The following is a paper I presented at the 39th Annual Children’s Literature Conference on June 15, 2012 at Simmons College.
I was fifteen years old the first time I read George Orwell’s 1984. It was around the same age I devoured Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies trilogy, and other young adult fiction.
What fascinated me about 1984 was the two minutes of hate, the way your own kids would betray you, the way words were cut from the dictionary, the way Big Brother knew and controlled everything — from thoughts to memories to reality.
The Uglies saga has the same elements of betrayal and government control, but what drew me into the books was the premise — that at 16, you get an operation that turns you pretty forever. Two thirds into the first book, you find out that being “pretty” isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be and you realize that making everyone “pretty” is a form of maintaining order.
Although both Orwell and Westerfeld’s books resonated with me, critics have traditionally seen the two as different animals. 1984 has been praised as “the cautionary form of projected political fiction.”[i] Meanwhile, young adult books like Westerfeld’s Uglies, or Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy have been largely dismissed. As New Yorker critic Laura Miller writes, the books “operate 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, in the stormy psyche of the adolescent reader.”
Despite these differences, both trilogies echo Orwellian lessons. Like in 1984, the tension rests between maintaining your own identity and maintaining a utopia.
The two cannot coexist.
As Orwell writes, “The ideal set up by the Party was something huge, terrible, and glittering — a world of steel and concrete, of monstrous machines and terrifying weapons — a nation of warriors and fanatics, marching forward in perfect unity, all thinking the same thoughts and shouting the same slogans, perpetually working, fighting, triumphing, persecuting – three hundred million people all with the same face” (Orwell 74).
Well in Uglies, at 16, the characters literally get an operation that makes them look like everybody else, think like everybody else, talk like everybody else. As Shay tells Tally, Westerfeld’s heroine, “Maybe when they do the operation — when they grind and stretch your bones to the right shape, peel off your face and rub all your skin away and stick in plastic cheekbones so you look like everybody else — maybe after going through all that you just aren’t very interesting anymore” (Uglies 50).
From “Shay’s Story” by Scott Westerfeld.
Shay is the voice of wisdom in Uglies: “Listen, Tally,” she says. “These two months are our last chance to do anything really cool. To be ourselves. Once we turn, it’s new pretty, middle pretty, late pretty. Then dead pretty” (Uglies 49).
The Hunger Games trilogy also illustrates censorship and government control through the games, a televised contest where children fight to the death: “The real message is clear,” Collins writes. “Look how we take your children and sacrifice them and there’s nothing you can do” (The Hunger Games 22).
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Rue (Amanda Stenberg) in “The Hunger Games” film.
This is why Hunger Games contestant Peeta Mellark reveals his biggest wish as: “I want to die as myself. … I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not” (The Hunger Games 171).
By understanding the system, the characters hope they have the devices to retain their own identity and rebel. Orwell maintained that when the public ceases to think of the meaning behind language, and uses phrases others have created for them, they will cease to think for themselves and become an extension of the governmental product controlling the masses. As Orwell writes in his essay, “Politics and the English Language“: “A man may take a drink because he feels himself to be a failure and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
This is illustrated in 1984’s “Newspeak” and “doublethink.” The destruction of words leads to the destruction of thought. How can we express the ideas of freedom or rebellion if we have no words for them? Under Big Brother, words are eliminated so one word contains multiple meanings. “Take ‘good,’ for instance,” Orwell writes. “If you have a word like ‘good,’ what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well… Or if you want a stronger version of ‘good’… ‘plusgood’ covers the meaning, or ‘doubleplusgood’… In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words — in reality, only one word” (Orwell 51). This is how “doublethink” works: one word takes multiple meanings so that war becomes peace, slavery becomes freedom, and ignorance becomes strength.
This elimination of language, and thus the elimination of thought, becomes a means of controlling the masses, as evidenced when uglies in Westerfeld’s series undergo the operation to become pretty. In addition to becoming “pretty,” the “bubblehead operation” also lobotomizes its patients, adding lesions that make thoughts and memories fuzzy. Much like how Big Brother wasn’t worried about Winston after he came out of the Ministry of Love, the government isn’t worried about pretties rebelling. After all, how can you rebel if you can’t think? As Westerfeld writes, “Maybe the reason war and all that other stuff went away is that there are no more controversies, no disagreements, no people demanding change. Just masses of smiling pretties, and a few people left to run things” (Uglies 267).
Of course, there is no denying the power of speech. Collins writes in Catching Fire, “Peeta’s tongue would have far greater power against the Capitol than any physical strength the rest of us could claim” (Catching Fire 408). Perhaps that is why Avoxes in Panem lose their tongue so they are unable to speak, and thus unable to express ideas or rebel. Instead, Avoxes are forced to be Panem Capitol slaves, watching Capitol extravagance and never being able to say a word in dissent.
If this is the case, it’s no wonder that contestant Katniss Everdeen has frightening nightmares where she becomes an Avox. (Mockingjay 161). That is the state of shock Katniss finds herself in after her sister Primrose dies near the end of the third book. “I’ve become a mental, rather than a physical Avox,” she says (Mockingjay 410). Although Katniss has her tongue, she is mute after the trauma she’s been through. Like Winston following his torture in 1984, Katniss is broken, unable to function.
When Avoxes try to scream, they make horrible, guttural animal noises. Peeta remembers watching Avoxes being tortured by the Capitol. As Peeta says, “They kept asking him questions, but he couldn’t speak. They didn’t want information, you know?” (Mockingjay 320). Instead, the torture is a punitive measure, much like how the games are designed; they are both intended to be an example for anyone else who disobeys. Look, the government says. I can cut off your tongue — kill all your children — and there is nothing that you can do but watch.
Even worse than not being able to speak is not being able to remember — not being able to distinguish reality from fiction. In 1984, memory is established by the Ministry of Truth, which rewrites history every time an ally or enemy changes sides. Without this memory, there is no loyalty. As Orwell writes, “For how could you establish even the most obvious fact when there existed no record outside your own memory?”(Orwell 36) Peeta experiences similar mental confusion when he is injected with tracker jacker venom.
Tracker jackers are a lab-created mutation of killer wasps, whose poisonous venom targets the part of the brain that houses fear, causing hallucinations and nightmares. After the Capitol captures Peeta following the events in the second book, Peeta was subjected to the venom in a torture technique called hijacking. As Collins describes, “Imagine that I ask you to remember something — either with a verbal suggesting or by making you watch a tape of the event —and while that experience is refreshed, I give you a dose of tracker jacker venom … just enough to infuse the memory with fear and doubt” (Mockingjay 210). This is how memories can be rewritten, not through words but through feelings. After weeks of being subjected to this torture, Peeta has no idea what is real. Katniss, who Peeta loves and protects unconditionally throughout the first two novels, becomes an enemy in this mind. In their first reunion since the two of them were separated, Peeta tries to strangle and kill Katniss — a complete departure from how he felt and acted in the past.
The way the governmental bodies like Orwell’s Big Brother manipulated Party members through words, speech and memory appears throughout both Westerfeld and Collins’ books. But despite all the governmental measures to maintain control, rebellion never dies. In 1984, this is seen through the Brotherhood and the rebel leader Emmanuel Goldstein. Goldstein’s book explains how hope for the future is in the proletariats, who are not subject to Party rules. Because “proles” still have their own voices and thoughts, they are the only hope for an overthrow of the current system. Therefore, hope lies in the people, not the Party members. Even though members of the Brotherhood may die for tiny acts of defiance, the proles will always survive.
Westerfeld also shows rebellion by creating a society that survives outside the boundaries of Uglyville and New Pretty Town. This society is called the Smoke, and the residents are called Smokies. When Maddy and Az, two middle pretties who were surgeons on the Pretty Committee, discovered the tiny lesions in the brains, the two ran away and founded the Smoke. Maddy and Az wanted to create a focus group to observe uglies that did not undergo the operation. It turns out, these uglies are more confident and self-reliant. That’s because the lesions make you dumb and complacent, which in turn, makes you easier to control.
From “Shay’s Story” by Scott Westerfeld.
Of course, this system would not work if its members did not buy into it. Uglies are smart, if not insecure, because they still have their minds. As Shay tells Tally, “You’ve only seen pretty faces your whole life. Your parents, your teachers, everyone over sixteen. But you weren’t born expecting that kind of beauty in everyone, all the time. You just got programmed into thinking anything else is ugly” (Uglies 84). By running away to the Smoke and remaining ugly after 16, you are rebelling, accepting your ugly face even though you’ve been called zits or freak your whole life. Like the proles, the Smoke is a symbol of hope, survival and rebellion. Even though the original Smoke burns down at the end of Westerfeld’s first book, the ideal of the Smoke lives on because there are still uglies willing to stay ugly forever.
From “Shay’s Story” by Scott Westerfeld.
Although both Tally and Shay are forced to become pretties, this did not stop them from rebelling. Their pretty clique, called the Crims, fight to stay alert from the mental fuzziness the lesions cause. Tally accomplishes this by falling, or eating diet pills, or kissing Zane. Shay got the same feelings by cutting. In this way, both Tally and Shay overcame the brain damage the operation caused. As Westerfeld writes, “Brains are good at rewiring themselves. … Controlling someone by changing their brain is like trying to stop a hovercar by digging a ditch. If they think hard enough, they can fly right over” (Specials 84).
Sure enough, not even Special Circumstances can control the revolution. Special Circumstances, or Specials, are the city’s police force. Both Tally and Shay are also forced to become Specials: their job is to stop rebellion and maintain order, but that proves to be an impossible task. The Smoke, which was destroyed in the first book, has spread to the city of Diego, a town now full of independent thinkers. Cities have no business with the politics of other cities; therefore, even if New Pretty Town’s pretties escape to Diego, the home of the New Smoke, there is no way to penalize them. Meanwhile, the Smokies continue to cure pretties from their brain damage. With so many freethinking pretties and ugly runaways, even specials cannot maintain control — which leads to the collapse of the regime.
Meanwhile, Collins’ trilogy also captures unrest and rebellion. The Capitol of Panem, which incorporates 12 districts and the Capitol, originally inherited its name from the Latin phrase Panem et Circenses (Mockingjay 260-261). This translates to “Bread and Circuses.” The job of the districts was to provide goods and entertainment to the Capitol. As the districts begin to rebel from the Capitol and provide neither, the Capitol is rendered weak. Of course, this rebellion didn’t happen overnight.
When both Katniss and Peeta were cast to fight like gladiators in the 74th annual Hunger Games, they both came back alive. This was unheard of since the rules of the games have always been to crown only one victor. However, both Katniss and Peeta threatened to commit double suicide by eating poisonous berries at the same time. The only thing worse than having two victors was having no victors at all. Katniss and Peeta showed that it was possible to defy the government’s own rules while playing their game. The Capitol never intended to crown two victors. This act encouraged other unsatisfied districts to rebel from Capitol rule.
Mockingjays are also creatures that the government never intended to create. Mockingjays are the offspring of jabberjays and mockingbirds. Jabberjays were a Capitol mutation designed to act as spies and repeat overheard conversations. When rebels learned of this, they filled the jabberjays words with lies, so the Capitol had all the jabberjays destroyed. The Capitol never predicted that jabberjays would be resilient enough to mate with other songbirds and pass on their genes. Meanwhile, in Hunger Games, Katniss and another contestant named Rue are able to utilize the mockingjays’ song to create a form of communication. This four-note tune becomes another symbol of rebellion, and the rebels see Katniss as a mockingjay.
The Capitol also never predicted the existence of District 13. The district was originally destroyed after the first rebellion before the games were established as punishment. The Capitol bombed District 13 to silence them. However, after the bombing, some survived and moved underground, beneath the rubble. As Katniss’s actions spurred rebellion, District 13 re-emerged from the rubble to lead rebel forces against the regime.
Although Winston is not able to escape from the clutches of Big Brother, Tally and Katniss were able to contribute directly to the downfall of the previous regimes. However, rebellion and war always comes at a price. Tally is forever changed by the ordeal. She can never unlearn the truth, forget the death of her boyfriend Zane, or allow anyone else to rewire her brain. Therefore, Tally is still subjected to random bouts of anger and arrogance. At the end of the trilogy, she realizes that freedom has a way of destroying things; no longer checked, populations will expand, taking resources away from the wild.
Meanwhile, Katniss and Peeta are also damaged and subjected to nightmares from the games. That blood will never disappear. Peeta paints pictures so he can try to live with his memories while Katniss makes a mental tally of every act of goodness she sees. Both work on a book so their memories will be preserved. Like Winston and Tally, they can never escape from the horrors, but it is important to remember the past in order to control the future. As Orwell writes, “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past” (Orwell 35).
Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) in “The Hunger Games” film.
Now did I pick up on all these lessons when I was fifteen? Perhaps not.
When talking to people who are in caught up in reading The Hunger Games, people usually ask Team Peeta or Team Gale — as if the books were about a girl having to choose between two great, good-looking boys. Meanwhile, Westerfeld once blogged, “The success of Uglies is partly thanks to high school being a dystopia.” Yes, both the Uglies and The Hunger Games trilogies are addicting. As one of my friends expressed to me, “The endings of the books always made me want to throw them across the wall.” But doesn’t the fact that I’m standing up here talking about some books I read in high school mean something? Yes, the premise of Uglies may have driven me to read the book. But the books also taught me that being yourself is more important than being pretty.
And who is to say that 1984 wasn’t the Uglies or Hunger Games of another generation?
Janice Turner, a columnist for The Times in London recently published a column about how she made her 14-year-old son read 1984. When he finished, he said, “It was all right.” When Turner read the books back when she was 14 during the Thatcher-era, she recalled that 1984 opened her to a whole new world. Now, with all the riots and rebellions and 99 percenters out there, perhaps Hunger Games speaks to our generation like how 1984 resonated with an older one.
As Teresa Jusino writes for Tor.com: “Young people today need stories like The Hunger Games reminding them that activism is not something they need to aspire to, it’s something of which they are already capable.”
[i] Horan, Thomas. “Revolutions from the Waist Downwards: Desire as Rebellion In Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, George Orwell’s 1984, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Extrapolation. 48.2 (Summer 2007): 314-341.