Part I: “The Tributes”
Katniss Everdeenwakes up to see that her little sister, Prim, has left their shared bed to sleep with their mother. Katniss watches them sleep, looking less careworn than when awake. It’s reaping day, and Buttercup, Prim’s hideous cat, seems to be watching over her. Katniss is glad she didn’t kill Buttercup when he was a wormy kitten. Katniss puts on her hunting gear and, taking a goat cheese Prim made for her, and slips through the tall, intermittently electrified fence that separates the mining district from meadows and woods. She gets a bow and arrow from a hiding place; before his death five years earlier in a mine explosion, her father taught her how to find food in the woods and made her bows. Had he been caught making bows, he’d have been publically executed “for inciting a rebellion.” But illegal hunting provides fresh meat to people ever on the edge of starvation. This infuriates Katniss, but she’s learned to keep her questions and comments to herself, to wear “an indifferent mask” around others.
She meets Gale, her best friend, and they eat a loaf of real white bread, not the ration grain bread of daily use, and Prim’s cheese—reaping day calls for a celebration, and the baker who traded for the loaf wished Gale luck. Gale and Katniss share the olive skin and dark hair and eyes of Seam residents, while Prim and Mrs. Everdeen are blonde and blue-eyed like the merchants Mrs. Everdeen left to marry Katniss’s father, a miner who sang beautifully.
Gale suggests that they could successfully run away and live off the woods, but they are responsible for their siblings. Gale’s father also died in the explosion; he is now his family’s mainstay. They hunt, check his clever snares, catch fish, and gather berries. Reaping day is supposed to end with what passes for a feast in District 12, a celebration—except for two families who will retreat to their homes to “try to figure out how they will survive the painful weeks to come.” Gale and Katniss head back to town to trade and sell their bounty. Katniss takes berries to the mayor’s house and sees his daughter, Madge, in a pretty white dress—“Reaping clothes.” She tries to be upbeat, but Gale lashes out at her because she has only five entries in the reaping. This is unfair; it’s not Madge’s fault that the reaping system is biased against the poorer children. Gale and Katniss both have entries for each eligible year and for tesserae—extra entries that earn them grain and oil rations. At eighteen, his last year in the reaping, Gale has 42 entries, and sixteen-year-old Katniss has 20. The tesserae are yet another “tool to cause misery” and sow dissent among district citizens.
Katnissand Gale part to dress for the ceremony. She bathes and puts on a soft blue dress and shoes, clothes from her mother’s past that “are very precious to her” and are now a peace offering to Katniss. Mrs. Everdeen braids Katniss’s hair elaborately. Katniss hugs Prim, trying not to fear for her—at twelve, she has only one entry in the reaping. They make their way to the square; attendance at the reaping is required for anyone not on a deathbed. Banners wave, camera crews are positioned, and the children are grouped by age, separate from their families. A few hated individuals move among the crowd, taking bets, and these people are also often informers. A makeshift stage sits in front of the Justice Building. Mayor Undersee and Effie Trinket, District 12’s ridiculously made-up escort, wait anxiously for the third person who should be there. At 2, the mayor gives the customary speech, explaining the history of Panem, a nation built on the ashes of North America. Droughts, storms, surging seas caused a war for resources; Panem itself was plagued by a rebellion of the districts against the Capitol. After the Capitol prevailed, the Treaty of Treason instituted a yearly punishment: the Hunger Games, in which two children from each district battle each other to the death while the nation watches. The child who survives wins fame and wealth and extra rations for his or her district—“this is the Capitol’s way of reminding us how totally we are at their mercy.” District 13, obliterated in the rebellion, is another reminder.
District 12 tributes have won only twice in 73 years, and the only living winner, Haymitch Abernathy, now makes his drunken way to the stage and tries to hug the disgusted Effie. District 12 is, as ever, the “laughingstock” of Panem. Effie recovers and begins the drawing with the traditional statement: “Happy Hunger Games! And may the odds be ever in your favor!” She claims to be honored to represent District 12, but “everyone knows she’s just aching to get bumped up to a better district where they have proper victors, not drunks who molest you in front of the entire nation.”
Effie draws a slip of paper from the glass globe that holds the girls’ names. The crowd holds its breath as a name is read: Primrose Everdeen.
The novel’s opening chapter introduces the first-person narrator of The Hunger Games and indeed all three books of Collins’s trilogy. Readers quickly learn the facts of her life, but more than that, they begin to understand her loyalties to family, friends, and District 12, the fear she lives with constantly, and her grief for her father. The chapter handles a lot of back story: Readers also learn the basic relationship of the districts to the Capitol and why reaping day is so traumatic. Collins builds suspense as Katniss speaks of the reaping as something she’s always known; readers must gradually pull together the clues about this terribly cruel lottery. If they do, readers are rewarded with a vicarious form of the shock Katniss feels at the unlikely drawing of her little sister’s name.
Katniss can’t breathe and must nearly fall, because a boy her age is holding her up. “One slip in thousands”—it’s preposterous that Prim’s name was drawn, in her first year of eligibility. The crowd murmurs at the unfairness of a twelve-year-old being chosen. Katniss sees Prim—pale, fists clenched—pass her with “stiff, small steps” as she approaches the stage. She screams Prim’s name, rushes to her and pushes her back. “I volunteer as tribute!” she declares. Effie and Mayor Undersee don’t know how to proceed, since in District 12, where “the word tribute is pretty much synonymous with the word corpse,” people don’t volunteer. Prim screams and tries to hold Katniss back, but Katniss must look brave and determined. She is now a competitor and must not look weak; the nation is watching. Gale carries Prim away, and Effie calls for applause for the brave big sister. “To the everlasting credit of the people of District 12,” no one applauds. Silence is “the boldest form of dissent they can manage.” Instead, the crowd salutes Katniss, using “an odd and rarely used gesture” seen at funerals and conveying gratitude and farewell. Drunken Haymitch hugs Katniss, keeping her from tears, and praises her “spunk” before falling off the stage. As he’s carried away, Effie draws a slip from the boys’ globe and announces a name: Peeta Mellark. This is also bad luck for Katniss. Though she’s never spoken to Peeta, she has reason to dread facing him in the arena.
After Katniss’s father died, her mother lapsed into severe depression. It fell to eleven-year-old Katniss to keep her and Prim fed and alive. She couldn’t let the authorities know about her mother, or she and Prim would end up in a community home, which would “crush [Prim] like a bug.” Starvation—a not uncommon death in District 12—was near; the bitter winter would not let go so that Katniss could gather food beyond the fence. Katniss went to town to trade Prim’s outgrown clothes for food, but, faint from hunger, Katniss fell in the icy rain and ruined the already worn clothes. So she decided to check the trash bins of merchants; they were empty. She smelled the aroma of bread from the bakery; that trash bin was empty, too, and the baker’s wife, “sick of having those brats from the Seam pawing through her trash,” screamed at her to leave. As Katniss stumbled away, prepared to lie down and die, she heard yelling and blows in the bakery. A blonde boy her age comes out with two loaves of burned bread to feed to the pig. He does not look at Katniss, but she sees a “red weal” on his face. He glances at the bakery to make sure no one sees him and throws a loaf of raisin-and-nut-studded bread to Katniss—a lifeline. Not till later did Katniss consider that the boy burned the loaves on purpose and endured punishment for her sake, but the next day, she saw the first dandelion of the year. Spring arrived; she knew she could hunt and gather, and they would not starve.
But now, Peeta is connected in her mind with “the bread that gave me hope, and the dandelion that reminded me that I was not doomed.” Katniss hates to owe anyone anything, and she’s never been able to thank Peeta. Now she may have to kill him in the arena. As the mayor finishes the scripted reading, she hopes that another tribute will kill Peeta so that she won’t have to.
This chapter reveals more about the districts and their approach to the Hunger Games. In District 12, “volunteers are all but extinct” because death is nearly certain. In some wealthier districts, to be chosen as a tribute is an honor, and volunteers are common. This, readers infer, is advantageous for wealthier districts because older, stronger tributes have a better chance of winning rewards for their districts. As Peeta, trying to appear strong, goes to the stage, Effie asks for volunteers, but one of his older brothers is too old, and the other remains silent. “This is standard,” Katniss remarks. “Family devotion only goes so far for most people on reaping day.” The events in the chapter, then, set up not only the conflict between Peeta and Katniss and between the Capitol and all the districts, but also between the wealthier districts and poorer districts. If the Capitol can keep the districts at odds, they are less likely to join and rebel.