Often when I go to look up a story I have enjoyed, I find that the opinions of other fans regarding certain aspects of the story do not match up with my own. In some cases, this helps me to understand a part of the story I did not appreciate before. In some cases, it is a difference of preference, wherein I and another person can agree to disagree. In other instances, the disagreement is more than an argument over simple taste, but a debate over a point of the story or a character in the story.
That, readers, is the matter at hand in this post on one of The Hunger Games’ most important – and most maligned – characters: Peeta Mellark.
Peeta is a central character to The Hunger Games trilogy. He is Katniss Everdeen’s fellow District 12 tribute, who also happens to be desperately in love with her, a fact she takes forever to realize. In addition, if it were not for Peeta Mellark, there would be no Hunger Games trilogy, because Katniss would not have lived long enough to star in it. Peeta Mellark’s love for Katniss is actually the axis on which the whole trilogy turns!
Despite all this, Peeta is often dismissed as “boring.” One critic has called him (and Gale Hawthorne) “thinly imagined.”
It is always surprising to me to see what elements or characters in a story others think are so easily set aside from it. Peeta is not the first underdog character I have taken a shine to, and for that reason I am now engaged in writing a post vouching for his strengths. Oh, well, here goes nothing!
“Thinly imagined” is not a phrase I would use to describe Peeta at all, for one reason and one reason only: Peeta is one of the strongest (perhaps the strongest) characters in the entire Hunger Games trilogy.
Proof of his strength is shown to us very early on, and by none other than Katniss Everdeen herself. In her recollection of how Peeta saved her life and the lives of her family, Katniss recalls that Peeta burned two loaves of bread on purpose so that he could give them to her. This was after his mother had chased Katniss away from the bakery’s trash bins. When Peeta burned the bread, his mother slapped him across the face, berated him, and sent him out to feed the pig with the toasted loafs. Peeta pulled off the worst scorch marks on the loaves and then threw the bread to Katniss.
No one can tell me that Peeta did not see his mother’s reaction coming. From all the hints in The Hunger Games, we can safely infer that Peeta’s mother was not a kindly disposed woman. She sounds like an abuser – of her husband as much as of her third child (Peeta’s brothers were probably also mistreated by her, but we are not even given their names, so it is hard to tell). But somehow, despite all this maltreatment, Peeta turned out one hundred percent normal, not to mention extraordinarily kind and understanding.
Later, in the Seventy-fourth Hunger Games, Peeta is injured by Cato after Katniss drops a tracker jacker hive on top of him and the Career Tributes. He gets blood poisoning from the injury and lies on the riverbank for days with a high fever, until Katniss finally finds him and starts tending to him. Anyone of weak constitution – or weak character – would have died long before Katniss was able to find him. Peeta survived.
In Catching Fire Peeta proves his strength of character spectacularly when he paints a picture of Rue on the Training Room’s floor during his evaluation by the Game Makers. Painting a portrait of a former tribute whose death and subsequent, flowery burial by “the Mockingjay” earns him a ranking of twelve, making him a high profile target in the Seventy-fifth Hunger Games. Not only that, Peeta could not be sure his action would not put his family and everyone in District Twelve in mortal peril. But Peeta painted the picture anyway because he wanted to hold the Capitol responsible “for just one moment” for what they did to Rue.
Finally, in Mockingjay, Peeta is rescued from the Capitol after he was captured by their forces at the end of Catching Fire. Katniss is thrilled to have him back – until it is revealed that Peeta has been “highjacked” and turned into a mad assassin the Capitol hopes will kill Katniss.
Peeta’s confused and beleaguered mental state, which shows no sign of improving when Katniss stays near him originally, is too much for her to bear. So she writes him off as a loss. Haymitch is able to chastise her into at least trying to reach Peeta. With her help, Peeta slowly starts to reorient himself. He shows definite signs of improvement before his and Katniss’ rebel squad end up trapped in the Capitol. But, save for a momentary lapse brought about by the situation, Peeta’s mind comes back into balance well enough that he can fight and overcome the Capitol’s manipulation and torture of him. It does not happen all at once, but eventually he does become his own master once again.
Would a “thinly imagined” or “boring” character be able to do any of this? Not likely. If one only looked as far as the surface, then Peeta could perhaps be described as a weak character. But the Hunger Games trilogy is not a series I would recommend to readers who only skate on a story’s exterior. There is depth to every story, be it shallow or several fathoms deep. I am a story scuba diver; I may not like all the depths I travel, but I am not averse to diving in most times.
So what is my judgment of Peeta Mellark? He is a strong character with an ability to survive the most devastating attacks against the human spirit: physical and mental abuse. What is more, he manages to maintain his generosity and good nature throughout his trials, proving that he can be beaten, but not conquered. It is, I think, his gentle nature which tends to make people write him off as uninteresting.
But, as Katniss proves, writing off a tortured gentlemen is a really stupid idea.
The Mithril Guardian