The Hunger Games novel by Suzanne Collins includes numerous symolic images throughout to shed light on societal problems. This paper argues that readers accept these symbols readily because society responds well to visual representations, thanks to the constant flood of visual media. The major images in the book are bread, fire, roses, and the mockingjay pin, all of which underline the problems in Panem, the novel's society, as well as in our own. This paper connects the space between data on visuals in literature and the study of social issues in The Hunger Games to explore how Collins's visual metaphors advocate for social justice.
“And may the odds be ever in your favor” serves as the famous catchphrase in Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, which tells the story of teenagers who are forced to fight to the death as a means of entertainment and oppression in a dystopian society. Throughout the novel, the televised spectacle emphasizes visuals by using repeated visual metaphors for social problems such as governmental secrecy, poverty and hunger, citizen rebellion, and vanity. In the novel, Collins uses the mockingjay pin, fire, roses, and bread as visual metaphors to highlight social problems because she recognizes that our society is highly responsive to visualizations due to the influx of visual media in our everyday interactions. By doing this, Collins calls attention to the problems in our own society as well as those of Panem, the society in The Hunger Games. Collins uses simple, material objects as a rhetorical strategy. Ultimately, I want to bridge the gap between the research on visuals in literature and the research on social issues in The Hunger Games to show that Collins’s use of repeated visual metaphors works as a rhetorical device on readers to highlight these types of social problems.
While research on visualization in young adult literature is lacking, scholars have researched the social justice problems of poverty and class differences in The Hunger Games, and other young adult literature. In Reading for a Better World: Teaching for Social Responsibility with Young Adult Literature, Steven Wolk argues, “a democracy requires people that do read, read widely, and think and act in response to their reading.” Reading should have a greater purpose than the fulfillment of an academic assignment, but how can we get young adults to read and absorb the content they are reading? Wolk believes that teachers have the responsibility to teach through the themes of social problems and social justice. They can do this by using texts that promote relevant themes and ideas through characters, plot development, and even metaphors. Particularly, metaphors promote text themes by making strong connections over the course of a work (Wolk 665). Amber M. Simmons expands on the idea of using literature as a call for action in her article “Class on Fire: Using the Hunger Games Trilogy to Encourage Social Action.” Simmons argues, “The horrors with which students will become familiar may alter their conception of humanity, but the social-action projects in which they can participate will show them that…there is hope for a better world and a better human race,” (Simmons 24). Due to the popularity of The Hunger Games, it can be used as a tool for social responsibility. Teachers should make their students aware of social issues in young adult literature so that students engage with and are more aware of societal problems today. Both scholars focus on the idea that books can inspire social justice, but neither article discusses the methods an author like Collins uses to create that change. Therefore, I will discuss how The Hunger Games fits into the category of social justice literature set up by both scholars and what about the novel allows it to incite social change.
Additionally, scholars have researched visuals in children’s literature, but there is a gap in the research on young adult literature. There is research supporting the idea that children gain a greater insight and a deeper connection with literature because of visual metaphors, but the research focuses mainly on picture books. Furthermore, tension exists between books and other forms of entertainment because various forms of media are quickly replacing traditional literature. In her article, “Literature in the Age of Visual Media”, Delia Konzett argues, “we are moving into a new post print environment in which print and literary culture, particularly the novel, is being subsumed into and replaced by various forms of new media,” (Konzett 285). Since people like the visualization and flow of television, movies, and music, how can literature provide the same experience? In my research, I argue that Collins creates this “flow” by using strong visual metaphors to capture her readers’ attention. By repeating the metaphors throughout the novel, readers begin to develop pictures of the metaphors in their minds, and the results are much like that of watching a movie or a television show. This is especially important in young adult literature because it does not have pictures or physical images the way a children’s book would. Additionally, this topic is important to study because it will provide insight into how visuals play a strong role in influencing the thoughts of readers and how authors can use metaphors as a rhetorical and political strategy in their writing.
In this paper, I plan to discuss research scholars have published on visual metaphors, literature and media, and the relationship between social action and literature. I will use this research to support my claim about Collin’s use of visual metaphors in The Hunger Games by analyzing the use of bread, the mockingjay pin, fire, and roses in the novel. After discussing the significance of each image and its pertinence to the call for social action in the text, I will provide examples of quotes with the visual metaphors to show how they function in the overall text. Lastly, I will conclude by drawing together the four visuals to support my argument that Collins uses repeated visual metaphors to advocate for social justice action in our world through her writing in The Hunger Games.
Previously conducted research on the importance of social action themed literature and on literature’s decline in today’s media-driven world exists, but there is a void of research about the literary techniques used in literature to make it appeal to today’s young adults. I will use research on social action themed literature by Mark Fisher, Amber M. Simmons, and Steven Wolk to support my claim that Susanne Collins wrote The Hunger Games to encourage readers to seek social justice. Additionally, research by Michael Wutz and Delia Konzett is used to argue the idea that The Hunger Games can compete with today’s media because of its use of visuals. People are responsive to visualizations because of television’s widespread success, and Collins creates the same effect through repeated images. Lastly, I will add Marie-Laure Ryan’s research on metaphors to my argument because Collins uses metaphors as a rhetorical strategy to argue for social change. Ultimately, I argue that Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games uses repeated visual metaphors to appeal to a young adult audience attracted by visuals in order to call her readers to social action.
Michael Wutz’s Enduring Words: Literary Narrative in a Changing Media Ecology discusses the future of the book in conjunction with a discussion on the prevalence of media. He argues that certain aspects of television shows, movies, music, and the Internet have pushed printed literature to the margins, but Wutz believes that literature’s unique characteristics will ultimately keep it alive. Several cited authors in the book have attempted to make their works known by differentiating them from popular forms of media. Wutz believes this is a mistake and argues for printed literature that utilizes the benefits of popular media (Wutz 20-28, 37-45). Wutz’s research connects to my overall argument because Collins uses repeated visual metaphors to make her novel into a television-like experience.
Delia Konzett’s “Literature in the Age of Visual Media” details the opinions and arguments of Michael Wutz. She furthers his arguments by discussing the importance of media in our everyday lives. Konzett agrees with Wutz that interactive forms of media entertainment cast literature aside (Konzett 285). Konzett and Wutz’s research allows one to expand further on the importance of young adult literature.
Mark Fisher’s “Precarious Dystopias: The Hunger Games, In Time, and Never Let Me Go” uses three different novels to study the political motives in literature. His argument centers on the idea that The Hunger Games is political through its portrayal of brutality and that the most disturbing image comes from the idea that the novel mirrors our world. Fisher uses the term “political” to refer to The Hunger Games’ ability to inspire social change. He discusses connections to reality television, capitalism, and rebellion. Fisher’s lasting point throughout the article is that political literature forces readers to leave behind a sense of fantasy (Fisher 27-30). Fisher’s research points to the political message in The Hunger Games and supports the claim that Collins uses visuals to make a political statement.
Unlike Fisher, Amber M. Simmons focuses on the effective qualities of The Hunger Games as a teaching tool as opposed to the specific connections between the novel and our world. Simmons’s article, “Class on Fire: Using the Hunger Games Trilogy to Encourage Social Action” argues that teachers and classrooms can use popular literature effectively. The article begins by summarizing The Hunger Games and continues by explaining how social justice can be encouraged in the classroom. Novels like The Hunger Games encourage students to use critical thinking skills to evaluate and assess the extent of social justice problems. The article delves into slavery and the sex trade because Simmons views critical literature as a way to introduce violent acts to students in a sheltered manner (Simmons 28-30).
Like Simmons, Steven Wolk argues that teaching for social empowerment cannot only change the thinking of students but also change the purpose of schools in “Reading for a Better World: Teaching for Social Responsibility with Young Adult Literature.” His main argument is that young adult literature should exist for more than entertainment (Wolk 664-665). Unlike Simmons, Wolk discusses the topics of education and social empowerment in broad, theoretical terms. He does not discuss specific situations such as slavery and the sex trade, but instead talks about the need for social action as a whole. I can use his ideas centering on the belief that all literature should effectively convey a critical message and apply it directly to The Hunger Games to show how Collins uses repeated visual metaphors to remind readers of the need for social change.
Marie-Laure Ryan’s “The Modes of Narrativity and Their Visual Metaphors” explores the use of visual metaphors in narratives. She outlines the characteristics of different types of narratives including figural, underlying, embryonic, diluted, and braided narratives (Ryan 368). While Ryan’s research differs from the other scholars I have reviewed, she offers necessary background information on metaphors. I will take this research and combine it with the research on social action literature and the role of literature today in order to study Collins’s use of visual metaphors in The Hunger Games.
There is extensive research regarding The Hunger Games and its role in today’s young adult literature genre. While scholars have labeled the novel as a call for social action, there is little research about Collins’s literary strategies that actually allow the novel to be a tool for social change. While Fisher, Simmons, and Wolk agree that social action literature is an important genre, they do not discuss the literary strategies that make social action literature successful at inspiring change. The Hunger Games uses repeated visual metaphors to draw in young adult readers by creating distinct mental images. These images help highlight Collins’s call for social action in The Hunger Games.
Summary of Novel
To contextualize my argument, I am going to start by summarizing The Hunger Games. The novel tells the story of Panem, a land created after the fall of democracy in the United States. Panem contains twelve districts, and each district reports to the Capitol, which enjoys the wealth of the land, while the majority of the districts live in poverty. Each year, the Capitol hosts an event, titled The Hunger Games, to give their citizens false hope that they have the ability to interfere and change their lives whenever they choose. The Hunger Games consists of two teenagers, called tributes, from each of the twelve districts that are chosen randomly. These tributes enter an enclosed arena complete with a lake, a river, a large field, and a sprawling expansion of woods where they remain until only one is alive; in order to win the game, the tributes must live off the land and work to kill each other before another tribute kills them. Collins alludes to Roman gladiators through the one-on-one combat and the loss of humanity the tributes experience (Slager). Additionally, the game maker carries the role of God in that he has the ability to cause natural disasters, create monsters, and take away or supply resources to make The Hunger Games progress more quickly. The entire event is filmed and played on television, and the citizens of Panem are expected to watch, which is a critique of reality television’s future if taken to extremes (Q&A). The fact that this plays out through visual and graphic means suggests a corollary with our own fascination with visual media.
One of the most common visuals in The Hunger Games is bread, which Collins uses to symbolize the class differences that exist in the novel and to emphasize the injustice of the inequity. When Katniss discovers her fellow tribute from District Twelve is Peeta Mellark, she remembers the day that Peeta gave her burnt bread because it was unsellable. Peeta is a baker and is more financially stable than Katniss and her family. The bread works to symbolize the class differences between the two. Katniss says, “To this day, I can never shake the connection between this boy, Peeta Mellark, and the bread that gave me hope,” showing that for Katniss, bread symbolizes fullness and rids her of her desperation (Collins 32). Katniss’s satisfaction with the burnt bread forces readers to acknowledge Katniss’s poverty and dire need for food. To Katniss, bread, or any item of food, buys her time in which to prepare for her future and the future of her family. She is enamored with the bread, despite its flaws, because of her starvation.
Readers see the same association between hope and bread after Katniss enters the arena: “This bread came from District 11. I cautiously lift the still warm loaf. What it must have cost the people of District 11 who can’t even feed them themselves?” (Collins 239). Tributes in the arena are sometimes supported by sponsors who send them food, medicine, and other supplies as aid. The district sends warm, fresh bread to Katniss as a sign of hope despite their poverty. Readers see how the meaning of the bread changes for Katniss; it is no longer a symbol of her poverty, but a symbol of hope for her future inside the arena. Burnt bread is associated with poverty and desperation while warm, fresh bread is associated with hope. The use of the repeated visual allows Collins to begin with bread symbolizing poverty and develop the metaphor into a greater theme, hope, as the novel unwinds.
Another image present throughout the novel, the mockingjay pin, undergoes a change as its meaning transitions from a sign of hope to a sign of citizen rebellion; Collins uses this visual metaphor repeatedly to emphasize the struggle of Panem’s citizens and their slowly growing resistance to the Capitol. After the government chooses Katniss to enter the arena, several family members and friends visit her with gifts and warm wishes. A schoolmate, Madge, asks Katniss to take her pin and wear it into the arena: “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’s a small bird in flight,” (Collins 38). Madge gives Katniss the pin as a good luck charm to protect her in the arena against the other tributes; the mockingjay pin symbolizes Madge’s hope that Katniss will return to District Twelve alive. The physical characteristics of the pin support its symbolization of hope. The pin is gold, which suggests luxury and expense, something that most of Panem’s citizens do not have. Additionally, the bird suggests flight, which I argue represents the citizens’ ability ultimately to flee from the Capitol and its control. Collins uses the mockingjay pin throughout The Hunger Games to remind readers of District Twelve’s support for Katniss and their hope that she will return home safely by fleeing from danger. The pin stays with Katniss throughout her journey and serves to remind her of home and the people she represents.
As The Hunger Games evolves, the mockingjay pin metaphor develops from hope into citizen rebellion; Collins uses this image to show the changing beliefs of Panem’s citizens over the course of the novel. Before Katniss enters the arena, her stylist Cinna, helps her dress: “I think I’m finished when Cinna pulls the gold mockingjay pin from his pocket. I had completely forgotten about it…’It’s your district token, right?’ I nod and he fastens it on my shirt. ‘It barely cleared the review board. Some thought the pin could be used as a weapon, giving you an unfair advantage. But eventually, they let it through,’ says Cinna,” (Collins 145). Katniss had forgotten about the pin, suggesting that she has lost all hope for winning the games. However, Cinna’s description of the review board’s dilemma begins to introduce the idea of citizen rebellion. The board worried that the pin could be a weapon because of the sharp point on the back; little did they know that the pin would ultimately become a symbol for rebellion: a weapon used against them. Collins uses the visual in this scene to foreshadow the power the pin would have to influence citizens watching the televised spectacle. The mockingjay pin becomes Katniss’s token, and the people of Panem identify with her through the symbol. Like bread, the mockingjay pin symbolizes hope at the beginning of the novel, but its meaning shifts as people begin to align behind Katniss and Peeta. Collins works to show that one individual and their actions can arouse citizen action. Additionally, the visual metaphor repeats throughout the text to show the growth of unrest and rebellion among Panem’s citizens.
The third visual metaphor, fire, represents the Capitol’s obsession with physical beauty and attraction and shows how vainness can ultimately force an entire population to lose their self-awareness. In addition to the mockingjay pin, Collins uses fire as Katniss’s main symbol because appearance dominates the actions of the Capitol. Cinna dresses Katniss for the first ceremony in an outfit that he lights with synthetic fire:
‘…We both see it as our job to make the District Twelve tributes unforgettable…’I want the audience to recognize you when you’re in the arena,’ says Cinna dreamily. ‘Katniss, the girl who was on fire’…At first, I’m frozen, but then I catch sight of us on a large television screen and am floored by how breathtaking we look. In the deepening twilight, the firelight illuminates our faces. We seem to be leaving a trail of fire off the flowing capes. (Collins 66-70)
Since Cinna lives in the Capitol, he recognizes that physical beauty and attraction will make Katniss memorable. The synthetic fire draws in the audience and distracts their attention from the other tributes. The words “unforgettable”, “breathtaking,” and “illuminates” suggest that Cinna has made Katniss into an enticing spectacle. The Capitol revolves around visual spectacles and physicality, which is why the Capitol’s citizens notice her. “Katniss, the girl who was on fire,” becomes Katniss’s signature phrase, and it further emphasizes the vainness of the Capitol because they remember Katniss by a costume. This is partially due to Katniss’s inability to promote herself based on her personality. Collins uses fire as a repeated metaphor to stress the shallowness of the Capitol and their emphasis on fitting certain stereotypes for beauty. The metaphor works to make readers recognize the ridiculous lengths people go to in the novel to be “beautiful” and admired by society. As The Hunger Games unfolds, Katniss quickly realizes how harmful stereotypes can be due to her exposure to the Capitol and its vanity.
The meaning of the fire metaphor changes after Katniss enters the arena because the Game Maker uses her signature item to harm her. After a few days in the arena, Katniss finds herself alone in the woods. The Game Maker creates a wall of fire to force Katniss back into the main vicinity of the arena with the other tributes:
I hurdle over a burning log. Not high enough. The tail end of my jacket catches on fire and I have to stop to rip it from my body and stamp out the flames. But I don’t dare leave the jacket, scorched and smoldering as it is…The fireball hits a tree off to my left, engulfing it in flames. To remain still is death. I’m barely on my feet before the third balls hits the ground where I was lying, sending a pillar of fire up behind me. (Collins 173-175)
Even though Katniss jumps over the burning log, she cannot escape its consequences. This shows how the vainness of the people living in the Capitol will ultimately harm them. Similarly, Katniss’s clothing catches on fire, but she does not feel like she can leave the jacket because it is all she has. The scorching and smoldering of the jacket gives a sharp contrast to the previous image of Katniss in her tour dress with the synthetic fire. Ultimately, fire is fire, and it brings danger and harm. The fire is always moving, always working to catch up to Katniss, and she has to move as far away as she possibly can to escape its dangers. Collins suggests that our society’s obsession with beauty will only lead us to harm ourselves, whether through negative perceptions of ourselves, through eating disorders, or even through pain to achieve physical “beauty”. The metaphor repeats to show the constant struggle to achieve perfection in the eyes of others. Collins suggests that an obsession with beauty and physicality ultimately hurts the citizens of Panem because they lose their self-awareness and cannot see the tragedy of the games they support and love. Additionally, Collins uses the image to show how something meaningless, such as physical beauty, can become harmful to one’s wellbeing if it is obsessed over.
The last visual metaphor, roses, hints at the secrecy and exclusivity of the Capitol. Unlike the other metaphors, roses maintain the same symbolization throughout the text. Collins uses the image in this way to show that although Katniss and her fellow citizens begin to revolt against the government, they do not completely break through the governmental barriers at the end of The Hunger Games. When Katniss and Peeta do their public interviews with Caesar Flickerman, he and Peeta joke about the smell of roses that seems to exist everywhere in the Capitol: “’Tell me, do I still smell like roses?’ he asks Caesar, and then there’s a whole run where they take turns sniffing each other that brings down the house” (Collins 130). In the interview, Caesar is surprised that Peeta claims to smell roses everywhere, even in the showers. This suggests that the citizens of the Capitol are oblivious to their lifestyle differences from the rest of Panem. Furthermore, they are unaware of the government’s manipulative treatment of Panem’s citizens in order to keep control over the society. Collins’s use of the image of roses serves to remind readers of the separation between the rulers of Panem and their citizens.
After studying the use of visual metaphors in Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, I argue that the repeated images serve to highlight the social problems in our world in order to make a connection with readers through visualization. The problems of poverty and hunger, governmental secrecy, citizen rebellion, and vanity exist in both Panem and our world. Collins uses repeated visual metaphors in order to make young readers aware of societal problems in an age-appropriate way. In addition to these problems, The Hunger Games provides a strong critique of reality television (Li). Collins criticizes our fixation with reality television in The Hunger Games because she believes it causes us to be desensitized to tragic issues and situations. While some believe that the horrific scenes in the novel and movie do not register with readers as real problems, I conclude that Collins’s use of repeated visual metaphors forces readers to connect with the societal issues in the text (Garrett). Not only does Collins provide an example of reality television abuse, but she uses the aforementioned images to show how world problems can be shared with young adults in an efficient and sensitive manner. Bread, the mockingjay pin, fire, and roses symbolize greater societal problems. Students have the opportunity to read The Hunger Games and notice the themes since they are often repeated; however, because the problems are subtly mentioned in the novel, students gradually understand the connections between the metaphors and the societal problems in such a way that does not lead to desensitization. Readers understand Katniss’s dire poverty and her fight against the Capitol; they also understand the need for her legacy and the separation between the Capitol and the rest of the districts. These repeated ideas connect directly to harsh realities of our world, but by using visual metaphors, Collins presents the ideas in an age-appropriate way.
Suzanne Collins’s use of repeated visual metaphors in The Hunger Games allows readers to relate to the problems experienced by Katniss and her peers in order to recognize the same problems in our world. Poverty and hunger, governmental secrecy, citizen rebellion, and vanity exist both inside and outside The Hunger Games, and Collins uses repeated images to remind readers of the societal problems. The use of repeated images works especially well for the young adult genre because our society is highly responsive to visuals due to the overbearing presence of movies and television shows. Repeated visual metaphors function in a similar manner because readers encounter the images repeatedly throughout the text, and the images are always associated with the same meanings. Collins uses this literary technique to expose young adults to societal problems and to encourage them to think about how they can make a positive change in our world today.
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About the Author(s)