Friday, July 18, 2014

What people really hunger for in 'The Hunger Games'

What is the meaning of hunger in "The Hunger Games"? Why is the gladiatorial event named after starvation rather than violence?

Originally posted to Helium Network on June 30, 2013.

In the "Hunger Games" trilogy by Suzanne Collins, an oppressive government keeps the population starving. The government divides the country into twelve districts that do not have direct contact with each other, limiting trade. Subsistence hunting is formally banned. The government fosters a sense of dependence and hopelessness in the people by providing extra food rations to those who enter their children’s names in a death lottery.

In the first book, "The Hunger Games," the teenage heroine, Katniss, hunts in the forest in defiance of the law, and she is even successful in selling meat to the police (known as the Peacekeepers), since they want to eat, too. Her priority is to support her mother and sister. She thinks about how being shot to death would be preferable to starving to death, and she doesn’t speculate about why the country has fallen into this oppressive situation, since "I don't see how it [the historical knowledge] will help me get food on the table." Of her hunger, she says, “Take that away and I'm not really sure who I am, what my identity is. The idea scares me some."

After Katniss survives the mandatory gladiatorial event, one of her rewards as a victor is that extra food will be sent to the hungry families in her home district. "To know that once a month for a year they would all receive another parcel," she thinks to herself at the beginning of the second book, "Catching Fire." "That was one of the few times I actually felt good about winning the Games."

Of course, to survive in the arena, Katniss was forced to kill other children, which weighs on her conscience. Her comment, however, shows that her conscience also takes into consideration the hunger felt by poor families. The government has engineered a social practice by which some are killed in an arena and others starve at home. The burden of choice falls on children like Katniss: she kills to survive in the arena, thereby winning food to save others from starvation, and at some point may actually feel “good” about her performance. She has to rationalize her choices.

In "Catching Fire," Katniss travels widely and sees how different people live. In the privileged capital city, residents do not have the same worries about violence or starvation. Their children do not have to be entered in the lottery to be gladiators. They feast on unlimited amounts of gourmet food, and they even induce vomiting at their parties so that they can return to the tables and eat more. When Peeta, a boy from Katniss’s poor district, is given a glass of such vomit-inducing liquid and realizes what it is for, he “sets his back on the table with such precision you’d think it might detonate.” The wastefulness of eating food only to deliberately vomit it is a grievous moral offense to children who have lived under the fear of starvation their whole lives.

Katniss remembers giving an entire leg of game to a girl who reacted with “the disbelief of the chronically hungry.” She also reflects on how newlyweds in her home district recognize their marriage when they “make their first fire, toast a bit of bread, and share it. Maybe it’s old-fashioned, but no one really feels married in District 12 until after the toasting.” This shows how food can be ritualized even in cultures that have very little of it.

While Katniss and Peeta visit wealthy areas, they are aware that the government is becoming stricter and more unfair about food rations. Some families who volunteer extra entries of their children’s names in the lottery never receive the promised food.

Before another round of organized violence in "Catching Fire," Katniss has a nightmare in which she tries “to reach a pool of water that recedes every time I’m about to touch it.” It is prescient, both in the literal sense of thirst and in the sense that, in the future, she will have to work hard to chase something down that will always seem just out of reach.

In the third book, "Mockingjay," Katniss temporarily moves to an underground complex where people eat food grown in underground farms. Food is measured into exact portions according to an individual’s nutritional needs, so “there are never seconds here,” and they cannot take uneaten food out of the dining hall. “We know how to be hungry, but not how to be told how to handle what provisions we have,” she complains. In fact, when the government tries to erase Peeta’s memories, one of the first memories to return is the first day he met Katniss, when he secretly gave her a loaf of bread. His decision to share his food with her was of great personal significance. The social system in the underground district eliminates this personal autonomy, and it is difficult for them to adjust to it. When she has the occasion to get a good meal, she thinks about how a good meal “can make people kinder, funnier, more optimistic, and remind them it’s not a mistake to go on living. It’s better than any medicine.”

In Mockingjay, Katniss learns that the wealthy class has “given up their political responsibilities and therefore their power” in exchange for “panem et circenses,” Latin for “bread and circuses,” food and entertainment. They do so on the backs of people who go without food and who send their children to die for entertainment. Katniss becomes a symbol of the growing rebellion against the government. People’s hunger shifts from a physical need to a moral need. “It’s the sight of me, alive, that is the inspiration. Hungry fingers devour me, wanting to feel my flesh,” she reflects.

The evolution of hunger in the Hunger Games trilogy portrays a growing awareness in the young characters that there are different things for which they can be hungry. As children, they were aware of their empty bellies. During the year in which they become adults, they learn that they can hunger for freedom, justice and revenge. Fighting for these “higher” ideals makes food seem to them – at least most of the time – less interesting.

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