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 buys. 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.

Read about the related theme of class in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

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.

Read about the related theme of the superficial nature of society in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.