Guest Post: ‘Real or Not Real (Again)’

Friend-of-this-blog Chaya Golan sent me these notes on Katniss Everdeen and Bella Swann. I thought them so good that I begged her to let me share them with you. Enjoy!

Real or Not Real (again)

In The Hunger Games, as John and others participating in the discussion on this site have noted, one major theme is “real or not real”.  In Mockingjay, Peeta is characterized as the person who has trouble determining reality because he was “highjacked”.  While the brainwashing and memory tampering he has suffered is certainly a violation and a weapon used against Katniss that she and her team are challenged to overcome, I would like to discuss a second person who throughout the series appears to have a problem with “real or not real”: that person is Katniss herself.

As the ultimate survivor, Katniss would appear to have a good grip on reality.  And she does on certain aspects of it.  But her survival and her ultimate redemption are dependent on Peeta’s love for her (and then her love for him) – and his love she is oblivious to for a long time.  That might not be so odd – except that everyone around her is aware of it.

Gale is Katniss’ closest friend.  At one point in Mockingjay, she tells him that Darius was not serious in his intentions towards her, and Gale answers, “If he were, you’d be the last to know.  Think how you were about Peeta.  And me.”  Indeed, earlier, in The Hunger Games, when Katniss tells Rue that Peeta was just pretending to love her for the Games, Rue answers “thoughtfully, ‘I didn’t think that was an act’”.  We have been told throughout the first book how intelligent Rue is, so when she says something “thoughtfully”, we are meant to take that seriously — the reality is clear to her although Katniss doesn’t see it.

And, interestingly, although throughout the series the similarity between Haymitch and Katniss is stressed – so that they can communicate in a kind of code of sponsor gifts given or withheld during the first Games, and so that the climax of the Series and of Katniss’ battle against the evil of the Games depends on this instantaneous intuitive affinity at the end; even so – Haymitch sees immediately that Peeta is sincere in his love for Katniss, whereas Katniss doubts him – at least throughout the first book.  (Haymitch knows too that Katniss will react this way; as Peeta says, “Haymitch said you’d take a lot of convincing.”)

Why doesn’t Katniss believe Peeta loves her?  Peeta’s consistency and integrity are apparent to other people.  His “kindness, steadiness, warmth – but warmth with steel in it” is unchanging until he is “highjacked” by the Capitol.  And yet it is not Peeta’s original perception but the perception of the highjacked Peeta that Katniss trusts:  “All those months of taking it for granted that Peeta thought I was wonderful are over.  Finally, he can see me for who I really am.  Violent.  Distrustful.  Manipulative.  Deadly.”  And again, it is Gale who corrects Katniss when, a few pages later, she says, “’Maybe [Peeta] just sees me as I really am…;’” Gale replies, “‘Katniss, as your oldest friend, believe me when I say he’s not seeing you as you really are.’”

No one doubts’ Katniss’ skill as a hunter or the “effect she has on other people” (as Peeta says throughout the series, first on p.91 of The Hunger Games).   In Catching Fire, after Katniss practices shooting in front of the other victors/tributes, half of them – including the strongest – request her as an ally.  Katniss too knows she is competent – and so, when she doubts Peeta can love her, it is not because she thinks she is weak or incapable, but rather because she thinks she is not as good and he is.  (On the night before their first time in the arena, Katniss can’t sleep and she joins Peeta on the roof of the training center.  As they talk, she compares herself to him, “I bit my lip, feeling inferior.  While I’ve been ruminating about the availability of trees, Peeta has been struggling with how to maintain his identity.  His purity of self.” And as Haymitch says to her in Catching Fire, “You could live a hundred lifetimes and not deserve him.”)

I would suggest that the success of The Hunger Games has something to do with the familiarity of this feeling – we are loved and do not feel worthy of that love.  We can identify with Katniss not because mortal combat in the arena is such a common experience but because the unexpected and baffling love of a person we imagine to be so much better than ourselves is.

This same phenomenon could explain the popularity and ease of identification with the heroine of the Twilight series.  The comparison is revealing because Bella appears in some ways to be the opposite of Katniss: she says she is “so clumsy that I’m almost disabled” and she is correspondingly bad an anything athletic; however, as Edward says in Midnight Sun, “Bella was good.  All the other things added up to that whole – kind and self-effacing and unselfish and loving and brave – she was good through and through”.  And yet, even though Bella is good, she, like Katniss, believes herself unworthy of and does not believe in the love of the hero whose passion for her is apparent to everyone else.

At the end of New Moon, Edward asks Bella, “[H]ow could you believe me?  After all the thousand times I’ve told you I love you, how could you let one word break your faith in me?”  When, in answer, Bella starts to cry and continues to refuse to believe him, Edward asks, “Why can you believe the lie, but not the truth?”

Bella answers, “It never made sense for you to love me…. I always knew that.”  The reasons Bella gives for her doubt are usually based on her perceived physical inferiority to Edward, for example: “The contrast between the two of us was painful.  He looked like a god.  I looked very average, even for a human, almost shamefully plain.  I flipped the picture over with a feeling of disgust,” and she also compares her awkwardness to Edward’s superhuman grace.   This is how Katniss feels – that it never made sense for Peeta to love her – even if for the opposite reason.

Why is this theme so powerful?  Why do we need to be reassured over and over that we can be loved by one who appears to be a superior being?  (Katniss answers Haymitch in Catching Fire, “Yeah, yeah… No question [Peeta’s] the superior one in this trio.”   And Edward is godlike – “inhumanly beautiful” as Bella says when she sees him for the first time.)

I would be interested the HogwartsProfessor readers’ answers to this question.  As John has shown, both series succeed on many (four) levels, and so there are probably at least that many answers.  In the (also very popular) movie Pretty Woman, the hero tells the heroine, ““I think you are a very bright special woman,” and she responds “the bad stuff is easier to believe, you ever notice that?”  So, at one level, the explanation may be that Katniss and Bella, like the title character of that film, suffer from low self-esteem.

And perhaps too, as John has suggested repeatedly on this site and in his books, this theme resonates so deeply with so many readers because these are not just love stories between a man and a woman but also metaphors for the love between a person and G-d.


  1. IMO, it’s easy to see why Katniss plays real/not real with love. Her entire life has been a battle to merely survive, to fill the basic needs- roof over your head, food. At 12, she basically became an adult but she’s still 12 and needs an adult to treat her like the child she is- provide food and warmth and love. Yet no one does that in her hour of greatest need (expect Peeta). Because no one has shown her the love she needs, it’s easy to think you are unlovable and/or not deserving of love. It also becomes increasingly hard to give that love to someone else, especially when everyone you love (ie, her father, her mother) leaves you in same way (death, depression).
    With this in mind, why should she even consider love? She’s trying to survive. Loving someone means a) they could leave her (and considering her history, why would she want to risk more heartache?) b) more mouths to feed (marriage, babies). With her head consumed with practical matters, she’s not going to be thinking about whether or not someone wants to take her to the slag heap. She’s thinking day to day, not of the future, as is shown early in the first book when she and Gale are in the forest before the Reaping.
    Speaking of love and friendship and Gale… let’s talk about him. Metaphors aside, the guy really needs to cut Katniss some slack. He often talks about love and marriage, abeit indirectly, without understanding why Katniss doesn’t want to speak of it. As her best friend, he really needs to be understanding and respectful of what she is going through. He’s the perfect example of “friends” who think a person who has been through a tragedy should “get over it” quickly. Even if they go through something similar (as Gale saved the people from D12), they still are unable to sympathize with the original person. Gale’s a great character and, honestly, a fine example of what NOT to do or say when someone you know is going through an “arena” (war, death of a loved one, in my case, a NICU).

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