The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes plunges its reader into the brutal world of Panem, 64 years before the events of the Hunger Games trilogy. Rather than focusing on an inspiring hero, the novel sets its sights on depicting how a corrupt society can itself corrupt even its best and brightest. Hunger, both literal and metaphorical, drives every move in this text. Although the Games are meant to exploit the starvation of District children, each character, regardless of their origin, is portrayed as being hungry for something: Coriolanus needs admiration and control, Lucy needs safety and stability, and Sejanus needs justice and acceptance. Many people outside the Capitol (and some within it, like the Snows) are also quite literally beginning to starve to death. Coriolanus' many manipulations  paint a grim picture of the ruthless tactics necessary to climb the Capitol's social ladder. Panem’s society is fundamentally split between haves- and have-nots, with no assistance made available for those in need. Although the novel is set in a postwar economy where most people struggle to rebuild their lives, Collins also depicts it as a decadent society, built on exploitation and oppression. Life in the Capitol offers lots of luxuries and pleasures but makes no room for compassion or empathy.  

The brutal divide between the opulent Capitol and the impoverished Districts is the backbone of the novel's social commentary. Rather than try to conceal the difference in the lifestyle a Capitol pedigree offers, the leadership of the Capitol flaunts its ability to offer its citizens luxury and comfort while the Districts struggle, starve, and are forced to send their children to their deaths. It's part of Capitol’s effort to retain control over the vast majority of Panem’s citizens, people who live outside of its walls.  

The system the Capitol has in place only works if its citizens truly believe that people from the Districts are not human in the same way that they are. Like many societies that operate under the yoke of colonialism or oppression, utterly dehumanizing the people who have fewer resources makes it a lot easier not to feel guilty about hurting them. There are several moments where Coriolanus and Sejanus are confronted with the fact that the District tributes are people just like them. For example, when Coriolanus enters the Arena to make Sejanus leave with him, he realizes that despite his position as a Snow and a son of the Capitol, there's a real chance that somebody is going to bury a knife in his back. Of course, even this expectation is subverted. Unlike any of the tributes in the arena, Coriolanus is allowed to enter wearing a bulletproof vest. While his fragile human body may be the same as the other fragile bodies in the arena, his privilege and his position as a Capitol child still give him an unfair advantage. He realizes that the only difference between them is that he has the resources to protect himself, and they don’t.  

These inequalities are on full display throughout the novel, from the extravagant feasts the Academy throws—any opportunity to feast while the rest of the country starves is a good one, apparently— to the hunger for revenge that many adults in the Capitol regularly discuss. Seeing their city struggle to rebuild itself after the war fuels their desire to see the children of “rebels” suffer and die. The Games themselves are a microcosm of this hungry world. In the arena, advantages like strength, size, intelligence, and access to nutrition are the tributes’ main weapons against each other. Just as in Panem, what they are born with will affect them for the rest of their lives—lives that in their case may not last much longer.  

With this in mind, Coriolanus' choices, while morally questionable, become more understandable when viewed as a desperate scramble for survival in a system rigged against him. His fallen family's legacy haunts him every hour of the day at the Panem Academy, fueling his desperation to reclaim their lost social standing. This all-consuming ambition pushes him into mentoring Lucy Gray Baird, and into increasingly morally dubious choices to help her and to protect himself. If Coriolanus makes a good mentor, he knows he stands a chance at being able to afford to attend the University, which in turn means he can restore his family’s good name. When Mr. Plinth puts a full ride to the University for the “winning” mentor explicitly on the table, this ambition kicks into overdrive. A reprieve from his humiliation is always just around the corner for Coriolanus, and so is another justification for whatever he feels like he must do to succeed. 

After Coriolanus’s unethical tactics in the Games are discovered and he leaves the Capitol, the reader gets a clearer idea of what life is like for people in the Districts. Coriolanus sees that Capitol’s rule is pervasive and malignant: physical and emotional violence isn’t limited to the boundaries of the decaying stadium, as there’s brutality and violence from public executions to sexual assault wherever he goes. This constant undertone of harshness is balanced by the fact that there are characters in this book who treat each other with respect and kindness. The members of the Covey all appear to love and support each other, just as Tigris considers and supports Coriolanus in all of her actions. Were he only to be surrounded by characters like Dr. Gaul—who operate based on the idea that all humans are necessarily violent and chaotic—his descent into calculating evil might be understandable as a product of both nature and nurture. However, there are some real moments of affection and friendship between many characters in Coriolanus’s life. Tigris has had the same experience as Coriolanus growing up and has actually had fewer resources and less attention. The fact that she remains kind and altruistic proves that Coriolanus could have gone in the same direction. Lucy and Sejanus also have their struggles, but in their lives together in District 12, these two characters act for the good of others first, and themselves second. Coriolanus chooses himself first all the time, adding a grim subtext to the most seemingly innocent interactions. The novel doesn't shy away from portraying his struggles to decide how to behave, but ultimately, he always makes the choice that serves his own interests best.  

At the end of the novel, the reader learns that Coriolanus plans to succeed through all the measures he's already implemented (plus some additional murders). They also learn that the price for gaining all this power is that he must take on Dr. Gaul’s teachings to an extreme degree, vowing to never allow himself to feel true compassion again. If he acts on the basis that humans are all violent, self-promoting animals under the surface, he can’t allow himself to believe that anyone is different. Through all of this, The Battle of Songbirds and Snakes asks its reader to consider whether survival and the preservation of order are enough for a society to be worth preserving. Collins suggests through her depiction of these early Hunger Games that true progress requires dismantling the oppressive systems that make life into a zero-sum game. Adolescent survival—or indeed anyone’s right to live safely and in freedom—shouldn’t be a spectator sport with only one possible victor.