Earlier this year, I was talking to someone about The Hunger Games books. Okay, mostly about the end of Mockingjay. (By the way, this post has spoilers, if you couldn't tell by the title of it.) This person remarked how awful it was that Suzanne Collins killed off Prim.
They then went on to say, "The author just did it for shock value!"
"No, she didn't," I said. (I mean, yeah, it was shocking, but she didn't do it just for shock value.)
"As a writer, you must know what she did was just for shock value!"
This person was pretty adamant. So I just said, "As a writer, I know what she did wasn't just for shock value. We'll have to agree to disagree."
That's not the first person who has told me that Prim's death was only there for shock. But today I'm going to say what I've been wanted to say every time I hear that.
Primrose Everdeen needed to die.
And here is why.
Hunger Games is About Worldly Truths
Years ago, I did a post about two different kinds of truth you find in fiction. One is "Absolute Truth"--eternal, transcendental truths that uplift and encourages others, such as "never give up," "love conquers all," and "be true to yourself." The other kind is what I call "wordly truths." Not because they're wicked, but because they're "of the world." Wordly truths illuminate one's understanding of the world. They leave the audience sadder but wiser and more aware of serious issues. Absolute Truths are about how the world should be and worldly truths are about how the world is.
Feed and entertain people so they lose political power, human beings are entertained by violence and bloodshed, sometimes the oppressed grow more ruthless than the oppressors--these are all worldly truths.
The Hunger Games has never been a story about Absolute Truths. There isn't even an Absolute Truth I learned from the series that jumps to mind. The Hunger Games is about our world, and not just our world today; it's our past, present, and future. The Hunger Games is about worldly truths. It's supposed to be hard to swallow. It's supposed to make us feel uncomfortable.
What I see from a lot of people who didn't like Mockingjay (a lot, not all) is that they were looking for on Absolute ending, not a worldly one, which is weird because the entire series was Absolute-scarce. All I can think of is that it's usually the Absolute stories that are loved widely and the worldly stories that are respected and praised by the educated and high brow people. The Hunger Games was so widely loved, that likely the average reader was used to, and expected, Absolute endings.
And that would have not included Prim dying. But here's why, when you understand the worldly truths of series, it makes perfect sense that she needed to die.
Why She Needed to Die
All the way from book one in the series, it's clear that Panem is a world where the wicked, ruthless, or at the very least, tough, survive, while the people who are kind and gentle and everything good don't. Katniss says this herself about Peeta. It's not the goodhearted people like Peeta who win The Hunger Games. In fact, it's usually the Careers--those most trained to be heartless and unfeeling. The goodhearted, gentle, and kind people, the best humankind has to offer--are the ones who get killed.
Like Katniss says, "No one decent ever wins the Games."
And that's exactly why she volunteered to take Prim's place. Prim is softhearted and kind. It's noted in the very starting of the series that if Prim sees Katniss upset, she cries before she even knows what's wrong. Prim's THAT empathetic. In a world that is so cold toward other human beings that they watch them kill each other in a reality t.v. show, Prim is a rarity.
Think about it. In Mockingjay Prim risks her own life to save a cat. When Katniss questions her about it, Prim says SHE COULDN'T LIVE WITH HERSELF if anything happened to Buttercup.
Are you kidding me?
Prim is that good. She's so innocent that she can't live with herself if she doesn't try to rescue a mangy animal.
And to take things further, if we can rely on Katniss's perspective, Buttercup is mangy, ugly, and miserable. But that's not what Prim sees. Prim only sees the good in him. She's that kind of person.
It's clear from the beginning that Prim doesn't belong in the world. If anything close to Absolute Truth makes an appearance in the series, it's Prim. In fact, Prim embodies everything good, innocent, and pure. Peeta is a close second, but still not on the same level as Prim. After all, he is willing to kill other tributes if he must, while Prim can't let a cat die.
That's why Katniss volunteering at the Reaping is even more significant. She's volunteering to save her sister, yes, but symbolically, she's volunteering to fight for and save everything that's good.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have President Snow. He embodies everything in the book that's evil, especially as the series continues. I find it interesting how much he gets made into THE villain, when in reality, he's just the face of the wickedness of humankind, like how the Mockingjay is the face for the rebellion. After all, he wasn't the one who started The Hunger Games. He wasn't the one who established the Panem government. He's evil, yes, but more than that, he represents evil.
It's so perfect that he wears and uses white roses. He remarks himself that white roses are "pure." More brilliant is the fact that while Snow represents the wicked appetites of humankind, Primrose represents the good of it. Prim is "pure."
Snow uses roses to cover up the smell of blood from his mouth, and by extension, to cover up the fact he murders others by poison. He uses the pure to cover and protect himself, just as he uses children to barricade himself in his mansion in Mockingjay.
But what is the point of this series? What is the story trying to tell us? Is it Absolute Truth? Where the good guys storm the Capitol and the rebel leaders fight and win a better future and everyone lives happily ever after?
It's about worldly truths. One of which is that humankind itself is what corrupts and destroys what's good. These books are about reality. We are the Capitol, we have been the Capitol, we will be the Capitol in the future. "Panem today, Panem tomorrow, Panem forever."
We see how the world corrupts Peeta. What happens to him is exactly what he feared most: "I don't want to be another piece in their Games. If I die, I want to still be me." But through hijacking, he does become a piece in the Games, and more than that, he's not even himself anymore. Keep in mind that this was done by the Capitol.
But remember who is even more pure and innocent and good than Peeta? Primrose. When the barricade of children are bombed, Prim rushes to help them. She's surrounded by human beings who are killing one another, even to the extent that the difference between Peacekeepers and rebels grays (which furthers the argument that this isn't about good guys vs. bad guys, this as a discussion on the human condition--it always has been). But Prim's not there to kill anyone. She's not there to even hurt anyone. She's only there to help and heal.
But she gets bombed too. She dies.
Is she destroyed by the Capitol, like Peeta? No! She's destroyed by the rebel leader. (The role that in Absolute stories is the "good guy.") No one decent ever wins the Games--and that includes President Coin.
All of this--the children used as a barricade, Prim dying trying to help them, Coin being the one behind her death--cements and drives home the worldly truths of the book.
That the natural man's human appetite destroys all that is good.
That no one decent wins the Games.
That the people a wicked society and war hurt most are the most innocent and pure.
This whole war was supposed to be about making a better world, and in the process, they destroyed what was most good!
Prim had to die to drive home the heart of the books, the worldly truths!
Suzanne Collins didn't kill Prim just for shock value! Sure, the event had shock value, but like I talked about in my series of posts about shock value, shocking content, when done right, can actually drive home the themes of a story.
When done right, it helps the reader reach an emotional state where the theme leaves an indelible mark on them.
It helps them reach a powerful state where their hearts can change forever.
I don't believe in using shock for the sake of shock. And The Hunger Games has never used shocking material for the sake of it--doing that would be the very antithesis of the entire series! Perhaps the loudest argument in the book is how violence and senseless killing is used in entertainment and that that's wrong!
If you really study the writing in these books, you may realize that Collins is too intelligent of a writer to pull something like that. The writing is too intentional, too controlled. She didn't do it just to shock people. She did it to drive the point home.