Searching for Identity, Finding Love: The Center of The Hunger Games

This post is take three of my attempt to write just one post about Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy. Here’s the first take, Don’t Be Afraid of Dystopia, and the second, Too Horrible to Look Away.

Well, the first reviews are in and… looks like we have a winner! Looks like we’re actually going to get a good movie when The Hunger Games is released on Friday. Woohoo! And in the meantime, this is a much lighter blog post that will make you laugh: The Embarrassing Side Effects of Having Recently Read “The Hunger Games.”

So now, after I’ve rambled on and on about genre and dystopia, I promise I actually have some thoughts on the books proper, though still general. Like the Potter series, I think these books deserve several levels of reading, and this is just one of them. But I guess you’ll have to decide that on your own.

The central theme of the whole series isn’t exactly veiled, as it pops up again and again at length. Peeta frames it perfectly the night before he and Katniss enter the arena, before the bloodshed begins:

“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. …

“No, when the time comes, I’m sure I’ll kill just like everybody else. I can’t go down without a fight. Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to … to show the Capital they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their games,” says Peeta. (Hunger Games, pg 141, 142)

That’s it. The central question is, how do you keep your soul in a world without one? Katniss spends the whole series trying to find a way out of the Games — first Capital-made, then manufactured by District 13 — but keeps getting pulled back in. Peeta has a bit more clarity. He realizes early on, perhaps even on the roof, that he can’t escape. Instead, he decides to carve out an identity that will remain true no matter his circumstances.

Peet’s decision has some parallels to the Christian mantra of “in the world but not of the world,” and I wish every Christian could be so honest in their conviction/confession. That’s what Peeta’s rooftop moment is — equal parts conviction (purposing to play the Game in a manner that’s true to his heart and those he loves) and confession (knowing he’ll commit atrocities anyway because of this no-win scenario). The mucky-muck holds his feet firmly even though he’s a simple baker’s son who we know is more prone to save life than to take it. And yet, Peeta knows he’s capable of almost anything. He’ll be selfish and courageous and self-sacrificing and voracious all at the same time. We could argue that both his and Katniss’s acts of violence are self-defense — neither of them hunt down tributes and only kill in self-defense — but in order to live, they know everyone else has to die. No matter what Peeta’s ideals, he acknowledges that he must also partake in this reality-show world that’s been forced on him. He can’t pull an Amish and separate himself.

Like I said earlier, I love that the series doesn’t give us a black and white world with either/or choices, because that’s not how we live either. The “in the world and not of it” commitment isn’t even a simple paradox; there’s not always a “right” choice and a “wrong” choice for us, but varying degrees of gray. Life and culture simply don’t have a right answer all the time. So what do we do then? Stand immobile? Refuse to budge and move towards higher ground?

I don’t think Hunger Games is advocating some kind of ends-justify-the-means utilitarianism when Peeta joins the Careers in order to protect Katniss. Rather, he’s picking the best course he knows given his circumstances. He’s decided what’s important to him — what his anchor is — and he follows a path that hews as closely to this choice as possible. Certainly, he doesn’t always succeed. And when Katniss figures out her center, neither does she. But Peeta especially manages to hold to this compass, allowing him to keep his identity safe even from the Games of Panem.

I’m still puzzling out why Peeta figures this out so much faster than Katniss, but I think her inability to accept real grace plays into it. It’s a reason Peeta is always one step ahead of her emotionally, making him the more mature person. Katniss is frighteningly independent at the beginning of the series, and the vast majority of all her relationships are transactional. The exception is her protection of and love for Prim, and later Rue as Prim’s representative. Katniss can love those who need her, but she has no idea how to love people who she doesn’t need and who don’t need her.  That’s why she makes such an effort to “contribute enough” in her relationships. For her, relationships are more like business partnerships or alliances than friendships.

Katniss is so busy fighting the powers that be that she fails to see the power plays she abides by in her own life. Her felt need to somehow earn her friends and allies leads her to frequent analysis of who she “owes” for their help. That list includes Haymitch, Thresh, and of course Peeta. Even her friendship with Gale, her best friend with the fewest walls, begins as a partnership and continues because of how good they are at hunting together, e.g. how much each contributes to the relationship. After her father’s death, Katniss has no real examples of unconditional love, and subconsciously plays the power game she hates so much. With this give and take as a basis, Katniss has no real “center” except the survival of herself and those she loves.

That’s why Peeta’s modus operandi throws her for such a loop. Peeta’s anchor, his identity, is caught up in unconditional love for another human being, so much so that he’s willing to die for it. Katniss just doesn’t get that. Even before the real Games begin, she’s playing by who can do what for her and her family. Peeta confronts her with the idea that identity is much deeper than survival. And slowly, Peeta’s example shows her what that means.

I won’t give the series’ ending away, but I think those two themes of identity and unconditional love are the only way to really understand what happens to Katniss, Peeta, Gale, and the other characters in the end. As a hint, the ending isn’t absolutely happy. But it is fulfilling. I choose to think Katniss does understand love as an identity in the end. She has to play the game of “real or not real” for the rest of her life though, choosing what is true and good now over the evils and false world she was forced to live in for so long. Yet she recognizes the choice now, whereas she couldn’t even see it at the series’ beginning. Her emotional growth, stunted by her ordeals and her own flaws, is small but real in the end.

This is a series full of anti-heroes and half-villains, of human beings refusing to see pain because they’re entertained. This is not a safe series, with only Snape’s motives really in question. But when is life safe? The question is whether there’s hope in spite of that. And at the end of Mockingjay, the answer isn’t resounding or triumphant. There’s too much pain to be flippant. But there is hope, delicate and sure. I can relate to that.

Further Reading:
Unlocking ‘The Hunger Games’: The Surface, Moral, Allegorical, and Sublime by John Granger
Excerpt from The Hunger Games: Thanks for the Knife on Slate
The Girl Who Was On Fire by A.T. Ross

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5 thoughts on “Searching for Identity, Finding Love: The Center of The Hunger Games

  1. Pingback: Around the Blogosphere: Three ‘Games’ Writers Worth Reading

  2. I was invited to comment, so, having said already somewhere else that I enjoyed and admired this piece, I want to invite you to consider that its primary failing is in the restriction of the allegorical interpretation. Tolkien famously said that “all stories are about the Fall” and Hunger Games is not an especially obscure example of this.

    Katniss, to play dot to dot for a moment, is the soul, our souls really, as Americans treasuring the twin delusions of individualism and independence. Gale is her second self or body, in which she has her worldly identity. Prim is the primrose, the white flower of four petals extending from a golden center, an icon of creation’s four elements and directions from its Origin. Peeta is the Christ, the sacramental bread and unconditional love, who is destroyed by the world but lives on insomuch as we incarnate His love ourselves (however broken he must seem; I’m curious if this isn’t Collins’ commentary on the Catholic church today or just a re-telling of the ‘Wrinkle in Time’ finale…).

    The novels are an alchemical morality tale when understood in light of these character-transparencies, through which we enter into and experience the transformation of loving heart choosing to sacrifice herself in love of the Primrose, through the purgation of her trials in a world consumed by everything but sacrificial love (in which the Rose’s scent is used to mask the blood and poison, not to mention a world determined to destroy the Primrose), to her illumination and Self-perfection/ self-destruction in Christ as Mockingjay-Phoenix-Flamemutt. We return to the Meadow, the Garden, Paradise, and Refuge of District 12, when it has become a graveyard and, in that, place of life and play.

    And we turn from the World through art, just as Peeta calls Katniss to do on the rooftop in the first book. I believe you are right in putting your finger on this scene but miss the greater meaning because you stop yourself from looking all the way through the transparencies to their much greater Referents.

    Thank you for the invitation to drop by and spew my thoughts!

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