple opponents. Using philosopher Immanuel Kant’s argument that any act that intentionally causes harm, is one that is immoral (Kant, 1889), and Katniss intentionally killed others, Katniss has thus become less moral. However, The Road portrays the boy as moral till the end. Living in an uncivilised world where humans have turned to cannibalism for survival, the boy and his father establish a moral ideal of “carrying the fire” (Guo, 2015). The boy keeps to this moral ideal even at the end of his journey to the south, seeing himself as a person who carries the fire, thus being morally good.
With similar conditions surrounding young protagonists in both post-apocalyptic world, why is it then that the boy can keep his morals, more so than Katniss? One stark difference between their conditions stands out – Katniss must be responsible for her own survival, while the boy has the capacity to choose morality as his survival is ensured by his father. This paper will argue that the lack of a protector in an apocalypse pushes a youth to inevitably take actions that corrupt their morality, to ensure their survival in an apocalypse.
Survival versus Morality: Importance of a Protector
Donovan Gwinner claims that character’s’ behaviour and choices within a wasted, unfamiliar world is often defined by their ‘survivalist consequentialism’ borne out of ‘postapocalyptic pragmatism’ (Spurgeon, 2011). In facing a post-apocalyptic environment where survival is threatened, young protagonists often face a dilemma between keeping their morals or their life. Katniss’ choices and thoughts arguably portray such survivalist-driven actions that lead to a compromise in her morality – she realises to survive she must kill or let others die. However, In The Road, despite facing similar conditions, the boy stays constantly moral, wanting to help everyone including a thief that has stolen from them. Yet, while Katniss has to fend for her own survival, the boy’s survival has largely been dependent on his father. This contrast draws an interesting idea, that youths’ morals in the apocalypse are largely driven by the availability of a ‘protector’ figure. With the father as a protector, potential ethical dilemma faced by the boy in The Road is taken up by the father.
The Hunger Games: Katniss’ Responsibility for Her Own Moral Decisions
The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, is set in the futuristic, North American country of Panem, which is divided into twelve districts. Resources are scarce and the central government, the Capitol, establishes its dominance through holding an annual game. One male and one female child from each district, are forced to fight until one remains (Burdine, 2012). Katniss volunteers as the tribute for her district after her younger sister, Prim, is reaped for the games.
Placed in an arena where the only way out is to be the lone survivor, Katniss must face tough choices between choosing her own life and returning to her sister, or choosing to remain moral. Katniss takes on a passive, moral stand in the beginning. She establishes her hopes of avoiding killing, an immoral act, to survive as the victor. She acknowledges that Peeta must die for her to survive, that “Peeta and I know the other’s survival means our own death.” (111). Yet she convinces herself that “Odds are someone else will kill him before I do” (33), hence implying her intentions to not kill, but wait for others to kill him.
The death of another tribute, Rue, sees a turning point for Katniss’ moral stand. Katniss abandons her passive stand for a more active, and arguably less ethical stand. In attempting to save Rue, who has been dependent on her in the alliance, she makes her first active kill by shooting the boy from District 1. Her guilt for having killed a boy whose “family is weeping for him”, who may have a “girlfriend who really believed he would come back” (239), is quickly suppressed by her anger over Rue’s death. She proclaims that “I’d kill anyone I met on sight. Without emotion or the slightest tremor in my hands.” (237). In doing so, Katniss shows her willingness to intentionally kill, and her willingness to justify such a kill – both morally wrong actions. She questions if noises she makes will draw her opponents to her, yet she thinks “Let them come.”, “Right into the range of my arrows” (243). Thus, Katniss now realises killing for her own survival as an easier, and needed option.
Katniss’ morals are shown to have become innately crippled. Survival drives her, and her first instinct in the face of danger is to draw a bow, a preemptive action to killing. In realising the possibility of Peeta as her final obstacle to survival, “Before I [Katniss] am even aware of my actions, my [Katniss’] bow is loaded with the arrow pointed straight at his [Peeta] heart.” (336). However, Katniss is still aware of the immorality of her actions, shown through her guilt, “my [Katniss’] face burning in what can only be shame” (336) for being so ready to kill Peeta.
The Road: The Man as the Morally Responsible Figure and the Lasting Morals of the Boy
The Road, written by Cormac McCarthy, is a post-apocalyptic novel set in the aftermath of an unspecified mass extinction event where most of civilization has been wiped out. It depicts the tale of a father and his young son as they travel south to seek warmer conditions. The story largely focuses on the father and son’s struggles to survive against cannibals and marauders, while facing harsh conditions and lack of supplies.
The boy is often praised as a symbol of the triumph of moral righteousness and innocence against the harsh forces of the world. Critic Lydia Cooper (2011) argues that while the child exists, morality as a set of values is preserved. When the boy sees another boy, about his age, on the road, his first instinct is that of concern for the other boy’s wellbeing (26). While McCarthy claims, “goodness is not something you learn” (Jurgensen, 2009), I argue that the boy’s moral goodness is not due to something innate but enabled by his father. Katniss in The Hunger Games could be seen as having an innate kindness too. We see this through her willingness to give up her life for her sister. Perhaps then, the boy’s morality survives as a result of the presence of a willing, immoral actor that takes moral responsibility of harsh choices between survival and humanity away from him, in the form of his father.
The father in the Road is often seen as willingly compromising on his morality for survival. When a marauder attempts to grab the boy, the father immediately fires his pistol at the marauder, deliberately killing him (20). However, constant tensions between the boy and his father over such actions draw attention to a possible reason for the boy’s unfaltering righteousness. When the father kills the man, the boy is visibly disturbed. His aversion to killing remains throughout the rest of the book, in various encounters with other beings on the road. When they see a dog, he questions his father “We’re not going to kill it, are we Papa?” (25). Later, when facing a thief that has stolen from them, the boy begs his father “Papa please don’t kill the man.”(83).
The survival of father and son are threatened multiple times within the text. Each time the father takes on the harsher immoral route to protect his son from danger. His immoral ways are seen from him killing the marauder to protect the son, and later, when he leaves a thief to die by stripping all resources from him to obtain more resources. Each time, the father’s intention is to ensure his son survives. The son has no need to face any direct moral dilemma – all the moral responsibility of such choices are willingly taken upon by the father. The son therefore has the capacity to choose moral actions, without having to kill for survival. An analysis of the father and son relationship by researchers of Annamalai University attributes the father’s primary task is to save the child from the cruelty and danger of the post-apocalyptic setting: “My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you.” (43). Hellman (2006) describes father as “a pragmatist, a man skilled enough to be anyone’s desired doomsday companion.”. The father views any act of sympathy as weakness in survival. The danger helps the man to gather his strength and focus on the safety of his son (Dhurubathanan & Malarkodi, 2016).
In contrast to the presence of the father as a protector, Katniss is responsible for her own survival. The arena stands independent from external interference by non-gamemakers or non-participants. Without any protectors, Katniss is forced into a moral dilemma without anyone to take that moral responsibility of her choices from her.
While it is true that we will not know if the boy’s morality will survive without the father, it is not an issue that has to be explored. Even after the father’s death, the boy finds further protection in a new family, who claims that “you [the boy] should go with me. You’ll be all right.” (92) and again, has the capacity to keep his morality with his survival ensured by the new family.
The Hunger Games and The Road both portray post-apocalyptic situations that force a choice between survival and morals. Despite similar situations Katniss and the boy face in their respective worlds, Katniss compromises her morality for survival, while the boy remains moral throughout his journey. This leads us to question why despite similarities in conditions surrounding both youths, there exists such a difference in their morality. The answer is perhaps found in the presence of a protector for the boy in The Road and the lack of one for Katniss in The Hunger Games. Katniss is forced to choose survival, without anyone ensuring that for her, and hence must compromise on her morals. The boy, however, remains strongly moral throughout, precisely because he does not need to choose survival, rather his survival has already been ensured by his father who willingly compromises on his own morals so that the boy can survive. This allows us insights to the complexity of morals within youths in an apocalypse and a possible explanation for differences between moral development of youths in an apocalypse.
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