On Gale, Peeta, and the Ending of Mockingjay

[Spoilers ho!  Many and bold.  Proceed at your own risk.]
On the epic conflict known as Peeta v. Gale:

Much as I love both characters, I never understood the nature of this debate. The structure of the romance in Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy seemed clear to me from the beginning: Gale is a false hero, a handsome childhood love who failed to capitalize on the romance until a competitor came on the scene. The dead giveaway that he wasn't the primary hero was how little time we as reader actually spent with him in the first two books - for us (as for Katniss, apparantly) he was a figure of affection in absentia.   Even he knows it: after receiving a kiss from her in Mockingjay, he tells her that the only form her love for him ever takes is a desire to alleviate his pain.  Romance as palliative.  This is no less love - it is motivated by her excruciating sense that she can't bear to see someone she loves so dearly suffer - but it is less than lust. Looking back over the novels, it's clear that he's right, although it also emerges that this is the primary way that Katniss loves everyone.  Most of her encounters with Peeta are initiated for exactly the same reasons: to cauterize pain and to cut short difficult conversations.  The journey that Katniss travels with Peeta is into her own romantic enjoyment, which, significantly, she describes in all the books as a "hunger."  This is perhaps the only shard of hope we get at the novel's end - the idea that the Hunger Games of the title has been transformed from a figure of starvation and violence into one of pleasure and longing.

But this volume responds to the unevenness in the love triangle by devoting the bulk of its romantic energies to Gale.  We get substantial time with him, and he is fleshed out significantly as a character - enough so that his final fate seems peremptory and unsatisfying, like much else about the novel's conclusion.  He is, in fact, a lot like Peeta in his feelings for Katniss - (nearly) unfailingly honest and supportive, and capable of seeing her strengths even when she can't.  Unlike Peeta, however, he has broader loyalties.  Peeta has one and only one purpose in existing - Katniss - while Gale has loyalty to his family, her family, the workers, District 12, the resistance, and above all, vengeance.  This makes him a healthier human being (although his obsession with violent vengeance tips the scale back in the direction of mania - this sort of gleeful violence can be traced back to the fact that he didn't have to go through the murderous crucible of the games like Katniss and Peeta.).

What it comes down to is this: we know, within the moral boundaries of western YA's operation, that Peeta will come out the victor in the romance, because, of the two, only he is unfailingly humane and just.  This is what makes it impossible for Katniss to survive without him (although it also seems unlikely that she would survive the loss of Gale's friendship, a point which the ending neglects, but I guess she has survived a lot of losses).  A heart that is shaped by vengeance, these narrative rules tell us, isn't a heart that can truly triumph in love.  Gale has a streak of cruelty that make make him a sexy alpha hero, but should give us pause when we think of the person we would like ourselves (or our friends, siblings, children) to fall in love with.  I am torn here: Peeta is undoubtedly the kinder and the fairer of the two, the one I would rather trust Katniss's heart with.  But there would have been a certain realism to her ending up with Gale as well - a realism that defied all the expectations of narrative structure - because (1) people don't always (or even usually) choose their nicest or best amorous options, and (2) romantic heroes should get to have flaws and selfishness too.  Seeing him struggle against his opposing interests (the battle of anger against love) would have been fascinating, just like watching Katniss's internal conflicts was.

Gale is the figure of absolute honesty - the person Katniss can trust with her suspicions and paranoias and confidence, and whom she can count on for an honest opinion of her plans. Collins goes to a lot of effort to undermine these strengths of his over the course of this last novel, all totally plausibly, fracturing his closeness with Katniss slowly and organically.  Peeta, although his love is (as it turns out) less complicated than Gale's, is not so easy to trust, and Collins made much of this to great effect in previous novels. Theirs is a relationship based on performances, on being watched, on playing a double game with their audience and each other, all with the purpose of winning.  Katniss doesn't know Peeta when the series begins, so she constantly has to negotiate his sincerity and the extent of his performance.  But his gift is in always performing the truth - he shapes sincerity in such a way that it serves his purpose, whereas Katniss layers on her public personas at the expense of the scarred self underneath.  This is why she never recognizes herself when she watches her exploits on television, but Peeta is always essentially Peeta-ish.

But there is a major problem with the abruptness of this last book's ending, both in its resolution of the love triangle and of the question of Katniss's recovery and future.  We have spent an entire book learning to take Gale seriously as a romantic rival, and in the process Peeta (poor sympathetic Peeta) gets lost in the shuffle.  This is a narrative problem if (as has been clear all along) he is the one our heroine will need to end up with at the trilogy's end.  He has been through significant trauma, but this trauma serves as a distancing agent, keeping him apart from both Katniss and us, rather than a means of exploring his character in greater depth.

If more time had been spent with the development of Peeta and Katniss's new relationship, it would have sat better with readers. (I can't help but think that maybe this isn't what Collins wanted.  Maybe we're meant to feel uncomfortable with the idea of a happily ever after to this story.) But it feels like this should have been several novels, with time to explore some of the issues it raises (like how Peeta and Katniss come back together) in greater depth. There is rich soil to be turned in the question of how it is you trust yourself (your heart, your body, your sleeping vulnerable self) with someone who is battling a trained, murderous revulsion for you.  Not to mention how he comes to parse his instincts, distinguishing the learned from the felt.  Both Peeta and Gale have stories that never got told here.

There has been a lot of discussion about feminist problems with the conclusion to the novel.  Normally this is just the sort of problem I would jump into, cannonballing into the political waters with feminist glee.  But in this case, I think that readers might be imposing a bit of a narrow model of what a successful woman should look like on Katniss. The Epilogue, with its ambivalent description of how Peeta's longing for children persuaded Katniss to have them, is problematic in its brevity, but also interesting. It deals honestly with the fact that having children is a matter of some psychological struggle for this couple (an issue that Collins has been hinting at from the very beginning), because it raises all sorts of questions in Katniss's mind about what kind of expectations for happiness and safety she should have in this world.  Look, I too felt the twinge of a wish that Katniss, instead of squirreling herself away in a defunct district with her new family, could continue to be central to the building of this new world, and a touch of disbelief that she would be abandoned by those making the new society, given her symbolic value.  That's what we (like the television audience of Panem) want of her - an emblem of public feminine strength. But Katniss herself would have hated that.  She never wanted to be a symbol, resented those who co-opted her for political purposes, and idealized the quiet, forgotten life.  What was her dream of an alternate life with Gale?  That they ran off into the woods together to live subtly and alone.  (She and Peeta have never had the luxury of privacy, and learning how to be together - alone - is another facet of their falling-in-love that I really wish Collins had given us.) The public life is not the only one worth living, and it is not the only one of value and dignity.

The fact that the new society banishes Katniss to her ravaged home district, without attempting to use her propagandistically, is perhaps the greatest sign of hope I got for the future of this new world.  The real loss to the new government isn't Katniss, who was never good at politics the way she was at violence, but Peeta.  He had a rare gift for synthesizing public opinion into a politically useful form (of saying just the right thing, as Katniss thinks of this skill), coupled with a lodestone ethical sense, that make me mourn for his life spent in seclusion rather than public service.  The fact that Peeta ends up caring for nothing but Katniss (and their ambivalently conceived kids) strikes me not so much as a feminist problem (although it is, indirectly) as one of progressive masculism: our culture needs to stop presenting romantic heroism as a matter of self-abnegating devotion to the beloved. (I'm looking at you, Edward Cullen.  Get a hobby.)  Real manhood, like real love, is multi-faceted and filled with conflicting purposes.  That doesn't dilute its dedication.  It enriches it.

And so, again, though I would have chosen Peeta myself as the better man with the kinder instincts, I find myself wondering (heretically!) if Gale didn't live the more fulfilled life, and whether walking away from Katniss wasn't a big part of that....

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2 Responses so far.

  1. The fact that Peeta ends up caring for nothing but Katniss (and their ambivalently conceived kids) strikes me not so much as a feminist problem (although it is, indirectly) as one of progressive masculism: our culture needs to stop presenting romantic heroism as a matter of self-abnegating devotion to the beloved. (I'm looking at you, Edward Cullen. Get a hobby.) Real manhood, like real love, is multi-faceted and filled with conflicting purposes. That doesn't dilute its dedication. It enriches it.

    Preach it again, sister!

  2. Sherry! I just saw your reaction to Mockingjay on DA this morning, and immediately began another email to you on the subject. But then (alas) work and a mountain of cleaning demanded that I attend to them instead (curse it). So the email lies there half-completed, and hopefully coming soon...

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