It has been a long time since there was a post here about a character in The Hunger Games. This article focuses on the lead character for Suzanne Collins’ trilogy: Katniss Everdeen.
Truth be told, Katniss drives me crazy. She is as thick as a fence post six ways from Sunday. Yes, she is skilled at hunting and surviving. She was a child who was forced to grow up quickly in order to protect and support her family. That is not my problem with her. My problem with Katniss is that her ability to read people is seriously lacking, and this is a survival skill everyone should practice. Her inability to understand others is a severe handicap which Katniss never quite overcomes as she works on surviving the deadly situations she finds herself in.
To avoid being too harsh, it is true that plenty of people in Katniss’ position would be unable to see the labyrinthine plots the chess players are weaving on The Hunger Games’ board. Often we are unaware of the webs others spin around us, or which we spin about ourselves when we “practice to deceive.” But that does not mean that some people in Katniss’ role would not be able to make a few educated guesses about the whats and wherefores of the forces at play in their lives.
Katniss does not appeal to me as a character. But her position in the world of Panem is hard to misunderstand. Like people in North Korea, or those who Russia kept in the Siberian gulags, the people of Panem live in cordoned off regions. These areas are prison camps. In The Hunger Games, they are known as Districts.
There are Twelve Districts at the beginning of the trilogy. Originally, there were Thirteen, but after the first rebellion against the Capitol, District Thirteen was destroyed by the government. This was also when the Capitol began the Hunger Games. In the annual Games, two children within the 12-18 age range are selected by lottery to be “tributes” in the arena. There are always two from each District; one boy, one girl. These two then have to face not only each other but the other twenty-two tributes in a televised battle to the death. The last child standing is the winner.
The winners receive enough wealth to live comfortably for the rest of their lives. They never have to worry about starving to death. But their children are still put in the lottery – the Reaping – and neither they nor their families will ever be free of the Capitol’s tyranny.
As an example, the dashing Finnick Odair, a Victor from District Four, was used as a sex slave by the politicians and rich citizens of the Capitol. Johanna Mason apparently refused this path with her characteristic vehemence; so the government killed her whole family to make an example of her to the other Victors. Haymitch Abernathy, who won his Games and embarrassed the Capitol in the process, lost his mother, brother, and girlfriend to “accidents” the government had staged.
These three Victors were free of the threat of starvation. They were not free of the dictatorship which was the Capitol.
At the start of the trilogy, Katniss understands that openly calling out the government on anything puts one at risk of swift retribution. But to her, the Capitol is a relatively distant threat. Living in the poorest District in Panem, District Twelve, Katniss’ hatred for the Capitol simmers under the concerns of daily survival for herself and her family. Ever since her father died in a coal mine explosion, she has had to provide food, clothing, and the other necessities of life for her mother and baby sister.
But Katniss’ attitude toward the Games is stood on its head when her sister, Prim, is Reaped for the seventy-fourth Hunger Games. Desperate to protect the only person she knows she loves, Katniss volunteers to take Prim’s place in the Games. Since she is sixteen, she can volunteer. Anyone over eighteen or under twelve is, by law, not allowed to volunteer to take a lottery winner’s place in the Games.
Through her experiences in the Games, both in the first book and during the next two novels, Katniss grows to understand the extent of her enslavement and that of her fellow citizens to the government. She has survived for four years by hunting and gathering, yes. In that regard, she is not dependent upon the “generosity” of Panem’s government.
But she and her sister are still under threat of being Reaped for the Hunger Games until they turn nineteen. So are thousands of other children, in and out of District Twelve. Katniss’ own vow never to marry, so she can avoid sending any children she would have to the Games, is not a vow everyone in Panem has taken. After a point, they simply cannot make this vow and keep it. We are supposed to “be fruitful and multiply,” after all. (Emphasis on supposed to, people!)
Up until her sister’s name is called at the Reaping, Katniss’ feelings toward those taken for the Hunger Games are, basically: “Sucks to be them.” Once Prim is chosen, however, Katniss is shaken from her detachment toward the Games’ bloody results. She has seen the Hunger Games broadcast into her home since early childhood. She knows what would happen to her sweet, innocent younger sister in the arena. Prim could not hurt a fly without crying over it. She would die on the first day of the Games.
Katniss will not let that happen.
But the event which totally snaps her once detached distaste for the brutal, retaliatory punishment from the Capitol is the death of her ally, Rue. From District Eleven, Rue is the same age as Katniss’ sister. Despite the racial differences between the two, Katniss instantly feels attached to the younger girl for her habits, which mirror Prim’s. This attachment is made most obvious when the two become allies in the arena.
This is the reason Rue’s death infuriates Katniss. If she had watched Rue die on the television, she would have shrugged the event off. Having spent a few hours with Rue in the arena, and having watched her prior to entering the Games, Katniss has no such reaction to the younger girl’s death.
Rue’s death is Katniss’ turning point. She “buries” Rue with flowers, restoring the little girl’s humanity with that one act. To the Capitol, Rue was just a number, a face in the crowd. She was an expendable slave killed to keep the rest of the herd in line. They did not know her and they did not care to learn about her as a person.
Rue was a twelve year old girl with five younger siblings, loving parents, and more friends than you could shake a stick at. She protected and looked out for her siblings. She sang to the mockingjays so that the people of District Eleven would have a beautiful end-of-harvest-time alert each day. Rue was a gentle, sweet, loving little girl. She was athletic and had a wide knowledge of healing plants. In another world, she would have had a future so bright it would blind most people.
The Capitol took that away from her. They chose Rue to be a piece in their murderous “Games,” along with twenty-three other children. They murdered a sister, a daughter, a little girl with enormous promise so that they could keep their power.
With Rue’s death, the Games stop being games for Katniss. For a while, the Games were simply another survival routine. Make it out alive, and her family would live as well.
Rue’s death changed the game. Peeta being in the game at all changed the rules, too. Katniss felt she owed him for inspiring her to work to survive. She owed him her life. How could she repay him by taking his? Her best hope for the majority of the first book is that someone else will kill him so she does not have to do so in order to clinch the win.
The Capitol drove everyone in the Districts to, and kept them on the brink of, starvation for one simple reason: to control them better. In situations like that of the Districts, a number of people start maintaining a “look out for number one” policy. A survivor of the North Korean prison camps revealed he turned his own mother in to the camp authorities to be killed so he would have more food to eat. The Hunger Games are based on a similar principle. Their aim was to keep the people of Panem so self-interested, so determined to protect themselves, that they could be herded about like sheep or cattle.
Katniss Everdeen is no sheep. She is more like a wolf. Out to ensure her life and the lives of her ‘pack’, Katniss’ aim is to survive deprivation at all costs. But this attitude was not confined simply to herself and her family. When she came home from hunting, Katniss sold some of her gains on the local black market. Indeed, this was mostly to earn the money she needed to get the non-edible supplies her family required, not to mention pick up other necessities or treats at bargain prices.
But it also helped her community. Other people, such as the Mellarks, benefited from the meat she brought back to the District. The Mayor of District Twelve had a fancy for fresh strawberries and was quite willing to ignore where they came from. In Catching Fire, Katniss makes sure to throw her Victor’s money around as often as possible. Guaranteed by law to never be poor again, Katniss does her best to shower coin on those she knows need it most. Her regular clients at the black market Hub do not turn her down, recognizing her generosity and accepting it.
Where Peeta is a man whose eye is on the future, who looks to the spring that always follows winter, Katniss is different. She was born with a soul of fire, the fire one builds in winter to keep alive during the coldest months of the year. When the day is at its coldest, when the night is full of threats, this is when “the Mockingjay” burns at her brightest.
This, of course, brings up an issue other people are always harping on with regard to Miss Everdeen. Yes, Katniss killed a great many people. Her nightmares from the arena are understandable. The arena was a stage set up by the Capitol politicians. She had to defend herself in order to survive the seventy-fourth Hunger Games but her opponents, the proxies of the government, were mostly her age or younger. She was not fighting trained troops, partisans, or paramilitary agents; rather she was facing other children, most as desperate as she was herself.
In the war which plays out in Mockingjay, things are different, though Collins does not distinguish the difference. This is exhibited best by Katniss and Gale’s indiscriminate firing on people in the Capitol near the end of Mockingjay.
Killing another human being is not and never should be fun or considered so. Gale breezes past this “red line,” as demonstrated by his virulent hatred toward the Capitol and its supporters/denizens with his determination to kill every Capitol supporter he can. In the process he embraces terrorism, along with President Coin, as they stage a compound attack against civilians and resistance medics. (These are yet more points which are against him.)
But Katniss finds herself in the opposite position, blaming herself for the deaths of all the soldiers on both sides of the conflict, even when she was not there. This is foolish, since the war was coming anyway. Katniss just happened to be the stand-in for the spark which ignited the war. If it had not been her, it would have been someone else. It is that simple.
Killing in self-defense or to protect others is a terrible thing. However, it is not murder. (Dean Koontz agrees; read some of his novels.) In a just war, a soldier fights to defend himself, his fellow soldiers, and the people back home. If he has a family, they and the soldiers he fights beside will be the ones he cares for most. Such a man is not fighting and killing for the hell of it, as some “experts” like to claim.
The war the Districts waged against the Capitol, though it was a civil war, was a just war. And even just wars are hell, because killing is never fun. However, the only way to be freed of the Capitol’s control was to fight for it. President Snow and his cronies were not going to grab a gun and go shoot at the Mockingjay themselves. They would need spines to do that, and they did not have those. Only cowards kill children, and President Snow and the other Capitolites running the Hunger Games were all cowards.
President Coin was, too. She bombed helpless children and Primrose Everdeen because it was useful to her campaign. That is evil of the highest order.
So Katniss’ nightmares are largely overplayed in regard to her part in the war, in this writer’s opinion. Her nightmares about the arena are more understandable and permissible, to my mind.
On the whole, I appreciate Katniss Everdeen. I do not like her, but no one said that affection for the main character was mandatory. The Hunger Games trilogy has a great importance for today. We stand “on the edge of a knife,” as the Lady Galadriel told the Fellowship when they came to Lothlorien. “Stray but a little” and we end up in the universe of Panem.
Getting out of that trap will be uglier by that point than climbing back to a just society ever will be. Which would we rather have, readers – a just society, or a civil war for our very freedom?
I know which I would rather have.
The Mithril Guardian