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

Another important piece of information about the reaping is now dropped on us.

We have to be standing in the square at two o’clock waiting for the names to be called out.

The reaping has nothing to do with a harvest. People are to be selected and taken away.

Gale suggests they run away from District 12 and live in the uninhabited forest outside. Katniss doubts they’d last. She also points out they both have younger siblings counting on them for food, and the focus shifts to whether either of them wants children. Katniss isn’t interested in motherhood. Gale would have children but not if he had to live in District 12.

Katniss ruminates, “How could I leave Prim, who is the only person in the world I’m certain I love?” So she isn’t in love with Gale, and she doubts loving her mother. She mentions Gale is two years older, which makes him eighteen. Next:

Where did this stuff about having kids come from? There’s never been anything romantic between Gale and me.

She may be more attracted to him than she thinks.

Gale and Katniss plan to collect some additional food for tonight’s celebration.

Tonight, after the reaping, everyone is supposed to celebrate. And a lot of people do, out of relief that their children have been spared for another year. But at least two families will pull their shutters, lock their doors, and try to figure out how they will survive the painful weeks to come.

Collins cranks the tension up another notch. Children are taken. Taken for what? We still don’t know, but it’s something their loved ones dread.

Gale and Katniss do well with their hunting and gathering. They go by the Hob, which is described in some detail. They do their business, after which they go by the mayor’s house to sell some strawberries. The mayor’s daughter Madge, a friend of Katniss’ from school, opens the door. They do their business, without taking an eye of Madge’s jewelry, a circle of gold pinned to her dress. Gale complements Madge’s dress. Madge says if she’s going to the Capitol, she wants to look good. This way we can tell the reaping applies to all residents regardless of class, provided they are below a certain age. Since Madge and Katniss are the same age, if Madge can be taken then so can Katniss.

Now, however, the author steps in with a bit of valuable exposition. Only children aged 12 to 18 are reaped. The reaping is a lottery. Your name goes into the bowl once in you’re 12, twice if 13, and so on up to seven times if you’re eighteen. But it gets worse. If you have trouble feeding your family, you’re eligible starting at age 12 to apply for additional food aid (called “tesserae”), and you pay for it by having your name entered one more time each for each family member receiving food aid. Desperate to provide for Mom and Primrose, Katniss did this as soon as she was old enough. At age sixteen, she gets her name entered five times for her age and 15 times for getting food aid for herself, her mother, and Prim for five years. Katniss’ name therefore goes into the pot 20 times. The odds, to rework the famous slogan, are not in her favor.

It’s worse for Gale. His name goes in 42 times. Or to summarize in a few words, the poorer you are and the bigger your family, the better your chances of getting reaped. Even Madge could be reaped, though her chances are low. Gale grumbles about this, and Katniss agrees it’s hard not to resent Madge even though the Capitol makes the rules.

They separate and go home to dress for the two o’clock big event. Katniss’ mother puts on her best dress, and lays out another of hers for Katniss. Katniss, so great is her resentment, has to stifle the urge to reject her mother’s help. Prim’s dress is also one of Mom’s hand-me-downs, and a little too big, held in place with pins. Both are worried about Katniss, who mathematically has a good chance of being chosen. Katniss in turn is worried for Prim, who is twelve years old and eligible to be reaped for the first time, even though Prim’s chances are small.

The citizens of District 12 all file into the square. At this point, Collins speaking through Katniss tells us the total population of Twelve is 8,000. That’s all? If there are 12 districts and District 12 is of average size, then all districts together contain less than 100,000 people. That’s a miniscule figure for the whole North American continent. On the other hand, what if the largest district has 50 times the population of District 12? That would be 400,000. Now let’s suppose the average district has a population of half that, 200,000. That would still only make 2,400,000 people. We also don’t know how big Capitol is. It’s a city. That could mean a few thousand people. Or it could mean millions. Suppose it’s a million. That would give Panem a total of 3,400,000, not much for a whole continent. I suspect a large part of the continent between the districts is uninhabited. Much of it may be a wasteland – a desert or even radioactive ruins. It’s a bleak future indeed.

When the whole group is assembled, the mayor (Madge’s pop) gets up and recounts the backstory of Panem.

He lists the disasters, the droughts, the storms, the fires, the encroaching seas that swallowed up so much of the land, the brutal war for what little sustenance remained. The result was Panem, a shining Capitol ringed by thirteen districts, which brought peace and prosperity to its citizens.

I have to wonder if Mayor Undersee believes this in his heart of hearts, considering the visible suffering all around him. Is he really that blind, or is he just going through the motions in order to keep his job with its fat salary and opulent official residence? Collins does not tell us what Katniss thinks of him.

Parenthetically we also notice the coastal cities have been inundated by rising sea levels. Clearly the ice caps have melted. The disasters are partly environmental.

The mayor continues:

Then came the Dark Days, the uprising of the districts against the Capitol. Twelve were defeated and the thirteenth obliterated. The Treaty of Treason [signed by the twelve districts who were allowed to surrender] gave us … our yearly reminder that the Dark Days must never be repeated. It gave us the Hunger Games.

There would have been no revolt in real life if Panem had been as idyllic as the mayor claimed it was.

Now Collins finally drops on us the terrifying reveal. The Mayor tells us readers, for ceremonial reasons, what the people of Panem already know.

The rules of the Hunger Games are simple. In punishment for the uprising, each of the twelve districts must contribute one girl and one boy, called tributes, to participate. The twenty-four tributes will be imprisoned in a vast outdoor arena that could hold anything from a burning desert to a frozen wasteland. Over a period of several weeks, the competitors must fight to the death. The last tribute standing wins.

A science-fictional gladiatorial contest. At this point, the reader has guessed Gale and Katniss will be the tributes. Although there are more than a thousand possibilities, the odds favor them being chosen. With their skill with weapons and survival experience, they are better suited to win than anyone else. On the other hand, there can be only one winner. At the end, either Gale would kill Katniss or Katniss would kill Gale.

What’s the payoff for the winner?

The last tribute alive receives a life of ease back home, and their district will be showered with prizes, largely consisting of food … while the rest of us battle starvation.

Katniss perceives this as a reminder of how helpless the people of the districts are against the overwhelming might of the Capitol. She doesn’t get the other aspect of it. The districts have a stake in fighting each other, vicariously through their tributes, so that they won’t unite against the Capitol. To paraphrase Orwell, Oceanea isn’t at war with Eurasia or Eastasia. It’s at war with itself.

District 12 has almost never won a Hunger Games competition. There have been only two victors, and only one of those, a local drunk (though a very wealthy one) named Heymitch Abernathy, is still alive. He staggers onto the stage and promptly falls off into the audience. Heymitch will be important in later chapters, since he helps train the tributes, but here he’s just a buffoon.

We are now less than two pages from the end of the chapter. Collins has waited until now to reveal the mystery of the reaping. Now comes the reaping. Who will win – or it might be better to ask, who will lose?

Capitol functionary Effie Trinket steps up to the microphone and draws for the female tribute first. Katniss’ throat is dry. Effie pulls a piece of paper out of the bowl, and reads the unlucky winner.

It’s Primrose Everdeen, Katniss’ little sister, age twelve. End of chapter one.

One of Collins’ tricks as a writer is to end every chapter on a strong emotional note. There could hardly be a more emotional and dramatic one than this.

If you’ve either read the book or seen the movie, you know who the tributes are: Katniss, who is allowed by the rules to volunteer in Prim’s place; and Peeta Mellark, who hasn’t been introduced yet. But I see a great lesson in this chapter for beginning writers. Dollop out the exposition a little at a time, combining it with action, especially everyday action which shows the reader the main character’s world and how they relate to it, emotionally and otherwise. End your chapter on a powerful emotional note, preferably one which turns the plot as well.

Once I had read this chapter, on a Saturday afternoon, I couldn’t stop until I’d finished the book, the following Monday at about noon. There are plenty of worse ways to begin a novel.


About bettysrants

Betty Cross has published a sci-fi novel called "Discarded Faces." It is now available both as a paperback on 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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