The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins
Ladies and gentleman, a brief statement of the facts:
Katniss Everdeen is a teenage girl who lives in District 12, an impoverished coal-mining region in the country of Panem. She's a volunteer tribute in Panem's annual Hunger Games, having taken the place of her younger sister in an act of heroic self-sacrifice.
Likes include: bows, arrows, and lamb stew. Also: a certain guy named Gale.
Dislikes include: Haymitch Abernathy, tracker jacker stings, getting her leg hair waxed, and the family cat. Also: occasionally her mother.
Now that we know just enough about the heroine of The Hunger Games to fill out her Facebook profile, let's get down to brass tacks: Who is Katniss Everdeen? Who is she really?
Katniss the Provider
Ever since the death of her father in a tragic coal-mining accident, Katniss has taken on the role of her family's head of household. While Katniss's mother was unable to cope with the loss, falling into a deep depression, Katniss stayed focused and took charge. Filling her father's shoes, she became the chief cook and bottlewasher, bringing home the food and income that would save the family from starvation. Katniss describes the process as follows:
It was slow-going at first, but I was determined to feed us. I stole eggs from nests, caught fish in nets, sometimes managed to shoot a squirrel or rabbit for stew, and gathered the various plants that sprung up beneath my feet. Plants are tricky. Many are edible, but one false mouthful and you're dead. I checked and double-checked the plants I harvested with my father's pictures. I kept us alive. (4.19)
Katniss is the stalwart rock of her family. Hunting, foraging, and providing for her mother and sister Prim are at the very core of her identity.
While Katniss's role as a provider originated within the context of her family, Katniss is a strong provider in the arena as well. Her protective instincts extend to her ally from District 11, the young girl named Rue. The two shared food, clothing, and companionship. Katniss explains that she teamed up with the girl "because she's a survivor, and I trust her, and why not admit it? She reminds me of Prim" (15.28).
While her alliance with Rue is sadly short-lived, Katniss will also act as provider and protector of another tribute: her co-tribute from District 12, Peeta Mellark. The daughter of a coal miner, Katniss is a far more skilled hunter and tracker than Peeta, who is the son of a baker. He's a whiz at "decorating cakes," sure, but he's really not very good with weapons (19.25). As the Games near their climax, Katniss will risk her life against the other tributes in order to bring Peeta the only medicine that can bring him back from the edge of death.
While Katniss sees herself primarily as someone who others can depend upon, both in and out of the arena, who would Katniss be if she didn't have to provide for and protect the people around her? As there becomes a likely possibility that she might win the Hunger Games, she lets herself ask this question:
For the first time, I allow myself to truly think about the possibility that I might make it home. To fame. To wealth. To my own house in the Victor's Village. My mother and Prim would live there with me. No more fear of hunger. A new kind of freedom. But then…what? What would my life be like on a daily basis? Most of it has been consumed with the acquisition of food. Take that away and I'm not really sure who I am, what my identity is. The idea scares me some. (23.62)
Though the question is left unresolved at the conclusion of The Hunger Games, you can bet your bottom dollar that Katniss will have to find a new role for herself – a new identity – once she returns home to District 12.
Katniss the Survivor
It's been a hardknock life for Katniss. As Peeta's mom comments, rather coldly, "She's a survivor, that one" (7.31).
Whether she's in the woods of District 12 or the Gamemaker's arena, Katniss is concerned with one thing: how to stay alive. This, of course, makes her a fierce competitor. She can hunt, fish, trap, and fight.
While we might be putting money on Katniss to win, some might say that her survivalist mindset also makes her a hardened character – someone difficult to like. We, as readers, want to see people fall in love and be happy, after all. Katniss, though, doesn't get attached to people very easily – or to things. Warm, fuzzy emotions are a luxury that she just can't afford.
Because she is only focused on the day-to-day work of living, Katniss isn't terribly sentimental – a characteristic that sets her apart from many other girl heroines (think of Bella from Twilight) and from Peeta. She has no great love for the family cat, Buttercup, for example. To Katniss, Buttercup isn't a cute and fuzzy playmate, but simply "another mouth to feed" (1.3). This would explain, we guess, why she tried to drown the poor thing in a bucket – to save him from the slow, sad fate of starvation.
Similarly, Katniss doesn't go gaga for children or babies. She can't even imagine herself having children, as she tells Gale: "Who would fill those mouths that are always asking for more?" (1.28). Katniss lives in a world with no future. Why would she bring children into such a life of pain, sorrow, and poverty?
Katniss the Celebrity
As Morrissey once sang, "Fame, fame, fatal fame. It can play hideous tricks on the brain." Indeed, in the televised world of the Hunger Games, fame and celebrity can turn your world completely upside down.
As the girl tribute from District 12, Katniss is thrust into the spotlight when she hits the Capitol. Cameras are on her every move at every minute; unfortunately, though, she's not funny or charming or even particularly telegenic. As Haymitch puts it, whenever she opens her mouth, she comes across as "sullen and hostile" (9.17). She's like a Panem version of Kristen Stewart.
So, Katniss must learn the importance of public image, celebrity, and creating a persona. With the help of her stylist, Cinna, she'll wear a series of spectacular gowns with which she'll be able to woo and wow the crowds at the Opening Ceremonies. Likewise, by following Haymitch's coaching and advice, she learns to manipulate the at-home audiences of the Hunger Games by playing up the supposed romance plot with her co-tribute Peeta. Once she's made into Peeta's object of love, she secures a powerful place in the hearts of the audience.
"It's all a big show. It's all how you're perceived. The most I could say about you after your interview was that you were nice enough, although that in itself was s small miracle. Now I can say you're a heartbreaker. Oh, oh, oh, how the boys back home fall longingly at your feet. Which do you think will get you more sponsors?" (10.24)
Katniss becomes a pro at playing the game of celebrity, and at playing the audiences and sponsors of the Hunger Games. But she'll also learn that the distinctions between what's real and what's not can sometimes blur.
What are the stakes of living a life based solely on appearances?
Katniss the Girl on Fire
Cinna is Katniss's fabulous stylist in the Capitol, and the image that he creates for her is designed around the concept of (drumroll please) FIRE! More specifically, being on fire.
Cinna accomplishes this feat through gowns that shimmer and elaborate capes that are set off in flames. Take, for example, Katniss's getup at the inaugural event of the Games:
Every head is turned our way, pulling the focus from the three chariots ahead of us. At first, I'm frozen, but then I catch sight of us on a large television screen and am floored by how breathtaking we look. In the deepening twilight, the firelight illuminates our faces. (5.56)
The flaming spectacle has mass appeal and the crowd goes wild. Katniss's girl on fire bit is a hit.
But, while Katniss might literally be on fire in Cinna's dresses, we should also remember that she is on fire in other ways too.
She's rebellious, for one thing. Remember when she shot her arrow through the apple in the pig's mouth during her private training sessions with the Gamemakers (Chapter 7)? Or when she defiantly covered Rue's body with flowers (Chapter 18)? Or when she attempts a double suicide with Peeta at the climax of the Hunger Games (Chapter 25)?
Katniss has a temper that just won't quit, and her defiance, she learns, can be a huge asset in the arena. Being on fire with her own personal brand of rebellion can be even more powerful than one of Cinna's amazing dresses. Her defiance brands her as spectacular and appealing…and dangerous.
Katniss the Love Object
Who does Katniss love, and who doesn't she love?
Let's break it down:
Gale is the only person in Katniss's life around whom she can be herself (1.11), and indeed her memories of her times with Gale hunting at home are her happiest ones (20.40). Katniss doesn't develop her feelings for Gale, though, because she knows her family counts on her to survive – and that life in the Seam is difficult. Her conversation with him about the need to provide for her family – and her disinterest in having children – neatly illustrates that point (1.23-1.34).
It's clear that Peeta has always been in love with Katniss, but Katniss won't let herself think about Peeta romantically because, well, he is her competitor – and they're supposed to kill each other. We think we might see the stirrings of some kinds of feelings when they lock lips for real (22.75), but you never really know when there's a camera involved. (Welcome to the surreal life.)
Also, we've heard the complaints out there from the Peeta sympathizers of the world who portray Katniss as a big old meanie heartbreaker. Let us weigh in on the matter: both Katniss and Peeta are players of this game. Though we are not privy to Peeta's point of view, we can safely say that Peeta Mellark brought a great deal of this fake love malarkey on himself by CONFESSING his so-called crush on Katniss on NATIONAL TELEVISION. In so doing, Peeta has made a private affair of the heart a hugely public matter.
Is this maybe a teensy bit manipulative? Signs point to yes.
Katniss, in turn, is put in one heck of an awkward situation. As she says later, after a fit of confusion, "Peeta has made me an object of love" (10.33). Please note the word "object," folks. It's a position that can be as disempowering as it is potentially empowering. Having had her hand forced, Katniss is being asked to play a role in front of an audience that can either make or break her. How can she possibly reject him in front of the camera when she knows that her life – and Peeta's – is on the line?
What, in all honesty, would you do?