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  • Burn with Us:Sacrificing Childhood in The Hunger Games
  • Susan Shau Ming Tan (bio)

Let the Games Begin

Katniss Everdeen, the girl who was on fire, you have provided a spark that, left unattended, may grow to an inferno that destroys Panem.

(Collins, Fire 27)

God gave Noah the rainbow sign,No more water, the fire next time!

(Baldwin, The Fire Next Time 105)

The vision of the dead child is one of the most horrific images in our cultural imaginations. It is also one of the most pervasive. The trope of the burning, sacrificial son stretches back through time and history: we need only look to Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac and Jesus's role as the ultimate sacrificial body to see its cultural centrality (Miller). It was this vision that Freud explored and gave name to in his iconic "Dream of the Burning Child," and Lacan reinterpreted in Seminar XI.

Central to Lacan's interpretation of the dream is the "impotent cry of the son's passion heard, but unheeded, before his death" (Ragland 97). As the dream recognizes the child's identity and desires, it does so through the knowledge of his loss. This acknowledgment of the child, made violent in his death and the fact that he will never attain that which he burns for, makes his cry all the more powerful. The child's wants will never be satiated, and this must always leave a void.

Lacan's burning child lives today in multiple incarnations. The burning child can be the "real" within ourselves, which must be sacrificed in order to reach the Symbolic—adulthood. It can be the ideal child, frozen [End Page 54] in memory and time, or Jacqueline Rose's constructed child: the child who only exists in the adult imagination. Indeed, coming-of-age often involves a recognition of a culturally defined childhood as well as loss: loss of innocence, loss of child-self. But as the "wounded child may symbolise a damaged self . . . it may equally stand for a damaged culture" (Reynolds 91). As children are often labelled our "hope," so we must recognize that this phantom—the child who never existed, the child we wish we might have been, the child who was lost—is often indicative of fears for the future. Child sacrifice is a common trope in our society. And beneath it lurks questions of desire, identity, and humanity.

I begin with "The Dream of the Burning Child" because Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games trilogy dreams the same dream, representing a childhood that is threatened, lost, and unheard. As Katniss Everdeen is sent to the Hunger Games, she is driven by a desire to survive. But, as Katniss's efforts to preserve her life must come at the expense of other children's lives, desire in all forms—the desire to survive, to eat, to love—is troubled. Children are lost and voices are silenced, and as Katniss fights against the dictates of a society that demands this sacrifice she becomes "the girl on fire," fighting against the impotency of the burning child's cry, demanding that the adult world take notice (Collins, Hunger 177). Katniss, a sacrificial child, burns with passion, desire, and eventually, with literal flames, as children are forced to become killers and technology and social pressures enable the warping of the human form and mind. The void that Lacan imagines so intertwined with the body of the burning child is made manifest: violence, absence, and trauma irrevocably enmeshed in conceptions of self.

This article explores the trope of sacrificial children in The Hunger Games trilogy and its impact on the development of mind, body, and nation. Examining the book's violence toward children, I will ultimately explore the trilogy as cultural critique. For, set in the ruins of America, the trilogy forces us to recognize aspects of our own, current culture within the dystopian world of Panem. Indeed, the power of the trilogy seems to lie in this vision: in an engagement with the uncomfortable tensions between real, current culture, and this all-destructive world.

The Hunger Games presents us with a future: with a society that demands children as sacrifice for...


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pp. 54-73
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