Today we turn again to The Hunger Games with a look at Katniss, the girl who was on fire. Katniss is in many ways a very strong female character. She’s healthy, shrewd, devoted to her sister, a skilled woodswoman and huntress. She can take care of herself; indeed, taking care of herself, her sister and her mother is almost all she’s ever known. She’s proud, careful, and responsible. But while she knows a great deal about survival in District 12…
She’s really bad at abstract thought.
In re-reading the novel there were a lot of moments where I just thought, “Come on, Katniss.” What seems obvious to a cognitive, empathetic reader is inevitably confusing for Katniss. The fact is that because Katniss has been so focused on the gritty details of survival, she’s very, very out of practice when it comes to talking about ideas, emotions, and other abstract concepts. This does not make me like her any less as a character. In fact, I think it provides for excellent character development as over the course of the series, Katniss is thrown into situations rank with layers beyond how do I maintain food and shelter. Part of the appeal for me is seeing her begin, through trial and error, to recognize these situations and learn to handle them.
One of the things Katniss has a hard time with is politics. Before the reaping, Katniss and Gale talk briefly about leaving, escaping from District 12 and Panem (pgs 9-10). Katniss finds the idea “preposterous.” This is mostly because of their “kids,” their dependent siblings and mothers. But then, the obvious question iswhy not take them with us? This presents different logistic issues, but it’s interesting to note that this possibility doesn’t even occur to Katniss. There’s not even an, “If only Prim wasn’t so scared of the woods, she could come with me.” Leaving is so not an option that Katniss doesn’t even see the point in talking about it. In fact, Katniss seems not to understand any ideological discussion of their circumstances. Gale frequently takes advantage of their hunting trips to rant about the unfairness of their lives and the cruelty of the Capitol, but to Katniss:
“His rages seem pointless […] It’s not that I don’t agree with him. I do. But what good is yelling about the Capitol in the middle of the woods? It doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t make things fair. It doesn’t fill our stomachs. In fact, it scares off the nearby game.” (pg 14)
The lifestyle of District 12 is so ingrained in Katniss that she can’t imagine living a different way. She is focused on the details, the day-to-day hows. How am I going to feed my family? I will hunt, I will sell, I will trade for what I need, and tomorrow I will do it again. The why barely crosses her mind. Why does my family face starvation? Why do the citizens of the Capitol live in luxury while those in District 12 struggle daily with malnourishment, disease, the endless back-breaking labor of the mines, etc.? In many ways, this is because Katniss is comfortable. She may agree with Gale that life is unfair, but that doesn’t change the fact that she and her family actually do pretty well. She has learned to thrive in her environment. Katniss hunts, which brings them not only food but money. Their mother is an apothecary, and Prim has a goat, which gives her milk and allows her to contribute. They have it better than many families in 12, by all accounts.
Katniss understands how District 12 works. She knows the Hob, she knows the people, she knows the written and unspoken rules and how to get around them. If she started to think about the why in her life, she’d have to move beyond the realm of tangible, tried-and-true knowledge and into a place where there is no logic. Why does the Capitol have all the food? Because they have it. But why? Why do they control everything? Why do they have the power? It’s a matter of convenience to ignore the why, really. It’s easier to just accept the situation.
Even as Katniss begins to learn the new rules in the Capitol, the ones based on subtlety and manipulation, she still doesn’t fully understand them. She learns to play by them because that’s how she will survive, and she knows all about survival; but her behavior is reactionary. She is led through the romance-ruse by Haymitch and Peeta. She understands If I am in love, they like me. If they like me, they help me. If they help me, I survive. Therefore, If I am in love, I survive. So she pretends to be in love without a second thought. She is confused by the ramifications of this. It’s easier for her to simplify everything down into such survival-centric terms. During training, she tells herself that everything Peeta does is part of a plan, both Peeta’s own plan to stay alive and Haymitch’s plan for them to appear friendly. Things get muddy for her when she loses track of when they’re supposed to be pretending and when they’re not:
“It’s messing with my mind too much, trying to keep straight when we’re supposedly friends and when we’re not. At least when we get into the arena, I’ll know where we stand.” (pg 100)
So she tells Peeta “Don’t let’s pretend when there’s no one around.” Honestly, I don’t blame her. She keeps Peeta at arm’s length because she knows she’ll have to kill him, and that will be easier to do if she believes there is nothing at all between them. As she says, “A kind Peeta Mellark is far more dangerous to me than an unkind one.” (pg 49)
So basically, Katniss’s brain is lazy.
That’s putting it lightly, obviously. It’d be nicer to say that she just doesn’t have much experience thinking abstractly. Which is true; she doesn’t. But it’s because she hasn’t. Nothing has stopped her from getting as worked up against the Capitol as Gale, who is for all intents and purposes worse off than Katniss because he has three siblings instead of one. But Katniss has chosen to focus on one thing: survival. To this end she has blocked out other people (like her mother, and later Peeta), emotions, and abstract ideas like rebellion, freedom, justice, fairness.
Honestly, this is somewhat refreshing. After all, Katniss is only sixteen. I’d like her less if she had a perfectly honed sense of empathy and finely tuned abstract reasoning skills. Gaining those things is part of growing up, and we must remember that this is, among other things, a coming-of-age story. We all go through this stage where we learn to relate to people and circumstances in more complex ways than what is immediate and clear. Katniss is no different.
Hers just happens to involve fights to the death.