Edition: New York, Scholastic Press, 2008
“Our part of District 12, nicknamed the Seam, is usually crawling with coal miners heading out to the morning shifts at this hour. Men and women with hunched shoulders, swollen knuckles, many who have long since stopped trying to scrub the coal dust out of their broken nails, the lines of their sunken faces. But today the black cinder streets are empty. Shutters on the squat gray houses are closed. The reaping isn’t till two. May as well sleep in. If you can.”
Early in the novel, a description of the home of Katniss Everdeen, first-person narrator of the novel, and of it denizens sets a grim, defeatist tone. Daily life has ground these people down to the point that they accept coal dust in their wrinkles, but today is worse than usual because they must cope with the dread and trauma of the reaping as well.
“To make it humiliating as well as torturous, the Capitol requires us to treat the Hunger Games as a festivity, a sporting event pitting every district against the others. The last tribute alive receives a life of ease back home, and their district will be showered with prizes, largely consisting of food. All year, the Capitol will show the winning district gifts of grain and oil and even delicacies like sugar while the rest of us battle starvation.
“‘It is both a time for repentance and a time for thanks,’ intones the mayor.”
These sentences capture the terrible emotional coercion of the Games. The mayor is required by law to read the history of the Games and to guide the people in repenting, as if the rebellion 74 years ago was their crime, and expressing gratitude for the Capitol’s supposed mercy in not destroying the districts. Not only does the Capitol brutalize the districts, but it also co-opts the oppressed citizens to participate and even to feign to be glad to do so.
“The cameras haven’t lied about its grandeur. If anything, they have not quite captured the magnificence of the glistening buildings in a rainbow of hues that tower into the air, the shiny cars that roll down the wide paved streets, the oddly dressed people with bizarre hair and painted faces who have never missed a meal. All the colors seem artificial, the pinks too deep, the greens too bright, the yellow painful to the eyes, like the flat round disks of hard candy we can never afford to buy at the tiny sweet shop in District 12.”
When set against Katniss’s description of the Seam on page 4, her first impressions of the Capitol are even more striking. Though readers recognize typical features of cities—paved roads, cars, tall buildings—it also has an Oz-like feel, with its garish colors, pristine gloss, and leisured citizens. Katniss’s resentment bleeds into the description as well. Not only does she note that the residents are all well-fed, but she compares the colors to candy that she and Prim may look at in the “tiny sweet shop” but not taste.
“‘I don’t know how to say it exactly. Only . . . I want to die as myself. Does that make any sense? . . . I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster than 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 anybody 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 . . . .’”
This exchange sets up an important theme in the novel. The Games, Peeta knows, can change the tributes, warp their personalities, and force them into roles that pervert their natures. Katniss goes into the Games determined to do her best to win, for Prim’s sake. Peeta goes into the Games determined to keep his personal integrity intact. The internal conflict that the Games provoke in Katniss will surface repeatedly as the plot unfolds.
“The game has taken a twist. The fire was just to get us moving, now the audience will get to see some real fun. . . . To remain still is death. I’m barely on my feet before the third ball hits the ground where I was lying, sending a pillar of fire up behind me. . . . Probably this whole segment of the woods has been armed with precision launchers that are concealed in trees or rocks. Somewhere, in a cool and spotless room, a Gamemaker sits at a set of controls, fingers on the triggers that could end my life in a second.”
As days pass in the arena, the atrocities against the tributes increase in threat and creativity. Katniss’s description of the Gamemaker who could fire the buttons to end her life—or just to keep her darting away in terror—will bring to many readers’ minds a game player with the control in his or her hands, guiding an avatar through enemies. “Game over” merely means a respawned avatar for gamers, and Katniss’s life is not worth much more than that to the Gamemakers. Reviews matter, audience reaction matters; but the “dying boys and girls in the arena,” as Katniss later calls them, are merely expendable pieces in a game that has no real impact on the people in control.
“I run through the surviving tributes on my fingers. . . . Just eight of us. The betting must be getting really hot in the Capitol. They’ll be doing special features on each of us now. Probably interviewing our friends and families. It’s been a long time since a tribute from District 12 made it into the top eight. And now there are two of us. Although from what Cato said, Peeta’s on his way out. Not that Cato is the final word on anything. Didn’t he just lose his entire stash of supplies?
“Let the Seventy-fourth Hunger Games begin, Cato, I think. Let them begin for real.”
Now that Katniss has her bow, and Cato doesn’t have the insurance of his supply pile, Katniss knows that she could win. She paraphrases Claudius Templesmith’s opening words as she identifies Cato as the main threat to her life. Readers see at more confident Katniss emerge at this point in the plot but may also notice that she is using Capitol language, Gamemaker language, to assess her odds. She counts up the remaining tributes. She thinks about the interviews that happen at this point. She sizes up Cato’s odds, and she challenges him personally. The Games are changing Katniss, and readers see the shift even if Katniss doesn’t—yet.
“Then I remember Peeta’s words on the roof. ‘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.’ And for the first time, I understand what he means.
“I want to do something, right here, right now, to shame them, to make them accountable, to show the Capitol that whatever they do or force us to do there is part of every tribute they can’t own. That Rue was more than a piece in their Games. And so am I.”
Katniss’s first direct kill happens when she shoots the District 1 Career who speared Rue. She does it almost automatically—a clean, quick kill. Yet killing him does not help Rue, and after Rue dies, Katniss looks at the boy and sees that he looks “vulnerable” in death, no different from Rue, and that there is no point in hating him. He is not the enemy. Her realization leads her to an openly defiant act and marks a turning point in her development as an enemy of the Capitol. Before this, her goal was to stay alive, at any cost—self-preservation. Now her goal is to inflict damage on her enemy.
“Conflicting emotions cross Thresh’s face. He lowers the rock and points at me, almost accusingly. ‘Just this one time, I let you go. For the little girl. You and me, we’re even then. No more owed. You understand?’
“I nod because I do understand. About owing.About hating it. I understand that if Thresh wins, he’ll have to go back and face a district that has already broken all the rules to thank me, and he is breaking the rules to thank me, too. And I understand that, for the moment, Thresh is not going to smash in my skull.”
Thresh’s act of rebellion—his refusal to let the Capitol force him to behave against his true self—shows that Peeta is not the only person who entered the arena with the goal of remaining himself, not matter what the events. His willingness to let Katniss live—this time—is another example of how the Capitol uses the Hunger Games and other forms of oppression, such as the omnipresence of the Peacekeepers in each district, perverts and twists natural personalrelationships. Readers may sense, however, that change is coming. Peeta, Katniss, Thresh, and the residents of District 11 have all, in just a few days, flouted the Capitol’s power in one way or another.
“I slump down on the floor, my face against the door, staring uncomprehendingly at the crystal glass in my hand. Icy cold, filled with orange juice, a straw with a frilly white collar. How wrong it looks in my bloody, filthy hand with its dirt-caked nails and scars. My mouth waters at the smell, but I place it carefully on the floor, not trusting anything so clean and pretty. . . . I startle when I catch someone staring at me from only a few inches away and then realize it’s my own face reflecting back in the glass. Wild eyes, hollow cheeks, my hair in a tangle mat. Rabid. Feral. Mad. No wonder everyone is keeping a safe distance from me.”
Katniss’s description of the glass of orange juice and of her own reflection reveals the traumatic effect of her days in the arena. Starved, filthy not just with dirt but with blood, with crazed eyes and stunned mental faculties, Katniss will from now on be known, ironically, as a victor—like Haymitch, whose only comfort is drunkenness. Katniss and Peeta have won and are free of the arena, but these lines make it clear that, for tributes and their district, there is no true victory against the Capitol, which makes Katniss over before the audience sees her again to hide the reality of the effects of the arena.
“I want to tell him that he’s not being fair. That we were strangers. That I did what it took to stay alive, to keep us both alive in the arena. That I can’t explain how things are with Gale because I don’t know myself. That it’s no good loving me because I’m never getting married anyway and he’d just end up hating me later instead of sooner. That if I do have feelings for him, it won’t matter because I’ll never be able to afford the kind of love that leads to family, to children. And how can he? How can he after what we’ve just been through?
“I also want to tell him how much I already miss him. But that wouldn’t be fair on my part.”
As the novel ends, readers are reminded of Katniss’s youth. At just sixteen, she’s rescued her family from starvation, taken her sister’s place in the arena, and endured the physical and psychological horrors of the Hunger Games. Peeta now knows that Katniss does not love him, as he thought she did, and she knows that his own love was never for a moment feigned or part of a strategy. Yet they are allied, tied together by their experiences and by the story that helped save them in the arena, which has forced on Katniss questions she is not ready to answer. Readers may have expected the novel to end with the welcoming home of the District 12 tributes, with relief, celebrations, and embraces. Instead, Collins leaves readers with the uncomfortable image of Peeta and Katniss holding hands for the cameras and Katniss’s guilty, ambivalent feelings about their relationship and the future.