Marxist Analysis of the Hunger Games

Published: 2021-09-13 23:40:10
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The Hunger Games takes place after the destruction of North America, in a nation known as Panem, which consists of a wealthy Capitol and twelve surrounding, poorer districts. District 12, where the book begins, is located in the coal-rich region that was formerly Appalachia.
As punishment for a previous rebellion against the Capitol in which a 13th district was destroyed, one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 from each district are selected by annual lottery to participate in the Hunger Games, a televised event in which the participants (or “tributes”) must fight to the death in a dangerous outdoor arena controlled by the Capitol until only one remains. The story follows 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, a girl from District 12 who volunteers for the 74th annual Hunger Games in place of her younger sister, Primrose.
Also selected from District 12 is Peeta Mellark, a baker’s son whom Katniss knows from school, who once gave her bread when her family was starving” (Wikipedia 1). There are strong literary themes throughout this work that readily lend themselves to various forms of critique. This paper will focus on two main genres of literary criticism. The first is Marxist criticism, for which there is plenty of material that reveals the novel’s explicitly anti-imperialist agenda. There is a strong oppression of the poor by the rich, and socioeconomic subjugation is responsible for the huge disparity between the “haves” and the “have nots”.
The Capitol dominates its districts by controlling education and the media, keeping the districts in a state of hunger and poverty, and monitoring all aspects of life with an eagle eye. The second form of literary criticism applied to The Hunger Games will be feminist critique. Katniss is presented as a strong, independent woman who seems to have transcended the confines of the traditional female gender role, and she is ultimately successful due to her ability to take on the characteristics of either gender as required by her situation.
She is her family’s provider, having adopted typical masculine duties in hunting, bartering, and protecting her sister and mother. However, there are times where she is able to be protected or supported by a male character without feeling degraded or submissive. Additionally, the female characters throughout the trilogy who strive for singularly feminine gender roles are met with opposition and grim misfortune. Ultimately, The Hunger Games is an excellent work of young adult fiction that uses a futuristic, dystopian society to offer readers the chance to explore and critique Marxist ideologies as well as feminist thought.
Marxist Critique of The Hunger Games One of the strongest themes in The Hunger Games is its condemnation of imperialism, which is represented by the Capitol of Panem. Throughout its pages, the novel invites readers to denounce the oppressive socioeconomic forces and repressive ideologies of the Capitol and its representatives. The Hunger Games certainly has a Marxist agenda as it reveals the crippling effects of the oppression of the people by the elite few. Citizens of the Capitol are living lives of luxury and ease while the hard-working and impoverished citizens of the other districts struggle to get by.
These are “men and women with hunched shoulders, swollen knuckles, many who have long since stopped trying to scrub the coal dust out of their broken nails, the lines of their sunken faces” (Collins 4). They are the perfect representation of the Marxist proletariat, “the majority of the global population who live in substandard conditions and who have always performed the manual labor that fills the coffers of the rich” (Tyson 54). They have lost hope and merely toil under the domination of the privileged elite, the bourgeoisie who control the world’s natural, economic, and human resources.
This domination pervades every aspect of their lives – they are constantly watched by “Peacekeepers” who ensure that there is no hint of rebellion among the people. Katniss and her best friend Gale (a boy who also lost his father at a young age) have nothing but disdain for the Orwellian “big brother” intrusiveness of the Capitol. “District Twelve. Where you can starve to death in safety,” Katniss mutters. Then she glances quickly over her shoulder. Even here, even in the middle of nowhere, you worry someone might overhear you” (Collins 4).
The districts are not strongly divided amongst themselves by religion, ethnicity, or gender, but rather seem to function as supportive communities in and of themselves. They are prevented from communicating with one another. However, their ability to band together and rise up against the oppression is seen at the end of the trilogy, when the districts overcome their fear of domination and join together as one to defeat the Capitol. The majority of the citizens of the districts remain subservient.
A Marxist insight would reveal that they are strongly kept captive by the repressive ideologies functioning in their lives – ideologies that prevent them from understanding the material/historical conditions in which they live, because the people are slow to acknowledge that these ideologies affect their lives. However, a few of the main characters do see this repression, and they act out against it. One prominent example is in the method by which children are entered into the lottery to become tributes in the Hunger Games.
When a child turns 12, they are entered once, then twice when they are 13, three times when they’re 14, and so on. However, poor and starving children have the option to add their name in more times in exchange for “tesserae. Each tesserae is worth a meager year’s supply of grain and oil for one person” (13). They may also do this for each of their family members. So the wealthy children, who have no need for tesserae, have far lower chances of being chosen to fight to the death.
By keeping the poor in a constant state of fear and oppression and keeping the wealthy content and happy, the Capitol ensures that there is no rebellion. Katniss expounds on this, speaking about her friend Gale: “I’ve listened to him rant about how the tesserae are just another tool to cause misery in our district. A way to plant hatred between the starving workers of the Seam and those who can generally count on supper and thereby ensure we will never trust one another. ‘It’s to the Capitol’s advantage to have us divided among ourselves,’ he might say if there were no ears to hear but mine” (13).
Additionally, the Capitol wields its power all year between the Games, by showering the winning district with gifts of grain, oil, and even delicacies like sugar, while the rest of the districts continue to battle starvation. This furthers the atmosphere of isolation between districts. The imperialistic Capitol also supports the capitalist notion of “survival of the fittest” in the Games. However, similar to themes apparent in today’s society, the tributes from certain districts have a distinct advantage, having been well-fed and trained for combat all their lives.
The less-privileged tributes from poorer districts have had to work all day to provide for themselves and their families, and thus have a severe weakness when pitted against the others. Additionally, within the Games, tributes are reliant upon wealthy “sponsors” who take them on, betting that they’ll win. Sponsors have the ability to send food, medicine, and weapons to aid the endorsed tribute in their fight for survival. Despite any skills that a tribute may have, he or she is still just a pawn in a game of entertainment, controlled by the investment of the rich and kept alive (or not) solely for their amusement.
There is a heavy censorship of culture within The Hunger Games. Freedom of thought and the sovereignty of truth take a back seat to the Capitol’s desperate need to maintain power. The education of the children in District 12 (Katniss’s home district) would be heavily condemned by Marxist critics – most of the courses are related to coal mining, which is the heart of that district’s economy. “Except for the weekly lecture on the history of Panem,” as Katniss reveals, “It’s mostly a lot of blather about what we owe the Capitol. But I know there must be more than they’re telling us, an actual account of what happened during the rebellion” (42).
It’s revealed in the later books that there is indeed another district, unknown to the citizens of Panem, that survived the rebellion and lives underground where it’s plotting to overthrow the Capitol. Additionally, while the Games are televised for “the citizens’ entertainment”, they are highly censored to portray only images that are supportive of the Capitol’s power. Katniss befriends another tribute in the arena that is later killed in the action. As a small act of rebellion, to try to give her friend some dignity in death, Katniss puts the girl’s body in a peaceful position, closes her eyes, and surrounds her with beautiful wildflowers.
Her attempt to make a statement, however, is omitted from that day’s highlight reel that’s broadcast to the nation, “because even that smacks of rebellion” (363). Another method of oppression of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie is the segregation of the districts. Citizens are not allowed outside their own, and as a result there is less risk of an uprising. In the Games, when Katniss talks to her ally from another district, it’s a novel experience for her to hear about life outside of District 12: “It’s interesting, hearing about her life. We have so little communication with anyone outside our district.
In fact, I wonder if the Gamemakers are blocking out our conversation, because even though the information seems harmless, they don’t want people in different districts to know about one another” (203). Another example of the censored media is available here as well, with this conversation being blocked for the sake of keeping the districts in the dark as to the possible similarities between themselves and others. The Games themselves are arguably the best single embodiment of the Capitol’s classist beliefs that “equates one’s value as a human being with the social class to which one belongs” (Tyson 59).
The citizens of the Capitol are favored high above the rest of the districts; it’s as if they live in a different world. Their diets and fashions are excellent examples of the Marxist concept of conspicuous consumption – their strange, extravagant clothing and makeup and their plump, well-fed stature serves no purpose but to show their affluence and lack of need. Katniss wonders about their lives when she sees the Capitol for the first time: “What must it be like, I wonder, to live in a world where food appears at the press of a button?
How would I spend the hours I now commit to combing the woods for sustenance if it were so easy to come by? What do they do all day, these people in the Capitol, besides decorating their bodies and waiting around for a new shipment of tributes to roll in and die for their entertainment? ” (Collins 65). They have no need for the basic things in life, so they fill their days with entertainment. The Games hold a dual purpose – the first is to remind the districts of the Capitol’s ultimate power and the futility of a rebellion, and the second is to provide entertainment to the wealthy elite.
The Games last multiple days, and on one particular day there is little action – “Things have been too quiet today. No deaths, perhaps no fights at all. The audience in the Capitol will be getting bored, claiming that these Games are verging on dullness. This is the one thing the Games must not do” (173). Despite the fact that the tributes are real humans, with families and lives back home, they are seen as mere entertainment. The value of human life is directly equal to the amount of wealth and influence one has.
After the games, Katniss hears the reactions from the citizens of the Capitol as she recuperates, and she is sickened by their view: It’s funny, because even though they’re rattling on about the Games, it’s all about where they were or what they were doing or how they felt when a specific event occurred. “I was still in bed! ” “I had just had my eyebrows dyed! ” “I swear I nearly fainted! ” Everything is about them, not the dying boys and girls in the arena” (353). Ultimately, the Games are a stark reminder to the citizens that they are not autonomous, but are completely controlled by the Capitol.
Peeta, the other tribute from District 12, longs to break out of this repressive ideology, but Katniss shoots him down: “‘Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to…to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games,’ says Peeta. ‘But you’re not,’ I say. ‘None of us are. That’s how the Games work’” (142). They are a cultural production that exist to propagate the prevailing ideologies that support the power structure of the Capitol. The televised Games are, as Tyson says, a “primary bearer of ideology because [they reach] so many people in what seems to be an innocent form: entertainment.
While [they] are being entertained, [their] guard is down, so to speak, and [they] are especially vulnerable to ideological programming” (Tyson 60). A Marxist critic may wonder if The Hunger Games is ideologically conflicted. Similar to the conflicts presented in The Great Gatsby, one could argue that the scathing critique of the Capitol could be slightly undermined by the extravagant, sumptuous descriptions of life there. When the tributes are brought to the Capitol, it is described in what could be a glorifying way: “Peeta and I run to the window to see what we’ve only seen on television, the Capitol, the ruling city of Panem.
The cameras haven’t lied about its grandeur. If anything, they have not quite captured the magnificence of the glistening buildings in a rainbow of hues that tower into the air, the shiny cars that roll down the wide paved streets, the oddly dressed people with bizarre hair and painted faces who have never missed a meal. All the colors seem artificial, the pinks too deep, the greens too bright, the yellows painful to the eyes, like the flat round disks of hard candy we can never afford to buy at the tiny sweet shop in District 12” (Collins 59).
However, Collins does a good job of keeping the majesty of the Capitol consistently framed in a strange, artificial light. While there are luxuries and sights and sounds and opportunities there that are beyond a poor citizen’s wildest dreams, there’s a disdainful tone to it all. The work, therefore, is not ideologically conflicted, but maintains a condemnatory quality throughout the events, characterizations, and descriptions. The Hunger Games, while futuristic, is a scornful Marxist critique on the oppression of few by a wealthy elite.
She engages in the kind of exaggeration typical of dystopias, which are commonly “fictional works that take a negative cultural trend and imagine a future or an alternative world in which that trend dominates every aspect of life” to point out the possibility of the extent to which this oppression may reach, if allowed to continue unchecked (Dunn 9). There is a consistent condemnation of imperialist ideologies throughout the novel, and the final book of the trilogy serves as a rallying call to action as the districts join together and overthrow the oppressive Capitol.
The Hunger Games does indeed have a Marxist agenda and suffices as a call to awareness and condemnation of the oppression of the majority by the wealthy elite. Feminist Critique of The Hunger Games One of the first questions a feminist critic will consider while analyzing a work of literature is the manner in which a novel is gendered – that is, “how [it seems] to define femininity and masculinity” (Tyson 119). This is of particular interest in regards to The Hunger Games, because the work is refreshingly egalitarian in its portrayal of gender roles.
In District 12, both men and women work in the mines. When Katniss takes over her father’s hunting, she is met with no comment or resistance in the trading center of town – the desperate need for food trumps any sexist notions. Additionally, girls and boys are equal participants in the Hunger Games, with no alteration of the game for either gender (as there is today in sports, with women’s basketballs being smaller, etc. ) Throughout the entire trilogy, there are few explicit references to sexuality, but the one “sex symbol” character is not female as would be expected, but male.
And later, in District 13, men and women are especially gender-neutral. Men and women wear the same uniforms, are referred to as “Soldier”, and have the same duties regardless of gender. Finally, the beauty norms of the Capitol are not gendered as they are in today’s society – men and women alike have surgical alterations, flamboyant clothing, and gaudy makeup. Similarly, it’s the most physically attractive tributes (boys or girls) who are rewarded with sponsors. The entire novel seems to portray gender in a way that allows more freedom than our current society on a whole seems to endorse.
The protagonist Katniss is a prime representation of the novel’s feminist agenda. She is a successful female protagonist who is primarily masculine in character. She is able to take on more feminine roles when needed, but ultimately she is made up of traits usually associated with men. First of all, she is the sole provider for her family, spending her days hunting and then negotiating in the black market in town. She is physically and mentally tough, and willing to fight for survival. “Katniss takes risks and acts in ways that are strong and forceful.
She may not be caring in the traditional sense associated with women, but she’s intensely loyal and will lie, steal, fight, and even kill to keep those she loves alive” (Dunn 147). The novel artfully glorifies her as a female who is able to succeed by breaking traditional female gender roles. Considering her personality, she’s not the stereotypical teenage girl, but instead is often hostile and sullen, rarely smiling, and uses few words. Her mentor points out that she’s “got about as much charm as a dead slug” (Collins 117). She’s very straightforward, independent, and rebellious.
She resents her mother for her catatonic response to her father’s death, admitting that “some small gnarled place inside me hated her for her weakness, for her neglect, for the months she had put us through. Prim forgave her, but I had taken a step back from my mother, put up a wall to protect myself from needing her, and nothing was ever the same between us again” (53). The author has revealed that Katniss’s character was shaped after two famous male figures: Theseus, who took the place of another to slay a monster and rescue his people, and Spartacus, who led a rebellion of slaves against the Roman Empire.
Katniss has an appealing androgyny, the type that “suggests a world in which sex-roles are not rigidly defined, a state in which ‘the man in every woman’ and the ‘woman in every man’ could be integrated and freely expressed” (Siegel 1). Here, Collins has aptly constructed a female character that enjoys the freedom of gender roles that many feminists promote and long for. Offering a stark contrast to Katniss is her sister, Primrose (or Prim). She is named after a delicate flower, and is small, thin, and beautiful. Her face is “as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named” (3).
She is dominantly characterized by a deep compassion and empathy, as well as a desire to nurture both animals and humans alike. While she is fragile, afraid of the woods, and not adventurous at all, she “exhibits a type of strength that’s more acceptable for women in our [patriarchal] culture than Katniss’s physical strength” – her ability to heal and tend to the sick (Dunn 150). Her self-sacrificing femininity comes to a climax at the end of the trilogy, where she is killed in the blast from a bomb while tending to wounded children. The novel reveals a feminist agenda by the fact that the characters who are the most feminine do not urvive. Prim is the best example of this.
Another example is a fellow tribute from another district, named Glimmer. Each of the tributes has a certain image they portray, in their attempt to get sponsors. Glimmer goes for the ultra-feminine, sexy approach, and like Prim, she is also killed off. Lastly, the girl who becomes Katniss’s ally in the Games, while much stronger and braver than most traditionally feminine girls, is unmistakably similar to Prim: “Rue is a small yellow flower that grows in the Meadow. Rue. Primrose. Neither of them could tip the scale at seventy pounds soaking wet” (Collins 99).
Rue is petite and relatively naive, and meets the same sad fate as the other feminine characters. Katniss’s freedom to express typically masculine traits is especially glorified in contrast to the other girls who conformed to feminine gender roles. Additionally, the novel offers some insights into the operations of patriarchy in this futuristic society. There are no strong father figures present in any of the main characters’ families. The patriarchal roles are filled by Katniss and Gale, who function as examples that these typically masculine duties can be performed by males and females alike.
It’s portrayed as a noble and selfless cause: “Gale’s two little brothers and a sister. Prim. And you may as well throw in our mothers, too, because how would they live without us? Who would fill those mouths that are always asking for more? With both of us hunting daily, there are still nights when game has to be swapped for lard or shoelaces or wool, still nights when we go to bed with our stomachs growling” (9). They daily break the law to sneak outside their district boundaries to hunt and forage, and they “agree that if [they] have to choose between dying of hunger and a bullet in the head, the bullet would be much quicker” (17).
Both Katniss and Gale have an equally strong self-sacrificial desire to provide for their family at all costs, regardless of their biological sex. Katniss offers a final example of her patriarchal characterization, when she has a fruitless day of hunting: “I couldn’t go home. Because at home was my mother with her dead eyes and my little sister, with her hollow cheeks and cracked lips. I couldn’t walk into that room with the smoky fire from the damp branches I had scavenged at the edge of the woods after the coal had run out, my hands empty of any hope” (28).
Her demeanor is much like an unemployed father or husband, downcast and ashamed at her inability to provide. The novel’s ideological conflict is well worth exploring as well. Katniss is celebrated and glorified as a female with typically masculine traits. However, one might argue that the novel unknowingly contradicts its feminist agenda by the notion that Katniss was only able to succeed because she acted more like a man than a woman. It’s a plausible conclusion, then, to say that the novel indirectly states that women must behave like men to succeed. However, this is obliterated by the characterization of Peeta Mellark.
While Katniss is stereotypically masculine, he is more stereotypically feminine, again showcasing the author’s portrayal of freedom in gender roles. He is selected via lottery as a tribute; he doesn’t volunteer as Katniss did. Where she is strong, he appears to be weak. As they are introduced as tributes, riding in on chariots, they’re forced to hold hands initially. Eventually, Katniss goes to let go, but he holds on “‘No, don’t let go of me,’ he says. The firelight flickers off his blue eyes. ‘Please. I might fall out of this thing’” (71). She is the stabilizing force between the two of them.
Later, within the Games, Peeta is mortally wounded and is slowly bleeding out. She finds him and nurses him back to a stable condition, and then goes out to find food. When she returns, he acts much like a typical housewife: “‘You just let me take care of you for a while. ” I [Katniss] don’t really seem to have much choice. Peeta feeds me bites of groosling and raisins and makes me drink plenty of water. He rubs some warmth back into my feet and wraps them in his jacket before tucking the sleeping bag back up around my chin” (291). Where Katniss is focused, goal-oriented, and straightforward, Peeta is more emotional and relational.
She realizes that she gets sympathy (and then gifts of food) when she plays up the romantic aspect, so she puts on a good show. However, by the end of the Games, he believes he’s fallen in love with her, and she begrudgingly informs him that it was all a show. The entire situation is very typical of any soap opera romance, but the gender roles are switched entirely. Again, the author seems to take liberty to illustrate the freedom that could be allowed if society would embrace it. Finally, Peeta is contrasted with Gale, who represents a more typical masculine figure.
He is strong-willed and independent, able to survive with or without Katniss (though it’s easier when they share the burden). Katniss compares the two in her mind: “It’s not that Peeta’s soft exactly, and he’s proved he’s not a coward. But there are things you don’t question too much, I guess, when your home always smells like baking bread, whereas Gale questions everything. What would Peeta think of the irreverent banter that passes between us as we break the law each day? Would it shock him? The things we say about Panem? Gale’s tirades against the Capitol? ” (296).
Much like the sexist idea of men saving certain conversations for men because the women are too fragile to handle it, Katniss doubts that Peeta could converse so boldly about heavy and illegal topics. It’s something she saves for her masculine companion, one who is hardened to the facts of life. The ultimately feminist agenda of The Hunger Games is highlighted most in its support of the idea of more freedom in gender roles for men and women. While there are characters who are traditionally male and female in their personality and actions, two of the main characters are strikingly opposite, and are ultimately successful because of it.
The roles of patriarchy are undermined by the fact that they are able to be fulfilled by a man or a woman equally. And at the end of the trilogy, Peeta and Katniss go on to enjoy a lifelong relationship, complete in the duality of masculine and feminine presence but not in the typical model of gender roles. Overall, Suzanne Collins’ novel lends itself highly to Marxist and feminist criticism. It readily criticizes imperialistic ideologies and the oppression of the poor by the wealthy elite. The masses eventually join forces and rise up against the tyranny, resulting in victorious peace after its downfall.
Gender roles are portrayed on a “take them or leave them” basis, portraying successes outside of the confines of the stereotypical expectations of males and females. What some might see as a gripping story of a fantasy future society is revealed to others as a wealth of ideas that undermine some common classist and sexist ideologies prevalent in society today. The study of literature and the various forms of literary criticism are highly useful to help the educated reader see history through many lenses, which will ultimately create a more well-rounded understanding of the human experience.

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