Unlocking ‘The Hunger Games': The Surface, Moral, Allegorical, and Sublime Meanings

by John on February 22, 2010

[Please note that this post was written in 2010 before Mockingjay was published. For an updated discussion of the series in light of the finale, including the alchemical, allegorical, and anagogical meanings, please head over here. Enjoy!]

If you haven’t read the first two books of The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins and you don’t want to read the plot points of those stories before you’ve read the books (“spoiling” them), have a nice day. If you have read The Hunger Games and Catching Fire or you’re interested in a discussion of how to use traditional tools of literary analysis to understand contemporary fiction, then you are in the right place. Find yourself a beverage to your liking and pull up a chair.

Last Sunday, in a post called ‘Who is the Mockingjay?‘, I put forward a theory that the wife of the District 12 mayor, Mrs. Donner-Undersee was the mastermind-puppeteer behind the Mockingjay story being written within the Capitol’s Hunger Games. Many readers have embraced the idea, at least as many have objected to the theory, and I have spent most of the past week answering questions about and objections to it (see here and here and here and here). [Thank you to Arabella, JSavant, Ellie, Ally, all my friends at HungerGamesTrilogy.com and everyone else who checked in with ideas, comments, and corrections.] My task tonight is to explain the premises of my speculation before rolling out the 2.0 version of what I believe Arabella first called the “Pearl Plot.”

Got that beverage? Then let’s get started.

Dante and The Hunger Games

The first premise of my argument about the layered meaning of The Hunger Games Trilogy is that Suzanne Collins is a brilliant writer whose novels are simultaneously inspired and deliberately crafted. Many of the objections to the Pearl Plot theory (hereafter just ‘Pearl Plot’) have been that I’m making way too much of a kid’s book and that “there’s no way all that is in there.”

I’ve been through this same bit of denial when I’ve explained the popularity of Harry Potter and Twilight by examining the artistry and meaning of these books by Joanne Rowling and Stephenie Meyer. Much of the denial, sadly, is class bias and misogyny, but I think most of it is really just a misunderstanding of why we read. We are taught that reading is an entertainment or diversion very much like any other type of ‘break from work.’ This view, though, is contrary to our shared experience, I think, as well as to the

traditional view of the arts, “drawn from Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Dante, and the rest, and standard in Western Civilization down through the 18th Century,” that art is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy. It is a tragic and not a trivial game.

Writers are delivering much more than diversion. Saul Bellow once explained to newspaper reporters the difference between their written work and his was that he “wrote for eternity.” Think that’s pompous? How many newspapers do you keep on a shelf in your home or share with friends? Read to your children? Writers are after the big game of life’s meaning and we come to their work expecting them to deliver. Reading has spiritual import and consequences.

I am convinced a good part of the skepticism about popular books having depth, beyond misunderstanding what reading is for, is doubt about the intelligence and craft of the series’ author. When writing about the Austen elements in Harry Potter and the Shakespeare echoes in Twilight, I was laboring against the pigeon-holed perception many readers have that non-academic writers like Ms. Rowling and Mrs. Meyer, who though well educated do not have advanced degrees in English or teach writing, cannot be familiar with or be using the tools from the Greats’ toolbox.

Discussing the meaning and artistry of The Hunger Games, though, shouldn’t require clearing this particular hurdle. Suzanne Collins has a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in dramatic writing from New York University (NYU). Let’s be clear about what that means, if only because most Americans don’t get what an MFA is.

If you’re like me, you think of a “Masters Degree” as a stepping stone to real postgraduate study, namely, PhD or doctoral studies. An MFA is a Masters but it is the end of the road in the study of the fine arts with practical applications.

MFA programs have generally required a bachelor’s degree prior to admission, but many have not required that the undergraduate major be the same as the MFA field of study. The most important admissions requirement has often been a sample portfolio or a performance audition.

The MFA differs from the Master of Arts in that the MFA, while an academic program, centers around practice in the particular field, whereas programs leading to the MA are usually centered on the scholarly, academic, or critical study of the field.

The MFA is seen as a terminal degree, meaning that it is considered to be the highest degree in its field.

An MFA differs from a Masters, then, in being “hands-on” study, in being as far as you can go, and, most important, in its being truly Masters work, in the sense of an apprentice studying with a Master. To receive the MFA in creative writing at NYU today means a lot of workshops in Greenwich Village:

Requirements for the Master of Fine Arts degree include the completion of 32 points (eight 4-point courses) and the following specific requirements:

  1. Four graduate creative writing workshops taken in four separate semesters (16 points).
  2. One to four craft courses (The Craft of Poetry or The Craft of Fiction), taught by members of the CWP faculty. Craft courses may be repeated provided they are taught by different instructors (4 to 16 points).
  3. Any remaining courses chosen from any department with the permission of that department and of the director of the CWP.
  4. A creative thesis in poetry or fiction, consisting of a substantial piece of writing—a novella, a collection of short stories, or a group of poems—to be submitted in the student’s final semester. The project requires the approval of the student’s faculty thesis adviser and of the director of the CWP.

I do not know how this MFa in creative writing differs — or if it differs — from the MFA in dramatic writing when Ms. Collins was at NYU but I imagine the core requirements for Master seminars in Craft of Fiction were the same. What is that required course that students are expected to repeat with different instructors about? The website page with the MFA seminar faculty and schedules for the class doesn’t spell out course requirements, but with teachers like E. L. Doctorow, David Lipsky, and Edward Hirsch, we know the conversations in these classrooms are not just about how to package a book or screenplay proposal for your literary agent.

But we all know, too, that you can skate through any degree program, alas, and that advanced degrees or the lack of one tell us very little about what an author knows or what talents they bring to the table. As with the Hogwarts and Forks Sagas, the test is in the text. Does the Panem Trilogy have the literary guts and substance reflecting that Ms. Collins got anything out of her advanced studies in dramatic writing?

I think even the most superficial look at her books says that it does.

And by “superficial,” I mean right at the surface: the number of books and chapters. If you haven’t noticed, the first two of the three book set are each twenty seven chapters long and in three parts of nine chapters each.

So what?

In itself, of course, this clever use of threes — a trilogy of books, each having three sections, each section having 3-squared chapters, for 3-cubed chapters in each book, and 3-to-the-fourth chapters in the series — could be meaningless or just an affectation. Even if so, it is also, nonetheless, a marker or red flag for Dante’s influence. His Divine Comedy is in three books or canticas of 33 chapters or cantos each, all of it in rhyming three-line stanzas or tercets in the terza rima rhyme scheme. When a writer makes a point of stacking threes in her story structure, the serious reader asks herself, “Is she telling me to think Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso?”

I think she is.

I’ll explain that in a bit but I couldn’t resist the lede in to traditional literary criticism that this thin Dante link provides. Because to lay out why I think the text is substantive enough to stand up to a reading at depth, I need to look at Hunger Games as I would a “Great Book,’ as in, say, Hamlet or War and Peace… or the Divine Comedy. Dante, fortunately, left instructions in his letter to Can Grande about how readers should read his poems: in the four senses, namely, the literal, moral, allegorical, and anagogical levels of meaning.

For me be able to present what I am going to say, you must know that the sense of this work is not simple, rather it may be called polysemantic, that is, of many senses; the first sense is that which comes from the letter, the second is that of that which is signified by the letter. And the first is called the literal, the second allegorical or moral or anagogical. Which method of treatment, that it may be clearer, can be considered through these words: “When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a barbarous people, Judea was made his sanctuary, Israel his dominion” (Douay-Rheims, Ps. 113.1-2). If we look at it from the letter alone it means to us the exit of the Children of Israel from Egypt at the time of Moses; if from allegory, it means for us our redemption done by Christ; if from the moral sense, it means to us the conversion of the soul from the struggle and misery of sin to the status of grace; if from the anagogical, it means the leave taking of the blessed soul from the slavery of this corruption to the freedom of eternal glory. And though these mystical senses are called by various names, in general all can be called allegorical, because they are different from the literal or the historical. Now, allegory comes from Greek alleon, which in Latin means other or different.

I have explained at length in my last three books — that would be Deathly Hallows Lectures, Harry Potter’s Bookshelf, and Spotlight – why these four senses are not arbitrary perspectives but straight reflections of the four ways human beings know anything (for the free short course in iconological criticism, read this). Before I roll out version 2.0 of the ‘Pearl Plot,’ then, I want to roll through the four senses of Hunger Games very quickly to demonstrate Ms. Collins is writing deliberatively and at depth and that her works deserve a serious reading — even outlandish speculation based on the themes and meaning of the books we have in hand at present.

[nB: My apologies in advance for both the length and brevity of this treatment; it’s much too large a subject to treat in a single post and the exposition and demonstration of my assertions, consequently, is limited to the point of being terse. Time allowing, I’ll expand it into a proper book or booklet with the longer explanations this introduction cannot have if I’m to get back to the Pearl Plot this month!]

The Surface Meaning of The Hunger Games

Of the four senses of any text or work of art, the most important is the literal or surface meaning. This is just because all of the other meanings have to come through the surface. Whether they are understood consciously or experienced unconsciously, the several allegorical layers can only be had via what the viewer sees in the painting or sculpture or in the narrative line the reader reads.

For writers, the surface story has to do several things right up front. However fantastic the setting or unusual the characters and plot, the tale has to be sufficiently credible that the reader suspends disbelief and enters into the story in an act of poetic faith. It helps a lot if the lead character or narrator is someone-in-a-situation with whom the reader is fascinated, sympathetic, or, best of all, that s/he is someone both fascinating and sympathy-inducing. Orphans have been great story fodder, obviously, especially orphans-in-a-jam, from Oliver Twist to Harry Potter, because you have be pretty bent-out-of-shape not to be rooting for the kid with no parents.

I submit that Katniss Everdeen,

  • father-less provider and protector of her mother and sister,
  • a young woman trapped in the nightmare dystopia of Panem’s District 12, and
  • Appalachian girl with true grit,

is a brilliantly conceived character with whom readers identify profoundly and almost immediately. Her first person narration absorbs us to the point that we identify with her view, which has repercussions at the moral and anagogical levels.

Beyond voice, the next important key to the surface story’s success is the genre or story setting chosen by the author, i.e., “what kind of book is this?” Romance, School Boy Novel, International Blockbuster, Monomyth, Gothic horror, Satire, High Fantasy, Modern Psychological novel, Bildungsroman, Alchemical Drama, Science Fiction, Murder Mystery or a melange of elements from all of these (and many others) — whatever the story-type chosen, it must be a fitting vehicle or medium of the author’s prevailing message.

Hunger Games is a dystopian novel at its core, though it has important mythic (think “Theseus and the Athenian Youths”), satirical (think Survivor), alchemical (think Tale of Two Cities), and coming-of-age (David Copperfield) touches. The post-apocalyptic setting of the trilogy with its oppressive authoritarian regime and its nightmare to-the-death competition between District tributes is an engaging cross of 1984 and Rollerball. And that hybrid story from nightmare futures powerfully delivers Ms. Collins messages, most obviously her critique of our addiction to television and its soul corrosive influences, but also a call for a change within us, a revolution against the regime’s shadow-casters and myth-makers via our choosing a counter-narrative of love and sacrifice.

A School Boy setting even with the Hogwarts Gothic drapes won’t do that. Neither will Paranormal Harelquin romance on the Olympic Peninsula. Right? To make a critique of the darkness of our age and call us to the light, we need a genre made for projecting the failings into a supposed future. Just as 1984 was really Blair’s metaphorical description of life as he knew it in 1948, so Panem as Collins’ dystopia is a vehicle for her images of our world as it is in essence.

After genre and voice, there is “story-drive,” essentially, “what keeps us turning pages?” In a mystery, we want to learn whodunnit. In epic fantasy, we want to know the ending of the historical saga. In romance, we’re trying to figure out how boy-gets-girl in the end (we know it’s going to happen…). In Hunger Games, the story drive is “action drama,” the story structure of formulaic 3 Act television writing.

Ms. Collins is quite open about her books working this way:

At what point did you know that your story was a trilogy?
I knew from the beginning. Once I’d thought through to the end of the first book, I knew there would be repercussions from the events that take place there. So I actually proposed it as a trilogy from the outset, with the main story laid out. I started out as a playwright, and have an M.F.A. from New York University in dramatic writing. After I graduated, I began writing for television. Since I’ve worked in television so long, the three-act dramatic structure comes naturally to me.

“Okay,” you ask, “what’s a three-act dramatic structure?”

Though we know it best from the half-hour sit-com, whose commercial breaks all but require a three act drama with crises before each stop in the action before the soap sale to be sure we don’t change channels, the 3 Act drama formula is straight from Aristotle’s Poetics. You need a story set-up, a compelling confrontation, and satisfying or challenging resolution. For the specific teevee and screenwriting formula that is Ms. Collins’ story-telling base-line, you can read more here and here and here. A picture from this site will save a lot of explanation:

The Three-act Paradigm:

You’ll have to trust me for now when I say Ms. Collins follows the formula she says she does and that this is the skeleton of the medium in which she has worked since 1991. She uses it, though, not because it’s the only set of tools at hand. Ms. Collins uses it both because it works, especially in terms of keeping us turning pages, and, I think, because the teevee formula is an especially ironic tool to use while satirizing our collective addiction to the glass tit. Ms. Collins has us watching the Hunger Games both as a Tribute via Katniss’ perspective and as the Games are experienced by Capitol and District watchers (hence our never seeing cameras, a point that Stephen King just doesn’t get). We are both viewed and viewer, which will have important consequences when we learn with Katniss who is telling the story-within-the-story.

The Moral Meaning of The Hunger Games

We’re trained to flinch at the word “moral” because we’re told from Sesame Street and primary school onward that it is synonymous with “judgmental” and “moralizing” — but of course it isn’t. The word comes from the Latin word for societal conventions (O, tempora! O, mores!) and “moral” just means our understanding of right and wrong. You’ve got good guys and bad guys, as a rule, in stories, and the moral of the story is predictably that what the bad guy does is wrong — don’t do that! — and what the good guy does is right and we should follow his or her example.

Even anti-moralizing stories, consequently, are necessarily moral and moralizing.

The real trick in understanding story morality is that it is the very rare story that tries to teach us anything that we do not already accept as a core value. Our historical period or ‘Age’ has its defining beliefs just like every other historical period; our principles and blind-spots may be different, excuse me, certainly are different, than those of the Elizabethans and Victorians but we are just like them in having an Age-defining set of shared beliefs. The morality of every successful postmodern story is the same. In brief it goes like this:

There is a big, bad cultural belief, call it the “defining myth’ or, my favorite, the ‘metanarrative.’ This story is what everyone in the culture believes about the world they live in and every metanarrative features two groups in defining mental reality: the Chosen Ones and the Others. The story tells us that the Chosen Ones are good by nature and that the Others, in not being Chosen Ones, are necessarily bad. Chosen Ones, consequently, enjoy powers and privileges while Others occupy the Public Square periphery, are powerless, and serve the Chosen Ones.

The postmodern morality play’s chief lesson, though, isn’t that the Chosen Ones are bad by definition and Others are good (if that is indeed one of its lessons!). The core message is that the metanarrative itself is the fount of evil because it distorts everyone’s ability to see the world as it is. The Big Bad Cultural Myth makes us prejudiced, in brief, and prejudice is the great evil to be fought in our times. Racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, even age discrimination, any perceived mental preconception, bias, or intolerance is something, ironically, our tolerance and fairness fixated age cannot tolerate.

There are two consequences of the prejudice-inducing metanarrative that every book, teevee show, and movie of our times subtly or dramatically teaches us to watch out for:

  1. Because we are by definition prejudiced on account of our social, religious, and class biases, there is no way to be sure that anything we think is true is really true; therefore, “everything is relative.” And –
  2. Because we cannot be sure of what is real, the only way we can be free of the metanarrative’s grip is to choose to confront and oppose the powerful who have their position only because of the false metanarrative.

In bumper-sticker language, this amounts to “Don’t Believe What You Think” and “Speak Truth to Power.”

I could bore you silly here and make this already too long post much longer than it need be by explaining how Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games (did I mention Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer?) are all stories conforming to this type. [Yes, it’s in my The Deathly Hallows Lectures and of Spotlight.] Suffice it to say that Ms. Collins’ trilogy, as counter-cultural as it is in several important ways, has its evil metanarrative (“Capitol, good; Districts bad”) and its oppressive and quite literal marginalization of the District-Others from the Capitol-Chosen.

There is also the message that no one and nothing are what you think they are (blinded as you are by preconception and prejudice) and that the only route to freedom is sacrificial love’s choice to confront the powerful and liberate the oppressed. Katniss’ almost continuous surprise at turns in the story-line by people turning out to be more or less than she thought and her anger at being prisoner in a story she isn’t writing is a snap-shot of the postmodern rise to consciousness and freedom-through-self-actualizing- choice. Do you doubt that Mockingjay will be the story of her learning the story she is in at last and of her choosing to play the part of the Mockingjay-Phoenix and Rebellion leader she has been forced to play unwittingly thus far? I don’t.

The Allegorical Meaning of The Hunger Games

Dante uses the word “allegorical” for all the senses of a text that are beyond and within the literal because the three senses included in the surface meaning are all in some sense story transparencies, i.e., story ciphers through which the reader sees or experiences something greater than the character or plot point itself. With the moral, we get the right and wrong lesson by seing the good guys as good and the bad guys as bad (even if in our age, the morality play’s message often is that there is no right or wrong except believing that there is an Absolute right and wrong — which is really wrong, right? Oi.). With the allegorical and anagogical, the story transparencies take their meanings from referents more specific and more substantive than just “white hat” and “black hat.”

The allegorical layer of Hunger Games is in two parts, one pretty easy for us to recognize, the other not so much.

The easy one are the political satires that the author talks about and the stuff she doesn’t need to talk about because it screams from the text. She’s showing us through the transparency of her imagined future and its oppressive regime that uses television stories to demean and diminish the spirits of the District workers our own anti-culture’s use of television to dumb us down into desire-driven, conscience-less consumers. She has shared in interviews that her inspiration for the story came from channel surfing and being impressed by televised images of the war in Iraq and reality television shows. Hunger Games, consequently, is largely Plato’s Cave Allegory re-told by Collins with a hard to miss “kill your television” message only a television writer could deliver so powerfully. (Jerry Mander comes close, but he’s writing discursively.)

I don’t think even television addicts find this an especially troubling message; anyone who watches teevee will tell you about the “bad” programs they despise and the really good shows they watch that are so different, unaware of the corrosive effect of the medium per se, regardless of programming content. Everyone on some level thinks teevee is a mixed blessing, though, so I doubt this troubles many readers because as Swift said, “satire is that mirror in which the object never recognizes himself.”

I would say that the more barbed bit of Ms. Collins’ satire in Hunger Games is not about television or about the relative poverty of parts of America outside the Beltways and Metropolises. It certainly isn’t anything that she talks about in interviews, if it jumps from the page like a Dorothy Day Catholic social justice broadside. Panem is the world and the Capitol is the United States, which sucks the world’s resources into itself and delivers in return military might and media programming that shows how great materialist life is in the US, a life they cannot share. Katniss probably would have been a lot less sympathetic if she were written into the story as a Palestinian refugee or Thai factory worker but I have to think this is closer to Ms. Collins’ political indictment.

This is tit-for-tat allegory in which story elements have real world, recognizable referents. The Capitol is our corporate-government power monopoly. Their medium of suppressing and controlling life outside their circle is brute force and television programming. The oppressed are, depending on how you want to frame it, everyone outside the US or everyone here not in the power-rings of New York, DC, and Hollywood, the moguls of money, military, and movies.

The more obscure and I think more powerful allegorical story, though, doesn’t have political or even temporal referents. It is spiritual, which I think will take us into the next layer or depth of meaning.

The Anagogical Meaning of The Hunger Games

If the moral and strictly allegorical (tit-for-tat) senses of a text are best understood as transparencies through which we see and understand other things, people, or events, the anagogical sense is more of a translucency through which a greater reality shines on us. In The Hunger Games, the supernatural story within the story that gives readers the self-transcending or mythic experience Eliade says a secular culture looks to find in fiction is the alchemical transformation of Katniss Everdeen. Hunger Games is essentially about her miraculous change from child of the Seam or ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ into the Mockingjay-Phoenix, the Girl on Fire, from lead’s hard darkness to the solid light of gold, or, as Effie would have it, from coal to pearl.

This is evident in the allegorical role Katniss plays as the pure heart or seeking soul, in the alchemical artistry of the series, and in the symbolism of the pearl. One at a time.

Step back from the story and its narrator for a moment. Is there anything especially unreal about the drama taking place? If we look at the action in the Victor’s Village, Capitol, and Seam from a distance significantly greater than the immediacy of Katniss’ story telling, two or three things seem especially bizarre.

First on the list, for me at least, is the uninterrupted if not easy progress of Katniss’ journey from “District 12 nobody” to the focus of all Panem, even the cause of a Revolution. I mean, there is “unlikely” and “improbable” and then there is just plain silly. Her survival and success reads like a Cinderella-at-the-Super-Bowl fairy tale.

Right up with that oddity are her two boyfriends who aren’t boyfriends. Even accepting that mothers in this dystopia seem to be able to block relationships prior to marriage, as Katniss’ mother acts out for the cameras, these guys, forgive me, don’t act like guys. Their relationships with her are ideals or archetypes rather than anything like what young men in love with an attractive young woman are like.

But if the center-piece characters and relationships of the trilogy are more ‘true myth’ than realist fiction, what realities are the characters representing that make them so engaging as transparencies and translucencies? Why do we care so much about how Katniss will work out her loving two guys and not being able to love either one as they seem to want?

I think the beginning of an answer is in the boys’ names.

Both names can also be girls’ names, which feminine quality, oddly enough, gives Gale and Peeta an oddly hermaphroditic character. The meaning of these names reflects the role each young man plays in the alchemical drama or Morality Play about a soul’s perfection that Hunger Games is.

‘Gale,’ the man of the woods, free and unbound except for his family obligations, is an embodiment of Nature, a ‘gale force wind’ of spirit and the experience of natural beauty. His relationship with Katniss is platonic despite their spending years in each other’s company and both leading lives deprived of touch and love. He fosters rather than challenges Katniss’ purity, freedom, and individual strength or identity.

‘Peeta,’ the man of town and ‘Boy with the Bread,’ has a name that means bread (pita) as well as a vocation as a bread baker. As a child, he gives two loaves of bread to Katniss that he purchases sacrificially (he is beaten for it by his mother), bread which saves her from physical starvation and the eating of which immediately inspires her to think of her ‘Family Book’ and the means to provide for her mother and sister. His bread, in effect, saves her. In a world named ‘Bread’ (Panem is the accusative case form of the Latin word for Bread), I think it is transparent that Peeta or ‘Peter’ is an icon of the Christ, the world creator, Who in St. Peter’s church at least, is received as Bread, and Who loves the world and every soul in it sacrificially. As artist, actor, and self-less lover, he is Culture and Faith that are fostering without challenging Katniss’ purity, vision, and individual will.

There is a lot more to Peeta-as-Christ, believe me, from the several suicidal sacrifices he makes in the Games to his rising from the grave in Hunger Games and his CPR assisted resurrection in Catching Fire, not to mention Katniss’ committment to serve him even at the cost of her life in the Quell — but let’s save the full break-out of Peeta for another post. What does Katniss’ name tell us about her?

Start not with the name but with her character: like the boys, this is an androgynous figure. Note the resolution of contraries. Her mother is city, her father is country. She is an attractive woman but she has been father, provider, and protector of the Everdeen survivors since her father’s death. Like the mockingjay, a hybrid of genetic manipulation and mutation in the wild, she is a living harmony of Culture/Nature, masculine/feminine, healer/killer. The polarity of her loves — Gale, the wind or Nature icon, and Peeta, sacramental bread of sacrifice and artisan of beauty and meaning, the Culture icon — cannot be resolved because she is their resolution and each sustains her. (Check out the first two Scholastic covers which make quite a point of this symbiosis with the Mockingjay symbol locked to two other circles.)

That she is named for a tuber is important on two levels. First, the moly plant. The moly is a tuber that Hermes gives to Odysseus as a cure for any of Circe’s poisons in Homer’s Odyssey. It is described as “black at the root, but with a milky flower. The gods call it moly. It is hard for mortal men to dig up, but the gods have the power to do all things” (Odyssey, Book X, ll. 304-306). Black at the bottom, white at its top, and ungraspable as a whole except by a divinity, the moly plant‘s power is in its being a resolution of contraries and image of the kosmos and Godhead (see Romans 1:20).

Second, this tuber is life-saving when found. Katniss‘ father told her “as long as you can find yourself, you’ll never starve” (Hunger Games, page 52), and — the kicker — the English word for moly is Rue. Katniss thinks of the plant in terms of its fragile yellow flowers but, like Katniss, it comes as a root-flower package. That’s a head slam because of the District 11 character Katniss adores and could not save. What is the medicinal property of Rue? To Milton, it is cure of blindness, spiritual and physical, that the Archangel Michael uses to restore Adam’s failed vision

but to nobler sights

Michael from Adams eyes the Filme remov’d
Which that false Fruit that promis’d clearer sight
Had bred; then purg’d with Euphrasie and Rue (Paradise Lost. Book xi. Line 414)
The visual Nerve, for he had much to see;
And from the Well of Life three drops instill’d.
So deep the power of these Ingredients pierc’d,
Eevn to the inmost seat of mental sight,
That Adam now enforc’t to close his eyes,
Sunk down and all his Spirits became intranst:
But him the gentle Angel by the hand

Soon rais’d, and his attention thus recall’d.

That Rue appears to Katniss in the purgatory or cleansing of the albedo (see below) in Hunger Games and that they are immediately kin speaks to the importance of both their names. They are named for medicinal tubers, the gift of Hermes, whose worth is concealed beneath the earth and difficult to reveal. (Note the contrast with the weakness and superficiality of characters named for flowers.) Does Rue cure Katniss of blindness? Does she protect her from enchantment? Does she in her death draw out the saving feminine quality from her masculine front? Her father’s comment, that her tuber name means she will live if she can “find herself,” points to the importance of Katniss embracing her resolution-of-contraries “root” identity, her being neither Male nor Female, Jew or Greek (city-country, Gale-Peeta, etc.).

Travis Prinzi explores the meaning of “Rue” in his Panem’s Politics post at the Hog’s Head:

There are lots of references to plants and plant names in these books, and Rue is a key one. A “rue” is a strong herb with medicinal properties, used to help with eyestrain or sore eyes. Shakespeare called the rue the “sour herb of grace” in Richard II, and it was used to mark the spot where the queen learned of Richard’s being taken captive (III.4.104-105). “Rue,” of course, also means to cause to repent or regret. At Rue’s death, Katniss’s inward repentance and transformation begins. She can no longer simply act out of self-preservation. She must act for others and against evil (the Capitol). She reflects later that her covering Rue with flowers was seen by the Capitol as an act of rebellion; she was suppose to glory in the death of other tributes, not mourn them (p. 363). The funeral she enacted on the forest floor for Rue was edited by the Capitol when broadcast on TV. Rue’s death and burial, Harry Potter fans, is the Dobby moment. Rue is the medicinal herb which helps Katniss begin to “see” (healing eyestrain) the spiritual things.

As he points out, “rue” is remorse, which specifically is an awakening or act of conscience. Conscience, in traditional anthropology and psychology, is, as the etymology of the word tells us, not personal knowledge or understanding but “shared knowing,” the logos mind or noetic faculty of soul. It is the Light of men which “lighteth every man that cometh into the world” (John 1:9). Katniss wakes up to who she is, the root of her being, in her remorse for Rue.

[If you’re thinking that’s a stretch, note that Haymitch had a parallel moment of remorse at Maysilee Donner’s death in his Quell (Katniss notes the similarity: Catching Fire, page 201) waking him to conscience. More important, Peeta, the Christ figure, attempts to shame the Games Makers in his time with them before the Quell by painting a picture of the dead Rue for their reflection — and potential remorse/experience of logos-conscience.]

There is much more to this, the Body-Soul-Spirit tryptich of Gale-Katniss-Peeta, and the allegory of Katniss as pure soul growing into spiritual life, from doubt to devotion, in relationship with Peeta, but you get the picture. The underlying allegory or translucency of the story is Katniss as human soul being illumined or enlightened. This takes us back to her name and dad’s little joke about her being named for an edible plant: “as long as you can find yourself, you’ll never starve” (Hunger Games, page 52). Katniss must “find herself” to “never starve” or die; she learns in the Games that this light of conscience or logos is what she is most and, having found it and identified with it, because it is the fabric of reality and cause of all things, just as dad said, she can never die.

The Literary Alchemy of The Hunger Games

This kind of hero’s journey — one in which the principal character plays the part of what the Bible calls “the heart” and their story is about their apotheosis or spiritual illumination, something like divinization — has a tradition of its own in English literature we can call “literary alchemy.” The English alchemical tradition in letters begins in earnest with Shakespeare and the Metaphysical poets; its tropes, symbols, and story stages are evident thereafter in the poetry and novels of Greats like Blake, Dickens, Yeats, Joyce, and C. S. Lewis. In my books on Harry Potter and on Twilight, I have explained how Joanne Rowling, alchemist wannabe, and Stephenie Meyer have adapted this tradition as powerfully and effectively as they have in Harry’s and Bella’s epic transformations (you can read about it in chapter 3 of The Deathly Hallows Lectures and chapter 4 of Spotlight — and of course I hope you will!).

Though there are academic journals devoted to this subject and a host of books, when a writer uses the alchemical formula and colors and such, readers of their work — especially if they’re serious Potter readers — write me to confirm their sighting. I picked up Hunger Games for the first time because two readers I respect very much, one in Houston and another outside Spokane, wrote me independently and nigh on simultaneously to ask me if I thought Suzanne Collins was writing in this tradition.

Yes, she is.

Again, I cannot lay all of this out here but let me give you five key markers of a work in the alchemical tradition:

  1. The work is going to have three key stages marked by the use of specific colors and story events, namely, black, white, and red, which stages reflect, in sequence, the dissolution or break down of the subject character or main characters (nigredo) usually by heat, the purification or purgation of same (albedo) usually with water, and the revelation of the transformation undergone in the process in the story crisis (rubedo).
  2. There will be story contraries that must be resolved by the principals’ transformation, contraries like the Two Cities in Dickens’ most popular novel or the Montagues and Capulets of Shakespeare’s Verona, or just groups like Gryffindors and Slytherines and the Quileute Wolfpack and Cullen Vampires.
  3. Look for a couple, a pair in opposition, one relatively feminine or lunar, the other masculine and solar, who engage the character being broken down to prima materia for illumination as ‘solid light’ or gold. This duo are polar opposites and they either quarrel or draw the principal in contrary directions (the ‘Quarreling Couple’ of alchemical mercury and sulphur).
  4. Between the white and red stages, there is an Alchemical Wedding of the Red King and White Queen that prefigures the conjunction of opposites signaling the golden moment of the Philosopher’s Stone creation, i.e., the divinization of the main character and birth of the Philosophical Orphan or story savior joining contraries as a Rebus.
  5. And there should be remarkable resurrection imagery, say, something as simple as light shining out of darkness or grander images of a hero rising from the dead or even of a Phoenix, a Rose, or a Red Lion, symbols of the Stone and of Christ, the Light of the World.

If this is all new to you, I’m sure you’re profoundly skeptical that such a tradition exists or, if it does, that these bizarre sequences, symbols, and story points are anything but a conceit shared by egg head writers. That’s understandable. Given the popularity of Harry Potter, Twilight, and now The Hunger Games, though, not to mention the shadow Shakespeare casts to this day over all English writing, I would suggest you not write this alchemy stuff off as “For Geeks Only.” It’s obviously a powerful and pervasive way to frame a story.

My evidence that The Hunger Games is written deliberately as an alchemical trilogy? In brief:

  • the nigredo and albedo character of and the black, white, and rubedo elements in the first two books, i.e., the first two books correspond to the first two stages of alchemy and each has three stages within it,
  • the contraries to be resolved between Seam and City, Capitol and District, are the dynamic driving the story,
  • the ‘Quarreling Couple’ of Peeta and Gale are the essential tension in Katniss’ life,
  • the alchemical wedding of Katniss and Peeta we’ve been to (almost) and the orphan they have conceived are the spiritual conjunction of alchemical transformation,
  • and the light-from-darkness phoenix imagery in the story are pervasive, from Cinna’s costumes for Katniss, especially the Mockingjay wedding dress, to the golden Mockingjay pendant that is the token of District 12 and symbol of the revolution.

An unwrapping of the alchemical artistry of tyhe story so far will require a longer post than this one but I can give you a taste of the details Ms. Collins deliberately included in her books to signal this — and prove this isn’t my little literary hobby horse — by quoting an email I received from the serious reader in Houston I mentioned earlier:

I re-read HG the other day with alchemical imagery in mind and took the following notes, which I pass on to you in case they can be of any use.

Katniss’s arrival in the Arena is the beginning of a clear nigredo phase in the novel. Starting with her descent *downward* to the Arena, followed by the hot, dry weather, lack of moisture and her own burning thirst as she tries to locate a water source, the section screams black/nigredo. Even once she finds water, then there is the wall of horrific heat/fire/smoke descending *down* on her.

We move from that to a clear albedo phase when she finds the pool and cleans her burns. After the Feast at the Cornucopia, she and Peeta are subjected to downpours, and cold rainy weather. The rain and cold go on and on, and as the rain finally stops, a full beautiful moon appears (and there is a good bit of discussion of the moon and passage of time).

Then, she and Peeta set off to confront Cato when all water sources dry up — meeting up at last at the shining gold Cornucopia. It is dusk at this point. I wasn’t clear if the berries she and Peeta threaten to eat were actually red or not … the only descriptions I could find suggested only that they are dark berries, rather like blackberries (which are not red, although the juice of blackberries looks very much like blood). Katniss makes much, during the ending phases of HG, of trying to recapture the “real” Katniss.

Black and hot — to wet White — to Red and Gold and something very much like a sacrificial death and miraculous resurrection as Love defeats Power.

Accidental? C’mon.

If your patience were indefinitely long, I could explain here why in the albedo or “purification by water” novel of the series, Catching Fire, the story opens in snow that is used extensively in healing (with a visit from President Snow, no less), why the Quell Games open on the water which clock-center pool also turns out to have healing, even specifically purgatory effects, after Katniss is chased down by killer fog, and how the story is largely a story of Peeta’s and Katniss’ alchemical wedding of Spirit and Soul, Christ and Seeker. The first two books are the ‘black and ‘white’ novels of the three stage alchemical trilogy and each of the books features nigredo, albedo, and rubedo qualities in their three nine-chapter Parts.

But I want to move on to the Pearl Plot, version 2.0, so I’ll close this discussion with a short note about Dante. His Commedia’s Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, though not restricted to English literary formulae I’ve touched on here, reflect the same three-step transformation of hot dissolution, wet purification, and celestial illumination which is the poet’s Good Friday to Easter journey from the solid darkness or lead of the forest to the light of the Beatific Vision and apotheosis. Collins’ chapter numbers are no accident but a marker for the attentive reader to the greater artistry and meaning of her Hunger Games Trilogy.

The Symbolism of the Pearl in The Hunger Games

Which brings us to the point of this post, namely, explaining the principles and tools behind the Pearl Plot theory. A pearl is a symbol of three things, all of which are relevant to understanding the Pearl Plot.

(1) In Effie’s otherwise incomprehensible gaffe about coal under pressure becoming pearls, we can see a beautiful alternative metaphor with the same meaning as lead being changed to gold, hard darkness being illumined and becoming solid light or “gold.”

“Pearl,” like the swan, silver, and the moon, is a traditional alchemical symbol representing the white work or albedo of transformation (see Abraham’s Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery, page 142). It is especially apt because a pearl’s beauty is in its whiteness, certainly, or purity, but mostly in its luminescence. When Peeta gives Katniss the pearl before the crisis of the Quell and after promising to die for her greater life, we have the gift of love and light that is only the Christ figure’s to give — and a sign of her eventual divinization if she can retain the purification she has experienced there.

(2) A pearl, traditionally, has the meaning, too, of “genius in obscurity” because of this white light being created and hidden in the secret chamber of an oyster (see Cirlot’s A Dictionary of Symbols, page 251). Again we have the image of light shining forth out of darkness that we would expect at the close of the albedo in the alchemical work, but we also have a marker that there is a hidden light or “genius” in the story which pearl will be revealed in the story rubedo.

And —

(3) We have the Pearl of Great Price parable from scripture, which unites these meanings in pointing to the Kingdom of Heaven:

Matt 13:44 “Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found, and hid. In his joy, he goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field.”

Matt 13:45,46 “Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who is a merchant seeking fine pearls, who having found one pearl of great price, he went and sold all that he had, and bought it.”

These parables of hidden treasure and singular pearl of value are the teachings of Christ Who is this Kingdom of Heaven within you (Luke 17:21), the hidden light we all experience to varying degrees as conscience. Katniss’ spiritual transformation, even her theosis, is dependent on her “finding herself” and it is this “pearl of great price” she has been given by the Boy With Bread that is her “hidden treasure” and the pure light that will save her.

Tomorrow, a much briefer post (I hope!) on the how the Pearl Plot helps us grasp the four senses of The Hunger Games Trilogy, an updated version of the theory, and maybe even a few SWAGs based on what we have discussed about what may happen in Mockingjay. See you then!

[Let me note at end as I did in the beginning that this post was written in 2010 before Mockingjay was published. For an updated discussion of the series in light of the finale, including the alchemical, allegorical, and anagogical meanings, please head over here. Posting disagreements or adulation with discussion we moved on from several years ago may satisfy some identity issues or relieve some angst but why not join in the conversation that is currently going on? Thanks in advance for your feedback on living threads.]

{ 47 comments… read them below or add one }