Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games tells the tale of young tribute Katniss Everdeen, who is forced into a state-sanctioned spectator sport where she must kill her fellow teenagers for the entertainment of the authoritarian Capitol. In The Hunger Games, the character of Katniss Everdeen distinguishes herself from other female protagonists in children's fiction in many ways. These differences will be discussed at length, mostly through the lens of the treatment of romantic relationships with regards to the protagonist in children's fiction. Through analysis of the primary text and the surrounding scholarly literature, The Hunger Games is shown to be an example of subverting the normal romantic clichés that go along with female protagonists in children's literature.
Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games tells the tale of young tribute Katniss Everdeen, who is forced into a state-sanctioned spectator sport where she must kill her fellow teenagers for the entertainment of the authoritarian Capitol. The world of the book is given a bleak and stylized atmosphere, telling the story through Katniss' perspective in order to convey major themes of poverty, depression, alienation, and oppression, as well as a condemnation of both televised war and reality television. In The Hunger Games, the character of Katniss Everdeen distinguishes herself from other female protagonists in children's fiction in many ways. In the book, Katniss is caught in the type of love triangle typically found in children's fiction: the sensitive new lover versus the old friend who understands her more. However, Collins seems to subvert this trope by playing up the ambiguity of Katniss' actual feelings for Peeta and Gale; her on-screen relationship with Peeta starts out as a total artifice, a trick performed for the cameras, but turns out to be much more complex than that. This subversion, in addition to its presence in a post-apocalyptic science-fiction world, change Katniss' priorities as a woman and a protagonist in unique ways throughout the novel.
Katniss' characterization is largely informed by the setting of The Hunger Games. The world of the book depicts a horribly oppressive, Orwellian government, sometime in the indeterminate future, on a continent known as Panem (presumably what is left of the war-ravaged United States). Here, Collins depicts deep social and class inequalities by showing the denizens of the Capitol to be extremely wealthy, privileged, spoiled, and unused to modesty or challenge. Representatives of the Capitol, like Effie Trinket, are dressed in garish clothing, with nearly clownish makeup, to emphasize just how foppish and delicate their sensibilities are, while the inhabitants of the impoverished District 12 live simply, almost like Pennsylvania Dutch (Blasingame and Collins 726). The themes of repression, loneliness, and social class disparity resonate deeply within the book, and help to inform the novel's value as a means of cultural literacy - thus making Katniss, as an example of children's literature protagonists, a vessel by which to convey the novel's messages (Basbas 4).
The primary character of Katniss Everdeen, being the narrator of the story, conveys much of the narrative through her inner monologue. Through this, we get the impression of a strong, yet deeply pragmatic and traumatized girl, who resolves herself to do whatever it takes to survive, whether that be fighting or navigating the Machiavellian whims of the audience. She is very independent, as she goes out on her own and hunts for animals out in the forest with her friend Gale, with whom she coldly contemplates having romantic feelings for. Katniss' whole personality is based in practicalities - being from the poorest District in Panem, she understands that even food is a luxury, so she knows how to survive. Many of the biggest conflicts she has in Part I of the novel simply stem from her discomfort with the luxuries of the Capitol, and her attempts to become acclimated to them (Flanagan 39).
The early parts of the novel show Katniss to be, unlike most "princesses" of children's literature, a relatively cold and pragmatic individual. Because of the necessities of life in a starving, dystopian world, she deliberately distances herself from people, in order to be strong for her family (Woloshyn, Taber and Lane 154). Her first mention of love is of her cat Buttercup; Katniss' attempt to drown the cat several years beforehand is remembered by both parties, and they share a tenuous alliance where she gives him entrails from her kills in exchange for Buttercup not hissing at her. "Entrails. No hissing. This is the closest we will ever come to love" (Collins 4). Already, the audience is exposed to Katniss' seeming heartlessness - she simply does not have the luxury for love - whatever she loves might get taken away from her at any moment due to hunger. While this ostensibly sets up a narrative where Katniss will learn to love, she reaches no such concrete conclusion in The Hunger Games - her heart opens up slightly more because of her exposure to fellow tribute Peeta, and recognition of her feelings toward her friend Gale, but even she is confused about her feelings for them. In this way, Katniss reflects a more modern sensibility that eschews normal fairy-tale ideas of true love in favor of subtle and complex depictions of feelings mired in fiction and lies (Flanagan 42).
The existing relationship for Katniss in the book at the beginning is with Gale, her friend and frequent hunting partner. This is a tale as old as time - female protagonist is wooed by the male she is with at the beginning, but eventually falls for more virtuous male by the end of the book. However, like the other ways in which the book subverts expectations, Katniss (and Collins) defies this narrative in several ways. First, Gale is in no way a bad person: normally, there are flaws - arrogance, pigheadedness, outright villainy - which make him an objectively unsuitable mate for the main character (Woloshyn, Taber and Lane 152). However, Gale (whom we only see in the first part of the book) is kind, gentle, strong, assertive and generous. In fact, it is Katniss who is unsure of his romantic overtures - when Gale says they could "Leave the district. Run off. Live in the woods," Katniss' first thought is "I don't know how to respond. This idea is so preposterous" (Collins 9). As the book continues, and challenges force Katniss to further reflect upon herself, she still has difficulty discerning how she feels about Gale, but seems open to the idea of exploring a romantic relationship: "I call him my friend, but in the last year it's seemed too casual a word for what Gale is to me. A pang of longing shoots through my chest. If only he was with me now!" (Collins 112).
The other romantic interest, and the primary one seen throughout the book, is Peeta Mellark, the other District 12 tribute with whom Katniss has a strange past. Though the trope of the "checkered past with a new paramour" is a well-used trope, in children's literature the young girl lead character finds herself learning about and falling for the new kid in town. In this way, the same is true of the gentle yet strong Peeta: a half-remembered day where Peeta throws the starving Katniss a burnt loaf of bread in order to save her is all that Katniss knows about him, until they reach the Capitol and must interact with each other. However, Katniss' romantic possibilities are tempered by the fact that they will soon have to fight each other to the death, further complicating their relationship and causing her to temper her feelings (Woloshyn, Taber and Lane 153).
One of the major themes of the book is the coldness and artificiality of reality television; the Hunger Games are televised for the entertainment of the Capitol, and as such this cold, deadly game is couched in the artifice of a reality game show (Blasingame and Collins 726). There are color commentators, stylists and fashion experts for each tribute, and even interview shows where Capitol hosts talk to the tributes about their impending fight to the death: "what a good time Claudius Templesmith must be having with his guest commentators, dissecting Peeta’s behavior, my reaction. What to make of it all?" (Collins 165). All of this results in a darkly humorous bit of absurdity, but it also hammers home just how trivialized violence can become when it is edited and shaped into a narrative (Basbas, p. 2).
When Katniss and Peeta decide that one thing that can help them survive is sponsorship, they decide to perform for the cameras a fake story of star-crossed lovers, which resonates with the audience but is patently untrue. When giving yourself up like this is one of the ways to survive, Collins demonstrates just how much control the Capitol has over its citizens. In this way, Katniss is unique in that she performs the typical role of the 'boy-meets-girl' aspect of children's literature love stories in a metafictional way: she understands that it is all an act, a piece of narrative meant to satisfy and entertain their audience (either the citizens of Panem watching The Hunger Games, or the reader at home reading The Hunger Games). Katniss herself feels taken aback at even the prospect of her being thought of as a romantic being, capable of adoration by many: "Peeta has made me an object of love. Not just his. To hear him tell it I have many admirersHaymitch is right, they eat that stuff up in the Capitol" (Collins 136). Collins' first person perspective allows the reader to understand her reticence at being something to be gawked at and paid attention to, while demonstrating that this kind of story is exactly what both the audience of the Capitol and the audience of children's fiction typically look for (Flanagan 43).
In order to combat this society, Katniss and Peeta have to play by its rules; however, she finds subtle ways to rebel, with the help of Haymitch (her mentor) and the other support staff of District 12's tributes. The pair are constantly at odds with each other, particularly due to Peeta's eager embrace of the 'love-story' angle, which makes him either a brilliant tactician or the person to actually start the romantic story. Later in the book, when Katniss must care for Peeta, the romantic storyline is further complicated by mixing her own feelings with those of the narrative they have established. She never goes so far as to fall into 'one true love' territory, but in the heat of the moment, when they kiss for the first time, she is unaware of how much of their relationship is an act. "This is the first kiss where I actually feel stirring inside my chest. Warm and curious. This is the first kiss that makes me want another" (Collins 98). While many audiences would cheer at the prospect of the two headstrong lovers finally getting together, the end of the book shows Katniss herself letting go of the act (Frankel 70). On the train back to the Capitol, she tries to unravel her feelings for him, but to no avail: "I haven't even begun to separate out my feelings for Peeta. It's too complicated" (Collins 358). Katniss isn't given the rosy, happily-ever-after ending that much of children's fiction provides; instead, it is a solemn acknowledgement of the complexities of many relationships, particularly among adolescents, which reflects a more modern approach to romance that Collins provides (Skinner and McCord 106).
In conclusion, Collins uses well-drawn characterization and the dystopian setting of The Hunger Games to feature a female protagonist who defies traditional children's literature tropes regarding romantic love and relationships. Katniss deliberately holds herself back because the very notion of romantic love is, itself, tangential to her goals (which are to survive and take care of her family). She never even considers Gale as a romantic interest until he brings it up, and later in the Games when she finds she misses him. Her relationship with Peeta is incredibly complex, as the lines between artifice and reality start to blur in the face of life-threatening situations. In this way, Katniss is nearly revolutionary among children's literature protagonists, as her agency is not directly related to how she deals with a man - this is forced on her by governments and spectators who wish to force a traditional narrative upon her. Her defiance of this narrative makes her unique, and the open-ended and unresolved way the romantic threads are resolved in the book reflect modern conflicts and sensibilities regarding the fluidity of relationships.
Basbas, Amy. "Collins 'On Fire': Teaching Cultural Literacy Through The Hunger Games." InSight: Rivier Academic Journal vol. 8, no. 2 (Fall 2012), pp. 1-6. Print.
Blasingame, James and Suzanne Collins. "An Interview with Suzanne Collins." Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, vol. 52, no. 8 (May 2009), pp. 726-727. Print.
Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. Scholastic Inc., 2012. Print.
Flanagan, Victoria. "Girl Parts: The Female Body, Subjectivity and Technology in Posthuman Young Adult Fiction." Feminist Theory vol. 12, no. 1 (April 2011), pp. 39-53. Print.
Frankel, Valerie E. Katniss the Cattail: An Unauthorized Guide to the Names and Symbols in Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games. Henry Potty and the Pet Rock, 2012. Print.
Skinner, Margaret and Kailyn McCord. "The Hunger Games: A Conversation." Jung Journal: Culture & Psyche vol. 6, no. 4 (2012), pp. 106-113. Print.
Woloshyn, Vera, Nancy Taber, and Laura Lane. "Discourses of Masculinity and Femininity in The Hunger Games:" Scarred,"" Bloody," and" Stunning"." International Journal of Social Science Studies 1.1 (2013): p150-160.