The Hunger Games (Series) | Study Guide

Suzanne Collins

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The Hunger Games (Series) | The Hunger Games | Summary


About the Title

The title The Hunger Games refers to a horrific competition begun by the Capitol of Panem, a dystopian nation in the distant future, as punishment for a rebellion staged by its 13 districts decades before, in a period called the Dark Days. Every year, each district is forced to select two contestants, or "tributes," to join the others in a televised battle to the death. The title is particularly chilling because it combines the awful image of starvation with the word "games," which suggests an innocent, enjoyable pastime.


Part I: The Tributes (Chapters 1–9)

After a series of natural disasters and a great war for the resources that remained, the nation of Panem "rose up out of the ashes" of what was once North America. Panem is made up of a wealthy Capitol bordered on one side by mountains and surrounded by 12 districts. The districts supply all of the food, goods, and natural resources for the country as a whole, and for the Capitol in particular.

As punishment for a rebellion by the districts decades before in which a 13th district was obliterated, and as a reminder of the absolute power wielded by the government, the Capitol has established a yearly competition, called the Hunger Games. In this competition, young "tributes" from each of the 12 districts are selected through a lottery called "the reaping." The tributes, all between the ages of 12 and 18, are then brought together in a massive arena for a fight to the death that is televised to all of Panem. The sole survivor is allowed to live the rest of his or her life in luxury, and their district is given extra rations for a year.

The story begins in District 12 on the day of the reaping for the 74th Hunger Games. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen worries about what will happen if she is chosen. Since her father's death in a mining accident years ago, Katniss has been the sole provider for her 12-year-old sister, Primrose Everdeen, and her emotionally fragile mother. Along with her friend Gale Hawthorne, Katniss secretly hunts outside the borders of the district, and trades her game for necessary resources on the black market, called the Hob. But to Katniss's shock, the name selected at the reaping from the thousands of slips in the bowl is that of her sister, Prim.

Katniss immediately volunteers to take the girl's place. Peeta Mellark, a 16-year-old boy who once saved Katniss from starvation by giving her bread, is chosen as the male tribute. The tributes are allowed to say a quick goodbye to their families and friends. Madge Undersee, the mayor's daughter, gives Katniss a gold pin in the shape of a mockingjay, a hybrid bird that resulted from mating a mockingbird with a genetically engineered jabberjay. Katniss and Peeta leave for the Capitol, with Katniss reflecting that only one person can win the Hunger Games, and that either she or Peeta may have to kill the other.

Katniss and Peeta are escorted to the Capitol by their flamboyant chaperone, Effie Trinket, who provides their schedule and gets them from place to place. They are also accompanied by their drunken, middle-aged mentor, Haymitch Abernathy, who, as the only living victor from District 12, is required to be their guide and mentor through the Games. Haymitch is also responsible for getting them sponsors, patrons who could provide them with additional supplies and advantages as they compete. Katniss and Peeta quickly confront Haymitch about his drinking, and Haymitch promises to sober up enough to help them if they promise to do everything he tells them. His first directive is for them to allow the stylists, who create a TV-friendly image of the tributes, to do whatever they want without complaint.

Their main stylist is Cinna, a surprisingly unassuming man who tells them this is his first year at the Games, and that he had asked to be assigned to District 12. To symbolize the coal-mining origins of District 12, Cinna creates breathtaking costumes that appear to be on fire. After the prep teams complete their makeovers, the tributes appear in a parade to present them to viewers and potential sponsors. The flaming costumes worn by Katniss and Peeta drive the crowd wild, and Katniss is remembered from that point forward as "the girl who was on fire." Audiences are thrilled that Katniss and Peeta hold hands throughout the parade, as if they are a team rather than competitors—a suggestion made by Cinna.

Haymitch directs the pair to continue to present themselves as partners during the three days of training sessions leading up to the Games, where competitors are evaluated and scored. The scoring is used to help the Gamemakers make their plans, and to provide "odds" for viewers and sponsors to consider. During the final test of the training sessions, Katniss—an expert archer thanks to years of hunting—shoots an arrow at the distracted Gamemakers to get their attention and to show they do not intimidate her. As a result, she earns herself the highest ranking going into the Games.

The next day, Peeta decides he wants them to be coached separately for the televised interview of the tributes. Katniss initially feels betrayed and upset. She knows that every word and action can be a strategy for survival, and assumes that Peeta is strategizing against her. She concludes, however, that prepping separately is the best option and might give her an advantage. Only later does she find out that Peeta is actually working with Haymitch to figure out how to best protect Katniss.

Katniss does not respond well to the media prep, and Haymitch finally gives up on her in frustration. Cinna helps Katniss by asking her to answer the questions as if she were talking to him. During the interview with Caesar Flickerman, the exuberant host of the show, Katniss twirls in a dress that looks like flames, answers sincerely, and does what she can to win sponsors. However, she purposely gives no indication of the skills that led to the high rating from the Gamemakers. During Peeta's interview, he charms the audience with humorous banter. When Caesar asks him about love interests, Peeta admits he has had a crush on a special girl forever, but that it is not going to work out because she came to the games with him.

Part II: The Games (Chapters 10–18)

Katniss Everdeen is stunned by Peeta Mellark's announcement, not knowing if what Peeta said is real or a ploy. The crowd is also distraught by the realization that only one of the two can survive. As soon as the tributes return to the training center, Katniss attacks Peeta because she fears his declaration was meant to make her look weak. Haymitch Abernathy quickly informs her that Peeta has helped her more than she ever could have helped herself by making her appear desirable to sponsors.

That night, their last before the Games begin, Katniss and Peeta meet on the roof to share their final quiet moments. Peeta admits he does not think he has a chance at winning. His only goal is to die with his honor and integrity intact, and not to let the Capitol change him into a monster in the arena. He says it would be his way of saying that he is "more than just a piece in their Games." Katniss struggles to understand this mindset and doubts Peeta's ability to maintain it when faced with the choice between life and death.

The next day, the tributes are taken underground, below the arena, and then are sent up to the surface in individual elevators. The first thing they see is the Cornucopia, a giant golden horn-shaped cone that provides food, weapons, and resources at the beginning of the Games. Haymitch has warned them to resist running to it, because it always results in a bloodbath as the desperate contestants try to score their first kills. As she waits for the starting signal, Katniss spots a bow in the pile. Peeta tries to warn her not to attempt to retrieve it, but she cannot resist. She does not get far, but grabs what she can—a backpack and a serrated knife she takes from a boy who attacks her—and then races for the woods. Behind her, 11 tributes die at the Cornucopia, each death marked by the boom of a cannon. That evening, the faces of the dead are projected into the night sky.

Katniss spends the day hunting for water and food. That night, as she sleeps in a tree, she overhears voices and realizes they belong to a group of "Career Tributes," often referred to as simply "Careers." These are contestants from wealthier districts who train all their lives to participate in the Games, and who consider it an honor to volunteer. They work together in a pack until the time when they will be forced to turn on each other. To her shock, a familiar voice joins the conversation: Peeta's. This revelation convinces Katniss that Peeta, through every kind word or thoughtful action he has shown her, has simply been manipulating her in order to gain an advantage.

Over the next few days, Katniss moves farther from the Cornucopia, catching game to eat and searching for water. Just as her thirst threatens to overwhelm her, she discovers a small pond. She drinks and climbs a tree to sleep, but is woken in the middle of the night by an approaching fire. It is so massive that she is sure the Gamemakers started it to create some excitement for their viewers, and to force the tributes into a smaller area where they will have to confront each other. She runs but is badly burned, and eventually decides she must once again climb a tree to rest. The Careers—with Peeta—appear once more and spot her. When they cannot reach her, they set up camp at the base of the tree for the night, planning to wait her out.

Katniss then spots someone else hiding in a nearby tree. It is 12-year old Rue, a girl from District 12 whom Katniss had noticed earlier. Rue points to a nest of "tracker jackers," mutant wasps whose painful stings cause nightmarish hallucinations. The next morning, Katniss is able to release the nest so that it falls onto the sleeping Careers. Two are immediately stung to death; the others run toward the lake to ease the pain. Katniss begins to run away herself but then returns to grab an abandoned bow and quiver of arrows. One of the Careers, Cato, springs out of the forest to attack her. Before he can reach her, though, Peeta appears and confronts Cato, allowing Katniss to escape.

Suffering from tracker jacker stings, Katniss begins to hallucinate and blacks out. When she awakens a day or two later, she discovers that Rue has been following her. They agree to form an alliance, and Rue tends to Katniss's injuries. Katniss finds she wants to protect the girl, not just out of gratitude but also because she reminds Katniss so much of her sister, Prim. They devise a plan to destroy the Careers' stash of food and supplies back at the lake, because they know the wealthier Careers have never learned to forage on their own, and this will put them at a disadvantage. Their plan succeeds, but not before Rue is caught and stabbed by a boy from District 1, just before Katniss can reach her. Katniss kills the boy—her first deliberate murder.

Rue grabs Katniss's hand and tells her she has to win for both of them. Heartbroken, Katniss holds Rue and sings to her until she dies. Her anger at the Capitol grows into a fury. In a subtle act of defiance, she decides to show them that Rue was more than a pawn in their games. Before a hovercraft can appear to remove Rue's body, Katniss covers the girl in wildflowers, openly grieving for her. Then, knowing the cameras are watching, she offers the silent District 12 salute to honor their friendship. Rue's District 11 responds to the humanity Katniss has shown by sending her bread, an action unheard of in the Games.

That night, the Gamemakers announce there has been a change in the rules: two tributes from the same district can both be declared victors if they are the last ones left alive. Katniss immediately shouts Peeta's name.

Part III: The Victor (Chapters 19–27)

With the rule change, Katniss Everdeen knows she must find Peeta Mellark because they are expected to be allies. She realizes that for the Gamemakers to make such a change, Peeta must have been maintaining the star-crossed-lovers ruse, and that his actions in the arena were indeed meant to help her. She finds him camouflaged in mud, grievously injured. She tends to him, but his leg is clearly infected and he will need stronger medicine. They spend several peaceful days in a cave, telling stories, getting to know each other, and behaving like a couple in love.

Unfortunately, Peeta's infection is getting worse. They hear an announcement from the Gamemakers, who invite the tributes to a feast at the Cornucopia where each remaining tribute will receive something he or she desperately needs. Katniss decides to go, assuming she will find medicine for Peeta's leg. Peeta protests, but she knocks him out with a sleeping syrup, sent by Haymitch Abernathy as a signal that Katniss should follow her instincts. At the Cornucopia, a Career named Clove attacks Katniss. Thresh, a boy from Rue's District 11, intervenes and saves Katniss out of gratitude for her kindness to Rue. However, he tells her this evens the score—he will have to go after her himself the next time they meet.

Katniss retrieves the medicine and returns to treat Peeta. She passes out from her injuries, but when she awakes, Peeta is better and taking care of her. They spend several more days trapped in the cave by endless rain. During this time, Katniss begins to realize their feelings may be more than playacting, and because she is keenly aware they are being watched, she attempts to admit her feelings openly.

Once the rain ends, Katniss and Peeta leave the cave to hunt, with Peeta struggling on his injured leg. When a cannon blast signals Thresh's death, they realize that they, Cato, and a girl named Foxface are the only tributes left in the game. Peeta accidentally kills Foxface when she steals and eats deadly nightlock berries Peeta had mistakenly gathered. Katniss decides to save the rest of the poison berries for possible use as a weapon later.

Wanting to bring the Games to a conclusion, the Gamemakers drain all the water sources, driving the three remaining tributes to the lake by the Cornucopia. Once Peeta and Katniss reach the huge golden horn, they see Cato sprinting toward them, chased by "muttations," mutant creatures developed by the Gamemakers that have the eyes of the fallen tributes. All three tributes scramble to the top of the Cornucopia, trying to avoid being pushed down to the ravenous muttations. In this final battle, Peeta's wound is ripped open again, but it is Cato who falls. The monsters torture and mutilate him for hours—probably as gruesome entertainment for viewers—until Katniss is able to use her final arrow to put him out of his agony.

As the last two tributes, Katniss and Peeta expect to be named victors, but the Gamemakers announce the previous rule change has been revoked and there can only be one victor after all. Peeta offers to give up his own life so that Katniss can live, but in a final act of defiance, Katniss pulls out the poison berries, which she announces they will both swallow on the count of three. Knowing the death of both lovers would not be popular with the crowd, the Gamemakers reverse the rule once again and declare Katniss and Peeta both victors of the 74th Hunger Games.

Upon returning to the Capitol, Katniss is startled when she looks in the mirror and sees a girl who looks "Rabid. Feral. Mad." After several days of treatment, she finds her wounds miraculously healed, and her skin unblemished. Cinna, now a trusted friend, has also created a new look for her—that of an innocent young girl. Katniss initially questions his choices, but then realizes that "nothing Cinna designs is arbitrary," and that the Games are not quite finished. Katniss finds out from Haymitch that the government is furious with her actions because the "Hunger Games are their weapon, and you are not supposed to ... defeat it." Haymitch tells Katniss that she, Peeta, and their families are in danger, and their only hope of survival is to convince the Capitol that she acted out of an overwhelming love for Peeta, rather than from a desire to rebel.

As Katniss continues to play the role of lovesick girl during the post-Games interviews to protect herself and the people she loves, her emotions becoming very real when she sees that Peeta now has a prosthetic leg. On the train home, however, Peeta realizes that Katniss has been playing up the romance as a strategy under Haymitch's guidance—at least in part. He is angry and hurt, while Katniss is unable to articulate what she really feels because she doesn't understand it yet herself. She knows only that she does not want to let go of him.


The World of Panem

In Part 1 of The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins introduces the nation of Panem. The general location of the country is provided during the mayor's statement at the reaping, when he retells the history of Panem and describes it as a country "that rose up out of the ashes of a place ... once called North America." He lists the natural disasters that led to the collapse of the country, and mentions the war that resulted for "what little sustenance remained." He then celebrates how the nation rebuilt itself, saying, "The result was Panem, a shining Capitol ringed by thirteen districts."

The "shining Capitol," however, is actually the center of an authoritarian regime that rules the country through oppression and fear. Its wealthy citizens live lives of complete indulgence, focusing on fashion, plastic surgery, and entertainment. They are oblivious to the living conditions in the districts that supply them with food and resources. The districts themselves have no power or influence and are entirely at the mercy of the government and its laws. They don't even have a real identity, but are known only by their numbers and for the resources they provide. The Capitol takes the lion's share of the products that are produced, rationing out minimal supplies for the people in each district, and enforcing their laws with brutality.

The Psychology of Katniss Everdeen

Katniss Everdeen was forced into adulthood at a young age. When she was only 11, she took on the role of provider for her family when her father was killed in a mining explosion, and her mother withdrew into a deep depression. Katniss quickly learned to supplement the meager rations allocated to her family by hunting in the woods beyond the district fence and bartering on the black market. She became a skilled survivor and expert archer, wary of anyone and anything that could do her harm. She learned to be brave and fierce, the strong one who would do what others feared.

Now 16, Katniss is still motivated by an overwhelming drive to protect those she loves. However, she resents her mother's failure to prioritize her daughters' needs over her own pain and grief. Perhaps in response to this feeling of abandonment, Katniss shuts herself off emotionally and masks her feelings from others. She drops her defenses only for her sister, Primrose Everdeen, and her friend Gale. As a result, she has few friends, and does not know whom she can trust. She is surprised when a girl from her class gives her a gift to carry into the Games, and realizes wistfully that perhaps they had been friends all along.

The dangerous atmosphere created by the government, and the televised treachery of the Games, have also compromised Katniss's ability to trust. To depend on others, to owe others, to need others is to be at risk in Katniss's mind. She understands their actions only in light of her own motivation to survive, and her own life strategy of constantly trying to outwit those she perceives to be her enemies.

Peeta Mellark, the Boy with the Bread

Peeta Mellark is something of a puzzle throughout this first book in the trilogy, because readers view him only through the eyes of Katniss, and are therefore influenced by her own inability to understand him. Katniss first sees Peeta as one of the wealthier people in her district; therefore, softer than people like herself or Gale. And during the Games, Katniss's inability to trust makes all of Peeta's actions suspect. But Suzanne Collins provides hints about Peeta's background that seem to imply that he is a truly good person with more depth and resilience than Katniss gives him credit for.

Katniss remembers a time when Peeta, the son of a baker, purposely burned some bread to give to Katniss. She's not sure why he did it, but readers see the act as both kind and selfless, especially because Peeta knew he would likely be beaten for what he did. That selflessness, as well as his love for Katniss, continues to reveal itself throughout the Games as he puts himself at risk for her, eventually even offering his life for hers when the Gamemakers declare there can be only one winner.

Peeta also proves himself to be stronger than Katniss realized. He survives most of the Games without her, strategically aligning himself with the Careers early in the games for protection, and then turning on them when the time is right. He successfully fights off other tributes, especially when they threaten Katniss, and even has the wits to camouflage himself and hide when he is injured.

But there is even more to Peeta than these traits, something not motivated by his feelings for Katniss or his will to survive. The night before the Games, when the two of them are sitting on the roof, Peeta becomes quiet but eventually shares his thoughts, telling Katniss he doesn't want the Capitol to change him in the arena and turn him into some kind of monster that he isn't. He wants to show them he is "more than just a piece in their Games."

In his soul, the gentle baker's boy is a true rebel, crying out at the injustice of Panem, and determined not to allow the government to destroy who and what he truly is.

The Odds

Effie Trinket, the effusive chaperone of the District 12 tributes, is fond of chirping, "Happy Hunger Games! And may the odds be ever in your favor!" Meant as a way to wish tributes good luck, the phrase is a perfect example of verbal irony. In the Hunger Games, the odds are almost never in the tributes' favor.

Within the districts, the odds favor the wealthier regions, Districts 1, 2, and 4. These districts foster an atmosphere in which competing in the Games is an honor, and potential tributes train their entire lives in a special academy. In the academies, these Careers Tributes are fed well, made strong, taught the use of weaponry, and brainwashed so their only desire is to kill opponents and bring honor to their districts. They actually volunteer for the Games and work in packs, which again puts the tributes from poorer districts at a disadvantage. In fact, most of the Games have been won by Careers.

But the odds are not only a matter of wealth. Because there can be only one victor, each tribute has only a 1-in-24 chance of winning. Worse, the chances for survival are affected by things that have little to do with skill. The gifts of sponsors can make a difference, and it has been shown that physically attractive tributes accumulate more sponsors than others. Plus, the Gamemakers can change the playing field on a whim to create better entertainment, or to show preference for audience favorites. For example, fires are lit to drive contestants toward one another, ponds are drained to eliminate drinking water, and the release of muttations adds a gory, gruesome element to the battle.

Finally, and most crucially—the rules can change without warning. This becomes most apparent when the Gamemakers first allow Peeta and Katniss to both emerge victorious—a nod to the lovers' story that has been popular with the audience. But to leave no doubt about its power, the government then reverts to the old rule, where only one can survive—an ending they think will still satisfy the audience by showing the heartbreaking sacrifice one lover will make for the other. But Katniss has the final victory, switching the odds to favor Peeta and her when she comes up with the idea of a double-suicide pact. This time it is she who changes the rules, and the government is forced to capitulate or risk alienating the watching population. This is not the end, however. The larger game is still in play, and the rules can change again.

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