In the opening moments of The Hunger Games, we are immediately introduced to the dire poverty in which Katniss Everdeen and the rest of her community live. It is a community stretched to the brink of existence by hunger, lack of resources, and (nearly) complete dependence upon the controlling Capitol to provide for its “second-class” citizens of District 12. Katniss, herself, is a character that struggles to break out beyond the restrictive and controlling grasp of the Capitol in order to combat her and her community’s poverty.
As Marty Troyer points out in his reflection on The Hunger Games (which is well-worth a read),
Katniss Everdeen is a petty criminal. She’s a poacher on government land, uses tools that have been outlawed, and operates comfortably in the black market. She also happens to be one of the most ethical, courageous, smart, complex, and bi-cultural heroines of modern day literature. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is not the story of Katniss’ transition from criminal to hero. It’s the story of Katniss, criminal-hero. Katniss’ criminal behavior is a symptom of the staggering poverty forced upon her marginalized community by those with power. She acts in order to survive. Period. Her poverty is not due to being economically disadvantaged, culturally deprived, or underdeveloped, as if it were her own fault.
He makes an extremely important point: poverty in The Hunger Games (and frequently in real life) is caused and controlled by systemic injustices meant to keep power located in the hands of a few. Poverty is not always caused by laziness or personal choices. Katniss breaks the law because of her situation, not because of an out-of-whack morality. She, the law-breaker, is, in-fact, morally superior to the Capitol, the law-maker. (I’ll talk more about this issue of ethics, law, and goodness in a different post).
As Katniss’ narrative story begins to unfold, and as the social, cultural, and economic realities of Panem become clearer, a dichotomy begins to emerge: that of charity vs. justice.
Right after Katniss has volunteered as District 12’s female tribute, Peeta Mellark is chosen as the male tribute. For her, this is the worst possible person who could have been chosen. While they have never officially met prior to this point, Katniss remembers a particular encounter they had when they were younger that has left her feeling eternally indebted to Peeta.
Several years prior, after her father is killed in a coal-mining accident, Katniss is forced to grow up quickly and find ways of providing for her family. Unfortunately, due to her young age and the oppressive poverty in her community, she, and her family become in great danger of starving to death. She is pushed to the point of attempting to steal crumbs from a trash can (which is punishable by death). As she is going through the trash at the bakery, Peeta’s mother comes out and yells at Katniss, threatening to call the Peacekeepers while Peeta watches everything from the window. As Katniss backs away, at the end of her rope, Peeta intentionally burns a loaf of bread so it will have to be thrown away. Peeta then, under the wrath of his mother, takes the bread outside, pretending to throw it away, but instead tosses it to Katniss.
For Katniss, this one act is something that allowed her to get through this darkest, crisis moment. Peeta’s loaf of bread made a big difference in Katniss’ life. As she says,
To this day, I can never shake the connection between this boy, Peeta Mellark, and the bread that gave me hope, and the dandelion that reminded me that I was not doomed.
Peeta’s act of charity brought a new sense of hope to Katniss and her family. It helped them to survive. His act of charity, however, did nothing to change the reality of District 12. It did nothing to change the root causes of poverty or challenge the corrupt, power-hungry Capitol.
As we move through the trilogy, we find that Katniss is drawn into the world-transforming work of seeking justice. As she becomes the symbol of revolution, of resistance, and of speaking truth to power, Katniss becomes an agent of change. Throughout the first two books of the trilogy, as Katniss acts and struggles through her fate of being a tribute not once, but twice in the Hunger Games, the injustices of the Capitol become more and more evident, and those injustices become more fully articulated. Katniss, herself, becomes increasingly more aware and more willing to challenge the political and economic machine of the Capitol. She begins to look for ways to act out the words that Peeta said to her the night before the Hunger Games began in the first novel:
I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not…. I keep wishing I could think of a way to…to show the Capitol that they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games.
Throughout the trilogy, Katniss begins to work in greater and greater ways that undermine the system and framework by which the Capitol operates and enforces its power. It begins in the moment that she steps up to sacrifice herself in place of her sister, and continues through her care for Rue as she dies, preparing to eat the poisonous berries with Peeta to ensure the Capitol doesn’t have its victor, through her willing participation in the revolution that ensues against the Capitol. In other words, Katniss is seeking justice: an end to the oppressive rule of the Capitol, and she is willing to sacrifice even her own life in order to see this transformation brought about. It is messy, painful, and comes at great cost to her own personal life and relationships.
When we place the act of Peeta’s charity next to Katniss’ struggle for justice, we realize that both are necessary pieces of the story, but that apart, they mean nothing. Peeta’s act of charity is an important one to Katniss. It reaches out to her in a moment of personal desperation. It helps her through a crisis moment. It gives her a moment of hope, and gives her new strength to see a new day. But ultimately, it does not change the reality of Panem. It doesn’t change the oppressive systems that are in place. It doesn’t lift District 12 out of its circumstances of dire poverty. Yet, without Peeta’s bread, Katniss may never have been able to be the person that she becomes.
In our society, we aren’t too bad at charity. Many Americans are pretty generous at giving money to non-profits who seek to help people get through crisis moments. This is not a bad thing in and of itself. Giving to charity, offering a meal or clothing or shelter to someone in need is a good and necessary thing. Nonetheless, if we stop there, then we do nothing beyond what Peeta did for Katniss. It is worthy and good and meaningful on a personal level, but it does nothing to change the realities of our world that often hold people in places of powerlessness and poverty.
The work of justice often involves inconvenience and sacrifice. Perhaps it means lobbying to remove or create laws that protect people at the margins of society. Maybe it means refusing to buy from companies that take advantage of its employees. It could means speaking truth to power about the way that our imperfect economic and political systems are hurting the “least of these.” Depending on where you live in the world, it may mean being a part of a revolution against a corrupt ruling authority that could cost you your very life. The work of justice is messy and not always clear, but the work of justice always seeks to lift up and protect the powerless, the weak, and the vulnerable.
The Hunger Games highlight the significance of these two sides of the same coin: charity and justice. The former may change individual lives, but the latter seeks to change the world.
Stay tuned for the next post: Sacrificial Love