While 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 PanemPolitics.com. 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 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.