Catching Fire : Theme
Katniss, Reluctant Hero
Katniss Everdeen’s decisions in the arena of the 74th Hunger Games (in The Hunger Games) are fraught with consequences that play out in Catching Fire.The consequences affect Katniss first and then flow out across Panem like the concentric rings caused by a stone dropped in water. Caught in their pattern, Katniss finds herself pulled into the center of the resistance as its symbolic and real hero, against her will.
Katniss is a reluctant hero, dragged into action by events she cannot control, at least at first. Desperate love, not heroism, prompts her to volunteer for Prim, to whom she has been sister, friend, and surrogate mother. Her terror of the arena is palpable; she is not like the Careers, trained and ready to fight for her district’s honor. But because the only way to keep Prim out of danger is to take her place, Katniss steps up, and much of the first novel in the trilogy traces her progress as she discovers untapped skills and passions. She finds herself, readers might argue, when she decides that a defiant death in the arena might be preferable to life on the Capitol’s terms.
Yet once she is out of the arena, Katniss is advised—by Cinna, whom she trusts, and Haymitch, who helped keep her and Peeta alive—to lay aside her defiant stance and play the silly, love-struck girl. She does so to keep Peeta safe, but readers may sense that she is also glad that she can retreat from her heroic role and go back to her quiet life in the district. As Catching Fire begins, Katniss is plagued by fears and nightmares. Even before Snow’s threatening visit, she dreads the Victory Tour because it will force her and Peeta to play their parts again. Her impulse is to indulge the fantasy that she and Gale have often talked of—to flee into the woods. Snow’s knowledge of her life in District 12 puts a swift end to that fantasy, and Katniss finds herself, again, forced to act bravely when she would rather hide.
In District 11, Rue’s home, Peeta and Katniss confront one of the ripples of her actions in the arena. The farmers raise a “very public salute to the girl who defied the Capitol,” and one whistles Rue’s mockingjay song. When the Peacemakers brutally execute the whistler and break up the crowd, Katniss realizes that these people have mistaken her for a heroic resistance leader when she is under orders from Snow to defuse just such situations. His negative answer to her silent question, “Did I do it? . . . Was giving everything over to you . . . enough?” could free Katniss to take up the role that District 11 has assigned her, but instead, it convinces her that the only viable response is to escape into the woods. She plans to do so as soon as she can after their homecoming.
Pushed and pulled, Katniss’s deepest desire is to run away from the Capitol’s control and from the districts’ demands. Three turning-point events gradually cause Katniss to accept her place as the hero, the Mockingjay, that much of Panem already thinks she is. The first is Gale’s near-fatal public flogging for a petty offense long overlooked by the Peacekeepers. Katniss, Peeta, and Haymitch, the “only three people in the district who could make a stand like this,” step in, but Katniss knows that “repercussions” will follow. Gale had just told Katniss that he plans to “join the fight,” depriving her of the option of escape. Now he has paid, nearly, with his life, and Katniss realizes that she, too, wants to see an “uprising.”
The second event comes after Katniss, having embraced a desperate courage after Gale’s flogging, learns that she must face the arena again. By then, she has met Bonnie and Twill, learned about District 8’s attempt at resistance and the Capitol’s brutal punishment, and encountered the mockingjay icon with which she is associated. (Bonnie cries as she thanks Katniss, who is “practically all anyone’s talking about . . . .”) What is more, a faint hope—that District 13 is armed and ready—has been planted in Katniss’s doubting mind. Yet the terms of the Quarter Quell threaten to douse the new courage she feels; and as in Prim’s case, only by vowing to herself to protect Peeta, to die in the arena for him, can Katniss marshal her resources as they travel to the Capitol. There she finds herself in Cinna’s capable hands, but she is naïve about his motives. The wedding dress that burns away to reveal the mockingjay costume is not only brilliant and deeply meaningful; it is also a defiant act that the Capitol must punish. She knows this as Cinna bows—he has done something “terribly dangerous,” and he did it for her and for the resistance. The brutal reprisal is perfectly timed and staged for effect: On the morning of the Games, in the Launch Room, as Katniss, trapped in the transport cylinder, can do nothing but beat her fists uselessly on the glass and scream, Cinna is beaten, possibly to death, and dragged away to certain torture and likely execution. On the edge of becoming “unhinged,” Katniss rises into the arena and decides: “I must be strong. I owe it to Cinna . . . . I owe it to the rebels . . . .” And heroically, when the gong sounds, she swims toward the Cornucopia rather than fleeing the inevitable fracas to hide in the trees, as she did in her first Games.
Catching Fire ends as Katniss faces yet another crisis in confidence. When the Games began, she decided never to be the Capitol’s pawn or Snow’s puppet again. Yet after the escape from the arena, she learns that she is still a pawn, in the plan that Plutarch Heavensbee, Haymitch, and others have devised but kept secret from her. “We had to save you,” Plutarch argues, and not Peeta, “because you’re the mockingjay. While you live, the revolution lives.” Forced again into a heroic role, Katniss again refuses it, withdrawing in the only way she can, by refusing food and water and attempts to get her out of bed. She prefers to “die of spite” than to be the mockingjay. The final critical event of Catching Fire is the stimulus that pulls Katniss back from oblivion and causes her to become, in fact, what the final novel in the trilogy names her—the mockingjay. Gale, in the voice “he uses to approach wounded animals before he delivers a deathblow,” tells her that the Capitol has obliterated District 12. Her home—her punishment for destroying the arena—the loss, ironically, will free Katniss from the fear, the need to protect what she loves, that has impeded her choices throughout the first two novels. Now, at last, she can choose to act heroically.
Haymitch Abernathy, Rebel
One of the surprises of Catching Fire is the developing role of Haymitch Abernathy, District 12’s only victor for 24 years. In The Hunger Games, Haymitch is mostly a wreck. Drunk, alienated from the district, physically a shambles, he makes a comical entrance by falling off the stage at the reaping. Katniss and Peeta know very little about him, yet now he is their mentor, their “lifeline to the world” during the Games, as Effie caustically informs them: “The one who advises you, lines up your sponsors, and dictates the presentation of any gifts.” Peeta and Katniss had been “smirking” about Haymitch’s drunkenness, and his attitude toward them is mocking and dismissive. Yet the mentor and tributes come to trust each other, and for much of the novel, readers are aware that Haymitch is at work behind the scenes to help his “pair of fighters.” (The movie adaptation of The Hunger Games shows Haymitch busy at his tasks, persuading sponsors and eagerly promoting Katniss and Peeta.) And Haymitch accomplishes, despite his hardened nature and rarely sober mind, what no other mentor has done in seventy-four years of the Games: He brings both his tributes home alive.
Not till Catching Fire, however, do readers—and for that matter, Katniss and Peeta—begin to comprehend who Haymitch is. Early in the novel, readers perceive that roles have reversed; Peeta, Katniss, and her family, all neighbors now in the Victor’s Village, look after Haymitch, who is still “surly, violent, and drunk most of the time.” They make sure that he eats and occasionally washes, and they ensure that a supply of the white liquor he favors is on hand so that he doesn’t suffer withdrawal. Katniss is aware that she and Haymitch will soon share another bond. She will have to mentor the female tribute in the next games, and she will learn something about the pain and loss that motivate Haymitch’s self-destructive behavior.
Haymitch is still largely a mystery to Katniss and Peeta. They know that he was victor in the second Quarter Quell, but beyond that and his alcoholism, not only are they uninformed, but they’re also afraid to ask about his life. During the Victory Tour, with its revelations about Snow’s threats, the discontent in some districts, and Katniss’s realization that the Capitol will dictate her marriage to Peeta, Haymitch shows himself to be savvy, quick to think on his feet in moments of crisis, and flexible—all traits that the first novel hints at but that are on display in Catching Fire. What’s more, Haymitch reveals a courageous streak when he steps in, at some personal risk, to keep Romulus Thread from flogging Gale to death—not to mention a sardonic humor when he complains about the damage to “my victor’s pretty little face” just before the wedding dress photography session. Haymitch assumes and discards masks rapidly, fitting his behavior to the role at hand. In these scenes, Peeta and Katniss glimpse the capable, engaging person Haymitch might have become, had he not had to undergo the ordeal of the arena and the years of mentoring dead tributes.
When they study the recordings of the Games in preparation for their Quarter Quell, they see the strong, good-looking young man that Haymitch was before the arena. In his interview with the apparently ageless Caesar Flickerman, Haymitch is “Snarky. Arrogant.Indifferent.” In the arena, he separates himself from the 47 tributes as quickly as he can, clearly preferring to let them thin the numbers without his help. He proves himself fast, resourceful, and deadly when he must be as he works toward the edge of the arena. Despite his apparent decision to go it alone, he allies with Maysilee for a time and then agrees to part so that they won’t have to face each other at the end. Yet when Maysilee screams, Haymitch doesn’t hesitate to rush to her defense. Haymitch nearly dies of the wounds of the battle with the final tribute, who dies because only Haymitch figured out the Gamemakers’ force field—a fact that the Capitol has kept from Panem. Katniss laughs crazily when she realizes that Haymitch played the Gamemakers: “It’s almost as bad as us and the berries!” Katniss realizes that she and Haymitch share an ability for causing trouble, and it gives her “a new kind of confidence” in him.
Katniss is both right and wrong about feeling that she knows Haymitch better now. He performs his role as mentor during training, but he suffers under the additional burden of knowing most of the former victors. He is training his tributes to kill his friends, in essence, and he and Katniss butt heads repeatedly over matters such as alliances. After Peeta and Katniss reveal what they did during their performances for the Gamemakers, Haymitch furiously accuses them of “stupidity.” Yet when the time comes to part from Haymitch, his voice is gruff with tears, and Katniss’s throat is so tight she can’t speak. The bond between them seems stronger than ever.
Perhaps for this reason, the last chapter of Catching Fire, which reveals something new about Haymitch, strikes some readers as heart-breaking. Katniss discovers that, for who knows how long, Haymitch has been part of a plot against the Capitol and has manipulated Katniss into playing a role in the plot while keeping her in ignorance of it. Ostensibly, this is for her own good. When he sees her wielding a syringe as her only weapon, he calls her “sweetheart” in his most annoyed voice and sarcastically criticizes her: “See, this is why no one lets you make the plans.” It is Haymitch, not Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee or fellow tribute and ally Finnick, who explains the plan, so clearly and matter-of-factly that Katniss wonders whether the drunkenness was, all along, a kind of disguise. The betrayal overwhelms Katniss, who decides to die, explicitly to “punish Haymitch, who, of all the people in this rotting world, has turned Peeta and me into pieces in his Games.” In her mind, Haymitch has become a despised Gamemaker, and the stakes in his Games are terribly high. Readers who go on to Mockingjay, the trilogy’s third novel, will find out whether Haymitch’s gambit is worth the cost, to him, to Katniss, and to Panem.