Love triangles in literature abound. The Great Gatsby would lack greatness if it was just about Daisy and Tom. A married Edgar and Catherine with no vengeful Heathcliff would render Wuthering Heights a total snore. Heck, Lady Chatterly’s Lover is only compelling because, well, there’s a lover! When it comes to literary love stories, amorous triangles are an enduring authorial tool. I was particularly aware of this while reading The Hunger Games with my son.
In Suzanne Collins’ first installation of her dystopian trilogy, the novel’s powerful protagonist Katniss Everdeen navigates relationships with two potential love interests: Gale and Peeta. Gale is Katniss’ hometown best friend, the one she trusts most and with whom she illegally hunts for food to ensure her family’s survival. Peeta is also from Katniss’ hood, District 12, but a couple rungs up on the social ladder. His class does him little good, however, during the Reaping. It is Peeta’s name drawn from the lottery to participate in the murderous Hunger Games. Katniss follows, albeit in a sacrificial move to save her little sister.
Though the tensions between Katniss, Gale, and Peeta might occupy readers’ minds persistently throughout the text, a quantitative reading of the text suggests that Gale is seldom on the narrator’s mind as often as Peeta. (And even Peeta’s presence is not what it seems, as we shall see.)
A Distant Look at the Data
A look at the frequency with which characters’ names are used offers some insight into how the author creates this triangle. The chart below shows raw word frequencies on the y-axis with chapter numbers on the x-axis. Chapter 1, we see, is heavy on Gale. Peeta’s name is not used at all. Readers meet Gale first, and like one’s like first love he remains close to our hearts. But after the first chapter, Gale’s name is never used again with such generous regularity.
But quantities only ever tell some of the story. What about the quality of references to Gale? How does the author refer to Gale in the text after the introductory chapter? Does the author keep Gale dramatically alive in readers’ hearts by referring to him strategically even as Peeta’s name is used so very often?
Let’s look a little more closely.
A Closer Reading
Based on the chart above, Gale’s name is used frequently again in Chapters 8 and 20. This sample from the former chapter might prove illustrative. Toward the end of the chapter, we read Katniss’ voice:
I can’t help comparing what I have with Gale to what I’m pretending to have with Peeta. How I never question Gale’s motives while I do nothing but doubt the latter’s. It’s not a fair comparison really. Gale and i were thrown together by a mutual need to survive. Peeta and I know the other’s survival means our own death. How do you sidestep that?
Interestingly, in this excerpt the author uses references to Gale as a way to deepen the tension between Katniss and Peeta. Gale is less of an equal partner in a love triangle and more of an author’s foil. By focusing so heavily on Gale in the beginning of the story, the author endears him to us as readers. And by ensuring that Gale is there for Katniss at key times (i.e. when she is taken by the Capital for the Reaping, when District 12 is attacked, when she is doubting the trustworthiness of Peeta), the author uses Gale as a beacon of trust in an otherwise ruthlessly untrusting world.
In short, Gale seems to represent trust, not love.
The author’s use of Gale in Chapter 20 is markedly different. In the scene where Katniss is nursing Peeta back to health, her care is based partly on performance–she wants to win the affection of sponsors–and partly on her own changing feelings. To distract Peeta from the pain of his wound, she offers him a story. Peeta says: “Something happy. Tell me about the happiest day you can remember.” Katniss can’t help but think of… Gale.
Something between a sigh and a huff of exasperation leaves my mouth. A happy story? This will require a lot more effort than the soup. I rack my brains for good memories. Most of them involve Gale and me out hunting and somehow I don’t think these will play well with either Peeta or the audience. That leaves Prim.Katniss in Chapter 20
What is most telling about this excerpt is the way that Katniss’ reference to Gale shifts. In Chapter 8, Gale represents unambiguous trustworthiness. But in Chapter 20, Katniss seems to refer to Gale as someone associated with her happiness, yes, but also as someone for whom she has romantic feelings as well–feelings that would not “play well with either Peeta or the audience.”
Katniss’ Commitment to Herself
All this suggests to me that what appears at first to be a love triangle might better be characterized as a diamond, one with Katniss at the top and bottom points. Her feelings for Gale and Peeta are unclear and confused. When she struggles through making sense of her relationships with either, the most she can hope for is clarity about what her sentiments and actions say about her.
Ultimately, the word frequencies associated with characters’ names are interesting only insofar as they shed light on the limits of literary quantities. There is, for me, far more to learn from the handful of times Gale’s name is used than in the many dozens of times Peeta is mentioned. But make no mistake, we are not learning about Gale nor Peeta at all. We are learning about Katniss while she is learning about herself.
Ready to plot some plots for yourself? Start with Hunger Games!