Monday, July 14, 2014

What does it mean for Katniss to 'survive' in 'Hunger Games'?

The character Katniss faces many challenges in the "Hunger Games" trilogy. She faces starvation, violence, and other threats to her life.

Article originally posted to Helium Network on June 30, 2013.

In the "Hunger Games" trilogy by Suzanne Collins, the heroine and her friends must fight to survive. The first book introduces the heroine, Katniss, who is drafted to fight to the death against other teenagers as a kind of televised entertainment. Katniss knows that the boy from her home district is "fighting hard to stay alive,” going so far as to make an apparent alliance with the well-trained fighters from wealthier districts, which also means he's "fighting hard to kill me." Survival in the face of multiple kinds of violence takes on many meanings.

Although Katniss doesn’t want to kill anyone, given the situation, she is forced to do so for her own survival. She is also motivated by her family’s need:  if she doesn’t come home alive, her mother and sister could starve. So, she develops a hatred for certain other fighters in the arena. Regarding the inevitable encounter with a particularly strong, intimidating, brutish boy named Cato, she thinks to herself: "...I'd shoot. I find I'm actually anticipating the moment with pleasure." When a more sensitive boy, Peeta, apologizes for the death of someone who ate poison berries, Katniss tells him: "Don't apologize. It just means we're one step closer to home, right?" After all, the last one standing gets to go home.

Survival of personal identity is a separate question from physical survival. Peeta worries that participating in the game will change who he is, and he prefers to die without giving up his authentic nature as a peaceful person. Katniss, on the other hand, acknowledges that she is already a slave of the state, and her way of protesting is simply to remain angry. When another fighter offends her, she has
"enough fury I think to die with some dignity. As my last act of defiance, I will stare her down as long as I can see, which will probably not be an extended period of time, but I will stare her down, I will not cry out, I will die, in my own small way, undefeated."

In the second book, "Catching Fire," Katniss and Peeta must pretend to be in love with each other. It is part of a psychological game that the ruler imposes upon them. The ruler is aware that a rebellion could sweep the country, and he wants the populace to see Katniss and Peeta as silly children in love – thus Katniss’s assigned stylist goes for “girlish, not sexy” – and not as vital young resistance leaders who point out the chinks in the state’s armor. If Katniss and Peeta don’t do as he says, the ruler can easily have them and their families killed. Katniss understands the ruler’s motivations better than Peeta does, and she believes that “Peeta will perform well whether he knows what's at stake or not.”

Part of what most people think of when they think of “survival” is for things to operate at some level of normalcy. Katniss feels that life is back to normal when the personal stylists assigned to her by the state are no longer requiring her legs to be shaved. Peeta feels more like himself when he can paint a canvas. Being able to go back to “the way things used to be” can be part of psychological survival.

On the other hand, being able to move forward into the future and to adapt is also an important component. If time moves on and leaves someone behind in the past, that person may not survive in the full sense of the word. Katniss’s mentor Haymitch tells her: “You’ll see, the choices you’ll have to make. If we survive this. You’ll learn.” One of the many things Katniss needs to learn is to see things from other people’s perspective. She wonders “how it must have looked from Peeta’s perspective when I appeared in the arena having received burn medicine and bread when he, who was at death’s door, had gotten nothing. Like Haymitch was keeping me alive at his expense.” She also has to understand the choice from Haymitch’s perspective. Understanding why people make certain choices will enable her to predict their actions, which in turn will enable her to prepare and to survive.

When people are focused on survival, they are not able to focus on flourishing, so, in most ways, they are cramped and have few options. There is one sense, however, in which a singular focus on survival can be freeing. After Katniss has tried to meet the ruler’s demands and believes that he is dissatisfied with her, she thinks to herself,
"I can’t guess what form my punishment will take, how wide the net will be cast, but when it is finished, there will most likely be nothing left. So you would think that at this moment, I would be in utter despair. Here’s what’s strange. The main thing I feel is a sense of relief...That if desperate times call for desperate measures, then I am free to act as desperately as I wish."

Katniss begins to feel released from certain routines, social mores, and ethical constraints that could limit the way she fights for her survival. As a general principle, if someone is cruelly prevented from having breakfast every morning, they might resign themselves to keeping track of lunch and dinner, but if the same person is entirely starved, the steps taken to save his or her own life will look like a whole different ball game. They are prodded into fighting back against the person who is depriving them.

In the third book, "Mockingjay," Katniss has a position of responsibility within the citizens’ rebellion against the government. She worries that, if she fails to survive psychologically, she will be of no use to the movement, and then the physical survival of herself and everyone around her will be jeopardized. “What,” she frets, “will break me into a million pieces so that I am beyond repair, beyond usefulness?”

Surviving in the arena turns out to have been good practice for surviving during the rebellion. For those who support her in the rebellion but do not survive, Katniss is aware that she owes them “a debt that can only be repaid in one way” – namely, winning what they set out to do.

Survival is not always a straightforward matter. Just as there are many types of threats, there are different routes that must be taken to survive. People put a lot of energy into their survival strategies, and sometimes the strategies fail. The "Hunger Games" trilogy, exploring the idea of survival from the point of view of a fictional teenager, highlights these complexities.

Image by: Wikimedia Commons user 'Rama' © 'Free software' under CeCILL (

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