Today’s my final post on the young adult story, The Hunger Games, a book that pleasantly surprised me with its governmental and societal critiques and its well-paced, plot-driven story. But today I want to say a few words about the story’s heroine, Katniss Everdeen.
Katniss is the best female action hero I’ve seen presented in a long while. Since the story is told in present-tense first person, we get to know who she is pretty well —better than she knows herself actually, Katniss not being one prone to a ton of self-analysis.
Katniss is a teenager who has been forced to grow up fast and grow up strong. Her father is dead, killed in a mine blast, and her mother is dead-to-the-world, a sufferer of a debilitating depression that so overwhelms her that she can go for weeks in a semi-comatose state. It was up to Katniss, after her dad died, to take care of herself, her little sister, and her mother if they were to survive.
Besides being, in general, the backbone of the cuerpo familia, Katniss has taken up, as a matter of survival, hunting and gathering in the wild borderlands between government districts. It was a source of humor to me throughout the novel just how un-self-consciously Katniss’s world revolves around food. Food has obviously been, up to this point, the greatest obsession and pleasure of life. I get the feeling that, for this healthy and fiery-spirited young woman, that will soon change.
Katniss has been too busy surviving to give much thought to herself. She will allow herself to be prettified and she will act properly when a ceremony requires the wearing of traditional garb and the proper display of etiquette – if only for the sake of keeping the family from being molested by the authorities or outcast by their necessary network of neighbors. But she has not given much thought to her own identity—as a person, as a girl, or as the woman she is becoming.
Once events in The Hunger Games have lifted Katniss out of the rut of her day-to-day struggle for survival, she gains a painfully acquired higher perspective on her life. She realizes that, take away her role as hunter-gatherer, and she doesn’t really know who she is. “I stare in the mirror,” she thinks late the novel, “and try to remember who I am and who I am not.”
Like the comic book hero, Wolverine, the bones of Katniss have been reinforced with hard metal (metaphorically speaking). Sometimes her spine of steel presents itself mingled with her sense of humor and her very practical mind. For example, when someone throws a knife at her back that lodges in her backpack, her response is not to cower or hysterically flee, but to say –realizing that she now has a weapon– “Thanks for the knife.” Or, perhaps not quite as deliciously sweet but still demonstrative of the sense of humor hidden beneath her rough and practical exterior, Katniss taunts a group of murderers who have her trapped up in a tree with, “The air’s better up here. Why don’t you come on up?” Juvenile, admittedly, but juvenile like a young tigress.
Katniss is a heroine who does not suffer fools gladly. When she spies someone being weak or inept, she can judge them quite harshly. On a dangerous night when Katniss is trying to stay hidden from her murderous pursuers, a young person starts a fire nearby, and Katniss mentally excoriates the person for being so foolish as to give both their positions away. Trapped in a perverse game in which she must kill or be killed, up until the ridiculous fire, Katniss had been worrying she could not kill a human being— but then the idiot set more than some dried limbs ablaze: “I’ll have no trouble taking out my neighbor,” Katniss muses. “Stupid people are dangerous.”
Later, when she finally gets hold of some weapons that will allow her to face her main competitor on more equal terms, Katniss relishes the idea of bringing the fight to him. Naturally wise in warrior ways, she knows she must immediately break the mindset of the Hunted and become the Hunter. She cannot afford to respond to adversity like her mother responded, becoming a victim trapped in a shell of helpless despondency. There is no enabler here to take care of her. She is completely on her on. But we’re talking about Katniss here; she is exultant when she realizes that her new weapons mean that, “I am no longer merely prey that runs and hides or takes desperate measures,” but she, too, can attack, and she too can inspire fear. She anticipates the moment of killing her rival “with pleasure.”
At one point in the story, when she is saddled with a gimpy partner who is ruining her attempts to procure game by his loud passage through the woods, she has to practically bite her tongue to hold-in her frustration, anger, and contempt at his blundering incompetence. That same bitter intolerance is at the broken core of her relationship with her mother. Katniss has never forgiven her mother for being weak, for failing her and her sister after the death of the man of the house. Psychologically, this disdain for her mother may play a part in her refusal to even consider one day becoming a mother herself. To go even deeper— perhaps Katniss is subconsciously afraid that, after becoming a wife and mother, she would discover truths that would force her to re-evaluate her harsh judgments, to begin to better understand the reasons behind her mother’s mental and spiritual collapse. This could even lead to being forced to forgive her– for where there is understanding, there is often forgiveness. And where there is no true understanding, forgiveness is but a hollow word.
Of course, Katniss is equally unforgiving of herself. She realizes that if her blundering friend is killed, she will not be able to stop blaming herself, to stop wondering what she should have done differently to have saved him. “If he dies,” she thinks, “I’ll never go home, not really. I’ll spend the rest of my life in this arena trying to think my way out.”
The Hunger Games being targeted to a young adult audience –probably especially toward a female readership I’m supposin’– there is of course a teenage love triangle. But it is nicely underplayed. Katniss has spent most of her waking hours trying to ensure the survival of her family; dating has not exactly been a top priority. In fact, I get the feeling that her sexuality, like other parts of her identity, has not yet awoken. But the Games quickly force Katniss to arouse all parts of her hibernating Selfhood. She begins the novel simple and straightforward– a survivor, tough on the outside, hard as rock on the inside. By the end of the novel, she is blossoming into a complex human being and, not meaning to be redundant, a woman.