An Analysis of the Opening Chapter of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Part One.

This blog is an analysis of the first chapter of this best selling novel, showing how it works to introduce the main character, the world she grew up in, and the main feature of the plot – the terrifying Hunger Games, a gladiatorial combat to the death among contestants (“tributes” in the world of the book) aged twelve to eighteen.

In this analysis, I will pretend I don’t know anything about the contents of the work, and rely only on the text itself for my understanding.

I quote the entire first paragraph:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

The entire novel and its sequels are written in the present tense. To many this is off-putting, but I barely noticed it. I also noticed the book is written entirely in the first person.

One of the problems with “I” narratives is you sometimes can’t tell right away if the narrator is male or female. I knew she was female from the movie trailers (not having seen the movie itself), but it’s of interest to note when we find out from the narrative itself. Since a brother and sister usually don’t sleep together, and since we know Prim is a female, the “I” probably is also. But we aren’t sure yet. In some cultures, a brother and sister might sleep together, if both were below the age of puberty and the family was too poor for separate beds. After reading lots of stories set in fictional universes (sci-fi or fantasy), I don’t take these things for granted.

Prim, sure enough, was sleeping in Mom’s bed.

Prim’s face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she is named. My mother was very beautiful once too, or so they tell me.

The narrator’s protectiveness for his / her sister comes through strongly here. I conclude the narrator is the older sibling. Then again, what is the significance of “or so they tell me?” Does Katniss have mother issues?

I skip the reference to the family cat, which is Prim’s pet and maintains a tenuous truce with the narrator. Then:

I swing my legs off the bed and slide into my hunting boots. Supple leather that has molded to my feet. I pull on trousers, a shirt, tuck my long dark braid up into a cap, and grab my forage bag. On the table, under a wooden bowl to protect it from hungry cats and rats alike, sits a perfect little goat cheese wrapped in basil leaves. Prim’s gift to me on reaping day. I put the cheese carefully in my pocket as I slip outside.

I’m now satisfied with my store of gender clues. The narrator is  female, judging from the long dark braid. We also realize how poor the family is. No refrigerator is there to hold the cheese, and it’s goat cheese, not cheese made from cows’ milk. I now assume the narrator lives in a rural community, and today is the day of the annual harvest celebration, the reaping, when family members exchange modest gifts. As someone raised in an affluent suburb, who didn’t know economic hardship until an extended period of unemployment in her late thirties, my sympathies are now on the side of these struggling peasants.

Our part of District 12, nicknamed the Seam, is usually crawling with coal miners heading out to the morning shift at this hour … But today the black cinder streets are empty. Shutters on the squat gray houses are closed. The reaping isn’t until two. May as well sleep in. If you can.

Stop the press! It’s a coal mining town. There’s also a question about this mysterious reaping. Presumably some of the people are farmers, but why do they wait until two PM to harvest the crop? Then there’s the odd reference to sleeping in, if you can. Presumably the reaping is the cause of a great deal of anxiety. Otherwise no doubt would be cast on the possibility of sleeping late. The first paragraph implies Prim is especially worried about the reaping. But why does the reaping cause people anxiety? Collins is slowly ratcheting up the tension.

The narrator moves to a high chain link fence which is supposed to be electrified but usually isn’t. She slips under a gap in the fence, and retrieves her bow and a quiver of arrows from a hollow log. These are obviously her hunting weapons. Apparently hunting with a bow is against the law, or she wouldn’t have hidden her weapon in the woods.

My father knew [how to hunt with a bow] and he taught me before he was blown up in a mine explosion … I was eleven then. Five years later, I still wake up screaming for him to run.

Now we know her age. The narrator, still nameless, is sixteen. We would expect her to be in school, but today is a holiday, the days of the ominous reaping.

We are told hunting in the woods is technically illegal, but it’s tolerated because the “Peacemakers” – whom we can safely presume to be law enforcement personnel – are “as hungry for fresh meat as anybody is.” However, she has to hide her bow because …

My father could have made good money selling [hand-made bows], but if the officials found out, he would have been publicly executed for inciting a rebellion … [T]he idea that someone might be arming the Seam would never have been allowed.

At this point, we realize how oppressive (and repressive) the government is. Not only are the coal-mining proletarians forbidden firearms, they can’t even own a bow and arrows.

District 12, where you can starve to death in safety,” I mutter. Then I glance quickly over my shoulder. Even here … you worry someone might overhear you.

Big Brother is listening. The next paragraph informs us the new Big Brother’s country is called Panem. The government is in “the far-off city called the Capitol.” Here the narrator refers to Panem in passing as “our country,” but she doesn’t show the slightest patriotic feeling it. She is a good Confederate.

We are now deep into traditional Orwellian territory. Looking back at her childhood, she recalls:

I learned to hold my tongue and to turn my features into an indifferent mask so that no one could ever read my thoughts.

Winston Smith did the same in 1984. Even at home she keeps her mouth shut about the Capitol and its policies. She doesn’t want Prim to overhear any of dissident views and repeat them at school, inviting official retaliation.

She is joined by her friend Gale, and we learn Gale is a man’s name in this world. She enjoys his company. He addresses her as Catnip, his personal term of endearment for her. Her real name is Katniss. This usual name will be explained after chapter one.

He produces some bakery bread, a fine loaf which he purchased at the Hob in exchange for a dead squirrel. Gale is one of many who trade there. The Hob is defined as the “black market where I [Katniss] make most of my money.” As we’ve just seen, however, at least some of the trade at the Hob is bartered. As we can now see also, District 12 residents still use money part of the time. But few people have much in the way of money.

We already know the Peacekeepers tolerate the black market and even trade there, too. However, it’s clear that without the technically illegal bow-hunting and black market trading, many District 12 citizens wouldn’t have enough to eat. As a reader, I can imagine the Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads.

Safe in the woods, Gale and Katniss exchange jokes about the oppressive Capitol, especially the Capitol accent, which they find pretentious and pompous. While feasting on their bakery bread, far superior to the coarse loaves Seam residents bake at home, Gale announces, “I almost forgot! Happy Hunger Games.” This is the first mention of the Hunger Games in the book that bears their name. It has something to do with the reaping, which is now defined as “reading out the names.”

Effie Trinket is now mentioned for the first time. She comes out from the Capitol once a year to read the names of the people being “reaped.” The reaping is of people! But for what? Do they become sex slaves, cyborg warriors, colonists on another planet? What? We don’t know, but nobody wants to be reaped. All through the narrative so far, Collins has been building up a sense of dread about the reaping. As a reader, I want to keep reading to get the big reveal.

They then wish each other, “May the odds be ever in your favor.” They do this while laughing and tossing black berries into each other’s mouths. Given the sense of dread Collins has been building up about the Reaping and the apparently related Hunger Games, their playfulness is an attempt to cope with a frightening situation.

We are now on page 8 of a chapter that began on page 3. In these five and half pages, we’ve been given a lot of description of Katniss and the world in which she grew up, but it’s artfully interwoven with action. More than that, Collins has surprised us a few times. At first we thought Katniss lived in an impoverished farming community, but now we know she lives in a coal-mining town. At first we thought the reaping was a harvest celebration. Now we know that “the reaping” means an official from the Capitol will come out to take some people away for some sinister purpose. In the first paragraph, Katniss says little sister Prim is in danger on reaping day. We do not yet know Prim’s age, however.

Gale and Katniss have similar coloring – olive skin, brown eyes, dark hair. “He could be my brother,” she observes, “but we’re not related, at least not closely.”

Is Gale her boyfriend? Probably not, because there’s been no hugging or kissing. That she thinks of him as the brother she never had is also evidence there’s no romance between them.

Katniss now segues (more artfully than I’m doing right now) into a bit of exposition about the class system in District 12. Peacemakers, those anonymous “officials,” and “the occasional Seam customer” (a coal company officer on official business?) are at the top of the local social pyramid. The merchants provide services to them. The coal miners are at the bottom. District 12 residents cannot, with rare exceptions, afford “doctors,” so “apothecaries are our healers.” These apothecaries are herbal healers. Katniss’ mother is such a one. This gives her merchant status. People looked askance when Katniss mother married a coal miner.

On the first page, Katniss drops a hint she harbors resentment against her mother. Now we know why. Here is the image that stands at the forefront of Katniss’ childhood memories:

All I can see is a woman who sat by, blank and unreachable, while her children turned to skin and bones. I try to forgive her for my father’s sake. But to be honest, I’m not the forgiving type.

Katniss’ mother, whose first name is never mentioned in the book, withdrew from her motherly responsibilities for a while after her husband’s death, and Katniss resents her for that. “I’m not the forgiving type,” is an honest and self-revealing remark. Partly because of her family loss, partly because of growing up under totalitarian rule, and partly perhaps for other reasons, Katniss has a hard time trusting other people. (To forgive is a form of trust.) Her universe of common obligation, an ethical philosopher would say, is limited to Prim, Gale, and her mother, and she has misgivings about the last of these.

The analysis of Chapter One continues in the next blog post.

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About bettysrants

Betty Cross has published a sci-fi novel called "Discarded Faces." It is now available both as a paperback on Amazon.com and as an ebook from Double Dragon Ebooks. It’s a dystopia with a happy ending. Her second novel is a fantasy named "Mistress of the Topaz." She has signed a contract with Double Dragon for this one also. It should be available for sale by early 2012.Both will have sequels. In April 2010, after 3 decades in the computer field, she became a full-time writer of Science Fiction and Fantasy. She writes every day, and records her daily word count on a spreadsheet.
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