Author: Suzanne Collins
Genre: YA; Dystopia
Number of Books in Series: 3 (The Hunger Games; Catching Fire; Mockingjay)
The Hunger Games series takes place in a post-apocalyptic version of America, now called “Panem”. The name comes from the Latin phrase, “panem et circenses,” which translates to “bread and circuses,” and the country definitely lives up to it. Elite citizens live in the Capitol, in the far west of the country. The rest of Panem is split into twelve Districts. The people who live in the Districts essentially function as government-owned slaves. They work in often-dangerous conditions, under the watch of government soldiers and officials to provide goods for the Capitol and its citizens. That’s the “bread”. Once a year, the annual Hunger Games take place, for which a boy and a girl, aged 12-18, are selected from each District to compete to the death. That’s the “circuses.”
The events of the series begin on Reaping Day for the 74th annual Hunger Games, during which Katniss Everdeen is selected as a Tribute for District 12. Let the games begin.
Author: Lois Lowry
Genre: YA/Middle Grade; Dystopia; Speculative Fiction; Post-Apocalyptic
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Number of Books in Series: 4 (The Giver; Gathering Blue; Messenger; Son)
The Giver series is a set of dystopian novels for young people written more than a decade before that was a fad. Although it is never explicitly stated in the books, it is implied that some sort of cataclysmic event occurred, wiping out modern civilization. Survivors banded together into small pockets of humanity, some with similar levels of technology to our own, others going back to a state without running water or basic amenities. The vast majority of those who live in this world stay within their own community or village for their entire lives and do not meet anyone outside their own isolated population. This is reflected by Lowry’s choice of POV characters: each book centers on a different protagonist. Characters from earlier books may show up in the current narrative, but generally play only a small part in that particular story.
The Ties That Bind
Warning: Spoilers follow for both series in the form of some basic plot lines and broad characterizations. Nothing major will be revealed.
I’m sure I’m not the first person to see parallels between these two series: they are both YA dystopias; violence is sometimes the norm; harsh realities exist for some groups while others scarcely understand the meaning of the word “pain”. I am particularly interested in one, slightly more subtle similarity: the attention that both Suzanne Collins and Lois Lowry focus on names. Each series displays distinct naming cultures based on location.
In The Hunger Games trilogy, you can often (though not always) identify the origin of a character by his or her name. The people of District 12 have earthy, nature-related names like Gale (a strong gust of wind), Primrose (a woodland flower), or Katniss (a pretty flower, but a hardy one that is attached to a potato-like tuber that can be eaten). District 12 is far away from the capitol near the edge of the Panem border—adjacent to the untamed forest. It is therefore natural that residents name their children after animals, plants, etc. found surviving or prevalent in the area.
People from other districts similarly gravitate toward certain naming patterns. Those from District 11 (Agriculture) tend to have names associated with planting and cultivation, i.e.: Thresh, Seeder, or Chaff. District 2, which produces many Peacekeepers (Capitol soldiers), is the home of individuals with harsh, tough names like Clove, Cato, or Brutus. A person from District 1, which provides luxury goods to the Capitol tends to have a showy name like Glitter, Gloss, Cashmere, or Marvel.
The citizens of the Capitol, have very ostentatious and often outrageous names such as Venia, Flavius, or Plutarch. This is simply an extension of their overall lifestyle—it is the norm for Capitol citizens to strive for ever more inventive ways to transcend to something outside of mundane humanity. Citizens wear impractical clothing, eat far beyond their physical capacity, style their hair in unheard of fashions, dye their entire body to an unnatural color, or have surgically implanted appendages such as tails. Over-the-top is just right.
In The Giver quartet, names are often regulated based on the community a character is part of. In The Giver, everyone in the Community is equal [referred to as Sameness], but unique—so much so that twins are not allowed. This extends to names: each name within the Community can belong to only one person at a time. This is demonstrated by Larissa, one of the Old. She recounts to Jonas the recent Releasing Ceremony of a male named Roberto. At the next yearly Ceremony, a newchild named Roberto was received by a family unit. The same will happen to Larissa herself: at the annual ceremony after she is “released to Elsewhere”, there will be a newchild named “Larissa”. This corresponds to a highly regulated population—when one person is born, another must be “released to Elsewhere.”
In the Cruel Village of Gathering Blue, name-length corresponds to relative age. Young children, referred to as “tykes”, are given a one-syllable name. Somewhere around 12 or 13, they receive a second syllable. Adulthood means a three-syllable name. It is rare, but some villagers live long enough to take on a fourth syllable. Thus the same person can have as many as four names in one lifetime. For example: Ann; Anna; Annabelle; Annabella.
In the Healing Village of Messenger, names are akin to job titles. For example, Jonas—now in his early twenties, has become Leader and the schoolteacher is Mentor. In our own society, we may see this particular naming system as limiting or degrading, but that viewpoint would ignore a big part of the village’s identity. Most villagers, like Jonas and Gabe, arrived as refugees from some other community. Many have physical defects (twisted limbs, blindness, etc.) and were seen as worthless in their original communities. The idea of earning a title for a job someone is good at is very gratifying in that context.
An interesting aspect of this particular book revolves around a name. Matty, the main character of Messenger, was born in Cruel Village, but has made his home in Healing Village. Despite generally preferring his new home, Matty desperately wants to be given the name “Messenger”. The intriguing part of this is that “messenger” is a three-syllable word. Remember that a three-syllable name is a mark of adulthood where Matty grew up. If Matty were to be given his chosen mantle, it would be a way of tying himself simultaneously to his past and his present.
Within both series, the effect of these distinct naming cultures is to display the different values and realities for each local population. Capitol citizens prefer flashy and distinctive names. People of the districts tend to name children after what they know and experience in daily life. The Community carefully cultivates a population that is individual, but excruciatingly equal. The harsh Cruel Village is preoccupied with age, implying that life-expectancy is very low. The Healing Village focuses on its members’ strengths rather than weaknesses. A lot can be learned from a name.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling and Bleak House by Charles Dickens