Hunger Games: The Arithmatic of Oppression

[Content Note: Hunger Games standard fare: Food Insecurity, Classism, Murder, Poverty]

Hunger Games Recap: In Chapter 3, Katniss is whisked off to the Capitol after volunteering to take her sister's place in the games. 

The Hunger Games, Chapter 3

I haven't been feeling well for a couple of months now, which accounts for the sparsity of my deconstruction posts. (And once again, I owe a world of gratitude to Kristy for her wonderful open threads that are a delight to read and participate in!) I keep thinking that I'll shake whatever-this-is, but it keeps clinging on. So I thought today: "What would be more fun than another Hunger Games post?" Hopefully we'll get, like, a billion comments (heh) and have a super-good conversation.

When we last left this deconstruction, um, one year ago (holy cow, has it really been that long??) Katniss had volunteered to take Prim's place and Peeta had been chosen and flashbacked. Now Katniss is going to be given the futuristic equivalent of last rights, by letting everyone who wants to say goodbye to her have five minutes or however long to do so. And I suddenly know for certain that a previous reaping child was mercy-killed during one of these sessions, and then the Capitol did terrible things to that person and their District.

Futuristic dystopias take me to a dark place, I guess.

   My sister and my mother come first. I reach out to Prim and she climbs on my lap, her arms around my neck, head on my shoulder, just like she did when she was a toddler. My mother sits beside me and wraps her arms around us. For a few minutes, we say nothing. Then I start telling them all the things they must remember to do, now that I will not be there to do them for them.
   Prim is not to take any tesserae. They can get by, if they’re careful, on selling Prim’s goat milk and cheese and the small apothecary business my mother now runs for the people in the Seam. Gale will get her the herbs she doesn’t grow herself, but she must be very careful to describe them because he’s not as familiar with them as I am. He’ll also bring them game—he and I made a pact about this a year or so ago—and will probably not ask for compensation, but they should thank him with some kind of trade, like milk or medicine.

I forgot to mention this in Chapter 1 when I talked about reproductive pressure, so I'll mention it here: the ability to take the tesserae grain ration is dependent on how many people are in the family. So a 1-child family with 2-parents can take 3 rations (Once, because I had to, and three times for tesserae for grain and oil for myself, Prim, and my mother.) but a 2-child family with 2-parents can take 8 rations, because each child can take 4 rations -- adding one child to the family doesn't just add on a digit; it also introduces a multiplicative factor (sum of family times children). A 3-child, 2-parent family can take 15 rations. A 4-child, 2-parent family can take 24 rations. Etc.

(2 + 1) x 1 = 3
(2 + 2) x 2 = 8
(2 + 3) x 3 = 15
(2 + 4) x 4 = 24
(2 + 5) x 5 = 35
(2 + z) x z = 2z + z²

This exponetial formula is crucial to the world-building, because it means that the Capitol isn't just arranging for big families in the districts (by failing to make birth control widely available); it's also actively encouraging/pressuring people to have big families. Rue, who will be introduced in this chapter, is the oldest of six children -- if both of her parents are living, that means they could go in for 48 rations. They probably don't go in for that number, because it's made repeatedly clear throughout the books that most families scrape by on as little tesserae as possible because they don't want their children to die for it, but it's also just as much made clear that the Capitol is perfectly happy to crack down on districts in order to impoverish them even more deeply so as to force people to take tesserae to surive.

There's several things to note here.

One, is that this decision to force people to bear children in order to ensure a steady cheap workforce is a thing that we're, ahem, very familiar with as it is used as a tool to impoverish people, reduce worker mobility, and create a cheap and pliant workforce. Even if more children = more food on paper in The Hunger Games, there's a huge amount of work that goes into raising children that isn't going to be reimbursed by the government. The children may end up with fewer educational resources (partly because of a strain on social resources, i.e., class sizes; partly because of a strain on family resources, i.e., educational help at home; and partly because of the demand on the older children to look after the younger ones, which usually necessitates paying less attention to studies), which is obviously going to suit the powers-that-be just fine. (See also Orwell's "proles".)

Two, is that this choice to force large families and tie children directly to sustenance (at the cost of a higher chance of death) is going to result in a lot of families disassociating from their own children. The best way to "thrive" in the situation Katniss has described is to basically turn into a baby-making monster and churn out tesserae-children at full speed and just expect to lose some (or all) to the Games. (Of course, you probably don't want to be the one bearing these children, since child-bearing is deadly-dangerous in a world without adequate medicine supplies, and also-also note that the kids can't take tesserae until they turn 12, but nevertheless there's definitely official encouragement from the government to do precisely this.) Earlier we saw that Peeta's mother is abusive, and Katniss notes that it's very rare for anyone, even a sibling, to volunteer in District 12 -- it seems like a natural consequence to me that the situation imposed by the government is intended to create detachment within families. Which, of course, is also going to make people more pliable and less likely to revolt.

Three, the forcing of large families on the poorest members of society is another means of enforcing class barriers. We've already seen that Madge's family doesn't need to take tesserae because they are rich (and that this is a subtle attempt by the Capitol to foster class warfare within the districts so as to prevent working together against the Capitol), but it's also canon that Madge is an only child. Having only one child is clearly a luxury in a world where you don't have to rely on adding a multiple factor in order to increase your yearly food income.

And, of course, four: By forcing parents to create children at a high rate, the Capitol has every reason to believe that it will never run out of tributes to reap.

   When I am done with instructions about fuel, and trading, and staying in school, I turn to my mother and grip her arm, hard. “Listen to me. Are you listening to me?” She nods, alarmed by my intensity. She must know what’s coming. “You can’t leave again,” I say.
   My mother’s eyes find the floor. “I know. I won’t. I couldn’t help what—”
   “Well, you have to help it this time. You can’t clock out and leave Prim on her own. There’s no me now to keep you both alive. It doesn’t matter what happens. Whatever you see on the screen. You have to promise me you’ll fight through it!” My voice has risen to a shout. In it is all the anger, all the fear I felt at her abandonment.
   She pulls her arm from my grasp, moved to anger herself now. “I was ill. I could have treated myself if I’d had the medicine I have now.”
   That part about her being ill might be true. I’ve seen her bring back people suffering from immobilizing sadness since. Perhaps it is a sickness, but it’s one we can’t afford.
   “Then take it. And take care of her!” I say.

Then there's Katniss berating her mother about her clinical depression, which I know a lot of people (validly; I'm not trying to poo on anyone's opinion) read as ableist, but which I take as 3 parts realistic-if-unfair resentment at a parent who has failed to be perfect at all the things and 7 parts setting up for a payoff in later books when Katniss starts dealing with her own clinical depression and survivor's guilt (as well as Johanna's trigger-issues after her captivity and Peeta's whole bundle of issues from the same) and thus this introduces that mental illness is A Thing and not just people being sads. I just read this from an Unreliable Narrator kind of direction, since Katniss' mouth says one thing and her brain says another: that, okay, yeah, the chemical-imbalance needs-meds no-direct-control-over-mood-via-willpower thing IS technically a thing she's witnessed on more than one occasion.

None of which means that you have to read it that way.

The Everdeens skedaddle, and the Peacekeepers show in Peeta's dad, who gives Katniss cookies and silently sits with her and it's super-sweet. (Except the bit where Katniss swaps "witch" for "bitch" and SERIOUSLY, PEOPLE, PLEASE STOP DOING THAT. WORDS MEAN THINGS.) Then he says:

   Then I can’t think of anything else, so we sit in silence until a Peacemaker summons him. He rises and coughs to clear his throat. “I’ll keep an eye on the little girl. Make sure she’s eating.” 
   I feel some of the pressure in my chest lighten at his words. People deal with me, but they are genuinely fond of Prim. Maybe there will be enough fondness to keep her alive.

And I like this, if for no other reason, because it's another example (to me) of Katniss being an Unreliable Narrator because she's stupid about people. I mean, I'm sure that people are genuinely fond of Prim, but the entire district just risked the Capitol's hella-dangerous wrath by finger-saluting her out there. And of course this ties into Katniss trying to figure out why the Mayor cares about her impending death and thinking that maybe it's because she brings him strawberries

Maybe, Katniss. Or maybe it's because you're more likeable than you give yourself credit for. Maybe folks like and respect a girl who runs around in the woods killing game in order to care for her family after the tragic early death of her father. Maybe Strong Female Characters aren't inherently unlovable.

And I think that this question of Katniss' likeability also foreshadows -- in a potentially very creepy way -- just how "likeable" Katniss will be in the Capitol. And there not in a genuine way, by people who like and respect her (though some of that will happen in individual interactions), but in an appropriative horrible way by people who want to idealize her into an unattainable star-crossed lover. 

   My next guest is also unexpected. Madge walks straight to me. She is not weepy or evasive, instead there’s an urgency about her tone that surprises me. “They let you wear one thing from your district in the arena. One thing to remind you of home. Will you wear this?” She holds out the circular gold pin that was on her dress earlier. I hadn’t paid much attention to it before, but now I see it’s a small bird in flight.
   “Your pin?” I say. Wearing a token from my district is about the last thing on my mind.
   “Here, I’ll put it on your dress, all right?” Madge doesn’t wait for an answer, she just leans in and fixes the bird to my dress. “Promise you’ll wear it into the arena, Katniss?” she asks. “Promise?”
   “Yes,” I say. Cookies. A pin. I’m getting all kinds of gifts today. Madge gives me one more. A kiss on the cheek. Then she’s gone and I’m left thinking that maybe Madge really has been my friend all along.

We'll get to this waaaaaaaaaaaay later, in Catching Fire, but this pin is a family heirloom (presumably dating from the emergence of Mockingjays after the rebellion) that last belonged to Madge's aunt (her mother's sister) who died during Haymitch's reaping twenty-five years ago. In fact, Maysilee was Haymitch's ally and friend, and he held her hand while she died.

I don't know if this is intended in the text or not, but there's something very furtive and intense about Madge in this scene. Maybe she just really-really wants her friend to have a gift from her, but it's noteworthy that this pin will become the symbol not only of the previous rebellion but of a new one. A new one which Haymitch is actively involved in orchestrating. Haymitch who has ties (though perhaps not maintained recently; I'm fully speculating here) with Madge's family.

Is it possible that Madge is insisting Katniss wear this pin because she hopes that Katniss will, whether she lives or dies, become a symbol for something greater, and that her life won't be wasted in the arena? I don't know, but I think it's an interesting idea.

   Finally, Gale is here and maybe there is nothing romantic between us, but when he opens his arms I don’t hesitate to go into them. His body is familiar to me—the way it moves, the smell of wood smoke, even the sound of his heart beating I know from quiet moments on a hunt—but this is the first time I really feel it, lean and hard-muscled against my own.
   [...] “Katniss, it’s just hunting. You’re the best hunter I know,” says Gale.
    “It’s not just hunting. They’re armed. They think,” I say.
   “So do you. And you’ve had more practice. Real practice,” he says. “You know how to kill.”
   “Not people,” I say.
   “How different can it be, really?” says Gale grimly.
   The awful thing is that if I can forget they’re people, it will be no different at all.

And this is basically the best kind of foreshadowing, because it fits perfectly reasonably well here, but also fits perfectly well with the rift that will develop between Gale and Katniss over the course of the series. Because, for Gale, killing people and killing animals really isn't different. And for Katniss, she wants to retain the difference even if (a) she has to do it anyway in order to survive and (b) the weight of the difference emotionally crushes her. She hangs on to the difference regardless of the pain.

I suspect, though, (because futuristic dystopias take me to a grim place, etc.) that Gale is probably wrong in assuming that the Careers have never killed before. But Gale is wrong about lots of things.

The Peacekeepers take Katniss to the train station and we get more delightful "Katniss is stupid about people" establishing text because she cannot fathom why Peeta Mellark has been crying over his impending death and the loss of his family. HOW STRANGE A CHOICE, TO CRY IN THAT SITUATION.

Credit Stuart Miles @

   I’ve been right not to cry. The station is swarming with reporters with their insectlike cameras trained directly on my face. But I’ve had a lot of practice at wiping my face clean of emotions and I do this now. I catch a glimpse of myself on the television screen on the wall that’s airing my arrival live and feel gratified that I appear almost bored.
   Peeta Mellark, on the other hand, has obviously been crying and interestingly enough does not seem to be trying to cover it up. I immediately wonder if this will be his strategy in the Games. To appear weak and frightened, to reassure the other tributes that he is no competition at all, and then come out fighting. This worked very well for a girl, Johanna Mason, from District 7 a few years back. She seemed like such a sniveling, cowardly fool that no one bothered about her until there were only a handful of contestants left. It turned out she could kill viciously. Pretty clever, the way she played it. But this seems an odd strategy for Peeta Mellark because he’s a baker’s son. All those years of having enough to eat and hauling bread trays around have made him broad-shouldered and strong. It will take an awful lot of weeping to convince anyone to overlook him.

Oh, Katniss. Never change. (On the extra-double-plus side, this is where you first hear about Johanna who is THE BEST.) Then we get a lot of world-building about Appalachia and the Rockies and trains and the Capitol and I'm not going to quote it all, but Katniss does say some interesting things about how (a) school is utterly untrustworthy because of Capitol censorship of facts and (b) 90% of schooling boils back down to making the District 12 children into coal-workers, which (c) again underscores the indentured servitude via crushing economy and social immobility themes in the series but also (d) will later be explicitly tied into why D12 children do so badly in the Games: their trade in no way ties into war-training (unlike Johanna and her axes from District Lumbermills) nor does their trade result in economic luxury such that the children can actively train for the Games (such as the Careers from Diamond District and Velvet District and Unicorn Farts District).

Then there's a lot of world-building on the Mockingjays: 

   They’re funny birds and something of a slap in the face to the Capitol. During the rebellion, the Capitol bred a series of genetically altered animals as weapons. The common term for them was muttations, or sometimes mutts for short. One was a special bird called a jabberjay that had the ability to memorize and repeat whole human conversations. They were homing birds, exclusively male, that were released into regions where the Capitol’s enemies were known to be hiding. After the birds gathered words, they’d fly back to centers to be recorded. It took people awhile to realize what was going on in the districts, how private conversations were being transmitted. Then, of course, the rebels fed the Capitol endless lies, and the joke was on it. So the centers were shut down and the birds were abandoned to die off in the wild. 
   Only they didn’t die off. Instead, the jabberjays mated with female mockingbirds, creating a whole new species that could replicate both bird whistles and human melodies. They had lost the ability to enunciate words but could still mimic a range of human vocal sounds, from a child’s high-pitched warble to a man’s deep tones. And they could re-create songs. Not just a few notes, but whole songs with multiple verses, if you had the patience to sing them and if they liked your voice.

Not super-interesting from a deconstruction point of view, but it you stretch a bit you could say that this fits into the themes of reproductive freedom: the jabberjays and mockingbirds mated across social class boundaries, ummmm, kinda like Katniss's seam-born father did with her merchant-class mother. Ha, I knew we could do it! I'm proud of us.

   The supper comes in courses. A thick carrot soup, green salad, lamb chops and mashed potatoes, cheese and fruit, a chocolate cake. Throughout the meal, Effie Trinket keeps reminding us to save space because there’s more to come. But I’m stuffing myself because I’ve never had food like this, so good and so much, and because probably the best thing I can do between now and the Games is put on a few pounds. 
   “At least, you two have decent manners,” says Effie as we’re finishing the main course. “The pair last year ate everything with their hands like a couple of savages. It completely upset my digestion.”
   The pair last year were two kids from the Seam who’d never, not one day of their lives, had enough to eat. And when they did have food, table manners were surely the last thing on their minds. Peeta’s a baker’s son. My mother taught Prim and me to eat properly, so yes, I can handle a fork and knife. But I hate Effie Trinket’s comment so much I make a point of eating the rest of my meal with my fingers. Then I wipe my hands on the tablecloth. This makes her purse her lips tightly together.

Later, we'll (or at least I do) come to like Effie, but I do enjoy this detail. For all that it seems like she's being set up as an oblivious dolt who is only interested in clothes and fashion and totally uncaring about the children she shuttles to her deaths, I think she eventually comes to read like someone with the undercurrent of psychological damage one might expect from, you know, someone whose entire career is ferrying children to their deaths.

THG very explicitly makes the point that everyone in the Capitol has had their lives revolve around the Games since long before any of them were born. Katniss herself notes that she would be just the same as her callous-and-careless handlers, had she been born in their circumstances. There's a sense that I pick up on, that the people caretaking for her are trying not to get too close, not to care too much... that they're walling themselves off from her emotionally, rather than suffer when she dies just like all the others before her.

In Catching Fire, when she's called back a second time, they are intensely emotional, and it creates an interesting contrast. It's possible to simultaneously interpret them as massively selfish (i.e., they only care about Katniss' death once they care about her as a person) and as deeply damaged by their Capitol upbringing (i.e., they were able to wall themselves off from the yearly tributes, but were unable to maintain the wall with a victor they assumed was 'safe' from returning to the Games).

And I think it's worth pointing out that for all the surveillance Katniss is under -- she talks in Chapter 1 about having to wear a mask and audit her feelings -- the people born and raised in the Capitol are surely under that much more scrutiny. Late in Chapter 3, we'll meet someone who was economically ruined and barred from Game participation (which is basically EVERYTHING that the Capitol residents do) for being Otherkin. I can't even imagine what they do to openly subversive people who can't hide an untoward sympathy for the tributes, but it's probably nothing good.

Anyhow, wrapping up, we get to meet Rue and see the reaping through Capitol eyes:  

   One by one, we see the other reapings, the names called, the volunteers stepping forward or, more often, not. We examine the faces of the kids who will be our competition. A few stand out in my mind. A monstrous boy who lunges forward to volunteer from District 2. A fox-faced girl with sleek red hair from District 5. A boy with a crippled foot from District 10. And most hauntingly, a twelve-year-old girl from District 11. She has dark brown skin and eyes, but other than that, she’s very like Prim in size and demeanor. Only when she mounts the stage and they ask for volunteers, all you can hear is the wind whistling through the decrepit buildings around her. There’s no one willing to take her place.
   Last of all, they show District 12. Prim being called, me running forward to volunteer. You can’t miss the desperation in my voice as I shove Prim behind me, as if I’m afraid no one will hear and they’ll take Prim away. But, of course, they do hear. I see Gale pulling her off me and watch myself mount the stage. The commentators are not sure what to say about the crowd’s refusal to applaud. The silent salute. One says that District 12 has always been a bit backward but that local customs can be charming. As if on cue, Haymitch falls off the stage, and they groan comically. Peeta’s name is drawn, and he quietly takes his place. We shake hands. They cut to the anthem again, and the program ends.

Then Haymitch stumbles into the room and throws up on the rug. 


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