The first great twist in The Hunger Games involves the reaping, the selection of the boy and girl who will be contestants in the Hunger Games, a country wide fight to the death reality show. Katniss explains to the reader how her names have been entered 20 times, how the odds are not in her favor, when suddenly, her little sister’s name is picked in the reaping. Katniss, horrified and filled with love for her sister, volunteers to take her place. At first, this is a shocking turn of events, but as the book continues, this twist makes perfect sense. Katniss Everdeen is not a victim, whoever else she might be.
Katniss Everdeen is a sixteen year old girl who lives on the Seam, a poor area of District 12 in the country of Panem. Panem, the book explains is a country born from the ruins of North America, and District 12 is Appilacian country. Katniss’ father was a coal miner, who taught her how to hunt before he died when she was eleven. Ever since then, Katniss has gone to great lengths to keep herself, as well as her mother and sister, alive, risking her life by hunting illegally and by putting her name in the Reaping extra times in exchange for grain and oil.
After volunteering for the reaping, she and Peta, the boy tribute, are wisked off to the Capital of Panem, in the Rocky Mountains. I mentioned in a previous post that the name Panem is the Latin word for bread (Panem nostrum cotidianum da nobis hodie) as in “bread and circuses,” from the the Roman satirist Juvenal. Juvenal wrote,
Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”
Panem, a somewhat futuristic America, has become a brutal dictatorship. The people’s lives are ruthlessly controlled by the government and a rich elite in the Capital, who are content to allow many of the surrounding districts to starve. The people are kept in this state of control by the promise of bread and the fear of the circus. Every year, all children between the ages of 12 and 18 may sign up for a tesserae, a year’s supply of grain and oil for one person. Each time they sign up, the government puts their name in the drawing for the Hunger Games. The government thus shows its absolute control over its citizens, and their absolute dependence on the Capital for survival.
Now the centerpiece of the Hunger Games is the tournament itself, a contest in which 24 teenagers fight each other to the death on national television. Needless to say, many people were shocked by this, and in some cases repulsed. I was struck, actually, by how plausible it sounded. The pre-Columbian Mexicans often played a game similar to soccer which ended in the losing team being sacrificed to the gods. Gladiator contests could end in death. American football does not end in death, just brain damage. (Much more humane.)
Undoubtedly the best aspect of the book is the heroine, Katniss Everdeen. Katniss is an incredibly strong heroine, one of the strongest I have ever read. Her strength is seen most often as a hunter, setting snares and shooting with a bow and arrow. She is patient, persistant, and has little tolerance for weakness in others.
However, Katniss is not perfect. She is squeamish at the sight of blood and injuries on people, as she struggles to tend for the injured Peta in the games. She thinks about how her little sister, Prim, who seems so weak, is a natural born healer, and Katniss can barely bring herself to look at Peta’s wounded leg.
Katniss also struggles in interpersonal relationships. She reminds me a lot of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, in which a person must meet the needs at the bottom of the pyramid before proceeding up.
I thought about this pyramid when Peta implies to Haymitch that Katniss “has no idea the affect she has on people.” Katniss does not know how to respond to this, and does not know what he means. It never even occurs to her that Peta might find her attractive. I chuckled and shook my head as I read this, thinking about how common a motif it is in literature. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice builds roughly the first half of her novel on the dramatic irony that Mr Darcy is in love with Elizabeth; Elizabeth does not know it, but the reader does. We see the same thing in North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (an excellent book if ever there was one!) at the very beginning of the book. Margaret receives a proposal, which she turns down, and goes away surprised that a man should consider her as a wife.
I sometimes find these plot devices annoying, especially the latter, with Margaret’s reaction to Henry’s proposal. Does Mrs. Gaskell, really expect the reader to believe that a woman never realizes that she has gone through puberty until a man notices her? However, I think that Suzanne Collins, the writer of The Hunger Games, can get away with this becaues of how close Katniss has been to starvation and death in her own life. As Maslow’s pyramid shows, Katniss has been primarily absorbed by her needs to survive, to find food for herself and her younger sister. She also struggles with feelings of safety; she worries constantly about owing favors to others, and has no friends other than Gale. It makes perfect sense that Katniss would not think of Peta, or any other boy, finding her attractive.
The violence in The Hunger Games is compelling, but never gory. Suzanne definitely creates the suspence of trying to survive in the wilderness, and of being hunted. She also tries to capture the moral dilemma of Katniss, who is forced to kill to save her life, but yet regrets the death of her fellow tributes.
When I first saw the movie version of The Hunger Games, I wondered, “What if the tributes refused to kill each other? What if they refused to play along?” Of course, reading the book, I realized that Katniss begins to think about this question, “What if she refuses to play the game?” After the death of Rue, she lays flowers over her fallen friend. At the end of the game, she and Peta are finally driven to the brink, and refuse to play along.
The Hunger Games is a science fiction book, but there is precious little science fiction in the book. There are genetically modified animals, such as the mockingjays and the tracker jackers, and the medical technology is clearly superior to ours. However, I think in some ways this can be an advantage. The Harry Potter books were incredibly complex, and at times, too complex for its own good. For example, why bother scoring points in Quidditch when catching the Snitch is worth 150 points AND ends the game? Why doesn’t everyone hunt for the Snitch? I don’t know, no one does. The other advantage of this is that the reader can think about whether or not this could take place in our own time.
Ultimately, the most refreshing aspect of The Hunger Games is the heroine, Katniss Everdeen. After years of Twilight and Bella Swan, it’s delightful to have an active, smart heroine. Katniss is active physically, intellectually, and even morally, as she considers the implications of the games. She has the toughness of a young woman who has had to fight for her survival, and also the confusions of a young teenage girl. As I read the book, I admired her strength, but also wanted to counsel her and comfort her. The Hunger Games thanks to Katniss, was a delightful surprise.