The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games Summary and Analysis of Chapter 1


The narrator and protagonist of The Hunger Games, a 16 year old girl named Katniss Everdeen, wakes up to find her little sister Prim has left the bed they share and curled up next to their mother. Katniss understands – it is the "day of the reaping," the first stage of the horrific Hunger Games that she will explain to the reader over the first few chapters.

Instead of waking her family, Katniss heads out to hunt, introducing her reader to her surroundings as she does. Katniss lives in a dystopic society built on the ruins of what was once North America, now named Panem. Panem is currently separated into 12 districts, each of which serves a specific purpose for the society, and is ruled from the distant sparkling Capitol. The Capitol heads a totalitarian government that controls its population primarily through the yearly ritual of the Hunger Games. Though the full details of the society are not revealed until later in the chapter, it's useful to understand them. After North America was destroyed through myriad disasters, Panem was founded by the Capitol. Seventy-five years earlier, the Capitol's control was contested by the districts, which rebelled. In what is now termed the "Dark Days," the twelve districts were defeated and a thirteenth district was obliterated as warning against further rebellion.

The Capitol has an even more devious structure to keep its citizens in line, though: the Hunger Games. Every year, each district must supply, through a lottery process, two "tributes" (both aged 12 to 18, one male, one female), who are forced to fight to the death in a large outdoor arena until one victor remains. The expectation is that the Hunger Games be treated as a spectacle, a great source of entertainment that all citizens are obliged to follow as audience. The Games illustrate how thoroughly Panem citizens are at the mercy of the Capitol, since it keeps them subdued by making them complicit in the atrocities as audience.

Since the rebellion, society has significantly stratified, particularly in terms of economic and social caste. Not only is the coal-mining District 12 on the lowest rung of social standing, but Katniss lives alongside her mother and sister in the poorest area of District 12, nicknamed "The Seam." On the edge of the Seam lies a large field called the Meadow, past which stands a fence that separates the population from the unsettled woods. The woods are dangerous due to wild animals, and illegal to explore or hunt in. Stealing and hunting are both punishable by death, if the perpetrator is caught by the Peacekeepers, or federal police.

But that's no concern for Katniss, who supports her family through hunting game and gathering roots in the woods. She learned these trades from her father, a man she loved dearly but who was killed in a mine explosion five years before the novel starts. When the shock of the tragedy left her mother near-catatonic and useless, Katniss had no choice but to turn to this illegal trade to support her family, which she does not only through gathering food but also by trading her wares for other commodities in the Hob, an old warehouse that now serves as the district's black market. Her mother has recovered and continues to work as a healer, but Katniss has not quite forgiven her for having almost let her own daughters starve to death. Her mother's family had held some social standing as healers, but that was lost when her mother married her father, a common miner.

Katniss slides under the fence and heads out into the woods, fetching her hidden bow and arrow along the way. The weapon was crafted by her father and she has made herself a master at its use. She has become a consummate hunter with a trained stoicism. Where she once was happily critical of her society, she has learned not only to stay safely quiet but also to "turn [her] features into an indifferent mask." The only real joys she has are in protecting Prim and in hunting with her best friend, Gale.

On her excursion, she meets Gale, a boy about her age and her frequent hunting partner. He gifts her some fresh bread and they joke together. Her affection for him is unmistakable, though she insists there is nothing romantic between them. Enjoying their last moments before they must both report to the town square to find out who will be chosen as this year's tributes, Gale suggests they run away together. For Katniss, the idea is impossible since she must take care of Prim and, less obligingly, her own mother. Gale and Katniss fish together and gather some greens, which they then bring to the Hob. They trade there with Greasy Sae and others for some bread, salt, and paraffin.

There are some goods that they trade to particular customers, mainly in the merchant class of District 12. One of these is Mayor Undersee, who enjoys their strawberries. When they stop by his house to sell them, they are greeted by his daughter Madge. Though she is a nice girl, her privileges – exemplified in this moment by a small gold pendant she wears, which is very valuable – rub Gale the wrong way and he speaks rudely to her about her chances of being chosen as a tribute.

Katniss explains Gale's resentment. Each child, age 12 to 18, is required to enter his or her name for the district's lottery, with the older children putting their names in proportionally more times. However, Panem uses a system wherein children can enter their names extra times in exchange for tesserae, vouchers for a year's worth of meager grain and oil. Obviously, this system discriminates against poorer citizens who need the extra resources and hence make themselves more likely tributes. Both Katniss and Gale have had to enter their names multiple times from the time they were 12, whereas someone like Madge has always been able to enter the minimal number of times. Katniss reflects that this unfairness is not accidental, but yet another way that the Capitol encourages distrust amongst its citizens so as to limit the chances of unity within the districts.

Gale and Katniss separate the rest of their goods, and then Katniss heads home to prepare for the reaping. This is Prim's first reaping, and Katniss has refused to allow her to take out any tessarae, though Katniss's name is entered twenty times at this point. Still, as they prepare a stew and dress pretty for the reaping, Katniss is worried about her powerlessness. They drink some milk from Prim's pet goat, Lady, and then head to the square, where attendance is mandatory for all citizens.

Camera crews are perched everywhere, the first indication of the ubiquity of the televised spectacle of the Hunger Games. On a stage, Mayor Undersee and Effie Trinket, the Capitol representative for the district, begin the festivities. The Mayor tells the history of Panem and the Hunger Games, reads the Treaty of Treason (which ended the war), and then reads the list of past District 12 victors. In the 73 years of the Games, only two have won – and the only current survivor, Haymitch Abernathy, arrives on the stage as his name is read. He is a drunk, and is drunk enough now to stumble into the chairs. It's an embarrassing moment, especially because all of this is being recorded and televised throughout Panem.

Katniss is extremely nervous through the commotion, and seeks solace by looking across the square at Gale before hearing the worst possible news: when Effie Trinket reads the name of the female tribute, it is that of her sister, Primrose Everdeen.


Though it's easy to classify The Hunger Games as an adventure story, its implications are far deeper. Clear from the very beginning of the novel is the biting criticism of our society and economic divisions. But equally important is the complexity of the narrator's characterization, which will develop to sustain growth and increasing conflict over the course of the novel and two sequels as well.

Katniss's character conflicts are the most immediate, since she is the story's narrator. She narrates in the present tense, an effective choice since that leaves the reader uncertain whether she will survive the Games intact. Were the story narrated in past tense, it would indicate to us that she must have survived since she is telling the tale. The narration is also effective in providing dramatic irony throughout the novel, as we can infer much about Katniss both from what she chooses to tell us and how she chooses to tell it.

Katniss is an example of a stoic hero – she is well aware of the unfairness of the world around her, having had to grow up so quickly to provide for her mother and Prim. However, she has quashed both her emotional responses to her totalitarian society as well as her childish identity so that she can maintain the hardness necessary to be an effective hunter and provider. A contemporary definition of a stoic is one who does not show his or her emotions, but the tradition of stoicism, going back to the Greeks, is much deeper. In the classical philosophies, a stoic is one who steels himself to lose everything in order to find true freedom. Katniss will, through the novel, come to accept this philosophy while simultaneously realizing that she does have a deeply empathetic emotional side.

But in Chapter One, she has chosen to adopt an "indifferent mask" so as to avoid becoming the woman her mother became after her husband's death – an emotionally overcome person who was incapable of providing for her family. In fact, it seems that she has eschewed passion and tenderness ever since her father's demise. Katniss forces herself not to consider any romantic feelings for Gale, though the reader sees right away that this is somewhat disingenuous. She also has no playfulness in her life. As strong as she is, we should never forget that she is 16 years old. Instead of allowing herself the joys of childhood, she has transferred all hopes for childish innocence to her sister Prim, who serves as a personification of innocence for her. She not only refuses to allow Prim to hunt, but is also convinced she will spare her sister whatever hardships are possible. So while Prim gets to stay an innocent, Katniss has become an adult, trading in the Hob, acting as provider, and throwing away childish things. All of these elements are set up in Chapter 1 to be challenged throughout her adventure.

Katniss is the reader's way into the story, but the story has implications far greater than she could ever know. The Hunger Games can easily be viewed through a Marxist lens, since at its core is a vicious criticism of how class divisions are maintained not merely through the threat of punishment, but also through spectacle, used to divert the masses from confronting the true injustice in their world.

The social class divisions are extreme in Panem. Not only is the divide between the wealthy (who we don't see up close until the Capitol in Chapter 4) and the poor enormous, but it is openly acknowledged by the use of Districts. Gone is the "rugged individualism" that historically is associated with North America, where a citizen could work hard and do whatever he or she wants through intelligence, skill, and force of will. Instead, the Capitol has created a system where each district is forced to commit to one industry. It is not accident that the social mobility we associate with the United States has been traded for what resembles a medieval guild system, where children have no choice but to enter the occupation of their parents. What's more, the workers of each district are unable to reap the benefits of their work. This is apparent because District 12, which provides coal, an energy source, is nevertheless deprived of continual electricity. Materials are produced by a working class, but are then appropriated by a higher authority. Thus, there is no possibility that District 12 will ever grow more prosperous, even though it bears the acknowledged low spot on the social ladder.

Even within District 12, the class divisions are apparent – Katniss is the poorest of the poor, living in "the Seam." Some resentments surface through the chapter, especially when she and Gale confront the Mayor's daughter. And finally, the most severe indicator of class divisions in Panem is the use of tesserae, the system of trading extra entries in the lottery for food supplies. This system is a blatant "poor tax," ensuring that the poor can never crawl from their poverty and in fact punishing them for it. It calls to mind Harlem Renaissance writer James Baldwin's famous saying: "Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor."

The severity of the injustice raises the question why the society does not revolt, especially since they are a population capable of revolution. They rebelled once and lost, but things seem to have only gotten worse. It is from this question that the novel's most extreme social statement becomes apparent, a statement that indicts not only the brutal Capitol for Panem's injustice, but in fact all of society itself. It is a great irony that Panem civilization is maintained through the use of such an uncivilized practice as the Hunger Games. Yet the Capitol is so proficient at shrouding the Games in ritual and tradition – see the ceremony of the reaping for myriad examples – that this brutality becomes the linking social force. The population, forced to watch these games, nevertheless revels in them to the point that they no longer question the brutality. Katniss, our hero, who otherwise is full of such deep love for her family and friend Gale, never seems to question the Games in this Chapter. The criticism in here derives from the theory of the "spectacle," the idea that the masses of our society are distracted by ubiquitous entertainment so that we do not realize the truly terrible injustices being perpetrated. In other words, though the poor in our world are a powerful force in numbers, they are kept from rebelling through a world built on commodities, on vacuous television entertainment, and on traditions that they do not question. This is very much the case in the Hunger Games, where the games have the air of an extremely popular reality television show. Collins suggests that we allow ourselves to be distracted by vacuous, uncivilized entertainments that only suggest the lower qualities of humanity, while the world is growing more unjust by the day, the wealth gap increases, atrocities are committed in the name of justice, and lies are spoon-fed to the population through these very entertainments. Our very fascination with the details of the Games - which Collins will voyeuristically describes for us through the remainder of the novels - is a reflection of our own willingness to allow ourselves to be enraptured by such spectacle.

Finally, it is worth considering the influence of Greek and Roman history and literature on the novel, all of which is set up in the first chapter.

The first is the connection between the Hunger Games and Roman gladiator fights. Though gladiator fights are often portrayed as heroic in our popular entertainments, the truth is they were horrific and violent events, where lower rungs of society were put in a ring to battle to the death while thousands of people watched complacently, unaware of the ironic separation between the great civilization of Rome and the uncivilized brutality they were sponsoring. The games in Rome grew progressively more frequent and violent with growing unemployment as the Roman empire expanded, bringing more slaves in for labor and hence taking jobs from citizens. In order to keep its ever-growing lower classes from revolt, Roman emperors sold the games as a great Roman tradition, in effect orchestrating a "spectacle" to keep people in line. Another Roman connection is in the tradition of the Stoic. Roman tragedian Seneca is connected with the school of stoicism, particularly the idea that by being willing to give up everything, one can find freedom and greatness. This concept, very much tied to Katniss, is a final connection to Rome. The end of the first chapter, when Katniss effectively gives her own life for Prim's, is the first step towards this form of stoic heroism. A character named Seneca also provides an important realization of her stoicism at the end of the novel.

Names are also carefully chosen for significance. The generic name for katniss the plant, for which Katniss Everdeen was named, is Sagittaria, from "sagitta," the Latin word for "arrow." Sagittarius is a Zodiac sign which is associated both with archery and with fire. In later chapters, fire will become Katniss's symbol in the Games. Panem is the name of the country in which the story takes place, and while the name evokes a corruption of Pan-American, "panem" is also the Latin for bread. This is a reference to the expression "panem et circenses," or "bread and circuses." In the waning days of the Roman empire, the increasingly stratified population was manipulated into submission through the provision of cheap food and distracting spectacle - much like the citizens of Panem. Finally, the "tesserae" of ancient Roman times was a token exchanged for grain, and was also used as a theater ticket and as dice.