Dark themes in teen literature

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Where do you seek entertainment when you’re through with sentimental romance? In graphic violence, perhaps?

War, 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.

Dark 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.

If 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.

If, 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.

If 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.

That 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.”

No 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.

In 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.

Author 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.


In 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.

In 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—carry 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.

Desensitisation 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.

The 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.

At 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.

From 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.

Peeta 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.

And 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

Now 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.

Is 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? Darkness–3; Characters–0.

“Heroic rebellion”

Some 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…

What 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.


Reinforcing 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.

How 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?

Readers 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.

Also 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 (1998).

It 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.

The 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.

Gaia’s 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.

The 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.

Somehow 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.

The 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.

Another 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.

There 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 (2010).

Read 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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