Thursday, January 12, 2012

When a character's sacrifice seems in vain

Contains major spoilers for The Hunger Games trilogy.

What do Chewbacca and Katniss Everdeen have in common? Both characters made a sacrifice that readers could see as a waste. Many readers don’t like it when a sacrifice was in vain, though these only seem that way on the surface.

Chewbacca died during Vector Prime, the first book of the New Jedi Order. He died in the only way Chewie could, a moon impaling a planet. He sacrificed his life so that Anakin Solo could live. And then, several books later, Anakin gives up his life to save the Jedi.

Chewie’s sacrifice could be seen as wasted here. I agree with the decision to kill off Chewie. It set the necessary dark tone to the series. Not only that, but it broke the idea that everyone was safe. NJO wouldn’t have worked if no one major died in the beginning. One could argue that what was the point in killing Chewie to save Anakin if he was going to die? I don’t know when it was decided that a Solo child would die, much less when Anakin was chosen over Jacen. Either way, Chewie’s sacrifice wasn’t in vain.

Look at everything Anakin accomplished before he died. He found ways to fight the Yuuzhan Vong, he saved Jedi students and Tahiri, the list goes on. I don’t think that he would have been nearly as passionate or motivated to do everything he did had he not experienced some type of personal loss that taught him that it wasn’t a game. He was vulnerable just like everyone else. He didn’t learn the lesson entirely until the end, but the seeds were planted and field of understanding growing.
In that way, no Chewbacca’s death was not in vain.

Let’s look at another, example. In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen volunteers as Tribute when her Effie Trinket pulls 12-year-old Primrose Everdeen’s name from the reaping bowl. Katniss manages to survive the Hunger Games, the Quarter Quell (Catching Fire) and makes it to Capitol (Mockingjay). When the end is near, Katniss loses Prim, the one she was willing to give up her own life so that the girl could live.

Had Katniss not taken Prim’s place, the Hunger Games would still go on until someone else forced the dissatisfied people to rebel. That would have taken years. Because of Katniss, not only were the Games stopped, but also a horrible replacement for President Snow was eradicated.

Putting the good of the people aside, why did Prim’s death work with the story and Katniss's character? Katniss is a loner. She had Gale before the Games, and Prim. She was a virtual stranger to her mother. After the Games, the only people who could truly understand Katniss were the former Tributes—and Prim to some extent. She pulls away from Prim, putting up a front for her family. She fell even more alone once Prim died. She was on her own. She couldn’t go back to the caretaker she was before.

The way Katniss breaks down at the end of Mockingjay is necessary for her to be in the right mindset to do what ultimately needs done: stopping Coin. Snow is already out of the picture. His replacement is almost as bad. Sometimes it takes the extremes to see the truth of a matter.

Having just finished rereading Mockingjay, I find that Prim’s death makes much more sense than it did before. The Hunger Games isn’t about happy endings. It’s a lesson in becoming the very evil your fighting. It’s a lesson in revenge and manipulation. The reason Prim is dead reveals the final truth to Katniss.

Generally speaking, readers don’t like to see a character’s sacrifice go in vain. It happens; it’s unavoidable. With Chewbacca and Katniss, this isn’t true. The sacrifices of the both characters still mattered even though the ones they gave everything up for died, looking at it for the story, character’s sake or others.

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