Monday, August 23, 2010

Katniss' Power: The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

by K.A. Lewis

The Hunger Games: Katniss wins!  Katniss wins!  While fighting to survive a televised fight to the death she's developed a complex relationship with a boy who's life she saved: a boy she feels once saved her.  She and Peeta are left to sort out these complexities under the rueful eye of the Capitol, whose leaders can't help but see the final twist in the games that saved them both as a very public act of rebellion.  So.  We'll see where the discussion takes us, but from here I'm going to try to stick to overarching themes and save major plot considerations for later posts.

First, setting.  Of the superb details employed to create the post-apocalyptic world of Katniss Everdeen for our fancy, it strikes me that one of the foremost literary strengths are those that remind us of our own.  Sure, the Seam and the Districts, the nature of their government, these aspects need description.  But we need no explanation of the nature of reality television; it has been around so long the audience barely registers shock, much less outrage.  We've lived with Survivor for 10 years (10!).  13 years ago in June we might have watched people lining up on an L.A. overpass to wave at O.J.'s slow-moving white Bronco (just as those in the Capitol greeted the tribute train).  There appears to be a constant stream of rich people who are willing to have their petty grievances aired directly from their home to ours, and I once heard someone describe a program called "Faces of Death" which showed stunts caught on film that end in the worst possible way.  It is a very small leap to a staged death match, which I'm going to guess is The Point.

Second, class.  The contrast between the tributes and those living in the Capitol paints a clear picture of having and having not in Panem.  Those in the Capitol are never hungry, they are wasteful and petty, they never want for necessities or luxuries, and therein they are so detached from any reality other than their own that they have lost some of their humanity.  How else can they watch starving children kill each other for sport?  Only a tragic love story, fabricated and edited for emphasis, can motivate compassion.  (Even that empathy is rooted in selfishness, for Katniss and Peeta's story is no longer their own but shared by all.)  I love it when Katniss describes her inability to feel embarrassed as she stands naked before her prep team because they are so strange, cosmetically altered and ridiculously dressed, that she can't help but feel they are more like three colorful birds than discriminating humans.

Third, power.  The power of the Capitol is made to seem absolute.  Beyond the constant threat of death for any "crime" or the daily prison of poverty in which the Districts are held, the games represent the ultimate show of authority.  It is a punishment that lasts generation through generation, and it is worse than death; it is death for your most dear, your children.  And no one is safe.  The town square gathering and false holiday atmosphere of the Reaping is reminiscent of that wretched classic short story I know I was assigned to read as an 11-year-old: "The Lottery."  The twist of additional entries for the poorest families through tessarae reinforces the class issue and shifts the odds in an interesting and terrifying fashion.

I think that it is Peeta who first realizes that the Capitol cannot, in fact, overpower them completely.  Katniss doesn't understand his intentions when he confides in her on the roof the night before the games, but the reader can see in retrospect that Peeta is prepared to die.  However, at the same time he hopes to retain some of himself: to show that even in death he is not simply a pawn but his own person beyond the Capitol's full reach.  Katniss is a survivor, so initially this instinct alone informs her plans which in no way include the subtle rebellion Peeta has described.  In the end, of course, they both play the games on the fringe of the Capitol's power.  Peeta plays to save someone other than himself, Katniss understands his declaration when she gives Rue beauty and respect in death, and finally she defies the rules to save them both with a handful of poison berries: a survivor turned accidental rebel.


  1. So here are a couple of things I was wondering about: first the obvious thing that is conspicuously missing- everyone now the same ethnicity and forced to dye their skin different colors to stand out? I thought that was pretty ironic.

    Second, is coal mining really just a punishment on district 12? With technology that makes noiseless hovercrafts appear out of the sky is it really possible this is all fueled by coal? Seems unlikely.

    Third, I must know more about the people in the capital! So they don't work? Or is their work all about the Hunger Games? Either way the Capital must have a class structure all their own. And how do these people pro create? The Capital seems the least populated region (even the population of 8000 in District 12 seems small for reproductive purposes) And with a group of such self absorbed people how do they raise children?

    That's all I got for now, but I will add that hubby pointed out Katniss thinking about how long a meal she is given at the capital would take to prepare at home, and I thought that was an interesting commentary on our society's relationship to food.

  2. Ha! Good questions, Y.

    Concerning race, I assumed that there exist physical attributes that differentiate people by region and probably even class. However, these seem to be categorized more like "tall vs. short" ("blond vs. red head") rather than "race," with all of its inherent cultural and historical implications. Katniss remarks that she and Gale could pass as sister and brother because they share features (gray eyes, e.g.) with nearly everyone in the Seem (Seam?). Besides her long, braided hair (white girl hair) we don't get much of a physical description of Katniss, and as a teenager she is probably not a reliable source on herself anyway. Rue and Thresh from District 11 are described as having "dark" skin. I barely registered this point in my first hasty read. However, I discovered later that most of the teenagers who posted You Tube videos presenting their ideal Hunger Games movie cast seem to have taken this "darkness" to indicate that Rue and Thresh are black.

    It does seem like the production in each district is to occupy/enslave them as much as to keep the Capitol in luxury. Although even hover crafts need power from somewhere. The continental U.S. is not sitting on very much oil; maybe coal power it is?

    Such a good observation about Katniss' relationship to food versus our society's. Have I ever foraged/caught/slain/assembled an entire meal? Do I know where to find the food that ends up on my plate anymore than those in the Capitol do? Doubtful.

  3. The districts are essentially closed gene pools. There were likely races as we think of them at some point, but after generations of this each district would develop its own "flavor," right? We get some sense of this in the discussion of people of the Seam.

    Food makes quite the contrast between the districts and the Capitol. Rue experienced starvation despite spending her days harvesting food. Katniss relied on hunting and gathering for basic simple sustenance. Those in the Capitol had not only complex cuisine, but also a gorge-and-purge custom a là the Roman vomitoriums.

    Another interesting theme is the Capitol obsession with fashion. The people in the districts are far too concerned with getting their work done and feeding their families to worry overmuch about appearances. Other than dressing up for Reaping, there is little discussion of anything other than utilitarian clothing for the working people. The Capitol (seen from Katniss' perspective, of course) seems to focus inordinately on fashion and self-alteration in the pursuit of ever-changing standards of beauty.

    What DO the people of the Capitol do? Is their entire society built on parties, fashion, high cuisine and entertainment, like some over-simplified Hollywood?

  4. Interesting point on our society's relationship with food, Y. I think that's what I like about dystopian lit the most; that it makes us more critical of our own circumstances. This would also extend to our own reliance on non-renewable energy sources which, in spite of technology, still persists in Panem. The folks in the capitol don't seem motivated by ethical concerns.

    Back to Mockingjay...