The Hunger Games: Panem’s Politics

The Hunger GamesWhile John Granger hasn’t managed to convince me to read the Twilight books I haven’t read, he did get me interested in The Hunger Games. About halfway through the first book of the series, I reserved the domain name I’ll never do anything with it, but for a guy like me who’s written at length about the political satire and commentary in Harry Potter, The Hunger Games is a dream series. (By the way, we’ve already gotten to work on some of the political analysis of Firefly in the view-through – here about episode one and here about the theme song.)

I’m not sure how much Mr. Granger intends to continue to write on The Hunger Games, but I thought as he got the ball rolling with a genius theory on the third book, I’d get some of my thoughts down and see if we can’t generate some more energy around this excellent trilogy. Be warned that there are spoilers ahead.

Panem’s Politics

Panem is what remains of North America as we presently know it after some kind of environmental tragedy stuck (HG p. 18)  – perhaps an intended reference to climate change?

In response to catastrophe, there’s always a government ready and willing to save the day by taking away people’s freedoms. This is what the Capitol does in Panem, a world split into 13 districts that exist on the land that remains. Panem, as we know it, is post-rebellion. We’re quite some time removed from whatever catastrophe put the world in the shape it’s in, but we’re just 74 years removed from a revolution that was quelled with horrific force by the Capitol. As a yearly reminder not to get out of line, two children from each district are selected for The Hunger Games – thrown into an arena where they are expected to kill each other, and the last kid standing wins. You should be thinking both Roman gladiator games and The Running Man at this point.

The Games are a smart move on the Capitol’s part. J.K. Rowling says that she was exploring in her Harry Potter books the problem of an oppressed group splintering into factions and in-fighting. In The Hunger Games, The Capitol has guaranteed this will happen before it can even develop organically by pitting District children against District children. We see this happen at the start of the 75th Games. You’d think that the remaining victors would decide to band together, say “Screw the games,” and refuse to play once in the arena. Instead, they immediately return to violence against one another (CF, p. 276).

On the other hand, it might not be such a smart move. When people can fight in freedom, they fight. When they’re forced by the State to fight, they just might join together and tell the State they won’t have it.

There is satire galore in these books, and fashionistas get the worst of it. Katniss, our heroine, is set up with a team of them to get her presentable for the Games. The descriptions are thick with parody of Hollywood fashion obsession, but the characters are not entirely 2-dimensional. The stylists are shallow, but they are human. Cinna, her main stylist, doesn’t fit the stereotype at all, and he assists Katniss in her rebellion against the Capitol.

There is an ongoing commentary on poverty in the books.  There is discussion of abuse of power during wartime. This is a book series about the plight of the oppressed poor against the Masters of War, “those who use their brains to find amusing ways to kill us” (CF, p. 236).

The story focuses not on those who are ready to fight a new rebellion (Gale and Peeta), but on the young woman who isn’t: Katniss. Here’s the political key to The Hunger Games, and you’ll recognize it if you’ve read my work on Harry Potter: “What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.” No, that Plutarch quote that Rowling used isn’t found anywhere in the books, even though we do have a key character named Plutarch Heavensbee. (As an aside, I was happy to be on my game when first encountering Plutarch. I thought immediately that his rise to Game Master was a win for the Rebellion, both because of his name meaning and his flashing of the Mockingjay symbol. I was proven right at the end of Catching Fire.)

The Spirit of Katniss

Let’s explore Katniss’s journey to prove my thesis that Collins follows in Rowling’s (and many others’) footsteps in calling for inward personal change leading to the outward transformation of society. When we first meet Katniss, she’s close to Gale, who has a lot of rebellious things to say about the Capitol. Gale seems ready to lead a Revolution – or at the very least, to run from the Capitol to be outside of its power. Katniss doesn’t quite get it.

Peeta tells Katniss before the start of the 74th Games, “I want to die as myself.” That’s a much easier thing to say when one actually knows oneself, as Peeta does. He will not allow himself to be dehumanized by the games, because he knows who he is as a human.

Katniss, on the other hand, does not. She doesn’t know what a “spirit” is (HG, p. 121). Cinna, her fashion guru who dresses her as the girl on fire, tells her that people can’t help admiring her spirit. Katniss’s thoughts in response go like this: “My spirit. This is a new thought. I’m not exactly sure what it means, but it suggests I’m a fighter.”

Indeed. But Katniss is going to need to have spirit-knowledge before she knows what she’s fighting for. It’s interesting that Cinna is the one who begins to teach her what it means to be human, because on the whole, the Capitol’s fashionistas don’t have a clue. When Katniss is first made up by a group of them, Flavius tells her, “You almost look like a human now” (p. 62). We don’t get the idea that these hairdressers have the first clue what it means to truly be human.

Katniss doesn’t yet understand the inner life, the inner logos-reality which allows her to be contemplative and self-aware enough to oppose the Capitol in truth and sacrificial love. On the roof before the 74th Games, Peeta’s ready to die a martyr, and Katniss is simply confused.Part of the way into Catching Fire, however, Katniss is wrestling with her inner-self and her motivation for defying the Capitol with the berries at the end of the 74th Games (CF p. 118). Was it just to stay alive? To keep Peeta alive? Or was she consciously opposing an oppressive regime?

The fact that she’s asking these questions shows a big transition for her; she now knows, deep inside, that the Capitol must be opposed, and she wants to be part of that opposition. What changed? What made the difference?

The Death of Rue

Rue did. During the Games, Katniss made an alliance with the extraordinary character Rue. There are lots of references to plants and plant names in these books, and Rue is a key one. A “rue” is a strong herb with medicinal properties, used to help with eyestrain or sore eyes. Shakespeare called the rue the “sour herb of grace” in Richard II, and it was used to mark the spot where the queen learned of Richard’s being taken captive (III.4.104-105). “Rue,” of course, also means to cause to repent or regret. At Rue’s death, Katniss’s inward repentance and transformation begins. She can no longer simply act out of self-preservation. She must act for others and against evil (the Capitol). She reflects later that her covering Rue with flowers was seen by the Capitol as an act of rebellion; she was suppose to glory in the death of other tributes, not mourn them (p. 363). The funeral she enacted on the forest floor for Rue was edited by the Capitol when broadcast on TV. Rue’s death and burial, Harry Potter fans, is the Dobby moment. Rue is the medicinal herb which helps Katniss begin to “see” (healing eyestrain) the spiritual things.

Near the climax of the same book, the night before Katniss and Peeta are going to make their final moves toward winning the Games, Katniss spends the entire night watching the journey of the moon through the sky. For understanding the symbolism there, think of Luna being Harry’s only light/guide through Order of the Phoenix.

Catching Fire gives us a Katniss who is consciously in rebellion against the Capitol, though she’s still a pawn in someone else’s game. (I think John Granger is probably right that it’s Undersee’s game.) She now knows why both Gale and Peeta were so passionate in their opposition to the overbearing government. She concludes early on in the book, “If I held them [the berries] out to defy the Capitol, then I am someone of worth.” She begins to recognize her faults: “I’m selfish. I’m a coward….No wonder I won the Games. No decent person ever does” (CF p. 117). Then she remembers that she saved Peeta. She begins to wrestle with why she did it.

She’s also ready to play a sacrificial role in her opposition to the Capitol, and as she prepares for the 75th Games, she’s in a much different place than she was that night before the 74th. The big difference is that now, she knows her own spirit:

Yes, everyone in the districts will be watching to see how I handle this death sentence, this final act of President Snow’s dominance. They will be looking for some that their battles have not been in vain. If I can make it clear that I’m still defying the Capitol right up to the end, the Capitol will have killed me … but not my spirit. What better way to give hope to the rebels? […] I will be more valuable dead. They can turn me into some kind of martyr for the cause…. (p. 243-44, emphasis added)

By the way, if you’re skeptical that Suzanne Collins has deliberately chosen character names with important meanings, consider that her enemy is President Snow, and she becomes the “Girl on Fire.”

The Mockingjay Symbol and the Pearl Theory

The Mockingjay is obviously the central symbol of the books, and it’s a great one. The Capitol distorts nature by creating “muttations” – breeds that serve some purpose for the Capitol. The jabberjay was a popular one – a male bird that was able to serve as a spy by perfectly mimicking a human voice, and therefore able to relay messages about what the rebels are doing. The rebels figured it out, and began sending false messages. The Capitol, of course, discarded the jabberjays as useless, but they mated with female mockingbirds and produced the mockingjay. You’ll notice that the feminine element is the key part of the protest against the very dominant, oppressive system. Gale, Peeta, and Haymitch are integral to the new rebellion, but Katniss (and Undersee, I’d wager with John Granger) are the real heart of it.

This leads us to speculation, and John Granger has done a lot of great work. I’ll offer nothing as concrete and detailed as Mr. Granger has. I’ll only suggest that while I agree with the idea that Ms. Undersee is indeed the current “mockingjay,” that the continued spirit-transformation of Katniss will result in her being the book’s true mockingjay, the title character of the third book.

Based on the way she scratched up Haymitch’s face at the end of Catching Fire, she’s got a bit of learning to do. But she’ll also have to come to terms with being a player in someone else’s game and find her own mockingjay voice before the end.

I don’t intend to do a lot of writing on The Hunger Games, but I do want to return with one more post taking up various issues of Panem’s culture and tie them to key themes, particularly the place of the Fall in the appeal of dystopia and the connections between the fashion satire, evil as dehumanization, poverty and power.

35 thoughts on “The Hunger Games: Panem’s Politics

  1. Didn’t finish reading the entire post, because now I am going to the public library to get it for myself to read. Sounds like a great fantasy(?) meets brave new world. (I realized when I wrote that I don’t actually know the genre). But it sounds like the kind of story I would like, so here it goes! Thanks for helping me find new things to read (though I still have not finished Dickens. Sheesh)

  2. Hadas, thanks! That spirit line really struck me – when Cinna mentioned it and Katniss wasn’t sure what he was talking about. I had a feeling Collins would bring up “spirit” again at a crucial point (which she did), and I’m guessing she’ll do it at least once more in Mockingjay.

    The reason why Katniss might not have heard of a “spirit” before will be explored a bit in my next post. The short version is that the Capitol wants nothing to do with the spirit (which is why superficial fashion is at the heart of everything in the Capitol).

  3. Travis, only had a chance to skim this earlier today but looks very interesting. Will have to start on the 2nd book after I finish Percy Jackson.

    For some reason I love reading dystopian literature. I guess it seems more in keeping with humanity’s state than utopias.

  4. *peeks in*

    Since I said I was really excited for a post on this book series, I figured I should comment, right? 😀 (Oh, and thanks for the link to John’s Mockingjay Theory. It was fascinating to read.)

    Rue is the medicinal herb which helps Katniss begin to “see” (healing eyestrain) the spiritual things.

    Rue as Dobby was an excellent connection. It was, indeed, the moment of transformation for Katniss, the moment that not only made her aware of her “spirit”, but allowed her to embrace it. (Both are also the moments where I cried my eyes out … but that’s another topic.)

    One of the strong suits of these books is that they make it almost impossible to ignore the deeply rooted commentary on our society. The effects (and after-effects) of war, poverty, oppression, certainly the abuse of political power, even reality TV (or TV in general). So, I’m looking forward to your second post.

    I’m as interested in the people from the Capitol, as I am in the people from the Districts. As you mention, by now, the majority of them don’t have a “first clue what it means to truly be human”. They have become desensitized by the real tragedy happening all around them (and in front of them, as we see with the Prep Team), and tune in voluntarily to watch the Games. As a reader, you also become another of the spectators, and that makes you self-aware of your reactions as you are reading.

    Pretty interesting stuff, and I can’t wait for more. There’s still a few months to get through before August.

    PS: Team Gale! (Sorry, I had to say it.)

  5. I’m so excited people are getting into these books!!! Did you notice that most of the Capital inhabitants have Roman names (Cinna!!!!)? Or that the Districts with bigger numbers & fewer ties to the Capital tend to have Celtic ones?
    I’m all for Peeta… Gale is important to her because of her survival instinct at first. Peeta falls into line with Rue and Prim as someone she cares for and has human emotions for. I don’t necessarily think that’s who she’ll be with, though (OK, I do, but I don’t want to be 100% wrong! hehe). I think their name meanings are interesting, too: Peeta for Peter or Rock (as in, “Upon this rock I build my church…)(plus it sounds like pita and he’s a baker! I giggled a lot over that one); Gale means “joy” and Hawthorn symbolizes both death & marriage, depending on the region or cult.
    I agree, Joan… I will be really intrigued to see how the people of the Capital adapt to realizing how privileged, spoiled really, they are.

  6. Melissa, I find it scary that, in a satirical/ twisted way, the people from the Capitol can be a mirror of us (modern western civilization).

    I tend to avoid the Team debate, actually, but I was telling Travis that sometimes I catch myself rooting for Gale, just because of issues I have with Peeta’s character. As he said, it’s more of a preference than a prediction.

    The Gale/Madge pairing has been hinted in the books, so you may not be wrong at all. Sadly, I see death as a strong possibility for the 3 of them. (For some reason, I think Peeta’s may meet that end. Maybe my issues are deeper than I initially thought of.) I think the pairings will be determined by who survives, more than anything else.

  7. Joan– That crossed my mind, but I finally decided I disagreed with part of that… I agree that death is likely for at least one of our boys. However, I think that Katniss will make her choice BEFORE the death, instead of making it a “oops! well, guess you win by default!” Collins likes her protagonists to have viable choices, I think, and just killing off one of them takes that away.
    I read the Gregor books recently, and I really liked that she left the end hanging. I don’t think that she’ll do that in this case; Katniss has had such terrible experiences that I think she’ll give it the big bow more or less.

  8. By the way, if you’re skeptical that Suzanne Collins has deliberately chosen character names with important meanings, consider that her enemy is President Snow, and she becomes the “Girl on Fire.”

    Yes indeed!

    Great post about a great series. I’m anxiously awaiting the final installment of the trilogy, and I’ll be linking to this post shortly!

  9. Amy, thanks! I’ve got a second post half-done that I think you’ll like, because it brings in Tolkien on The Fall and Story as the foundation for our love of dystopian lit. Stuff you already know well, obviously.

    I’m looking forward to the third as well. I’m excited enough about it to carve out the kind of time I did for DH to get it read.

  10. I’m looking forward to the third as well. I’m excited enough about it to carve out the kind of time I did for DH to get it read.

    Me, too, Travis! The other sequel I feel this way about is Susan Beth Pfeffer’s The World We Live In (due out on April 5), the follow-up to her wonderful Life As We Knew It and The Dead and the Gone. (Highly recommended!)

  11. “In response to catastrophe, there’s always a government ready and willing to save the day by taking away people’s freedoms. ”

    Makes you think twice about current and historical events!

    It was especially chilling to read these books while watching the Olympics, which are a celebration of the world’s youth in friendly athletic competition. In a sense, then, the Hunger Games are a dystopian version of the Olympic Games. Instead of bringing the world together, the Hunger Games (as Travis pointed out) serve to keep the districts apart. There are no Visa “Go World!” ads on the Hunger Games.

    At times, Katniss resembles OOTP Harry. Clueless, distracted by overwhelming feelings of being left out of the plan. Haymitch’s comment, something like, “That’s why they never let you make the plans” was perfect. Did anyone say anything like that to Harry? I would like for it to have been Lupin… or, maybe better, Ron!

    Good catch on Plutarch. “Snow” as a verb means to fool someone. As in, making people think he’s completely in control of the situation? Maybe I’m reaching here.

    Dumbledore would be proud of both Katniss and Cinna. As Katniss struggles with uncovering her true motivation for the berries, on some level what matters was that she made the choice at all. Her actions can make her someone worth rallying around, even though she thinks Peeta’s natural gifts make him more worthy of leadership. Cinna shows that people are defined by the choices we make rather than who we “are.” He defies type, goes against what is expected of a Capitol citizen, and does the right thing. So can we.

    I am ashamed to say that while I totally got the significance of Rue’s death as the turning point for Katniss… I didn’t think “Dobby.” 🙁

    I had thought of the Mockingjay’s power coming from its adaptability, will to live, and creativity. Awesome that it comes from the feminine!!!

    One more random thought… The muttations that resemble the dead Tributes reminded me of Orcs – how they were created as twisted versions of Elves. I may not be saying that quite right, but I’m sure someone here can correct any… is there a word for Tolkein misreferences? If not, we should coin one.

  12. Oh hello there. Do you mind if i use some of your ideas for a paper im working on? I cant find anything better than this in terms of literary analysis of the Hunger Games.

  13. Ok so I think that you are absoulutley correct but in mocking jay I believe that Katniss begans to see that she can control the story for once. But she has to find the real “puppet master”. (undersee). Many therioes r ok but haven’t found a very rational one like this!!!!
    Peeta all the way 😉

  14. Joan writes:

    “I’m as interested in the people from the Capitol, as I am in the people from the Districts. As you mention, by now, the majority of them don’t have a “first clue what it means to truly be human”. They have become desensitized by the real tragedy happening all around them (and in front of them, as we see with the Prep Team), and tune in voluntarily to watch the Games. As a reader, you also become another of the spectators, and that makes you self-aware of your reactions as you are reading.”

    I’ve just finished my third reading of these books. This time I really came to pity the Capitol people. In a way they, too are victims of an evil government–one that dehumanizes them to the point of complete oblivion about truth, justice, spirit, mercy, and decency. They may have material comforts, but in a way they’re worse off than the District people because they’re so infantilized.

    I would now believe Peeta’s been part of the Pearl Plot rather than Gale. Peeta is a curiously blank personality and I think this is significant.

    Back to Joan’s comment about us being spectators and how we perceive the games. In my first reading, especially, I was filled with horror at what these kids (or anyone for that matter) were put through. I can’t imagine having the kind of sick mind that could create these sadistic tortures. I was almost sorry I’d read Catching Fire. It still outrages me in subsequent readings.

    I do look forward to your second post, Travis.

  15. I finally understand why covering Rue with flowers was an act of rebellion! Thanks! LOVED the analysis, btw. MOCKINGJAY CAME OUT! It’s on hold at the library, and I’m picking it up tomorrow. I CAN’T WAIT to read it! Though I’ll certainly cry if it’s not Peeta she chooses. TEAM PEETA! Ugh, great, now I sound like one of those stupid crazed twilight fanatics! Eww…TEAM PEETA ANYWAY!

  16. I loved these books, and they affected more deeply than any book has in a long time. There are a million important moments in these books, but one small one that struck me was when ?? Octavia sat down next to Posy to eat, and everyone is staring, and Posy asked her about her green skin color, and she felt so insecure, with tears in her eyes. I couldn’t help thinking that that really compared our society with the capitol – our piercings and makeup and tattoos and bulimia… we are no better than them…

  17. YAY! GO HUNGER GAMES! I didn’t get all the references ’cause I read the books in German but I still think you did a great job.
    I have to admit that while I LOVE the series I was really disappointed in Flammender Zorn (Mockingjay) The other books handled serious themes while still making me laugh. Flammender Zorn (Mockingjay) only made me feel really depressed. Besides the ending was too inconclusive for my taste. Well, I read it in two days so I might have missed something. Also some TROLL leaked the ending to me prematurely so that took some of the fun out of it. What is it with books always getting so dark and gloomy? It happened in HP too.
    I AM STARTING THE MOVEMENT FOR BOOKS THAT DON’T MAKE ME CRY! (Sorry got a little carried away there 🙂 )

  18. This was a very interesting and informative post. Thank you for sharring. I have read and love the books. I plan on doing some of my own evaluations of the book as well. Thanks again for the input. Team Peeta!

  19. I’m writing a paper on the Hunger Games and a huge theme is “identity”. Thank you, thank you, thank you for giving such insight on that theme. This has been immensely helpful to spark the flow of ideas!

  20. I don’t think that you can view him as a dictator, but if you had to I would say he is from the Districts prospective. Even though he IS the president, the things that he does to the districts children, I mean, really if you look at Hitler and the Holocaust, you could say that Snow is trying to eliminate the districts population, but very slowly. Personally, I think that if the Games went on until, like, the 100TH anniversary, Snow would have doubled up the tributes and just kept getting higher and higher until, eventually, he ordered no more food and water to the districts and made them extinct. Maybe if Katniss had won but didn’t go to 13 then he would have made it quicker, eliminating the districts one by one until only the Capitol was left. He was EVIL!!! But in fair game-because i can’t be mean to even the unforgivable- he grew up in the games and hating the districts probably. I think that if he had grown up it 12, and became pres, he would have done things so much differently.

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