Guest Post: Aristotle’s Look at Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay

Today’s guest post is a special look at Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay in light of the Aristotle’s ideas of friendship that are found in his Nichomachean Ethics. The writing and subject matter are challenging, edifying, and simultaneously raise our understanding of the text(s) in play while stretching our way of thinking about life as we live it. I look forward to reading Hog Pro All-Pro’s response to this guest effort almost as much as I do to the hoped-for next dispatch from our newest contributors (short bios at end).

Katniss Everdeen is a one of the more fascinating characters of contemporary young adult literature. More fascinating still is Katniss’ relationship with Peeta Mellark.  It is hardly an exaggeration to say that their relationship drives the trilogy.  We would go so far as to say that the trilogy is a essentially a love story between these two characters. Although the Hunger Games–brutal and hellish–are meant to keep the tributes disunited, we see a uniting of hearts between the tributes of District Twelve.

What makes their relationship so intriguing is its ever-changing dynamic.  Peeta repeatedly sacrifices himself and declares his love for Katniss, both on camera and off.  Katniss responds in a variety of ways, ranging from shoving him into vases to spoon feeding him broth.

However, just because something is dynamic does not mean it is unpredictable.  We propose that Katniss’ feelings for Peeta evolve over time through Aristotle’s levels of friendship, as outlined in his Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII.

Aristotle’s Levels of Friendship

Aristotle speaks of three gradations of friendship: utilitarian, pleasurable, and perfect (or virtuous).  In any given relationship, both parties usually recognize the type of friendship.  However, it is possible for two people, in the same relationship, to be on different levels at the same time without realizing it.   For example, in the early Spider-Man series, Peter Parker had been in love with Mary Jane for a very long time.  However, Mary Jane simply had thought that Peter was a very good friend.  In terms of Aristotle, though one friend has in mind a certain level of friendship, it is not necessarily mutual. Mary Jane simply thought that her relationship with Peter was pleasurable friendship (to be described below), while for Peter, the reality was quite different.

Utilitarian friendship

The object of love in a useful friendship is what is good for the self; it is a friendship “based on utility [and] is for the commercially minded.”#  This is an incidental love that is easily dissolved, such that when the motivation to keep the relationship wanes, so does the relationship.

For example, Fr Isaiah Mary needs to purchase a new car.  He goes to the dealership, and the salesman is delighted to see him.  He asks Fr Isaiah Mary what he did for a living, and how he likes working in California.  However, once he leaves the dealership, he knew that the dealer would forget his name.  This is a utilitarian friendship.  They are using each other.  Fr Isaiah Mary wants a car; the dealer wants a good commission.

Pleasureable friendship

The pleasurable friendship is pleasant insofar “as they rouse in each other hopes of something good to come.”#  The object of love is to seek what is pleasant in themselves.  The friendship changes when the pleasures of the individuals change.   Again, if this car salesman and Fr Isaiah Mary really hit it off, they might meet at a bar to watch a college football game.  They might enjoy each other’s company as they’re sharing a pitcher and watching sports.  But the friendship ends there.  They find pleasure in a common interest—like watching football.

Perfect or virtuous friendship

The perfect or virtuous friendship is one in which those involved share their pursuit of virtue.  The individuals are inherently good separately and with each other. This is a friendship that develops over time, for as Aristotle says, “a wish for friendship may arise quickly, but friendship does not.”  Aristotle asserts that the perfect friendship is rare, takes time, is aided by the proximity of the friends, and is beneficial for both parties. Now, for Aristotle’s purposes in the Ethics,# this is performs its purposes well.  However, we would like to dig deeper into the theological dynamics of friendship.

Disinterested love

For us Catholics, we believe that perfect or virtuous friendship, as described by Aristotle, is not the penultimate level. In fact, we would say that Aristotle’s evaluation is incomplete.  There is such a thing as Christian love (particularly agape).  For this level of love, this Dominican happily bows to the Cistercian tradition, particularly to St. Bernard of Clairveaux and Aelred of Rievaulx, two abbots of the 1000s.

The Cistercians coined an unfortunate term, “disinterested love,” signifying the level of love that God has for everything He had created.  Hence, it is the supreme level of love wherein a person is loved for his or her own sake.  No matter who the person is or has done, he is she is loved for his or her own sake. Because we are made in the image of God, we are capable of disinterested love.  We can love another person for her or his own sake.  Spouses do not love each other because of their job, titles, or accomplishments, but simply because they are made in the image of God and have given themselves to one another as a gift.  This very concept encapsulates the Catholic understanding of the Sacrament of Marriage. The spouses love each other because they are who they are, not because of any merit.

Since we believe that disinterested love trumps perfect friendship, for the purposes of our hypothesis, we are replacing Aristotle’s virtuous friendship with the Cistercians’ disinterested love as the third level.

Coexistence of the levels of friendship

While Aristotle does not mention this, perhaps the Cistercians would contend that the levels of friendship may coexist, yet the interior motivations of the persons necessarily change.  That is, the levels of friendship work like a continuum; the lower levels are compatible with the highest one. One can have a disinterested friendship with someone, but that friendship can retain its utilitarian aspects.  For example, April loves her husband, Karsten, as a person (disinterested friendship), enjoying spending time with him (pleasurable), but still uses him to reach high things and lift heavy objects (utilitarian).  Karsten does recognize that he is being used (because he’s exceptionally tall), but he also recognizes that she enjoys his company.  Most crucial of all, however, is that they are madly in love with one another and have been happily married for three years. Though all three levels of friendship are present, disinterested love encapsulates and sanctifies the love and friendship that they have.

In terms of The Hunger Games, we propose that two movements occur throughout Katniss and Peeta’s friendship. For one, we see Katniss evolve from a utilitarian friendship with Peeta to a pleasurable one, which eventually culminates in disinterested love.  Also, by the end of the trilogy, Katniss and Peeta’s love is simultaneously utilitarian, pleasurable, and, most importantly, disinterested.

The Levels of Friendship in The Hunger Games Trilogy

Utilitarian friendship

Although Katniss is not an inherently selfish person (as evidenced by her hard work in providing for her family, as well as her volunteering for Prim), the Hunger Games force all of the tributes into a self-serving mentality: kill or be killed.  The Games are a breeding ground for utilitarian friendships: tributes create alliances crucial to weeding out their opponents by ganging up on them, notwithstanding their temporary nature.  Because of her promise to Prim and the self-serving nature of the Games, Katniss enters into a utilitarian friendship with Peeta, assuming that she will eventually have to kill him.

In the same way that a car salesman might try to ingratiate himself with his customers, Katniss believes that Peeta’s compliments and friendliness are borne out of a desire to to deceptively win her trust. So Katniss responds in kind: the first time she ever kisses Peeta on the cheek, it too constitutes a method of manipulation.  She believes that by playing the part of a friend and ally, Peeta will be less likely to suspect her ulterior motives once the Games begin.  Katniss thinks that both she and Peeta have utilitarian incentives: they fight to save their lives.

Katniss’s belief in Peeta’s mutual utilitarian motives is cemented when Peeta confesses his love for her during his interview before the 74th Games.  She is convinced that Peeta’s proclamation is solely to win the affections– as well as the money and gifts– of the sponsors.  It never occurs to her that Peeta’s feelings could be genuine.

Although Katniss and Peeta share many romantic exchanges in the cave, she does not consider Peeta’s worth as a person at this point.  She exploits him and her false relationship with him as a means to the end of returning home to her sister.  Because Katniss is so focused on the use of their relationship, she dismisses any signs that Peeta actually loves her.

Katniss assumes the utility of their connection: once the Gamemakers try to sever their alliance, Peeta would be ready to murder her, since she would no longer ensure his survival.  She believes that his own survival instincts, as well as the culture of self supremacy fostered by the Hunger Games, will prevail.  When Peeta surrenders his knife at the end of the 74th Games at the lakeside–effectively his willingness to die on her behalf–is one of the first inklings that Katniss motives for the friendship are more than utilitarian.  Peeta’s disinterested love spurs Katniss to devise her creative, yet dangerous, solution involving berries.
Pleasurable friendship

Although her original intentions are utilitarian, over the course of the Victory Tour in Catching Fire, as well as the time they spend in District Twelve before the Quarter Quell, Katniss grows into a pleasurable friendship with Peeta.  Although she still feels impelled to cling to utilitarianism to ensure the safety of her loved ones, she starts to enjoy spending time with Peeta.  She begins to look for more opportunities to engage with him, even outside the hours that they are forced together in front of the cameras.

Over the course of the series, there are few moments that depict a transition from artificiality to authenticity in Katniss and Peeta’s relationship.  More often than not, the cameras are shoved in their faces, whereupon they don the Games-persona of two people madly in love.  However, one of the first times that Katniss realizes how much she enjoys spending time with Peeta is when they are finally alone in District Twelve, without their prep teams and assistants. They work on the family sketchbook together while she rests in bed.  This common project connects them by sharing a non-utilitarian (read: pleasurable) experience.  Katniss is completely absorbed in admiring Peeta’s artistic talents as he brings details to life with uncanny skill, while she offers information about the plants that she has discovered.

“One afternoon Peeta stops and looks up so suddenly that I start, as though I were caught spying on him, which in a strange way maybe I was. ‘You know, I think this is the first time we’ve ever done anything normal together.’

‘Yeah,’ I agree.  Our whole relationship has been tainted by the Games.  Normal was never a part of it. ‘Nice for a change.’” (CF 162)

Katniss and Peeta develop an actual friendship, one that involves spending time together voluntarily.  Without anybody looking, no  Cinna, no Portia, no Haymitch, nor the Gamemakers–and certainly no cameras–Katniss discovers how much she values Peeta’s company.  They can be together without Katniss questioning motives or sponsors.  The negative stain from the Games slowly begins to dissolve.  It is within the absence of the cameras that they can finally become true friends.

Here, it is worth pointing out that Katniss no longer avoids Peeta as she did when they first returned home.  She now finds comfort in him, both from her terrifying nightmares about the Games as well as from the stressful scrutiny of President Snow and the rest of Panem.  While Katniss had once held Peeta at arm’s length, she has come to crave closeness with him.  She does not want to risk separation from him, such as when she insists that he come to her room before showering because she fears the doors will lock between them.  She runs to him now even when the cameras are not recording their every move.

The consummation of Katniss and Peeta’s pleasurable friendship is that day on the rooftop before the Quarter Quell, which is spent indulging in each other’s company.

“We eat.  We lie in the sun.  I snap off hanging vines and use my newfound knowledge from training to practice knots and weave nets.  Peeta sketches me.  We make up a game with the force field that surrounds the roof– one of us throws an apple into it and the other person has to catch it” (CF 245).

Katniss knows that this may be one of the last days that they have to live. Her time is no longer micromanaged by her team, and she actually has a choice of what to do. And she chooses to be with Peeta.  Whereas they were once forced together during training, they decide to waste a day relaxing,  taking pleasure in each other’s company.  They seem just like two average teenagers on a day off from school.

One unmistakable sign of true friendship is when you can be in another person’s presence and not say anything. There is no need to fill the air with useless conversation; both are comfortable with one another.  Katniss and Peeta experience this closeness on the roof: they sit together in pensive silence, Katniss with her head in Peeta’s lap, him knotting her hair, without feeling awkward.  Even though they are about to experience something horrific, they find peace together.  This day is so pleasurable for Katniss that she is even able to banish the looming Quarter Quell from her mind: “…I feel so warm and relaxed and beyond worrying about a future I’ll never have…” (CF 246).

The Quarter Quell marks the first instance of change in Katniss and Peeta’s friendship.  Let’s be honest.  Katniss acts first and reflects later.  When Peeta is electrocuted, she howls in grief.  If it stuns the reader, imagine how Katniss must feel. Though she repeatedly reminds the reader and Haymitch that her goal is to guarantee that Peeta wins the Quarter Quell, we, at least, might wonder why.  Was it simply to pay Peeta back?  Was it because Peeta is the better, purer, person, that he deserves to live to a ripe old age?  Or, more scintillating still, because Katniss’s heart is telling her mind and body that she is starting to fall in love with the boy with the bread?  Either way, it is at Peeta’s near-death experience–the electrocution–that Katniss’ affections shift from pleasurable love to disinterested love.

Katniss’ reaction when Peeta is electrocuted reveals much about her metamorphosis, especially in light of her response to entering the 74th Hunger Games.  After she agrees to go in Prim’s stead, she refrains from crying, refusing to show her weakness to the observant audiences.  Even though she is terrified of abandoning her family to potential starvation, she sheds no tears. And although she is loves her sister disinterestedly, she is able to control her emotions.  But it is a fascinating contrast that when she believes that Peeta is dead, she is unable to control her emotions.  She bursts into tears, without the ability to hold them back and present a brave face for the cameras.  This gut reaction shows the depth of Katniss’ feelings for Peeta, although she has not yet acknowledged them consciously.
Disinterested friendship

Eventually, Katniss comes to love Peeta in a disinterested way.  In Mockingjay, Katniss loves Peeta the way he loved her throughout the series.

When the “Star Squad” is outside the Capitol, Peeta shows up to play his part in the propos.  Katniss and Boggs are convinced that Peeta is also assigned to the Squad to kill Katniss (MJ 265).  Yet it is when they reunite that Katniss acts like she disinterestedly loves Peeta, then realizes it later.  One evening, while Katniss guards him, they converse so Peeta may remember who the old-Peeta was.  After a relatively superficial detail like figuring out Peeta’s favorite color,

“…more words tumble out.  ‘You’re a painter.  You’re a baker.  You like to sleep with the windows open.  You never take sugar in your tea.  And you always double-knot your shoelaces.’  Then I dive into my tent before I do something stupid like cry” (MJ 279).

How many times have we been surprised by a close member of our family, or even better, a beloved? In these cases, it is not the grand sweeping changes of habit or attitude that we notice–or rather, the little things like how we tie our shoelaces?  Katniss’ knowledge of Peeta’s favorite color is of no use to her survival in the so-called third arena.  Nor does she take particular pleasure in knowing that he keeps the windows open.  Yet, it seems, Katniss takes all the details that she remembers of Peeta–from his frosting style to his use of sugar–into herself.  She appreciates it, loves it, because it is a quirk that makes Peeta her Peeta.

One of the most telling elements in Katniss’s transformation is that she forgives Peeta after he tries to strangle her.  This would be a remarkable feat for anyone: not only forgiving, but ultimately marrying someone who once made an attempt on your life.  But for Katniss, this absolution is an outright personality change.  Within the first chapter of The Hunger Games, Katniss tells us, “…to be honest, I’m not the forgiving type” (HG 8).  She struggles to forgive her mother’s surrender to madness after her father’s death, and after Peeta strangles her, she tries to grapple with what has happened, mostly by avoiding Peeta.  Eventually, Katniss realizes that her love for Peeta outweighs her instinct for survival.  Despite what Peeta has done, she recognizes that she loves him for his own sake.  Leading up to the 74th Games, Katniss decides to distance herself from Peeta because she believes that he might kill her.  When entering the “third arena,” she binds herself to him, undeterred by the fact that he has now been programmed to murder her.

Katniss begins to place Peeta’s life and protection ahead of her own, such as when he ventures through the sewers beneath the Capitol:

“It’s a long shot, it’s suicide maybe, but I do the only thing I can think of.  I lean in and kiss Peeta full on the mouth.  His whole body starts shuddering, but I keep my lips pressed to his until I have to come up for air.  My hands slide up his wrists to clasp his. ‘Don’t let him take you from me’” (MJ 314).

She kisses a man who has been brainwashed to kill her, to try to return him to lucidity.  Her love for him has become truly disinterested; she is willing to do whatever it takes to keep him alive, sacrificing even her own safety.  She has finally made the leap, solidifying her decision to place Peeta above herself.  Peeta, all of his life, has loved Katniss for Katniss’ sake–to the point of saving her life when she was eleven years old.  Now that Peeta has been hijacked, it is Katniss’ turn to love Peeta for Peeta’s sake, and bring her Peeta back to life.

This is a complete shift from Katniss at the end of the 74th Hunger Games, when she aims her arrow at Peeta’s heart when she believes her life at stake.  Rather than distancing or defending herself as in the past, she yearns to join Peeta in his personal battle.
Coexistence of the levels of friendship
The last pages of the series show classic examples of disinterested friendship.  As has been mentioned, the three levels can coexist, but disinterested love is the culmination and apex of all types of love. With disinterested love, it naturally makes sense that one would relish in spending an entire day on a roof with someone throwing apples at a force field.  But if asked by a loved one to perform a menial task, one would likely not resent it. Because two individuals love each other with no thoughts of using each other for the sake of gain, disinterested love overcomes any ulterior motive.  As Fr Isaiah Mary repeatedly preaches at weddings, “You do not deserve to be married to the person sitting next to you, but for love, you are transformed into the person that the person next to you deserves.”

The Hunger Games, intended to divide the districts, are meant to promote utilitarian friendships that tear people apart, and even kill them. But the Games actually succeed in bonding Katniss and Peeta together in disinterested love.  Ironically, Collins allows the highest form of human love to shine in the most disturbing and tyrannical circumstances imaginable.  Even in these horrific conditions, disinterested love triumphs. Though we concede that Katniss’ disinterested love had to be learned outside the context of the Games (more or less), that form of love may be possible, even in the most hellish of circumstances.  Through the catalyst of Peeta’s disinterested love for her, Katniss moves from a utilitarian to a pleasurable friendship with him. Finally, despite all of the devastating losses she experiences throughout the series, Katniss is able to come to a state of mutually disinterested love with Peeta.

After her first Games, Katniss narrates, “[I]t’s no good loving me because I’m never going to get married anyway… I’ll never be able to afford the kind of love that leads to a family, to children” (HG 373).  Katniss does not refer to money, as she amasses immense wealth through winning the Games, but instead believes that she cannot face the pain of seeing her loved ones suffer.  And this pain comes from a deep disinterested love for others.

By the end of the series, through Peeta’s continual sacrifices for her, Katniss is ultimately able to both accept and return his disinterested love.  Despite the cost–showing emotion, forgiving one another, living with an uncertain future–she reciprocates Peeta’s love.  Katniss recognizes that she cannot live without disinterested love.  Without the total gift of self to another, life has no meaning:

“What I need to survive… is the dandelion in the spring. The bright yellow that means rebirth instead of destruction. The promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses. That it can be good again. And only Peeta can give me that” (MJ 388).

Fr. Isaiah Mary Molano, OP, is a member of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans) in the west coast.  He was ordained to the priesthood in June 2010.  Though he has yet to be formally Sorted, he is a zealous member of Ravenclaw House.

April Tessarzik is a middle school English teacher who loves reading the books that her students recommend.  After leaving her hometown in the frozen tundra of upstate New York, she currently resides in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, Karsten.


  1. Aww! Can’t believe I missed this till Arabella sent me the link. It’s so good.

    I loved your notes on the climb through Aristotle’s levels of friendship, and the caritas twist on the Perfect level. Katniss’ progression toward truly loving Peeta in a wholly trusting, wholly giving way was the best and most beautiful part of those books, in my opinion. With Rue perhaps making a close second.

    Fr. Isaiah Mary, I think I’m going to take your wedding quote and paste it somewhere I’ll see it often. It’s lovely. 🙂

  2. Arabella Figg says

    I only have a brief moment, but I did love this. It was meaningful and touching and redeemed some of the ham-handedness of Mockingjay. Thank you.

  3. kristel joy says

    Wow! This is great. It really inspired me on how you showed the true meaning of friendship and love. thanks! 😀

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