While reading Jane Eyre I couldn’t help but immediately connect many of the themes to what I am currently reading with my students, The Hunger Games. I know it may seem that these two novels, published over 150 years apart couldn’t possibly have any similarities. However, many interesting parallels can be found and analyzed when looking into the powerful themes that cross all ages and genres.
The three themes most evident in the novels that I feel I could currently teach in my classroom are social class, gender inequality, and authority. In order to incorporate Jane Eyre into my lessons I would have to photocopy specific passages of the book that I felt connected to the correlating themes in The Hunger Games. Students would be asked to highlight any related themes (as well as motifs and symbols) and analyze within a group the connections as well as try to expand on it by giving a contemporary example. Students could also complete character analysis charts in class by finding similar characteristic traits in both Jane and Katniss. These activities would widen student understanding of how prominent these themes are and how novels published in 1847 and 2008 can have very similar characters and themes that we still see today. It would also be wonderful to at least expose eighth graders to a relatable character from gothic Victorian literature.
The theme of social class is the most prevalent in both novels. In Jane Eyre the reader sees the strict Victorian hierarchy beginning with Jane being treated unfairly by her aunt and cousins because she is an orphan, which is considered the lowest class in the social hierarchy. Jane does not have any money or family so she is sent to a boarding school that is described as an institution to educate orphans. At the school only very basic necessities are given and strict rules are enforced. Similarly, Katniss is also considered to be in the lowest class of her society. In The Hunger Games the country of Panem is divided into districts instead of states. Within this social hierarchy Katniss lives in what is considered the lowest ranking district of all. Katniss doesn’t only live in the lowest ranking district, but she also resides in the most poverty stricken part of the district. Katniss is also considered an orphan because her father has died and her mother is in a state of debilitating depression. Both protagonists live within a social hierarchy where they are considered to be at the very bottom, due to no fault of their own. These hierarchies are put into place with very strict authority to make it difficult for anyone to rise in social status. However, both characters prove that though difficult, it is not impossible.
Similar to the theme of social status is the use of authority and control used to retain it by the control of food. In both novels there are large connections between food social status. In Jane Eyre, Jane is given burnt porridge on her arrival to Lowood that is too disgusting for most to eat. However, it is necessary for her to consume it because she has gone too many days without nourishment. Thankfully kindness is shown by Miss Temple who gives the girls sandwiches after feeling guilty for the lackluster meal that was given. This shows the use of control by those in authority by giving the lower class inedible food, but also proving that there are still kindhearted people who see beyond social class that are willing to provide when necessary. There is a similar scene in The Hunger Games when Peeta gives the starving Katniss (a stranger) bread that was meant for the pigs to eat.
This can be taught in conjunction with The Hunger Games because control is used similarly in this way. Katniss and other citizens of District 12 are often on the brink of starvation and at times will also eat anything they are fortunate to be given. In District 12 food is scarce and controlled by the authorities in the form of tesserae, which are tokens worth a year’s supply of grain and oil for one person. Once a child turns 12 they can receive tesserae and place their name into the pool that the yearly Hunger Game tributes are drawn from. Of course this system isn’t fair because the poorest of the districts will have a much higher chance of being chosen for the Hunger Games because they are in need of food. The entries are also cumulative so the districts of higher social status that are not in need of food do not have their names in more than the required amount. This arrangement allows the authorities to keep control of the hierarchical system as well as foster the districts resentment of each other to further the separation of social classes.
Gender inequality is also seen in both novels and students could create character collages to visually provide what kinds of inequalities Jane faced in the 1800’s vs. Katniss in the dystopian twenty-second century and as an extension look at gender inequalities today. Although students may assume gender inequalities have changed immensely since the 1800’s they may think differently once they analyze the texts in class. In both novels Jane and Katniss are described as being part of a society that assumes woman should be domestic, motherly, passive, and should keep their station without question or forming any unique ideas. However, both break the mold and prove to be individuals who do question the society they live in as well as initiate change for equality between genders and social class. We later see both Jane and Katniss move higher in their own social classes once they have had the chance do discover their true selves. Katniss does not have equal power until she has to survive the games where boys and girls have equal opportunity for survival and she does survive earning a life of ease and comfort. Jane later learns that when her uncle died he left his fortune to her and only then is able to marry as an equal.
If I wanted to continue with this lesson there are many other themes that could also be explored; such as love, mothers/family, emotion vs. intellect, and independence. There are also similar symbols that can be discussed including fire (ashes) and birds, as well as motifs like morals, rebellion, and rebirth. I believe Jane Eyre could be a great companion novel to The Hunger Games and a very unexpected one. There is so much emphasis on high interest reading that many classics are not taught at the middle school level. I believe if it were worked into lessons in this way students would be more open to reading classics they may not necessarily have chosen on their own.