The Hunger Games
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
The inequality between rich and poor
In Panem, wealth is heavily concentrated in the hands of the rich, particularly those people living in the Capitol and certain of the districts, and the result is a huge disparity between their lives and the lives of the poor. This disparity reveals itself in numerous ways throughout the novel, but among the notable is food. In the poor districts, many of the residents do not even have enough to eat. Katniss notes that starvation is common in District 12, and she has to hunt illegally in the woods beyond the district’s borders to feed her family. The novel suggests that most of the district’s residents are not able to or don’t know how to hunt, meaning even given the little Katniss’s family has, it is still more than many of the other families in her district. Furthermore, all but the most basic foods are luxuries. Katniss later learns that Peeta’s family, which owns a bakery and is thus one of the more well-off in the district, can’t afford most of the food they bake and eat mostly the stale leftovers that nobody guys. In contrast, when Katniss arrives in the Capitol, she is awed by the lavish feasts and elaborately prepared dishes. The food is rich and abundant, and Katniss, for the first time, tries hot chocolate.
Perhaps the best example of the inequality between rich and poor can be seen in the tessera system and the way the tributes are selected for the Games. In theory, the lottery by which tributes are chosen, called the reaping, is random and anyone can be picked. But in reality, the poor are much more likely than the rich to end up as tributes. In exchange for extra rations of food and oil, called tesserae, those children eligible for the Hunger Games can enter their names into the reaping additional times. Most children of poor families have to take tesserae to survive, so the children of poor families have more entries in the reaping than children of wealthy families who need no tesserae. They’re more likely to be picked as a result. Moreover, the rich who do become tributes tend to have an additional advantage, because they are often trained to take part in the Games and volunteer to do so. These trained tributes, which Katniss refers to as Career Tributes, are generally bigger, stronger, and better prepared for the tribulations of the Hunger Games than those poor tributes selected by chance. They are consequently more likely to survive. For these rich tributes, it is an honor to compete in the Games, while for the poor tributes it is essentially a death sentence.
Suffering as entertainment
The Hunger Games present the tributes’ suffering as mass entertainment, and the more the tributes suffer, ideally in battle with one another, the more entertaining the Games become. The main draw of the Games for viewers is its voyeurism, in this case watching the tributes, who are of course children, fighting and dying. Katniss at various points talks about past Games and what made them successful or unsuccessful, and the recurring motif is that the viewers want to see the tributes battling one another and not dying too quickly (because then the entertainment is over). The principle is best exemplified in Cato’s slow death at the end of the novel. Once the muttations have defeated Cato, they don’t kill him immediately, and Katniss realizes that the Gamemakers want Cato to remain alive because it creates an exceedingly gruesome spectacle. It is the finale of the Games, and so they want to deliver prolonged suffering the audience at home won’t be able to turn away from. The suffering, however, doesn’t have to be purely physical. It can be psychological as well. Katniss’s and Peeta’s romance, for instance, is the subject of so much fascination because it is presumed to be doomed. They become the “star-crossed lovers,” meaning ill-fated, and that promise of suffering adds drama and makes them fun to watch.
In essence, the Games are the equivalent of a televised sporting event in which several participants compete to win. Katniss even refers to the tributes as “players” sometimes when talking about the Games of past years. Most of the players, however, are unwilling, and winning entails outliving the other tributes, mostly by fighting and killing them. In both these ways the Hunger Games recall the gladiatorial Games of Ancient Rome (notably, the gladiatorial Games were one of the most popular forms of entertainment of their time), in which armed competitors, some voluntarily and others not, would fight to the death. That the Games are televised and discussed incessantly in Panem’s media also, of course, recalls today’s reality television, and the novel consequently draws a parallel between the gladiatorial Games and reality TV. This parallel suggests that reality television, though perhaps not quite as barbarous as the gladiatorial Games, still offers up real life as entertainment, and in doing so it turns real people into commodities. Their value becomes determined by how much entertainment they provide, and as such they lose their identities as people. Reality television, the novel suggests, is a form of objectification.
The importance of appearances
Throughout the novel, Katniss and her team use her external appearance, including what she says and how she behaves, to control how other people perceive her. At the reaping ceremony, for instance, she won’t allow herself to cry in front of the cameras because she doesn’t want to give the impression of being weak (and therefore an easy target). Moreover, at the opening ceremony of the Games, the novel emphasizes how important appearances are by focusing a great deal on Katniss’s preparations. The main feature of this focus is the dress Cinna creates for her. It is covered in synthetic flames, earning Katniss the epithet “the girl who was on fire,” and it makes Katniss stand out among the tributes. Drawing attention is more than just vanity in the Games. The tributes that are most memorable tend to attract sponsors, who can provide gifts that may prove critical during the Games. Katniss hides her tears during the Games for a similar reason, as self-pitying tributes are unattractive to sponsors. A tribute’s appearance and behavior can therefore serve as a significant part of their survival strategy.
Perhaps the most notable part of Katniss’s strategy involves her romance with Peeta. This romance is not entirely genuine on Katniss’s end. She cares about Peeta and develops a romantic interest him, but her feelings don’t have nearly the same intensity as his and she always remains ambivalent about him. For the cameras, however, Katniss plays up her feelings for Peeta and works to convince the viewers, and especially the Capitol, that she’s deeply in love with him. The act is one Haymitch devised for strategic reasons: Katniss’s and Peeta’s love story elicits more gifts from sponsors than if they’re simply friends, and it seems even to influence the Capitol’s decision to allow two tributes to be declared winners rather than the customary one. Consequently, the act Katniss puts on has a significant effect on both her and Peeta’s survival. Through these events, the novel suggests that what cameras show, on reality television for instance, is not necessarily reality, and that appearances are just as consequential as the truth.
Fire plays different roles throughout the story, but most often it represents Katniss. Notably, fire is the element that gives the various outfits Cinna designs for Katniss their character. Her first dress, for example, is covered in synthetic flames, while later outfits use fire more subtly but still maintain it as a motif. Katniss’s fire dress earns her the epithet “the girl who was on fire,” and this title comes to pertain to more than just her dress. After Katniss’s surprisingly high training score is announced, Haymitch explains that they must have liked her “heat.” Cinna calls her “the girl who was on fire” again, this time using “fire” to refer to Katniss’s spirit and temperament. During the Games, the phrase takes on a literal meaning after Katniss is struck in the leg by a fireball and thinks the Gamemakers must be laughing at “the girl who was on fire.”
The novel is full of acts of defiance against the Capitol despite the Capitol’s authoritarian control over the people of Panem. Katniss’s and Gale’s illegal hunting is an act of defiance, since they’re willfully violating the Capitol’s rules. The same can be said for the existence of the Hob, the bustling black market of District 12. The gesture of respect the residents of District 12 offer Katniss after she volunteers as tribute is similarly a form of defiance in that it contradicts the behavior the Capitol wants, and expects, to see. The mockingjay, which appears throughout the novel, represents defiance in that it recalls the Capitol’s failures, and Peeta essentially hopes to defy the Capitol and Gamemakers when he tells Katniss he wants to retain his identity and show them he’s not just a part of their Games. The most significant acts of defiance come from Katniss, however. Decorating Rue’s body after her death directly violates the spirit of the Hunger Games, which demand that tributes show no mercy for one another, and Katniss’s idea for her and Peeta to threaten suicide with the berries shows that they will not accept the Gamemakers’ rules.
Hunting reappears numerous times in the story, but it takes on vastly different connotations depending on the circumstances. Katniss, we learn at the very beginning of the book, is a hunter, and she feeds her family primarily with what she can catch or kill in the woods outside District 12. In fact, she spends most of her day hunting, typically with her friend, Gale, and consequently it appears in one form or another in many of her stories about life before the Hunger Games. For instance, most of her stories about her father revolve around hunting. She also met Gale while hunting, and one of her favorite stories, the one she tells Peeta about how she managed to get a goat for Prim, begins with hunting. Hunting also allows her to stay alive during the Games when there is no other food to be found. In these circumstances, hunting to Katniss is always a positive experience.
In the context of the Hunger Games, however, hunting takes on a very different meaning. When Katniss talks to Gale before she leaves for the Training Center, he wonders if hunting a human will be any different than hunting an animal. As Katniss discovers, it is substantially different, and despite her experience killing animals for food, killing a person in a competition is emotionally traumatizing for her. Moreover, Peeta often refers to the Career Tributes as “hunting” when they’re searching for other tributes to kill. Though the act of hunting remains essentially the same in the arena, the connotation shifts from a positive one for Katniss to an entirely negative one.
The mockingjay represents defiance in the novel, with the bird’s symbolism deriving initially from its origins. The mockingjay, we learn, came about as a result of a failed project by the Capitol to spy on the rebellious districts, and since then the bird has served as a reminder of this failure and the districts’ recalcitrance—Katniss describes them as “something of a slap in the face to the Capitol.” The mockingjay pin Madge gives to Katniss is at first an emblem of that resistance. Later in the novel, however, the birds come to symbolize a different sort of defiance. Mockingjays become a link between Katniss and Rue, with the two using the birds to communicate. When Rue dies, Katniss decorates her body with flowers as a means of memorializing Rue, but also to defy the Capitol. When Katniss later sees mockingjays, they remind her of Rue, and that memory inevitably stirs her hatred of the Capitol and her wish to rebel, and take revenge, against it. The mockingjay consequently takes on an additional layer of symbolism, representing not only a general rebellion against the Capitol, but also Katniss’s specific desire to defy it.
Panem is the country in which The Hunger Games takes place, and it symbolizes a dystopian United States. The word panem is Latin for “bread,” and given the similarity of the Hunger Games to the gladiatorial Games of Ancient Rome, it recalls panem et circenses, or “bread and circuses.” The phrase refers to the Roman Caesars’ strategy of quelling public discontent by providing the people with plenty of food and entertainment. The entertainment, of course, was largely provided by gladiatorial Games. In the novel, these gladiatorial Games are crossed with reality television to create the Hunger Games. Setting Panem in the location of the present-day United States, and retaining parts of U.S. culture like the mining industry of Appalachia that we see in District 12, draws a link between the two. But the metaphor gets more complicated because of the Ancient Roman influences of Panem. The result is a triple metaphor that uses Panem to draw connections between Ancient Rome and the modern United States, and it suggests that the modern United States has something like its own panem et circenses strategy in place, with reality television taking on the role of the gladiatorial Games.
The metaphor offered by Panem, however, does not align perfectly with Ancient Rome’s panem et circenses formula. For one, that formula is designed to keep the people content, but the people of Panem are decidedly not content, at least not in the poor districts. In fact, the Hunger Games, unlike the gladiatorial Games which appeased the masses, play a significant role in their dissatisfaction. The Games were created as a reminder to the districts of their powerlessness after their uprising against the Capitol ended in defeat, and it is the children of the districts who are drafted involuntarily into the Games to be killed. Second, a key element of the panem et circenses strategy missing from Panem is the bread. Most of the people in the districts are severely underfed, and again this is a cause of much of the people’s discontent. It leads directly to various forms of rebellion, such as Katniss’s illegal hunting and the existence of a large black market in District 12. Rather than commenting on the fictional Panem, it instead comments the real United States in the ways described above, thus offering a valuable criticism of modern culture in the U.S.
The dresses Cinna designs for Katniss not only give Katniss her epithet, “the girl who was on fire,” but also come to symbolize her spirit. Cinna designs the first dress to reflect the main industry of Katniss’s home district, coal mining, and since coal’s purpose is to burn, Cinna creates a dress that would be lit with synthetic flames. This dress begins the association between Katniss and fire while also giving Katniss her epithet, “the girl who was on fire.” That epithet comes to describe Katniss generally, however, and not just how she appears in Cinna’s designs. Haymitch, for instance, explains Katniss’s high training score by saying the judges must have liked her temper and her “heat.” (Katniss also thinks the Gamemakers may have targeted her with fireballs in the arena as a reference to “the girl who was on fire.”) The dresses, notably the first one for the opening ceremony but also the more subdued versions Cinna creates for Katniss’s interviews, serve as outward, nearly literal representations of Katniss’s inner “fire.”