[This post on Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games was written in Fenruary, 2010. A lot of discussion and theorizing has happened here since then — and I hope you’ll join that free-for-all where it is now rather than back here in February! Please check out this Round-Up post (and the Pearl Plot 2.0) so you can see what’s been written in one convenient list with links. Thanks for joining us at HogwartsProgessor, where serious readers discuss the meaning and artistry of The Hunger Games.]
A few weeks ago, two HogPro All-Pros wrote to me both asking me if I thought Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games books were written with intentional alchemical artistry. Forgive me, but I doubt I would have purchased the books, Hunger Games and Catching Fire, as promptly as I did except that I ignored a similar question about Twilight for more than two years, much to my loss, and except for the facts that both these writers are very serious readers, both praised the books without qualification, and they both came up with the alchemical reading independently of the other.
I bought and have read the two books in the trilogy now in print (the finale wil be published 24 August this year). I’ve even read them twice and made a lot of notes. The alchemy question is a good one, if the story scaffolding owe at least as much to television 3 act story templating and Dante as they might to Shakespearean drama. Now that I’ve read them and loved them, I hope you will read the Hunger Games books, too, and join me in conversation about them here. If you are a Harry Potter reader, I’m confident these books will challenge and delight you — and, in being a series-not-yet-finished, will draw you into speculation about what will happen in the next book based on patterns and events in the first two.
Yesterday we learned that the title of the Hungers Games trilogy finale will be Mockingjay and saw the cover of the Scholastic edition (US). Today I want to discuss what I think will be the surprise revelation of the finale and a key to opening up the meaning of the series. If you haven’t read the first two books, of course, or if you don’t care for speculative writing about novels not yet published, this would be the best place for you to stop reading. (Hey, a spoilers warning; doesn’t that feel like old times?)
At the end of Catching Fire, Katniss wakes up to the fact that she has, once again, been used as a pawn in someone else’s story. She is furious at Haymitch Abernathy, her Games and Quell mentor, because she is convinced that he is the puppet master and alchemical dramatist who has written her into the script of his subversive story within the Capitol regime’s Hunger Games narrative. Bad enough, she thinks, to have her sister chosen as a tribute and to have been forced to sacrifice herself in her first trip into the arena, an experience where she warred with the narrative line of her “real enemy” to write a rebellious story that ‘speaks truth to power.’ It is much worse to be manipulated by people you think are your friends to star in a second narrative as the rebellion’s symbolic leader, the Mockingjay.
Katniss believes that Haymitch is the rebellion’s story-teller and the author of the Mockingjay drama with good reason.
- His gifts as her mentor are rarely just what they seem; her job as often as not when receiving a silver package gift is to interpret the “hidden messages” of the man directing the action outside the story action, i.e., he is the author and she is simultaneously character in and reader-interpreter of the story he is writing;
- Haymitch’s Quell victory was based on his refusing to accept as fixed either the boundaries of the story in which he was placed, its metanarrative, or his role in that drama. He survived as a tribute because he played the game like a Game Maker or playwright;
- In the hovercraft scenes of the Catching Fire last chapter, Haymitch says (and Katniss repeats) the line that seems to peg him as the rebellion’s ‘Mockingjay’ story author: “this is why no one lets you make the plans.” He then proceeds to tell her the story she has been living in (page 385) as if he were the one who had made the plans.
Katniss’ response to this demonstration? She attacks Haymitch with her fingernails in her agony and confusion on learning that “I am the mockingjay” (page 386).
This is the set-up for the last novel of the series we now know is titled Mockingjay. Judging from a quick look at the Scholastic cover and this set-up, the finale may be the story of Katniss winning her freedom at last from playing parts in plays for which she is never shown a script to her self-actualization and free choices as a character “writing her own plans.”
Maybe. Right now, though, I don’t think so.
Don’t get me wrong. Mockingjay will certainly be about the liberation of the story character who is the rebellion’s inspiration and the story will feature Katniss in a break out role. It’s just that I doubt that Haymitch is the story mastermind and that Katniss is the real mockingjay, as central as both these characters are.
The real mockingjay and true author of the rebellion story told within the regime narrative, like Ms. Collins the rebellious television writer, doesn’t appear in the story as a named character. I’m guessing the ‘Wizard Behind the Curtain’ will turn out to be Madge Undersee’s mother, the woman who is simultaneously
- the twin sister of Maysilee Donner (or just Maysilee Donner),
- childhood friend of Katniss’ mother,
- the wife of District 12’s mayor, and
- Haymitch’s “crazy girl” (Fire, page 115).
We only ‘see’ Mrs. Donner-Undersee once and then only in film as a young woman when her mirror image self is taken into the Games as one of the second Quarter Quell’s four District 12 tributes (Fire, page 196).
I think that the rebellion’s mockingjay symbolism and counter-narrative starring Katniss and Haymitch are stories written by Mrs. Undersee for these reasons:
- the origin of the Mockingjay pin;
- the privileged station and situation of Mrs. Undersee;
- the meaning of the name ‘Madge Undersee;’
- the necessity of a narrative misdirection ‘wow’ in the series finale; and
- the centrality of the series message that we are players in a drama whose author(s) we do not know.
One at a time…
1. The Mockingjay Pin: We first see the pin in the opening chapter of Hunger Games. Madge Undersee is wearing it then on her “reaping clothes” finery. Katniss sees Gale noting its value before his unkind comments about the unlikelihood of Madge being selected as a District 12 Tribute (page 12). Before it becomes the token of the rebellion that will eventually be stamped on something like communion wafers among refugees, not to mention its becoming fashionable in the Capitol, the mockingjay accessory has to be transferred from Madge to Katniss with a committment extracted from Katniss to wear it in the arena. It is an odd scene.
Madge brings this pin to Katniss after the Reaping and very deliberately, even “urgently” gives it to her, exacting a promise that Katniss will wear it in the arena.
My next guest is also unexpected. Madge walks straight to me. She is not weepy or evasive, instead there’s an urgency about her tone that surprises me. “They let you wear one thing from your district in the arena. One thing to remind you of home. Will you wear this?” She holds out the circular gold pin that was on her dress earlier. I hadn’t paid much attention to it before, but now I see it had a small bird in flight.
“Your pin?” I say. Wearing a token from my district is about the last thing on my mind.
“Here, I’ll put it on your dress, all right?” Madge doesn’t wait for an answer, she just leans in and fixes the bird to my dress. “Promise me you’ll wear it in the arena, Katniss?” she asks. “Promise?”
“Yes,” I say. Cookies. A pin. I’m getting all kinds of gifts today. Madge gives me one more. A kiss on the cheek. Then she’s gone and I’m left thinking that maybe Madge really has been my friend all along (page 38).
Katniss doesn’t understand the power or meaning of this pin’s symbolism until well into Catching Fire but it is clear from Madge’s urgency and insistence in how she gives the token to Katniss that Madge believes or has been instructed that it is critical to Katniss’s success and survival that she wear it. Madge’s instructions, of course, are correct both in the short and long term. Rue chooses to trust Katniss because of the pin, most obviously, and then the symbol becomes both spark and catalyst for the rebellion when Katniss humiliates the Games Makers by stepping outside their narrative at story’s end.
Using the Red Hen model of literary speculation, namely, that implausibly unlikely events coming to pass are the marks of design, my assumption in coming to interpret the seemingly providential happenings of Hunger Games is that they were planned by someone within the story. For starters, Prim’s and Peeta’s names being chosen at the District 12 Reaping was too much of a dream match to have been arbitrary or random. Effie, I’m guessing, was told which names to pull or all the names in the bowl were the same. Given the love Peeta has for Katniss and Katniss’ singular qualifications for surviving, even thriving in the arena, skills she alone has among all District 12 women, their selection and the consequent counter-story of the star-crossed lovers was almost certainly written well in advance of their Hunger Games. A key piece in this seditious narrative is the mockingjay token because it is the symbol of the counter-story the Capitol couldn’t anticipate or control. She has to be wearing it for the story to work as written.
Who could have instructed Madge to get Katniss’ promise to wear it in the arena? I think the believable possibilities have to be restricted to Haymitch Abernathy or her mother — and the latter seems much more likely. Though the Maysilee-twin and Haymitch share a motivation to avenge Maysilee’s death (and would want the token to mark their taking revenge), Madge tells Katniss in Fire that the pin “was my Aunt’s” “but I think it’s been in my family a long time” (page 91), i.e., it was a gift from Madge and her family to Katniss.
2. The Privileged Station and Situation of Mrs. Undersee: There is a curious scene during the post Games tour when Haymitch takes Peeta and Katniss through the labyrinth of the District 11 Justice building to find a place for them to talk without being monitored (Fire, chapter 5). We’re not supposed to believe that Haymitch is able to do this because he remembers so vividly his own visit as touring victor to that building in District 11 25 years earlier. How then does he move with such surety, speed, and confidence through the maze of rooms and seemingly sealed doors? It’s not plausible unless he’s been there sometime, even many times, in the intervening years.
Or if someone else has.
We learn from Madge that even the Mayor’s wife, her mother, cannot travel to the Capitol for medical treatment and medicines without special permission. Obviously, though, Mrs. Undersee does get this kind of allowance. She “spends half her life in bed immobilized with terrible pain, shutting out the world” (Fire, page 196). She has enough pain killers on hand consequent to her medicinal trips to the Capitol that she is able to send a box to Katniss’ house in the Victor’s Village when Gale is whipped close to death by the new Head Peace Keeper, Thread.
Knowing that she does get to the Capitol because of her illness means she gets around. I think it’s safe to assume that she goes to other Districts as Mayor Undersee’s escort. I would bet she knows the major political players in every district as the First Lady of District 12 and has relative freedom in the Capitol to meet important people there.
Even promising dress designers. Cinna repeatedly returns the mockingjay pin to Katniss and is an essential figure in creating the “girl on fire” phoenix imagery that is the heart of the token’s meaning. Someone has initiated him into the mockingjay conspiracy. If not Mrs. Undersee, who?
I bet she meets men like Games Maker Plutarch Heavensbee, too, with whom, because of her sister’s history in the Games, she could have conversations quite different than those he would have with magistrate’s wives. Who could enlist a Games Maker into a rebellion than another person from his caste, a person who understands the power of story?
In brief, the ability to craft a rebellion counter-narrative within the Hunger Games spectacles requires a story teller with the ability to travel or otherwise communicate with the other districts, especially the Capitol. Mrs. Undersee is the only character we know with these privileges. Her illness, given that she has a full, spare box of precious pain killers may just be a front to facilitate her travel and invisibility.
3. The Meaning of the Name ‘Madge Undersee:’ There are two or three key symbols in the Hunger Games novels, all of which I hope to explore here eventually, of which the most predominant is the mockingjay token, a pin with a bird flying within a golden circle. There’s much too much there to unpack now — the alchemical and religious meanings alone are two long posts — but there is a secondary symbol that is immediate relevant to this discussion: the pearl.
Effie Trinket, something of a ditz on the surface but a woman who understands symbolism better than most, introduces the pearl imagery in Hunger Games:
“Everyone [with whom I’ve talked about being your sponsors] has their reservations, naturally. You being from the coal districts. But I said, and this was very clever of me, I said, ‘Well, if you put enough pressure on coal it turns to pearls!'” Effie beams at us so brilliantly that we have no choice but to respond enthusiastically to her cleverness even though it is wrong.
Coal doesn’t turn to pearls. They grow in shellfish. Possibly she meant coal turns to diamonds, but that’s untrue, too. I’ve heard that they have some sort of machine in District 1 that can turn graphite into diamonds. But we don’t mine graphite in District 12. That was part of District 13’s job until they were destroyed. (Page 74)
This is odd, no? The idea of Peeta and Katniss as pearls, though, returns in Katniss’ wedding dress at the Quell interview (linked beautifully with her phoenix-mockingjay role and her love for Peeta; Fire, page 247), and finally in the gift given by Peeta to Katniss that she accepts in the Quell arena. Peter repeats Effie’s comment word for word when he finds the “glistening, perfect pearl” and Katniss’ thoughts then are instructive:
“Hey, look at this!” [Peeta] holds up a glistening, perfect pearl about the size of a pea. “You know, if you put enough pressure on coal it turns to pearls,” he says earnestly to Finnick.
“No, it doesn’t,” says Finnick dismissively. But I crack up, remembering that’s how a clueless Effie Trinket presented us to the people of the Capitol last year, before anyone knew us. As coal pressured into pearls by our weighty existence. Beauty that arose out of pain. (Page 365)
The Pearl, then, is no small thing in Hunger Games as a symbol of the transformation of Peeta and Katniss in the Games and Quell crucibles. But why a pearl as the product of this transformation rather than diamond — and what does this have to do with Maysilee Donner’s twin?
In brief, I will argue (elsewhere) that the pearl is chosen, not only because it is a strange conceit, even perverse and stupid, just like the Hunger Games, but because of the pearl’s traditional meaning, namely, the “pearl of great price,” Matthew 13:45-46. In Ms. Collins’ story the pearl that Peeta-Katniss have become by the Quell’s crisis point is unconditional, sacrificial love, the “love hunger” that Katniss experiences on the beach in Fire when Peeta appeals to her to stop trying to protect him (pages 362-363).
And the Maysilee link? I will unpack this more in another post but it is important here just to note that “Madge” is short for “Margaret” which is the anglicized form of margarites, the Greek word for “pearl.” Mrs. Undersee has named her daughter “pearl” and this is a key symbol within the story-line that the as-yet-unnamed rebellion puppet-master is crafting.
Madge’s last name is meaningful, too. ‘Undersee’ means “under the ocean.” I think in Hunger Games it means something like “submarine,” as in “beneath the surface” or “out of sight.” Which is saying that what Mrs. Undersee wanted first for her daughter was for her to be a “hidden treasure” safe from the Reaping as the Mayor’s daughter in a way her twin sister Maysilee wasn’t. More important, I think, is the suggestion that Mrs. Undersee is “out of sight” and the Pearl beneath the surface, the secret genius creating the rebellion by re-writing the narrative that took her sister’s life
4. The Necessity of a Narrative Misdirection ‘Wow’ in the Series Finale
The story of Hunger Games is told from the first person perspective of the story protagonist, Katniss Everdeen. The key virtues of this voice are:
- we readers identify with Katniss, which identification or story-engagement, our “poetic faith” consequent to “suspending disbelief,” is very strong; and
- the author can deliver the postmodern message “don’t believe what you think” (among several other PoMo messages) via narrative misdirection.
In short, Katniss is a brilliant young woman, but most especially when she comes to the understanding that she doesn’t understand and doesn’t know what is really going on. (See Fire, pages 356, 378.) She is a player in someone else’s story — “Used without consent. Used Without knowledge.” (Fire, page 385) — even when she thinks she is writing the rebellious story within the Capitol’s Hunger Games and Quarter Quell.
All story-pointers at the end of Catching Fire direct our attention to Haymitch Abernathy as the alchemical dramatist who is the playwright for the play-within-the-play. And for just that reason, that so many clues point to him and that Katniss believes it sufficiently to attack him physically for the plans she is convinced he has made about her without her consent, I’m pretty sure the master planner is not Haymitch. Simply put, it’s not misdirection if it turns out to be who you thought it was going to be.
I’m betting instead on the twin sister of the girl who saved Haymitch’s life in the Quarter Quell and whose life he couldn’t save (he found the metanarrative boundary and the secret that defeated both his opponent and the Capitol but not in time to save Maysilee from the deadly, animated lawn flamingos). Even more of a ‘wow’ finish than having Mrs. Undersee just step out from behind the curtain as author-in-hiding would be learning that Maysilee’s surviving mirror reflection fell in love with Haymitch years ago — but that she married Mayor Undersee to insure that her child would not be made a District 12 tribute.
This Reaping possibility would have been dreadful to her not only because of her sister’s fate but also — egad! can it be? — because Madge is Haymitch’s daughter and a Victor’s child is too often chosen for the Games. Katniss has all but decided against children for just this reason. Both Haymitch and Mrs. Undersee play the parts they do because their lives turn on making the kind of impossible life-and-death choices Haymitch tells Katniss she’ll “have to make” someday as a Hunger Games victor and mentor (Fire, page 67).
Too much? I’ll concede that a Haymitch-as-Madge’s-dad revelation at Mockingjay’s finish (or opening) is a stretch. There are shades and hints of this possibility in the echoes of Haymitch’s relationship with Maysilee in the relationships of Katniss-Peeta with Rue and of Finnick with the mad Annie Cresta. That plot-point speculation, though, isn’t what I’m reaching for, really.
The narrative misdirection consequent to our being suckered quite naturally into accepting Katniss’ beliefs as reality is the point. The jolt we receive along with Katniss as she wakes up to her being a pawn is a big piece of the Hunger Games postmodern morality (see point 5) — and the bigger the jolt of surprise, the stronger the message hits home.
And I cannot think of a more credible and still surprising candidate for secret-story-mage than Mrs. Undersee.
5. The Centrality of the Series Message that We are Players in a Drama whose Author(s) We do not Know
As I said, a big piece of Ms. Collins’ aim in writing Hunger Games is to create the shock we feel as readers sharing Katniss’ shock about being a pawn in someone else’s story. The message here isn’t surprise just for surprise’s sake but as dramatic confirmation of the usual postmodern beliefs we share: things aren’t what they seem, the core cultural metanarrative is the fount of prejudice, injustice, and evil in the world, self-actualizing choice is the means to freedom, only speaking truth to power is a free choice, don’t believe what you think, etc. Ms. Collins within this reinforcement of the generic beliefs of our age is making attacks as well on specific targets, most notably, television and the American consumerist anti-culture.
I hope to be writing here in coming weeks about the postmodern themes in Hunger Games and the satirical quality of Ms. Collins’ dystopia (Animal Farm meets Rollerball), especially about television and its uses in Panem by both the Capitol and the rebels. But in the speculative discussion of whether Mrs. Undersee might be the real story Mockingjay, I need only note the theme in Hunger Games that we are actors in a drama whose parameters and meaning were created by other people, more powerful people, that we don’t know.
Katniss in the 74th and 75th Hunger Games is leading, as she says herself again and again, the life of a “pawn.” Her victory in her first Games is, like Haymitch’s insight in his, to step outside the boundaries of the fixed-story. She succeeds in this by her willingness to sacrifice herself rather than submit to the ending given her by the Games Makers. The berry-bluff and near suicide, however, trap Katniss into a relationship with Peeta and another story that is, like the demeaning arena narrative, not her story to control or change.
More intriguing and mysterious, she discovers that her star-crossed lovers sub-plot has become an inspiring act of rebellion to the people of the Districts. She meets the author of the evil regime’s Hunger Games story-line when President Snow visits the Victors Village to exact with threats her enthusiastic co-operation in the tour and associated events. But who is the author of the Romeo and Juliet ‘Mockingjay’ rebellion narrative? Who brought Cinna into the game? Who made the connections with men like Plutarch Heavensbee in the Capitol? We know the players in the regime’s drama; who is producing the rebellion’s show?
Katniss doesn’t know. She assumes at the end of Catching Fire that it is Haymitch Abernathy but her agony isn’t so much in the realization that she’s been tricked by her mentor. What causes her to all but despair and die before Gale’s appearance at the very end of Catching Fire is that what she had imagined was a dangerous game being played to defeat the regime’s Quarter Quell was actually a drama whose other players knew they were on a different, larger stage to overthrow the regime itself.
She became a story symbol of love transcending self and power despite herself in her first Games. By the Quell, she understood clearly that playing this part was taken by Capitol leaders as an act of rebellion and she played it willingly and deliberately despite the risk. Katniss learns, though, in the hovercraft that she has been the unwitting accomplice — and the featured performer! — in the real world rebellion taking place outside any fixed arena. And she is furious.
Collins’ point for her readers? I think it is a call, first, following Katniss’ example, to reject the soul-slaughtering message of the regime’s entertainment as we have it on commercial driven television. More to the point of this post, though, is her main character’s struggle to know the roles she is playing and to choose deliberately when and as much as she can to step out of roles that are demeaning to her or to those around her. This struggle requires recognition not only of the obvious political metanarratives (“Capitol, good; Districts, bad”) but the scripts we follow in all our relationships, roles we have from family, community, and culture.
In real life, we don’t get to meet the author(s) of the plays in which we act and which we stage in our lives. They’re either dead white men (the Founding Fathers, Marx, Freud, Dewey, Roosevelt, Friedman) or talking head media corporations (CNN, FOX, MSNBC, NPR). Katniss, though,will meet in Mockingjay the real Mockingjay who has written the story she is in, which meeting will highlight for us how little we know about the stories we are acting out and who is pulling our strings.
Conclusion: The Pearl Theory
My ‘Pearl’ Mockingjay theory is that the secret story writer of the Hunter Games books is one of the Donner twin sisters. We know that Maysilee Donner was called but, because they were twins, we cannot know whether she or her sister went to the Capitol. Madge tells us that the golden mockingjay pin belonged to Maysilee, her aunt (or mother), but Maysilee either didn’t take it with her to the Quell or her sister took her place.
Either survivor, of course, would hate the Games. She would know, too, how a sister would respond if a weaker sister were chosen at the Reaping. That surviving twin, if in the proper position, could plan how to defeat the Games using Haymitch’s strategy of attacking the story boundaries and humiliating the Games Makers.
I suggest for your consideration through Madge and other contacts, especially Haymitch, Mrs. Donner-Undersee knew about Katniss’ archery abilities and Peeta’s affection for her. The idea of a love-story inside the arena was natural to her because of her sister’s relationship with Haymitch, if not her own. Again, the idea of Katniss heroically taking Prim’s place was if anything more obvious than a love story to the twin sister left behind at the Reaping to wish she had been chosen or volunteered.
Rue and Thresh were selected because of their strengths but also also because of their places in the District 11 community (i.e., that their deaths would incite rebellion). Rue was told about the Mockingjay token.
Cinna was recruited during trips to the Capitol; his choice of District 12 was anything but arbitrary and his ‘Girl on Fire’ designs at both Games and Quell were deliberately incendiary. Plutarch Heavensbee the Games Maker after being recruited to the mission was able to help manipulate the District 12 Tribute training scores and eventually even the rules of the Games so that Peeta and Katniss’ story could play out as it did. Haymitch had recruited the Victors he wanted to the cause over a period of 25 years during his mentoring times in the Capitol.
Through her husband’s office and communications, Donner-Undersee was tapped into everything happening in Panem that the Capitol shared with District leaders. She arranged Katniss’ and Peeta’s selection and she wrote the script for Haymitch to produce. He did the job so well a la Foster Brookes that no one suspected he had a part in it until the end of the Quell and even then Donner-Undersee’s role was obscured.
In Mockingjay, though, I expect two things: Katniss to insist on writing her own script and the revelation of the real mockingjay, Madge’s mother.
Ms. Collins, I suggest for your comment and correction, is saying that as watchers of television we are all twins, after a fashion. Part of us is sucked into the commercial metanarrative and the postmodern relativist messages of this medium and all the entertainment and news programming it delivers. This part of us — a large part of us — dies to what is real, good, and beautiful about life as a human being.
Our surviving twin, though, can defeat the Beast and protect our children from it by creating a counter narrative, the story of Diana-Katniss, the woman-warrior and nature-goddess, who is not a child of the City but of the Seam, where heaven and earth meet and are joined. This child, nourished by the androgynous and asexual men of her life — ‘Gale,’ the Wind, nature, and Spirit with ‘Peeta,’ the bread of communion, art, culture — is the anti-victim, a young woman who provides for her family and responsible for her thinking and understanding — whom the regime cannot control or destroy. She speaks loudly and vividly of love’s transcendent victory over power and self via her very existence and the trappings the hidden rebellion’s alchemical dramatist gives her in dress through Cinna and in story-production through the Games Maker and her mentor.
Like her character Maysilee Donner-Undersee, Suzanne Collins is writing this counter-narrative to the regime’s televised culture of death in Hunger Games. And she is calling us to write a similar counter-narrative in our lives by nourishing our inner Katniss in resistance to the anti-culture’s story tellers in whose Cave we live, chained mentally to the shadows they cast on the walls.