The bottom-line question in dystopia is that of survival. A war or natural disaster has torn society apart, so it must be rebuilt with the high priority of avoiding that the disaster repeat itself. So the “perfect” society usually implies a great deal of control and manipulation at the cost of individual freedom and creativity.
In this article, I will show in very general terms how The Hunger Games books fit into the dystopian tradition and how they go beyond most previous novels. There’s no way I could show you all of the textual evidence for the arguments I present in the following paragraphs, so I invite you to reread the books afterwards and judge for yourself—or get in touch with me and we can have a good discussion.
The genre of dystopia began especially with 1984 and Brave New World. Both of these works show the defects and abuses of dystopian societies, but fail to provide any solution or much hope for the future.
In The Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins steps right into the tradition of both 1984 and Brave New World. In the Capitol, with its pleasures and panem et circenses method of control, we see echoes of Huxley’s society, whereas District 13 follows the principles of Big Brother and the Ministry of Truth.
Katniss will have to rebel against both of these “perfect” societies in her search for meaning. While the Capitol tries to make her an object of pleasure/entertainment for its citizens, District 13 insists that she be a soldier and war leader. Each society tries to fit her into a determined role. Pulled back and forth by different forces demanding different things of her, she has no idea who she truly is.
What does it mean to survive? There are as many answers as “hungers,” and we see many of them presented in the books. Katniss’ father gives her some excellent advice on how to survive: find herself. Survival in identity. Each in their own way, the Capitol and District 13 seek to crush this identity, this individuality of the person.
I knelt down in the water, my fingers digging into the soft mud, and I pulled up handfuls of the roots. Small, bluish tubers that don’t look like much but boiled or baked are as good as any potato. “Katniss,” I said aloud. It’s the plant I was named for. And I heard my father’s voice joking, “As long as you can find yourself, you’ll never starve” (The Hunger Games, 52).
Katniss is being pulled between Gale and Peeta through the whole series and in a way they exemplify her own attitude towards survival and who she is and wants to become.
The first level of survival means getting enough food to survive physically—Katniss has been playing that game all her life, hunting “game” in order to survive. The Capitol centers its whole strategy on this type of survival. They hope to give enough food (if you’re in the Capitol) and entertainment (for the Capitol and everyone else) to keep everyone distracted and under control. Some of the most vivid descriptions are of the food served there:
While they make small talk, I concentrate on the meal. Mushroom soup, bitter greens with tomatoes the size of peas, rare roast beef sliced as thin as paper, noodles in a green sauce, cheese that melts on your tongue served with sweet blue grapes (The Hunger Games, 76).
Katniss’ strategy in the games themselves will be to blow up her enemies’ food supplies.
At this first level of physical survival, we find Gale. The goal is to stay alive, to keep breathing, and anything justifies that end: “ “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” (The Hunger Games, 40).
Gale’s love will lead him to seek justice, an eye for an eye, and with District 13, build a bomb that will kill innocents in order to achieve victory. In the end, he will abandon Katniss when she most needs him because his concept of love is control, justice. Katniss had let him down in the past (specifically when she fails to kill him—as she had agreed—rather than let him be taken alive by the Capitol) so he feels no obligation towards her.
On the other hand, we have Peeta. He thinks of “survival” in other terms:
“I don’t know how to say it exactly. Only . . . I want to die as myself. Does that make any sense?” he asks. I shake my head. How could he die as anyone but himself? “I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not.” I bite my lip feeling inferior. While I’ve been ruminating on the availability of trees, Peeta has been struggling with how to maintain his identity. His purity of self (The Hunger Games, 141-142).
Later, Peeta will tell us that “To murder innocent people costs everything you are” (Mockingjay, 23).
Peeta shows Katniss a kind of spiritual survival, more important than merely staying alive. Of all foods, we see bread most associated with this kind of survival. And Peeta is “the boy who gave me the bread” when she and her family had been starving, in that gift giving her hope.
After she mourns the murder of Rue in an act of love and rebellion, she receives in thanks the gift of bread from District 11. In the second book, bread is used several times as a secret symbol, both by Bonnie and Twill escaping to District 13 and by those planning to break out of the Hunger Games arena. Bread is used in the District 12 marriage ceremony. And District 13 has some very strict rules on stealing bread… just ask Katniss’ prep team from the Capitol.
In any case, it is Peeta who shows Katniss a spiritual kind of survival based on gratuitous, sacrificial love. In the second book when she can’t sleep because of her nightmares, Peeta allows her to sleep in his arms. And this in spite of her having said that she doesn’t want his love. He is always there for her, and in the end he comes for her in spite of her failure to love him in his moment of need.
Katniss’ conception of love in the beginning is one of justice with no room for risk or gift. With Gale she insists that she will never have kids in a world where something bad could happen to them; she and Gale agree to kill themselves rather than be captured; she hates “owing” Peeta (having received acts of kindness from him) when she may have to kill him in the arena.
Peeta helps her overcome this sense of pure justice with his selfless love, to the point where she can accept children, accept not controlling everything and be grateful for the good she has received.
In summary: the key to survival as presented in The Hunger Games trilogy is finding your identity through maturing in love.
The Hunger Games, along with Brave New World and 1984, shows that in order for a society to survive, its people cannot be reduced to animals made for pleasure or to cogs in society’s machine. Yet those other dystopian tales end in despair precisely because they cannot find the only answer that could possibly make a difference—it doesn’t begin with a revolution and won’t be overcome even through education. Moving beyond Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, Suzanne Collins gives us the only possible solution: individuals must learn to love and in that context discover their identity and purpose.
“…what I need to survive is not Gale’s fire, kindled with rage and hatred. I have plenty of fire myself. What I need is the dandelion in the spring. The bright yellow that means rebirth instead of destruction. The promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses. That it can be good again. And only Peeta can give me that.”
So after, when he whispers, “You love me. Real or not real?”
I tell him, “Real” (Mockingjay, 388).
- S. Collins, The Hunger Games, Scholastic Inc, New York 2008.
- S. Collins, The Hunger Games, Scholastic Inc, New York 2009.
- S. Collins, Mockingjay, Scholastic Inc, New York 2010.