On the Hunger Games trilogy

Team Katniss

By Jennifer Lynn Barnes

These days, it seems like you can’t throw a fish in a bookstore without hitting a high-stakes love triangle–not that I recommend the throwing of fish in bookstores, mind you (it annoys the booksellers–not to mention the fish), but it certainly seems like more and more YA heroines are being faced with a problem of abundance when it comes to the opposite sex. While I am a total sucker for romance (not to mention quite fond of a variety of fictional boys myself), I still can’t help but wonder if, as readers, we’re becoming so used to romantic conflict taking center stage that we focus in on that aspect of fiction even when there are much larger issues at play.

No book has ever made me ponder this question as much as Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy–in part because it seems like everyone I know has very strong feelings about which boy is the best fit for Katniss, but also because the books themselves contain a commentary on the way audiences latch onto romance, even (and maybe especially) when lives are at stake. To survive her first Hunger Games, Katniss has to give the privileged viewers in the Capitol exactly what they want–a high-stakes romance featuring star-crossed lovers and unthinkable choices. Given that readers of the Hunger Games trilogy are granted insider access to Katniss’ mind, life, and obligations, it seems somewhat ironic that in the days leading up to the release of Mockingjay, the series was often viewed the same way–with readers on “Team Peeta” and “Team Gale” focusing on Katniss’ love life, sometimes to the exclusion of everything else.

But Katniss Everdeen–like a variety of her literary predecessors–is far more than a vertex on some love triangle. She is interesting and flawed and completely three-dimensional all on her own. She’s a sister, a daughter, a friend, a hero, and–above all–a survivor. She’s defined by her compassion, her loyalty, and her perseverance, and those are all traits she has independent of the boys.

I’m not Team Gale or Team Peeta. I’m Team Katniss, and in the next few pages, we’re going to take a closer look at her character and explore the idea that the core story in the Hunger Games trilogy has less to do with who Katniss ends up with and more to do with who she is–because sometimes, in books and in life, it’s not about the romance.

Sometimes, it’s about the girl.

Meet Katniss Everdeen

Ask anyone who’s ever met her–Katniss Everdeen is a hard person to know. She has one of the most recognizable faces in her entire world, but the vast majority of Panem knows very little about the real Katniss. To the viewers of the Games, she’s the object of Peeta’s affection and then a star-crossed lover herself. Later, she’s the Mockingjay, the face of the rebellion, and ultimately, as far as the outside world is concerned, a broken shell of a girl pushed to the edge of insanity and beyond. Sometimes Katniss dons these masks willingly; sometimes they are thrust upon her. But one thing is certain–unlike the Careers, the flighty members of her prep team, or many of the Capitol’s citizens, Katniss has no desire to be famous.

She has no desire to be known.

Whether it’s with the viewers of the Games, the revolutionaries, or the townspeople in District 12, Katniss is the type to keep her distance, a fact she readily admits to in the first chapter of book one, saying that over time, she has learned to “hold [her] tongue and to turn [her] features into an indifferent mask so that no one could ever read [her] thoughts.” Katniss keeps her private thoughts private and keeps most of the world at least an arm’s length away. Next to Gale, Katniss’ closest friend before the reaping is a girl she barely speaks to. In fact, when describing her friendship with Madge, Katniss suggests that the two of them get along primarily because they both just keep to themselves.

Clearly, this pre-reaping Katniss identifies as a loner, never getting too close to other people, never expecting too much of them so that she is never disappointed. Similarly, the people in District 12 seem content to let Katniss keep them at bay. Other than her family, Gale, and in his own adore-her-from-afar way, Peeta, there don’t appear to be people lining up to know Katniss Everdeen. Even the family cat keeps his distance when she feeds him–to the point that Katniss remarks that “entrails” and “no hissing” are the closest she and Buttercup can come to love. The same could be said of Katniss’ relationship with everyone from the baker to the Peacemakers who buy her contraband prey–right up until the moment she takes Prim’s place at the reaping.

Standing up on the stage after she takes Prim’s place, Katniss notes that it is as if a switch has been flipped, and all of a sudden, she has “become someone precious” to people who have never seemed to care about her one way or another, people who don’t really know her, except through that one selfless act. As she realizes this, Katniss–in typical Katniss fashion–schools her face to be devoid of emotion, refusing to let the rest of the world see her tears, and this reluctance to give the Games’ viewers anything real continues throughout the series. Our heroine’s initial reaction to Haymitch telling her to make the audience feel like they know her is to explode, arguing that the Capitol has already taken away her future and that she doesn’t owe them anything else. When Katniss does eventually give viewers a tiny glimpse of her love for Prim during her first pre-Games interview with Caesar Flickerman, even this revelation lays our heroine as bare as if she’d been asked to undress on camera.

Throughout the series, Katniss wears many masks–and a large part of the reason she slips into them so easily is that being the Mockingjay, or the giggling girl twirling around in her dress, or the lunatic who killed President Coin, is easier than letting people in and being herself. It’s occurred to me–more than once–that maybe Katniss isn’t just a hard person to know; maybe she’s a hard character to know, too, even for those of us who are inside her head. Maybe that’s why there’s a tendency for readers to fall into the same trap as the viewers in the Capitol and to look for an easy answer, a handy label like “girl in love” or some kind of either/or question that will tell us exactly who Katniss Everdeen is.

Maybe, for a lot of readers, that question is Peeta or Gale?

Who am I?

I think there are two reasons that Katniss is a hard character for us, as readers, to wrap our minds around. The first is that Katniss isn’t the kind of hero we’re used to seeing in fiction. She reacts more than she acts, she doesn’t want to be a leader, and by the end of Mockingjay, she hasn’t come into her own or risen like a phoenix from the ashes for some triumphant moment that gives us a sense of satisfaction with how far our
protagonist has come. She’s not a Buffy. She’s not a Bella. She limps across the finish line when we’re used to seeing heroes racing; she eases into a quiet, steady love instead of falling fast and hard.

As much as Katniss holds herself apart from the people in her own world, she doesn’t fit easily in with the canon of literary heroines either. But in addition to not fitting the mold, Katniss can be even more difficult for readers to know because though the books are told in first person, Katniss has strikingly little self-awareness. We have to work to figure Katniss out, because as often as not, Katniss doesn’t know who she is, what she feels, or the kind of influence she wields over other people.

Peeta points this cluelessness out to Haymitch after Katniss’ first interview in The Hunger Games, but even hearing him say that she has no idea what kind of effect she has on people, Katniss seems fully oblivious to what Peeta is talking about. She spends most of the trilogy completely unsure of her own romantic feelings, but she’s equally in the dark about everything from the kind of person she is and the kind of person she wants to be to the influence she wields as the Mockingjay. Consider a moment shortly after the reaping when Katniss is told that people admire her spirit. She seems perplexed, saying “I’m not exactly sure what it means, but it suggests I’m a fighter. In a sort of brave way.” The idea that a girl who volunteers for certain death to save a loved one might not know that she is brave is astounding, but somehow, Collins sells it absolutely.

Given that Katniss knows so little of herself, is it any wonder that she can be difficult for us to wrap our heads around, too? It seems plausible to me that one of the reasons that so many readers seem entirely invested in whether Katniss ends up with Peeta or Gale is that this seems like a more manageable question than debating the kind of person Katniss is at her core. After all, firecracker Gale and dandelion Peeta are so different from each other that it’s easy to imagine that a girl who would choose Gale is a completely different person than one who would choose Peeta. When people sit around debating who Katniss should choose, maybe what they’re really debating actually is her identity–and the romance is just a proxy for that big, hard question about the ever-changing, unaware girl on fire.

In many ways, this is a compelling idea, but I think that giving in to this line of thinking can be dangerous, because there is so much more to Katniss than her relationships with Peeta and Gale, and if this were a book about a boy who takes his brother’s place at that first reaping, I wonder if we would all be sitting around talking about who he should be with, rather than who we think he should be. Katniss herself seems to resent the idea that her entire personality boils down to a romantic decision–in Catching Fire, she feels sickened when Haymitch tells her that she’ll never be able to do anything but live “happily ever after” with Peeta. She hardens herself against the very idea of marriage until she “recoil[s] at even the suggestion of marriage or a family” (Catching Fire). And in Mockingjay, in the aftermath of Prim’s death, when Katniss goes to Haymitch for help and he greets her by asking if she’s having more “boy trouble,” she is devastated that this is what he thinks of her, cut to her core that while her entire life is imploding, the closest thing she has to a father acts like her single biggest dilemma is deciding who she loves.

In typical Katniss style, she states that she is unsure why Haymitch’s words hurt her so much, but I have my own theory, one that says that Katniss knows that the world–and many of the trilogy’s readers–reduce her to that one thing–romance–and that she expects better of those who know her best.

Like Haymitch.

And–if we’ve taken the time as readers to dig deep enough–like us.

The Symbolic Katniss

Even though I’ve already argued that Katniss uses the masks she wears to keep other people at bay, I think at least one of those masks is a good to place to start when looking for clues about the girl underneath. Long before District 13 asks Katniss to officially take up the mantle of Mockingjay, she identifies with the animal in question on her own. She sings, they sing back. They’re a product of the Capitol, and even before
our heroine steps foot in the arena, so is she. Mockingjays are adaptive, and, as Katniss notes, the Capitol severely underestimated the species’ desire to survive.

At the end of Catching Fire, in a daze from having been violently extracted from the arena, Katniss makes what is perhaps the strongest statement of her own identity in the entire series: “The bird, the pin, the song, the berries, the watch, the cracker, the dress that burst into flames. I am the mockingjay. The one that survived despite the Capitol’s plans. The symbol of the rebellion.” It seems that Katniss’ entire life–or at the very least, her life since she took Prim’s place at the reaping–has been leading to this, as her tiny acts of bravery and compassion and cunning spark a revolution. For once, Katniss is aware of exactly what she symbolizes and how her actions have led to this moment–and yet, Katniss herself is no more of a rebel than an actual mockingjay, an animal who never thought of thwarting the Capitol and merely wanted to survive.

Katniss is, at her core, a survivor–a fact that is reinforced by her very name. In stark contrast to Prim and Rue, who were both named after pretty, delicate flowers, Katniss was named after a root–one that can be eaten like a potato, leading her father to have once commented that as long as Katniss could find herself, she’d never starve (ironic, given that Katniss spends much of the series trying to figure out who exactly she is). It’s a practical name: no frills, no fuss, all about the bottom line.

Survival.

Whether she’s “Katniss” or “the Mockingjay,” it’s all right there in the name: Katniss is the kind of person who does what she needs to do to survive. Her other dominant characteristic–the one other thing that’s important to her–should be obvious, given that she entered the Hunger Games voluntarily to save Prim.

Family.

To this end, I’d argue that there might be a better symbol for Katniss than the mockingjay or the potato-like plant after which she was named, one that shows up like clockwork in every book of the trilogy, tracing Katniss’ path as she goes.

Buttercup.

I know that it might seem crazy to some people that I think you can get a better sense Katniss’ character by looking at The Cat Who Refuses To Die than by debating the relative merits of Peeta versus Gale, but at the end of the day, if I had to pick a “team” (other than Team Katniss, of course), I would pick Team Buttercup. Not because I don’t love Peeta (I do) or Gale (also do), but because I can’t help looking at that beat-up old cat, who arrived at the Everdeen household as a scrawny little kitten, and thinking about how very much like Katniss he is. Standoffish. Protective. A creature who, against all odds, survives.

Gale may be the one who promises to protect Prim when Katniss leaves for the Games, but Buttercup is the one she trusts to watch over her little sister–to comfort her when she cries, to love her. Other than the fact that Buttercup’s a great hunter and has a less-than-approachable personality, his two most defining characteristics are that he survives things a cat has no business surviving and that he loves Prim.

Sound familiar?

Throughout the trilogy, these same two characteristics are the ones that drive Katniss’ actions the most. She is focused, sometimes to the exclusion of everything else, on finding a way to survive and protecting the people she considers family so that they may do the same. The importance Katniss puts on survival and family seems obvious, not just to us as readers, but to the handful of people who actually know Katniss. Peeta and Gale agree that Katniss will ultimately choose whoever she can’t survive without, and even President Snow hits the nail on the head, saying, “Any girl who goes to such lengths to preserve her life isn’t going to be interested in throwing it away” (Catching Fire). Significantly, however, President Snow doesn’t end his appraisal of Katniss with that statement about her will to survive; in a threatening tone, he adds on, “And then there’s her family to think of,” pinpointing her second major priority as well. Katniss is a survivor, and she lives to protect those she loves. Snow knows exactly how to threaten her, because–like the rest of the major players in the series–he knows exactly what our heroine’s priorities are.

But what is significantly less obvious–and what I think accounts for many of the character developments we see in Mockingjay (and the fact that Katniss fails to go suddenly Buffy and start kicking ass left and right)–is the fact that together, these two driving forces–the ability to survive and an intense love for people who might not–can only lead one place when you put Katniss in any kind of war. Suffice to say, it’s not a happy place, and to really understand it–and the girl–you have to take a step back and think about how Katniss views family and what it means to her to survive.

Survivor

For Katniss, the name of the game has always been survival. At the age of eleven, with her father dead and her mother falling to pieces, Katniss had to make a choice, and she chose to set aside her own grief and fight for her family and for herself. To Katniss, whose mother “went away” and became an emotional invalid after her father’s death, this must have seemed like an either/or situation: you can either grieve for your lost loved ones or you can plow on; you can love and risk being decimated, or you can survive.

It’s little wonder, then, that in Katniss’ mind romance was something she “never had the time or use for” (Hunger Games) and that when circumstances forced her to start thinking of love, it was always, always tied in her mind to survival. When Gale asks Katniss to go away with him at the beginning of the first book, she turns him down and only later begins to wonder whether the invitation was a practical means of increasing their chances of survival or whether it was something more. Shortly thereafter, when comparing her feelings about Peeta to her feelings about Gale, Katniss explicitly ties romance and survival together, saying, “Gale and I were thrown together by a mutual need to survive. Peeta and I know the other’s survival means our death. How do you sidestep that?”

Romance and survival, survival and romance.

For Katniss, they have always gone hand in hand. And yet, when she overhears Gale telling Peeta that her romantic choice will ultimately come down to who she can’t survive without, Katniss is completely thrown and hurt that Gale sees her as being so cold and passionless. She wonders if Gale is right, and if that makes her selfish or less of a person–but what Katniss not-so-shockingly doesn’t seem to realize about herself is that she absolutely, one hundred percent isn’t the kind of person who prizes her survival above all else.

There is at least one thing that matters to her more.

Katniss comments in Catching Fire that if she had been older when her father died, she might well have ended up prostituting herself to the Peacekeepers to keep Prim fed. During the Quarter Quell, she goes in with the full intention of dying, so that Peeta might live. Neither of those actions is the work of a girl with a cold heart and a Machiavellian approach to survival. Katniss throws herself in front of bullets as often as she dodges them–because she would rather die for the people she loves than see them hurt.

Daughter, Sister, Mother, Friend

If anyone doubts that Katniss is more driven by family than anything else–including romance–all you have to do is look at the role that Prim plays in almost every major turning point in the series. For a character who exists primarily off-screen, she’s instrumental in nearly everything Katniss does. She’s the impetus for Katniss volunteering for the Games. In Catching Fire, she’s the reason Katniss considers taking to the woods and the reason she decides not to–if her job is to protect Prim, she’s already failed, because the Capitol has been hurting her little sister since the day she was born. In Mockingjay, Prim is the first one who spells out for Katniss exactly how much power she has as the Mockingjay, and Prim’s death kicks off the final act of the book, cutting off one vertex of the Katniss/Peeta/Gale love triangle as viciously as a bomb can blow off a leg. Prim is the first character, other than Katniss, to appear in the books, and Katniss’ very first action on the very first page is to reach for her and come up empty-handed.

If that’s not foreshadowing, I don’t know what is.

But although Katniss identifies Prim as “the only person in the world I’m certain I love” (Hunger Games), throughout the course of the series, we see Katniss taking other people into her heart.

Adopting them.

Making them family.

The most of obvious case of this is Rue. Katniss takes her in, casts her in Prim’s role, tries to protect her and fails. Rue’s death, more even than the promise Katniss made to Prim, is what drives our heroine to devote herself to winning the Games–because the only way to make Rue’s death mean something, to make her unforgettable, is “by winning and thereby making [herself] unforgettable.” In the span of less than twenty-four hours, Katniss lets Rue past all of her shields. She trusts her. She makes her family.

And then Rue dies.

While the little girl from District 11 is the only one, other than Prim, who gets the word “love” out of Katniss in that first book, even if it is in the lyrics of a song, this isn’t a pattern that holds up for long. Throughout the series, we see Katniss bringing more and more people into her fold: Peeta and Haymitch, Mags, Johanna and Finnick, Cinna. As focused as Katniss is on her own family, and as much as she tries to “protect” herself from letting other people in, the number of people the Capitol can use to hurt her just keeps growing and growing. The number of people Katniss feels she must protect keeps getting bigger and bigger.

And the number of times she will inevitably fail becomes innumerable.

The End

Katniss is a survivor, and she’s a protector. She’s a person who creates family everywhere she goes and a person who loves fiercely–but she lives in a brutal world, a world in which she cannot protect the ones she loves, a world in which survival–and living without her loved ones–is more of a curse than it is a blessing.

I would like to argue that this–and not any kind of romantic decision–is what makes Katniss Everdeen the person we see at the series’ end. Her drive and ability to survive and her fierce love of the family she’s made are the traits that account for every single moment named in Mockingjay when Haymitch asks people to talk about times when they were personally affected by Katniss’ actions. Ultimately, even to the other characters in the book, Katniss isn’t The Girl Who Chose Peeta. She’s not The Mockingjay or The Girl on Fire or The Girl Who Didn’t Choose Gale.

She’s a girl who survives something horrible and loses far too many people along the way.

There’s an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that I’ve been thinking about a lot while writing this essay. In it, Buffy sacrifices her own life to save her sister, and right before she does, she tells her sister that the hardest thing to do in the world is to live–ironic words coming from someone about to kill herself for the greater good. As I’m writing this, I just keep thinking that Katniss never gets to sacrifice herself. She doesn’t get the heroic death. She survives–and that leaves her doing the hardest thing in the world: living in it once so many of the ones that she loves are gone.

The very last we see of Katniss in Mockingjay is an epilogue in which she’s still struggling with that, even as we learn that she’s come full circle and given birth to a new family. Some people probably read that epilogue and think, “Okay, so Katniss chose Peeta and they had kids. The End.” I read it and think that Katniss chose to go on–again. She chose to love–again. She’s scarred, but she survived–and she loves her children just as fiercely as she loved Prim.

That’s who Katniss is, underneath all of the masks–and if we’re picking teams, I’m on hers.

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