Hunger Games: A Question of Agency

Content Note: Death, Agency, Reproductive Rights

Hunger Games Recap: I've decided to run a Hunger Games deconstruction to post on a non-regular basis. This will not be a line-by-line deconstruction like Twilight and will not precisely be a read-a-long like Narnia; it will be a thematic deconstruction by chapter with the assumption that everyone is already familiar with the books. Spoilers lurk herein.

The Hunger Games, Chapter 1

I love "The Hunger Games". It's probably my most favorite book series of all time at this point. I've read the books half a dozen times. I've listened to the audio books more times than I can count. I love the series: heart, mind, and soul. I also feel like it's one of the most feminist book series I own. This is not a coincidence.

THG is a fundamentally political series. The novels follow the adventures of Katniss Everdeen as she is forced by an oppressive government to kill other young adults in order to survive. In the process, she becomes a symbol of defiance and rebellion against the corrupt government and she is forced to navigate a brutal civil war in order to protect herself and her loved ones.

But THG is also a deeply personal series, and the personal becomes so deliberately woven with the political that an appropriate tagline for the series would almost certainly be The Personal Is Political. Katniss' personal life is intruded upon, first by the deadly reality-TV program she is forced by the government to participate in, and then later as part of a propaganda series in order to encourage the members of the rebellion. Her emotions and actions are on display and are appropriated as part of a larger cause: her love for her sister, her love for her district partner, her love for her allies. And Katniss' feelings aren't just appropriated against her will; more often than not, they are deliberately manipulated, both by her enemies and her allies.

And so THG is ultimately a story about agency, and about the removal of such. It's a novel about reproduction and reproductive freedom, and how these very basic rights tie into every facet of one's life and choices. And thus it is not a coincidence that the first paragraph of the novel starts with a frightened child.

   When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim's warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

Prim is Katniss' little sister, but in many ways she is almost a surrogate daughter. When Katniss' father died, her mother spiraled into a silent depression and Katniss was forced to step in and be the parent  her little sister needed until their mother was able to recover.

The Reaping, as we will learn, is a yearly ceremony in which two children -- a boy and a girl -- are chosen by lottery and sent to the Capitol as tributes marked for death. The children will be placed in an arena with 23 other children and only one child will be allowed to leave. That child chosen as winner will be the "winner" by virtue of the fact that they are the only one left alive: the other tributes will have been brutally bludgeoned, hacked, drowned, burned, or starved to death.

Attendance at The Reaping -- the ceremony at which your child may be taken from you and sent away to be violently murdered -- is mandatory. For weeks after the ceremony, live footage of your child's struggles will be piped into your home and onto the screens of the televisions in the town square. By law -- and for the sake of the rest of your family -- you must treat The Reaping as a great honor and a solemn celebration, or suffer serious consequences. When a "victor" who murdered your child goes on their victory tour in the year after the Games, the onus will be on you to stand by quietly in the crowd at the celebration held in their honor.

And this is a fundamental aspect of the series: the government of Panem can and will take away your children to die, and you can only watch helplessly. Small wonder that our protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, doesn't want to reproduce. Smaller wonder still that she will continually be pressured to do so against her will. Small wonder that she will learn that in Panem, women -- and especially women victors -- don't always have that choice. 

Chapter 1 builds the foundation of Katniss' family life.

   My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me. [...] She must have really loved him to leave her home for the Seam. I try to remember that when all I can see is the woman who sat by, blank and unreachable, while her children turned to skin and bones. I try to forgive her for my father's sake. But to be honest, I'm not the forgiving type. [...]
   My father knew [how to hunt] and he taught me some before he was blown to bits in a mine explosion. There was nothing even to bury. I was eleven then. Five years later, I still wake up screaming for him to run.

Katniss' mother is not given a name in the books. She is simply referred to by her status as wife and mother: "Mrs. Everdeen" or "Mother". And I do think this is a deliberate choice, as Mrs. Everdeen / Mother represents that which Katniss desperately does not want to be. Her mother fell deeply in love, and married a man who made her feel safe and secure. They had two beautiful children together, while Mrs. Everdeen was respected and valued by the community as one of the few healers in the area. She had everything that she needed to be happy: a loving spouse, a fulfilling career, a beautiful family.

But she has zero control over any of that. Her husband was killed as part of his occupation; an occupation that he had no choice in, and which was characterized by hazardous conditions that the government didn't care to improve. Her children will be selected for The Reaping and one of them will be sent off to the Capitol to die. Her career as a healer will be curtailed by the limits of the supplies available to her: when the Capitol decides to crack down on District 12 and stop all visits to and from the forest for supplies, Mrs. Everdeen will be left with nothing but snow and bandages to work with.

Katniss can't control whether or not the Capitol decides to kill her, and she can't prevent her career from being a dangerous occupation imposed on her by circumstance rather than by choice. But she can choose not to open herself up to more pain by indulging in love or deciding to procreate.

   When I was younger, I scared my mother to death, the things I would blurt out about District 12, about the people who rule our country, Panem, from the far-off city called the Capitol. Eventually I understood this would only lead us to more trouble. So I learned to hold my tongue and to turn my features into an indifferent mask so that no one could ever read my thoughts. [...] Even at home, where I am less pleasant, I avoid discussing tricky topics. Like the reaping, or food shortages, or the Hunger Games. Prim might begin to repeat my words and then where would we be?

Despite her goal of closing herself off from more potential pain, Katniss is fiercely loyal to her family and her few friends. She knows precisely what it feels like to lose her father, and she's experienced enough of a preview of losing her mother to feel a lingering bitterness over what she perceives as abandonment. As a result, she's doing her best to protect her sister.

Someone else might draw away from Prim, trying to distance themselves from the recurring pain of yearly dreading that Prim might be selected for death. Someone else might feel compelled to live more dangerously, acting out against the Capitol despite the risks that would bring. But Katniss is daily struggling to skirt the line between obedience and defiance; those rules which she breaks are broken only to keep herself and her family alive, and each rule is broken carefully with a calculation of risk versus reward.

   I can feel the muscles in my face relaxing, my pace quickening as I climb the hills to our place, a rock ledge overlooking a valley. A thicket of berry bushes protects it from unwanted eyes. [...] Gale says I never smile except in the woods.

We're not but a few pages into the novel and already we see how the political influences the personal in this world.

Katniss doesn't smile in the woods because she's truly happy there in a "Sound of Music" joy bursting through my soul kind of way. She's not running carefree through the grass, sweetly singing songs about freedom and hills and hares and adventure. She's smiling here, and only here, because her face is allowed to relax and flex now that she's away from the District. Every other moment of Katniss' day -- every moment she is not in the woods -- she is under surveillance. There are Peacekeepers (the Capitol police) in town, and informers who turn in rule-breakers in exchange for money and favors. Even when she's at home, she has to watch her expressions and moods because what if her little sister begins to imitate her? They'd all be at risk.

Later, when Katniss is transported to the Capitol and thrown into the Games, this surveillance will only intensify. Katniss will be watched every moment, even while she sleeps. If her face isn't the perfect mixture of winsome, courageous, clever, brave, witty, obedient, and grateful, she won't win over the sponsors whose influence is necessary in order to survive the Games.

The oppression of being constantly watched, gazed upon, judged, and evaluated requires Katniss to suppress her thoughts and emotions if she wants to survive. Outwardly, she must display feelings she doesn't have; inwardly, she must repress her real feelings lest they show on her face. Only when she is safe can she enjoy such a basic freedom as letting her facial muscles relax.

   "We could do it, you know," Gale says quietly. [...] "Leave the district. Run off. Live in the woods. You and I, we could make it," says Gale. [...] "If we didn't have so many kids," he adds quickly.
   They're not our kids, of course. But they might as well be. [...] "I never want to have kids," I say.

THG is a story about reproductive freedom. From the first chapter, Katniss declares that she doesn't want children. She doesn't want them because she knows she can't protect them, and she doesn't want to be victimized by the government by being forced to hand them over to die. She'll accomplish this childless goal the only way she can think of in this world without access to reliable birth control: she won't have sex. She won't fall in love, and this will doubly protect her from having to see her loved ones torn from her. She's not the only one who takes this route; her mentor Haymitch will live a similarly unattached adult life, wracked with grief for what he has lost.

But this isn't a world where Katniss has agency to make these kinds of choices. Her mentor will push her into a romantic relationship in order to generate necessary sponsors in the Games. The Capitol will force her to continue that relationship outside of the Games, in an attempt to spin Katniss' behavior as silly and lovesick rather than calculated and rebellious. As a female victor, Katniss will be forced to procreate so that her children can be "randomly" selected to compete: the audience loves to see the children of a victor go into the arena, and the commentators enjoy talking about how 'unlucky' the family line is.

A choice that should be Katniss' alone -- Shall I breed? -- is a choice that permeates the series. Katniss' lover is forced on her by circumstance, and she is required to make a public romance with him in order to survive. When she is tossed into the Games a second time, she is made to fake a pregnancy in a political move calculated to demonstrate just how brutal the Games truly are. Later, the fake pregnancy has to be explained away with a convenient miscarriage that her handlers use to drum up sympathy for her plight as she supports the rebellion as a symbolic figurehead.

Over and over and over again, the contents of Katniss' uterus and the discussion of what goes in and out of her vagina are deliberately thrust into the public spotlight. It's a huge invasion of privacy for a young woman who is squeamish about her own body and the bodies of the people around her. It's a major trespass on her basic rights as a person to unfold her own sexuality and reproduction in ways that she is comfortable with. It's a depersonifying method of controlling a young woman who only ever wanted to be left alone and free to live her own life in solitude.

And it's a hugely feminist issue in a world where women are being systematically denied birth control and the contents of their bodies are increasingly controlled by the state.

   After the reaping, everyone is supposed to celebrate. And a lot of people do, out of relief that their children have been spared for another year. But at least two families will pull their shutters, lock their doors, and try to figure out how they will survive the painful weeks to come. [...]
   I protect Prim in every way I can, but I'm powerless against the reaping. The anguish I always feel when she's in pain wells up in my chest and threatens to register on my face. I notice her blouse has pulled out of her skirt in the back again and force myself to stay calm. "Tuck your tail in, little duck," I say, smoothing the blouse back in place.

Katniss, as we will see, isn't quite powerless to protect Prim from The Reaping. She has a few years, a very short window of opportunity, when both she and Prim are eligible together. During that time, if Prim's name is called, Katniss can do what their Mother cannot: she can volunteer to take Prim's place. But she can't do this forever. Eventually Katniss will be too old to participate in the Games, and Prim will be on her own, year after year, waiting to see if she's the yearly tribute.

And even with the volunteering, Katniss can't protect Prim from The Reaping on a more fundamental level: she can't protect Prim from being emotionally hurt by it. Prim must watch her schoolmates taken off to die every year. She may have to watch her boyfriend dragged off one day. Someday she may have to see her children taken away to be killed. Katniss can't shield her sister from any of this, nor can she take away the nightmares that plague her little sister on the night before The Reaping.

   People file in silently and sign in. The reaping is a good opportunity for the Capitol to keep tabs on the population as well. Twelve-through eighteen-year-olds are herded into roped areas marked off by ages, the oldest in the front, the young ones, like Prim, toward the back. Family members line up around the perimeter, holding tightly to one another's hands. [...]
   Taking the kids from our districts, forcing them to kill one another while we watch -- this is the Capitol's way of reminding us how totally we are at their mercy. How little chance we would stand of surviving another rebellion. Whatever words they use, the real message is clear. "Look how we take your children and sacrifice them and there's nothing you can do. If you lift a finger, we will destroy every last one of you. Just as we did in District Thirteen."

The Capitol exerts many layers of control on its citizens in order to keep them in perpetual slavery, but almost every layer boils down to exploiting the love its citizens have for one another. Where another book with another rebellion and another protagonist might try to make the case that slaves who don't want to be slaves should just kill themselves as a means of ultimate escape, THG asserts that such 'solutions' are harmfully simplistic.

The people in THG don't cooperate with the government because they fear death. They don't do as they're told because they are trying to avoid torture. No, they keep their heads down and their mouths closed because they are trying to protect the ones they love. Katniss hopes to protect her sister, just like Gale tries to protect his little siblings.

When they do fight, it's because they've been pushed farther than they can go. Katniss fights because she can't bear to let her friend die. She fights because she can't stand to have the Sword of Damocles constantly dangling over Prim's head. She fights because she doesn't want to be forced to have children just to have to inevitably give them up to the Games.

But once she starts fighting, she also fights her herself. She fights for her right to select her own lover, to have children on her own terms. She fights for the basic right to control how and when and with whom she reproduces. Katniss, as a character, is not overtly feminist -- she's not an idealist of any stripe -- but her story is one of feminism, of being allowed to choose when and where and how to have children, and of being allowed to nurture and protect one's chosen family and friends. And that is powerful.


Will Wildman said...

This is brilliant. While it would be hard to miss the many ways that Katniss' personal life is manipulated and meddled in by basically everyone, I hadn't realised before how immediately (and wow, it is right there from chapter one) and how thoroughly it all coalesces into such a theme of reproductive rights and safety. Too busy being gobsmacked to have more thoughts right now.

JonathanPelikan said...

Interesting. I know almost nothing about the Hunger Games at all, except that in high school a lot of my friends had high opinions of it, but never got into it myself, especially when I heard that it might be depressing. I might take a rain check on this the same way I did for some of Claymore, but I'll still pop in, and I still enjoy reading your deconstructions, Ana.

Kubricks_Rube said...

I know this is more relevant to the later books, but I loved the inversion of the typical "girl can't choose between two guys" dynamic. There are a number of scenes where Gale or Peeta pressures Katniss to hurry up and choose between them or express her love for one of them, but instead of being all "but I can't make a choice!" Katniss says, basically, "I don't have time for this right now, there are more important things going on in my life."

Jeldaly said...

oh my god ana youre deconstructing the hunger games you are my favourite person ever. *ahem* I actually never really thought about THG being about reproductive rights - that's a really good point. Also, I didn't really consider the woods to be a place of freedom to smile. I saw it more as a spot to see Gale and know that she's accomplishing something, and I see Katniss as someone to whom knowing that she's DOING something helps.

Deird said...

This is an excellent post, and I really wish I had something very insightful to say about it...

Loquat said...

Tangentially connected: it's very odd that Katniss had no living relatives she could turn to for help when her mother fell into her depression. Apparently both parents were only children and the grandparents all died relatively young, and there were no cousins close enough to be considered family? It's just weird to have such a truncated family presented as normal, especially when the father is from a social group that's explicitly said to have lots of babies.

Silverbow said...

Awesome decon, Ana. And it's likely why The Hunger Games is the third-most censored book on the American Library Association's book list -- one of the most common complaints is that THG is "anti-family". (Which I thought was bizarre, since Katniss willingly sacrifices her own safety and freedom to protect her little sister.)

But it's so obvious now! Clearly THG is subversively "anti-family" because the heroine chooses to be in control of her own body, instead of embracing her God- given reproductive destiny like all good womenfolk should! *gag*

Ursula L said...

Peeta's story about Katniss being pregnant is one part of the story that just doesn't work, for me.

The Capitol, after all, had full access to and control over Katniss's body. It would be simplicity itself to order a medical exam for Katniss, to determine if she was really pregnant.

Announcing that the pregnancy was a lie would have been a certain way to discredit both Peeta and Katniss in the eyes of the Game's audience, both in the Districts and in the Capitol. Even if it had been true, the Capitol could easily have terminated any pregnancy, and claimed that Peeta and Katniss had lied about it, to discredit them. Or simply announced that the pregnancy was a lie, and relied on Katniss's death in the arena to cover up the truth. They could have blamed Katniss - said that she told Peeta she was pregnant, but it was a hysterical pregnancy and she was mentally unstable. The Capitol clearly has a sophisticated understanding of genetics, given the way that they create "muttations", they might have announced that they did a test and that Peeta was not the father of the child Katniss was carrying, another way to discredit her in the eyes of the public.

The leadership of the Capitol is established as bloodthirsty and ruthless. It is odd that they would hold back from verifying the truth of Peeta's claim, or manipulating the situation so that it worked against Katniss and Peeta rather than generating sympathy for them.

Also, given that the Tributes are all teenagers, I find it odd that they had not, in seventy-five years, found one of the Tribute girls to be pregnant, or selected a young woman who already had a child or children. Seventy-five years, times twelve districts, is nine-hundred teenage young women. Nine-hundred-and-twelve, given that the 50 year "Quarter Quell" had double the normal number of tributes. The Capitol should have faced sending a pregnant young woman or young mother into the arena before, and a plan for how the public's reaction.

Silverbow said...

Hm, you've brought up some good points re: pregnancy. But as to the last point, I don't think we have to assume that the Capitol hadn't ever found a pregnant Tribute girl. I'm sure they did -- and in the past they could simply ignore it, as it wouldn't have made any difference to the outcome. Either the pregnant girl would have been killed or become the victor, and likely no one would have cared if she was pregnant or not.

But nearly everything surrounding this Hunger Games is unprecedented. Historically, this was the first time that a Tribute pair from the same District found a way around the rules to survive as a couple. This was also the first time that a Tribute pair declared themselves romantically involved. Additionally, this was the first time that publicity over a romantic pairing trumped the usual kill-or-be-killed focus of the Games.

Among other things, the novel explores the subversive power of out-of-control publicity within a tyranny. This is also unprecedented, as previously, the Capitol was in full control of all the publicity that surrounded the Games. In this case, we see the popularity of Katniss and Peeta spinning out of the Capitol's control. They could discredit Peeta's claim, but at what cost?

Given all that, I don't think it's too much of a stretch for the Capitol to mishandle the news of Katniss' supposed pregnancy. It's fairly clear that Katniss and Peeta are symbols of rebellion to both the Capitol and to certain Districts. Being too heavy-handed in discrediting Katniss' pregnancy could very well blow up in the Capitol's face and spark the very rebellion they're trying to avoid.

Theo said...

Also, IIRC the Capitol government is repeatedly shown to be fairly incompetent, in a fairly believable manner for a dictatorship that hasn't been seriously threatened in decades.

theKatriarch said...

Ana, I am SO EXCITED that you are doing THG. So excited I am actually commenting for the first time ever! I have been hoping for this since the first time you mentioned it as a possibility. I reread the books shortly before the movie came out and searched the internet for a deconstruction and could never find anything that satisfied me. You have MADE MY DAY!

zippygirl said...

Can't wait for the decon of Catching Fire & Mockingjay. Katniss seemed almost an entirely different character by Mockingjay... I've had trouble figuring out if it's just my view of her character's evolution that made me so disappointed in the last book. (Although, like you, I have read and listened to the audiobooks too many times to count, so apparently I wasn't *that* disappointed!)

Elise said...

From the first chapter, Katniss declares that she doesn't want children. She doesn't want them because she knows she can't protect them, and she doesn't want to be victimized by the government by being forced to hand them over to die. She'll accomplish this childless goal the only way she can think of in this world without access to reliable birth control: she won't have sex.

I disagree here. Birth control has existed since ancient times. Ana, you're probably thinking of modern contraception like condoms or pills, but it has existed in other forms, such as with herbs and absorbent materials. Read up on the history of birth control on wikipedia for a quick summary.

Honestly, this aspect of HG bothered me a lot. Katniss goes on and on about how she doesn't want kids, but the issue of birth control or abortions is never discussed. You would think she would know something about it, because she comes from a poor, underprivilged society where women often prostitute themselves and presumably get pregnant, and also because she has a mother who is a medic/herbalist. I understand that this is a controversial topic and the author probably doesn't want to offend people, but I was disappointed.

Also, a fun note: Rue is an abortifacient. Quite a popular one, too. Comes up a lot in Shakespeare.

Ursula L said...

As far as previous pregnant tributes is concerned:

The Capitol seems to present the games, at least to residents of the Capitol, as the tributes being a manifestation of a sort of "live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse" ethos.

If a tribute was pregnant, but not visibly so, they could ignore it. If a tribute had children, they could probably hide it by manipulating the games so that the young parent died early, avoiding the attention of the extra interviews of the family and friends of the finalists.

But a visibly pregnant tribute would be a problem, because it undermines the storyline of the games as being about young people going out in a final, glorious blaze.

So the Capitol ought to have some way to either exclude visibly pregnant tributes or to integrate the idea of a pregnant tribute into the assigned story of the games in a way that works towards the Capitol's interest.

And while the Capitol is not perfect in how it manipulates the games and the Tributes, sorting out that Katniss wasn't pregnant seems obvious enough that they shouldn't have missed it. There were two options. They could have announced that Katniss wasn't pregnant in a way that it looked as if Katniss and Peeta, together, were trying to manipulate the sympathies of the Capitol audience. Or they could have announced it in a way that said that Katniss had told Peeta that she was pregnant. With Katniss manipulating the love-foolish Peeta, and being a "heartless bitch," and generally an awful person.

The Capitol people might even botch how they reacted to the pregnancy story, so that they looked heartless and Katniss and Peeta more sympathetic, because they handled it wrong.

What I don't buy is the people in the Capitol who are running the games just accepting Peeta's story of Katniss being pregnant, and letting Peeta (and Katniss, Cinna, Haymitch, etc.) control the story of the games without being questioned or challenged.

They might not intervene effectively, but they ought to be trying to intervene, to control the story.

(I also don't buy that the conditions of the third quarter-quell were set seventy-five years ago, and that President Snow didn't know and agree with the conditions well before the public announcement. But it leaves me wondering why he thought those terms were a good idea. It would have made more sense to arrange things to marginalize Katniss and Peeta, letting them fade from the public's attention, rather than arranging for them to be killed in this most-public way. Let the conditions of the third quarter-quell be that the new Tributes have to fight without the support of mentors to guide their training and arrange for sponsors. Remind the Districts that if you rebel, you are alone and without support. Return to the "purity" of the early games, before there had been enough victors to have each district with at least one mentor to arrange for sponsors. Leave Katniss, Peeta, Haymitch and all their supporters to loose their audience rather than giving them a stage.)

Gotchaye said...

Like Theo said above, you really have to start by realizing that Snow is /terrible/ at his job. Do the books ever say how Snow came to power? I'd read him as maybe the son or grandson of the person who first established the dictatorship, still in power because he's really paranoid and kills anybody who might be a threat (this has the side effect of making sure that there's nobody competent anywhere in the upper levels of government). He knows how to comport himself, but he doesn't actually understand how societies work or how to manipulate people. He's doing what he thinks a dictator should do, but he's not qualified to figure out what that is.

So, for example, he carries on this bumbling routine where, because he hates the attention Katniss is getting, he arranges for her to have bigger and bigger platforms. He's a big fan of drama and has never read the Evil Overlord list. He apparently went through some big unnecessary thing to betray his political allies by tricking them into drinking poison by drinking it himself instead of just having them all shot.

Nothing about the media's coverage of the Games made any sense. The districts are isolated and the media is entirely controlled by the Capitol. So much trouble would have been avoided were the Games shown on a one-day tape delay, and the people in the districts wouldn't even have to know. The Capitol was bizarrely committed to providing largely unbiased and unedited coverage of the Games themselves, despite not having any use for an independent media with respect to anything else. It's like the Games are run by a fairly independent institution with a mandate to make things as entertaining as possible and nothing else. Pregnancies drive ratings.

Ana Mardoll said...

For me, the Quarter Quell makes perfect sense if you look at it not as a way to get rid of Katniss, but rather as a way to get rid of all of them. (Almost every district has a victor involved in the rebellion at this point, it seems.)

The pregnancy is a moot point to the capitol; it didn't initially cause a riot and once the leaders of the rebellion are dead (who HAVE to be the few people allowed to travel between districts, i.e. the victors), there won't be a means left to effectively rebel over a lost cause and done martyrs. Imho.

Beguine said...

" Even if it had been true, the Capitol could easily have terminated any pregnancy, and claimed that Peeta and Katniss had lied about it, to discredit them."

That's exactly why they can't reveal the truth and discredit them. If you were a slave in the districts, or even a capitol citizen emotionally invested in the star crossed lovers, are you more likely to believe the blatantly corrupt, brutal, and deceitful government or the charming idealistic teen heartthrob who went in the arena determined to save the woman he loves over himself? The problem the capitol has is that if they announce that the pregnancy is fake (which they almost certainly know), everyone will whisper that she really was pregnant but they terminated the pregnancy. The more proof that she was never pregnant they pile on, the more people will be sure it's a cover-up. The mob loves a good conspiracy theory almost as much as a bloodbath.

storiteller said...

This is awesome! One of the reasons finishing The Hunger Games had a huge impact on me emotionally was because so much of it felt so true and realistic despite the fact that it was SF. I feel like there's huge resonances there with both history and our current situation. Suzanne Collins said it wasn't a "young adult book about war," but rather "a book about war for young adults."

But Gale is just a throwaway mention, "oh, he moved to another district so I guess he's not an option anymore". To me it really felt like Peeta 'won' by default, and I was very unsatisfied without her actually choosing against Gale.

I felt like he was a throw-away mention because Katniss had long before that decided to choose against Gale as a romantic interest. In particular, I thought the turning point was really when he was creating the traps that used people's loved ones as bait. Of course, that was cemented by what those traps really did later on, which just would have made being with Gale far more painful than would ever be possible to deal with. I think Gale realizes that and chooses to keep his physical and emotional distance from Katniss. She doesn't need to tell him "no" because they have an unspoken understanding.

Ursula L said...

To understand how the Hunger Games function in their society, I think it needs to be understood that the Hunger Games, like the Roman gladiatorial games, evolved over time.

The gladiatorial games didn't start out as big-business entertainment. They started out as political/spiritual - a Etruscan funeral rite where, at the funerals of the rich and powerful, two slaves would be selected and forced to fight each other to the death of one. The contests were rare. And the death rate was high - 50%

As the games evolved into popular entertainment, things changed. Training a gladiator to fight well enough to create a good show was expensive, so fewer and fewer matches ended with death - instead, when one was in a position where there was a clear winner ready to strike a death blow, the match would pause, and the sponsor of the event in question would signal whether to kill the defeated gladiator or let them live. Death was signaled often enough that it was considered a real possibility in any match. But most of the time, mercy was granted for the sake of economic efficiency - a good fighter could fight in future games. By the late Roman period, gladiators weren't even all slaves, as the survival rate was high enough that someone who was free, but poor and desperate, could volunteer and contract to be trained and to fight for a set period of time, and if they survived their contract, they would have both a pension and public fame that could be used to earn a living as a celebrity.

But the switch from political to pure entertainment was never fully complete. While the rich and powerful no longer had gladiatorial competitions as part of their funeral rites, they instead used their wealth and power to sponsor games to entertain the public and cultivate their political power in an empire that remained nominally a republic.

The Hunger Games may have started out as pure politics, as Katniss, a poorly-educated child in a marginal district, still understands them to be. But the Games are, by the time we see them, very much Big Business and Big Entertainment.

At the time of the books, there is a tension between the political, as represented by Snow, and the business/entertainment aspect, which the Gamemakers are focused on. For the most part, the Gamemakers dominate the process, but if Snow's political concerns place demands on the Games, the Gamemakers must defer to his political power.

Snow is, quite clearly, a skilled politician in his political context. He could not have remained in power for over 25 years if he wasn't.

But he doesn't seem to understand the ways in which the Hunger Games have evolved over time. And that leads to him making major mistakes in how he intervenes in the Games, and how he tries to use them for his own political ends.

(I'll continue this post later, I need to go now, and it seems long enough for the moment...)

Froborr said...

I have pretty much the same response as Will Wildman. I knew the books were intensely political and that personal and reproductive freedom and self-ownership were important, but I never realized how quickly it got into the theme of reproductive freedom and bodily integrity.

That also helps me understand why the ending really, really bothered me. It's not just that I hate the Female Success Is Family and Babies Ever After tropes; it's that her final choice was to do *exactly what the Capitol was trying to make her do from the start*: Settle down with Peeta and make babies.

Ursula L said...

it's that her final choice was to do *exactly what the Capitol was trying to make her do from the start*: Settle down with Peeta and make babies.

It's worth remembering why Katniss didn't want to marry and have kids. It was because the Capitol, with the Games, poisoned any hope in having children. They didn't want Kantiss to heal psychologically, love, and have children. They wanted to break her by forcing her to bear pawns to be destroyed for their entertainment.

Katniss never fully healed from the harm the Capitol did do her with the Games, or the traumas of the war. She probably never will. But she did heal enough to be able to manage some of her fears and traumas.

Katniss fought, from the beginning, to try to stop the harm the Capitol did to children with the games. She fought by closing herself emotionally to the prospect of loving and having children, because she would not create children who might be chosen for the games. She fought in the games, when her younger sister Prim was chosen, because she considered herself the "adult" of the family who had the responsibility of protecting Prim, the child. And she let District 13 use her as the Mockingjay because of the harm done to the people of District 12 when it was destroyed, particularly the children.

And Katniss won.

She didn't win easily, or without damage. She didn't, and couldn't immediately settle down with Peeta and have kids. It took time for her to heal from the damage of Gale being involved in Prim's death, to reach a point where she could love Peeta for who he is and the way he helps her, and not just because he was the obvious alternative to Gale. It took even longer for her to reach the point of being able to consider having children. Years. Even intellectually knowing the Capitol was destroyed and the Games were done, she didn't just rush into having kids because Peeta wanted them.

It was, for her, a part of her healing, to be able to take the risk.

And it was part of her winning, that she created a world where she could safely have children. Where it was possible to overcome her fears.

She didn't do what the Capitol wanted. They didn't want her to "settle down with Peeta", who loved her and whom she loved back, and "have children" whom she would love and protect and provide for. They wanted to force her to pretend to love Peeta, and in that forcing, prevent the two of them from having any chance for a genuine relationship with each other or anyone else. They wanted her to bear Game Tributes for their own sick entertainment.

Being able to settle down, to be loved and to love, to bear children in safety and hope is the exact opposite of what the Capitol wanted of Katniss. Closing herself to the possibility of love and children in her future was a poor substitute for the safety and hope that is opposite of the Capitol's agenda.

Amaranth said...

I, too, felt vaguely unsatisfied with the ending and Katniss' choosing of Peeta as well...partially because Gale was more the kind of guy I, personally, tend to like and I was kind of rooting for him all along. Oh well.

But it had to do also, I think, because of the limitations of the medium. Much of the tying up at the end of the story dealt with, as someone put it, "unspoken" understandings between the characters. And while real life relationships involve this a lot, it's difficult to convey those understandings using words on paper. Fiction is all about deciding which parts of a story to show in exquisite detail, and which parts to sum up. And if an understanding is not made explicate between characters, you either have to just flat out explain what's going on, or use a whole lot of words trying to set up the visual scene well enough to get your point across...and risk bogging the story down in detail.

There's a lot of telling involved at the end of Mockingjay, because attempting to "show" the sorts of self-discoveries and journeys and living that make up the end requires too many words and too many slow scenes that, while necessary to the story arc, are not necessarily conveyed well by drawing them in great detail. It's difficult to do an effective afterward "montage" in a book (like you can in a movie).

We can be told about the years it took Katniss to get to a point where she could return Peeta's affection, but we don't get to see it because, frankly, it would probably make for some really boring scenes. And because we don't get to "see" it, it feels like it's not deep enough, not weighty enough, like it was just dropped in there to tie everything up all nice and neat. It's not a weak ending at all, but I think the necessary switch from show, show, show to narrative summery makes it feel that way.

Even if said ending makes perfect sense and is intellectually satisfying.

At least that's my take.

Tigerpetals said...

What I really disliked about the having babies thing is that it explicitly was only because Peeta was nagging her for fifteen years. That's what it says, to paraphrase "he wanted them so much" and that she kept saying no for fifteen years. Regardless of why she didn't want to have any, which is another issue, it was something she did because he pressured her into it.

Ana Mardoll said...

TW: Infertility

I need to say this very carefully lest I come off like an enraged fan or defensive about my own Special Butterfly circumstances, so I'll start by agreeing with you that the epilogue -- though satisfying to me as a whole -- niggled at me.

And I think it's less because I felt Katniss was pressured into having children and more because we NEVER NEVER NEVER seem to have happily childless heroines. I'm trying to think of a happily ever after ending where the heroine was explicitly stated to never have children, and I just cannot. And that's frustrating because there ARE people who just plain don't want children and they should receive representation in fiction.

However, without re-reading the epilogue to see the extent of the nagging, I have to confess that I'm in, or rather was in, a Peeta/Katniss situation: I married a man 12 years my senior with two (nearly) grown children. He really did not want anymore children, I really did, and because he loved me as much as he did and because it was so very important to me and because relationships are complicated and this worked FOR US (i.e., this is not to say this is a healthy thing for anyone else), we went ahead and tried anyway. (Of course, I turned out to be infertile, so that was kind of funny how that worked out.)

So in an individual case-by-case basis, the Katniss-has-kids-at-the-end-as-a-symbol-of-her-moving-on-and-healing didn't bother me too terribly much. As a group monolith of HAPPY ENDINGS REQUIRE CHILDREN, yeah, it bothers me a lot. I think I see what Collins was going for -- a sort of circular ending where we come back to the Katniss "I don't want kids BECAUSE the world is messed up" and now that she does 'want' kids, that implies that the world is (hopefully) better -- but I wish she'd found a better way to do that than, say, BECAUSE PEETA.

Will Wildman said...

To my mind, merely the fact that Katniss was kind of "Yeah, okay, the world is no longer a sadistic roulette for children, I guess it'd be okay", rather than being "At last I will be fulfilled as a woman because I have children" was a refreshing change.

It doesn't help with the overall thronging babies-ever-after endings, and I'm kind of amused to note that while I personally am still hoping for such a life myself, an enormous number of my own protagonists don't have kids (and are often ambivalent about the whole concept of marriage).

I find it interesting that apparently many people found the ending summed up too much and was sufficiently tell-not-show to detract from its quality; I had no such issues with it.

Tigerpetals said...

Yeah, but as you said, it's part of a group monolith of such endings. So I didn't want to see a happy ending one in which Katniss was pressured for fifteen years to have kids she didn't want: "It took five, ten, fifteen years for me to agree." Your life and relationship are yours to understand and negotiate. Real life relationships aren't the same as a fictional ones, especially since the fictional ones fit into tropes. There is no complicated negotiation in the text, not even in a suggestion; that is all up to the imagination to fill in if that is desired. But I'm not sure we're even intended to fill in the blanks, because of how secure that trope is in not going away anytime soon. There's no good reason for me to give the benefit of the doubt and fill it in, even if the books do some good things.

Also, I can't separate it into case-by-case and part-of-a-monolith. I can only look at it as part of a monolith and see if there's enoughin the book that it's not a problem for it to go along with the trope. It's not even deliberate; I just cannot look at the fiction without seeing the tropes and how they're used.

Lonespark said...

And Then Love and Babies is part of the reason I didn't so much like The Broken Kingdoms, especially at the end. The kid does end up being one of the awesomest characters EVAR, IMO, but it still left a weird taste in my brain.

Pqw said...

I hadn't read (and hadn't intended to read) THG when this thread was fresh, so I don't think I even read the thread. THen I read the first book, thought it was meh, but months later, tried the 2nd one, and was captivated OMG, had to read the 3rd one asap (a problem, because I had to wait weeks at the library).

I, too, did not love the Pressure to Have Babies ending. That ending is actually why I had to give up on reading romances, of all things. Digression: one of the best romances I read toward the end began with a heroine who was infertile. Loved the story, loved the characters, loved the romance. Then, in a twist at the end, the fertility fairy reversed heroine's infertility, she had a baby, and It Fulfilled Her Life OMG. That's when I gave up on the genre.

Wasn't expecting that kind of ending here. My other issue with it is ... my aunt lived that story with her second husband. She'd married an abusive asshole the first time, had 4 kids in quick succession, bad stuff happened, she divorced him, and was a Catholic single mother 50 years ago. She finds a great guy, Catholic, who not only wants to marry her, but wants to adopt her 4 kids! They marry and he does that. But he's from a big Catholic family; he's always wanted 'his own' kids, yadda yadda yadda. Five years later--despite being not maternal at all--she has the kid he always wanted. Neither of them really take care of it; its older half-sister half raises it. And in due time, it becomes my cousin the rapist. Charming story that I'm sure everyone here is sick of hearing.

Loquat said...

Like Theo said above, you really have to start by realizing that Snow is /terrible/ at his job. [...] He knows how to comport himself, but he doesn't actually understand how societies work or how to manipulate people.

This never occurred to me before, but it makes so much sense. Why are the Districts kept in such grinding poverty that they mostly live like 19th century peasants, when extremely minor sacrifices on the Capitol's part would make a massive difference in their quality of life? And why are starving District residents forbidden from hunting and gathering food in the untouched wilds right outside their boundaries? Clearly the people in charge have no clue what sort of treatment does and does not foment rebellion - as if the very existence of the Games didn't make that blatantly obvious already.

Samantha C said...

I also felt Snow fell flat as a Magnificent Bastard Mastermind. The Quell bugged me just because...well, we saw the effect it had on the capitol citizens. Regardless of the people in the districts, the Quell made the people in the CAPITOL think critically about the Games for the first time in their lives. To watch people THEY know and love go off to die. In addition to sending the old and the sick and the crippled back into the arena - did Brilliant, One-Step-Ahead Snow REALLY not think that this would throw the absurdity and cruelty of the Games into sharp relief?

In the re-imagining in my head, the rules for the Quell called for only blood relatives of former victors. They rig the drawing, Primrose and Katniss' "cousin" Gale go in; Katniss and Peeta have to mentor them; they get involved in the rebellion on the other side, but with more than their own lives at stake so they have to tread even more carefully; imagine the interesting romantic rivalry between a Gale and Peeta who both know that Katniss will hate Peeta forever if he lets Gale die.

And especially in light of your Agency theme, I was very disappointing at the end of the story that Katniss never really had to make a choice between them. There were lots of reasons to choose Peeta, he understood what she was going through better, they bonded a lot, they had a lot of time together, I buy completely that she fell for him. But Gale is just a throwaway mention, "oh, he moved to another district so I guess he's not an option anymore". To me it really felt like Peeta 'won' by default, and I was very unsatisfied without her actually choosing against Gale.

Ursula L said...

From my reading, what led to Katniss "choosing" Peeta over Gale was Gale's inability to firmly deny that it was his bomb that killed Prim. And worse, that Gale was not concerned that his silver-parachute-double-bombs killed (Capitol) children, but, at most, only that Prim, underage, not officially supposed to be there, and his friend Katniss's sister, was killed, and that Prim's presence ruined his chances with Katniss.

In his work to destroy the Capitol, to beat the Capitol at its own Game, Gale became everything that the Capitol had done to harm Katniss. He devised fiendish traps. He ruthlessly calculated the worth of children's lives for the sake of security. He did all he could to wage war the way the Capitol waged the Games, with all the risk shifted to innocent children, while the powerful remained safe and protected.

(This reminds me of how the US press covers casualities in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Casualty rates that are amazingly low by the standards of modern warfare among US troops are treated as if they are impossibly horrible. While at the same time, casualty rates among Iraqi and Afghan civilians, including children, that are orders of magnitude higher than the casualty rates of US troops go almost completely unremarked. And even with US casualties, the use of mercenaries like Blackwater and its successor corporations partially hide the extent of US casualties. From what I can tell, the US position is that it has the absolute right to invade and occupy any nation in the world, for any reason, or no reason, or a completely fabricated reason, and that if a US soldier suffers so much as a stubbed toe in the process, it is an unforgivable atrocity.)

Katniss's "choice" of Peeta over Gale was, in the end, entirely simple. Gale may have contributed to the death of Prim. The very thing that Katniss initially volunteered for the Games to prevent. And Katniss could not bear to live with Gale if he had any part in Prim's death. But that wasn't even an issue, because Gale knew that he might have had a role in Prim's death, and was basically unconcerned, except for how it affected his relationship with Katniss. And even then, he knew that being involved in Prim's death would destroy his chances with Katniss. But he felt no strong urgency to prove his innocence. Just an acceptance that even if Katniss's sister was collateral damage in the act that ended the war, it was worth it, because it ended the war.

Gotchaye said...

Tying those two threads together, I think the only thing that really bothered me about the Capitol's handling of Katniss' pregnancy claim is that, after Katniss/Peeta became an important part of her narrative, the Capitol should have been able to come up with incriminating video of her and Gale (possibly doctored), or else recorded audio of some of Katniss' conversations. The Capitol's say-so alone might not mean much, but they have the ability to fake some pretty convincing evidence, and with good surveillance they wouldn't have even needed to fake very much. Katniss presenting herself as a Good Girl was a pretty important part of her value as a symbol for the revolution, and I remember thinking that a little slut-shaming would have gone a long way. But nobody ever seems worried about stuff (that the Capitol provides, even, like rooms in the Capitol or the victors' houses) being bugged, even though it seems like either everything in the Games has a camera in it or there are invisible cameras flying around. Snow even sets this up brilliantly by manipulating Katniss into doubling down on the "in love with Peeta" thing, but then he sticks with it even after blowing that story apart would have hurt the rebel cause a lot more than his own.

I dunno. Obviously with anything like this you can write it off as the author screwing up, or you can go for weakly-supported in-universe explanations, and the second is just much more fun. I kept getting a weird sort of Warhammer 40k vibe from the Capitol; sometimes it doesn't seem to understand how its own technology could be used*, and they carry on with nonsensical traditions and ways of doing things just because that's how they've been told to do them. It'd be sort of interesting if the specifics of the Quarter Quell really were laid down way back when, and Snow carried it out because it would have been unthinkable to deviate from The Plan. That it's only been 75 years seems to tell against this, but that apocalypse they had was pretty bad, and maybe this was all actually set down beforehand as an "in case of apocalypse" thing and the survivors came to attach a sort of religious significance to it, garbled as it may be. Come to think of it, I don't recall anybody who seemed to /remember/ the first Hunger Games or the war or the time before the war, even though surely the Capitol, at least, should have a life expectancy greater than what we have. Mags was supposed to be older than the Games too, but never gave any indication that things hadn't always been this way (that I remember). Even District 13's side of the story seemed awfully vague for something that some people's parents should have had memories of. Maybe the Hunger Games start counting from scratch every time they get to the hundredth one.

Edit: Looking at the Hunger Games Wiki, it mentions that the books leave open the possibility that the apocalypse was quite a while ago and the districts could well be much older than 75 years. That's just when the rebellion/conquest occurred. I'm pretty comfortable with a Dark Age having started a few hundred years back and the Hunger Games being the product of minds like Snow's, coming about after quite a bit of expertise had already been lost. Perhaps they're based on plans and tech for city defenses, given the similarities between the arenas and the Capitol City.

*To flesh that out a bit more: I'm thinking of the quality of the surveillance equipment in the Games vs outside, of the extensive engineering they do for the arena vs the really sloppy faking of the District 13 footage, the bizarre and fantastical defenses in the Capitol vs the kinds of equipment the Peacekeepers get to use to suppress the districts, and force-fields.

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