I finished reading The Hunger Games trilogy this week and wanted to share a few thoughts about some of its themes. I liked the books very much, and contrary to what they might seem, believe that they provide a healthy contrast to many of the messages young women are being sent today. Mrs. Judgy provides a nice perspective on why Katniss is a good example for young women (language warning). Many of the nuances of why that is come out in the book in a way that would be impossible to include in the movies, so if you liked the movies, the books will be that much better. If you’ve neither seen nor read The Hunger Games trilogy, this post will completely spoil it, all the way to the end. I would hate for that to happen, so you should read the trilogy and come back and share your thoughts.
There is a theme that comes out in my writings and comments about ideal life vs. real life. When we have discussions about what roles women should ideally take on and how a family should ideally be structured, we can easily overlook the fact that many people–men and women alike–were not born into ideal circumstances, and many encounter situations in life that can throw a wrench into that ideal life if they ever had it at all. Katniss finds herself in an extreme version of a non-ideal life for reasons beyond her control: born into a deeply unjust and morally defunct society, losing her father and family breadwinner at a young age, having a mother who descended into lifeless catatonia, experiencing constant hunger and deprivation, and finally, being sent into an arena in which her only choices are to kill or be killed. It is in light of these circumstances that Katniss’ toughness and her anger are put into context, not as examples of having something to prove, but of doing what it takes to survive.
It is interesting to note that Katniss’ mother was born into a relatively privileged life and is one who could not cope with the hardship she and her daughters faced after the passing of her husband, allowing young Katniss to bear the responsibility for making things turn out right. Even in the end, when Katniss is sent back to her home district in a state of virtual madness, it is her mentor Haymitch who accompanies her rather than her mother, as her mother could not bear to return to the place where she would be reminded of her lost husband and daughter, Prim. These were also significant losses for Katniss, but Katniss has the strength to eventually confront her pain and grief and move forward.
There is a theme in the book of those who are not used to suffering being unable to withstand adversity when it arrives. Aside from Mrs. Everdeen, the contrast between the character of the citizens of the Capitol and those of the Districts is another example, of whom it is said of the former, “They don’t know how to go hungry.” Virtue in The Hunger Games is often wrought through hardship, through deprivation, and through an unending barrage of situations that force individuals to choose the best act to produce the best outcome in dire circumstances.
And so in light of this theme, we see Katniss’ greatest virtue, present from the start: She rises to meet whatever challenge is required to survive and protect those she loves, which remains her central motivation throughout the series. Her love is not self-indulgent in that it is often, if not always, self-sacrificial. And she does so with no sense of entitlement to anyone’s love, protection or provision. Examples include her continually risking serious legal reprimand to feed her family and friends, going into the games in place of her sister without any reason to think that she would survive, being genuinely concerned about Rue’s safety and genuinely grieving for her and her family during the games and afterward, making a deal with Haymitch to save Peeta rather than herself, protecting Gale from being whipped, and so forth. Her love is really without limit or condition in that respect. But it is a practical love and not particularly emotional. Having lived a life of constant deprivation and survival, her love takes the form of sacrificing herself so that those she loves can survive. And even then, she understands how to depend on others for help, as seen in the strength of her friendship with Gale, her relationships with those in District 12, her brief alliance with Rue, and her eventual reliance upon Peeta to help her see and realize the possibility of rebirth and renewal of life.
One of the main things that I liked about Katniss was that, although she maintains deep bonds with others, she is not consumed with ideas of being loved nor with the expectation that others will do for her. Although two desirable young men openly vie for her affection, she is not taken with the idea of herself being the object of their desire. If anything, she seems to view the pressure to choose between them as a distraction from her more pressing task of saving those she cares about. She remains a faithful friend to both and gives of herself for their good, but is not overly concerned about what she will receive from them. I think that this is an important aspect of Katniss’ character because it reflects the fact that she is not preoccupied by thoughts of her own happiness and fulfillment. Rather, her consuming focus is on protecting those she loves, which include both Peeta and Gale, though in different ways. When it comes to the future, she lights up when her sister Prim tells her that she is training to become a doctor. It is Katniss’ hope for Prim’s future that makes the world seem brighter rather than hope for her own. Peeta highlights this aspect of Katniss’ character when he asks her to share a happy memory and when she has finished, tells her that he knew that one of her happiest memories would be of giving a gift to someone else.
A central story arc of the novel concerns the relationships between Katniss, Peeta and Gale. The presence of a bonafide love triangle might scream “teenage angst” to some, and perhaps fairly. But it works in this story, one, because of Katniss’ outward focus, and two, because there’s a purity in their loves that comes from the other being seen as an end in themselves rather than as a means of personal satisfaction and gratification. In fact, their selflessness is almost unrealistic, but is perhaps likely in light of how strongly the character of District citizens is portrayed.
The Boy with the Bread
In their first meeting, Peeta, the baker’s son, intentionally burns bread and takes a beating from his mother in order to sneak bread to a starving Katniss, who is only a girl he likes from school at that point. Much later, Peeta’s apology to Katniss after they win the first Hunger Games is another example of his unselfish love for her. Rather than giving into bitter thoughts of being led on, he acknowledges that he knew Gale was in the picture before the games and that Katniss did what she felt was necessary for them both to survive. When they discover that Katniss will definitely be sent into the arena once again, and that either he or Haymitch will be sent with her, he volunteers in Haymitch’s place to go and prepares to sacrifice himself for her survival, secretly insisting to Haymitch that he must work as their mentor to save her rather than himself. In the arena, once Peeta realizes that Katniss has also made a deal with Haymitch, but to save him rather than herself, he attempts to persuade her that she still has the possibility of a good life with Gale and her family. After he is “hijacked” and tortured, and comes to see the worst interpretation of Katniss’ actions without the veneer of romantic love, he ultimately chooses to allow memories of the goodness shared between them to form the basis of renewed trust and closeness with her. And finally, after Katniss is sent back to District 12 with Haymitch, Peeta comes as soon as he is allowed, with flowers to honor Katniss’ sister Prim, and then bread for them to share. Peeta repeatedly chooses to love Katniss, even when he could easily justify doing otherwise.
Gale’s love for Katniss comes primarily in the form of his provision for her and her family. He shows her how to make snares and become a better hunter for her family. He provides companionship in her lonely struggle to survive. He is willing to follow through with a plan to escape together into the woods with their families, to relieve their suffering in the District. And when she is in the arena, he takes over her responsibility for bringing food for Prim and Mrs. Everdeen. During the rebellion, when they decide that it’s necessary to rescue Peeta, Gale volunteers to go on this life-threatening mission to save Peeta–his romantic rival–likely because he knows how much Peeta means to Katniss. But when Peeta becomes a danger to Katniss, he is ever ready to protect her from him. He wakes up multiple times in the night just to make sure she is OK.
Gale and Peeta even share a conversation about their interest in Katniss that is interesting if only because they express no animosity toward one another. Eavesdropping, Katniss notes that Gale has brought Peeta a drink of water and they are talking as if they are friends. They even laugh about the situation and acknowledge that Katniss has a choice to make between the two, but both seem important to her. They speculate about what will ultimately happen, but don’t allow their own pride or desire to put pressure on Katniss or to mistreat the other.
Both Peeta and Gale show their love for Katniss without entitlement, just as she does. Their love for her is not contingent upon her fulfilling their wishes; but rather is a choice based on their desire for her good. They know her worst traits, but believe the good is still worthwhile. The romantic nature of their love is seen in their desire to be in an intimate relationship with her; but she remains in their eyes an end in and of herself, without respect to whether their desire for her is fulfilled. This is what fundamentally distinguishes romantic love from lust.
As admirable as Gale and Peeta’s loves are, I am somewhat conflicted as to whether they set expectations too high for young women regarding what they should expect from men, or whether they simply provide a distilled and concentrated version of the type of love everyone ought to seek in a spouse. I lean toward the latter, which I hope to explore in another post soon.
But even our loves can be come a hindrance. All protagonists must have a central flaw. And insofar as their central virtue is their selfless love, their central flaw is that both Katniss and Peeta love with shortsighted vision; with their beloved as the utmost consideration. Katniss initially thinking only of Peeta’s fate instead of seeing the big picture of the resistance. Peeta initially giving an interview with Caesar asking the rebels for a ceasefire in order to protect Katniss. Both of their attitudes and actions were misguided on those points, and I could only think of Richard Lovelace’s poem, “To Lucasta, Going to the Wars”:
Tell me not (Sweet) I am unkind,
That from the nunnery
Of thy chaste breast and quiet mind
To war and arms I fly.
True, a new mistress now I chase,
The first foe in the field;
And with a stronger faith embrace
A sword, a horse, a shield.
Yet this inconstancy is such
As you too shall adore;
I could not love thee (Dear) so much,
Lov’d I not Honour more.
Written from the perspective of a soldier leaving his beloved to fight in battle, the line “I could not love thee (Dear) so much / Lov’d I not Honour more” expresses the soldier’s conviction that he has more transcendent ideals to pursue than the creaturely love between himself and his love; and not only that, but that it is his embrace of those ideals (namely honor) that enables him to love her as much as he does. An aspect of the dystopian nature of The Hunger Games is that the characters generally have no hope beyond what is immediately in front of them, with the constant fear that what little they do have might be stripped away at any moment. And so, the people Katniss loves become the beginning and end of her hope and reason for being. Peeta also admits to Katniss that she is all he has to live for. It is not until Katniss believes that Peeta is lost to her that she begins to focus on the importance of the rebellion. And then, considering him lost to his hijacked and tortured self, her love for him is trampled under her own survival instinct. Haymitch has to reproach her and help her to see love as something that transcends survival and protection in the present moment. And in finding a more transcendent love, Katniss learns to love Peeta again in a better and deeper way.
Gale does not fall so easily into this trap. Rather, his love is more like that of the soldier bidding farewell to his beloved Lucasta. When Katniss runs to him, finally wanting to run away, but mentions that some of the districts have already begun to rebel against the Capitol, all his previous thoughts of fleeing leave him. Gale cannot consider fleeing, not even to save himself and Katniss from President Snow’s threats, when the possibility of working to fight against the oppression that has created their predicament presents itself. In his conversation with Peeta, Gale wonders whether he had not sacrificed enough for Katniss, saying to Peeta “No, you won her over. Gave up everything for her. Maybe that’s the only way to convince her you love her…I should have volunteered to take your place in the first Games. Protected her then.” Though Peeta reassures him that Gale showed his love in taking care of her family [and Gale also had to take care of his own], implicit in Gale’s speculation is an acknowledgment that Katniss was not his all-consuming focus. At the end, when Gale realizes that she will never be able to look at him without wondering whether he was (indirectly) responsible for her sister’s death, he expresses regret but picks himself up and moves on with his purpose in life–working to help build a new society. This is in contrast to Peeta, of whom it is unclear what purpose he would have outside of a life with Katniss. I do not believe that any of this indicates that Peeta loves Katniss more, nor that Gale loved Katniss less (and Katniss never makes such a comparison) only that Gale’s love was kept in broader perspective, with other responsibilities to fulfill and higher ideals to live for than Katniss Everdeen.
Nevertheless, despite Peeta’s shortsighted vision, it is ultimately his virtue that wins in pointing Katniss to the possibility of goodness and life in spite of everything that they suffered. Peeta was not deeply loved by his family, lost everything, almost died multiple times, and was tortured terribly, but continued to see the good and to act for goodness and peace and love. Peeta always held himself above the constant manipulation of the game makers and the Capitol to be self-seeking, cruel, murderous; he always held himself above their insistence that he had to play the game on their terms. This is reflected in his exchange with Katniss before their first games:
“I don’t know how to say it exactly. Only…I want to die as myself. Does that make any sense?” he asks. I shake my head. How could he die as anyone but himself? “I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not.”
I bite my lip, feeling inferior. While I’ve been ruminating on the availability of trees, Peeta has been struggling with how to maintain his identity. His purity of self. “Do you mean you won’t kill anyone?” I ask.
“No, when the time comes, I’m sure I’ll kill just like everybody else. I can’t go down without a fight. Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to…to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games,” says Peeta.
Katniss also recognizes that it is not only herself that can see that Peeta is “truly, deep-down, better than the rest of us.” Others, particularly Katniss and Gale, give themselves to vengeance and the self-protective instinct to immediately go for the kill without thinking of other options. When Katniss and Haymitch agree to a final Hunger Games to enact revenge on the Capitol citizens, Peeta is furiously adamant that such a course of action is wrong. Peeta’s continual refusal to stoop to that level is a significant part of what makes Katniss ultimately recognize her need of him and his ability to bring renewal to her life beset by grief, fear and anger. The ending of the trilogy is incredibly wise in that respect and true to life. Katniss and Peeta have broken bodies and broken hearts, but work day by day to allow spring to replace their winter. As I mentioned in my post “Where Has the Coming of Age Tale Gone?” this lesson is one of the most valuable we can learn.