Mockingjay : Theme
Pieces in the Game: Katniss’s Struggle for Autonomy
When Katniss first agrees to play the role of the Mockingjay in Plutarch’s propos, Coin asks whether she wants Gale presented as her new lover or as a “fellow rebel” only. Her assumption disturbs Katniss: “The implications that I could so readily dispose of Peeta, that I’m in love with Gale, that the whole thing has been an act. My cheeks begin to burn.” Katniss realizes that she is to Coin what she is to Snow—a piece in a game with long-term consequences.
In The Hunger Games, the Capitol is in uncontested control of the Games and their participants—until the moment when Katniss and Peeta demonstrate their willingness to eat the deadly berries. In Catching Fire, that control is less secure. The Capitol is not aware that a group of traitors, including Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee, plans to sabotage the arena. But the tributes themselves have behaved in ways that suggest that they intend to exert more control over their destinies. The Gamemakers—whether after the 74th Games or nearly 75 years ago—reap from the victors for the Quarter Quell to attempt to reassert control, but they succeed only in part.
Mockingjay begins with Katniss finally free from the control that the Capitol, and Snow in particular, asserted over her life in District 12. She finds, however, that she is still a piece in the Games. The board has been reset; the rebels, led by Coin and District 13’s disciplined, equipped soldiers, are now serious players. Yet Katniss, as Coin demonstrates when she callously brushes aside Katniss’s actual feelings, is still a piece controlled by others. As the Mockingjay, she is an important piece and can demand concessions to exert some control over herself and the lives of those she loves. This is true, at least, as long as Coin thinks her necessary. As Prim says, the Mockingjay can “demand almost anything and they’d have to agree,” but “how do you know they’ll keep their word?” And indeed, when Coin announces the concessions to District 13, she states that “any deviance from her mission, in either motive or deed,” will render the agreement null. Coin implies that she can divine Katniss’s motives, and Katniss knows that Coin is “[a]nother power player who had decided to use me as a piece in her games.”
The novel’s plot is marked by Katniss’s struggle to determine her path. Perhaps no one, in a novel or in the real world, can do so entirely, but Katniss finds her options constrained by the roles she plays in the Games. Snow wants to use her to quell the rebellion; Coin uses her to incite it. Plutarch and Fulvia try to “remake” her as a sexually attractive symbol of the rebellion; Dalton objects: “Wash her face. . . . She’s still a girl and you made her look thirty-five.” Katniss’s very image is compromised, and when Peeta screams that she isn’t even human but is rather a mutt, a creation of the Capitol, the obvious falseness of his accusation doesn’t take the sting out of his words. Katniss tries to be herself while others try to “remake” her into what they want and need.
The struggle is not without purpose. Katniss begins to understand what Peeta grasped before their first arena, that even if he is forced to kill others, even if he dies, he will do so while trying to maintain the integrity of his true self. Katniss thinks of him when she pleads with the survivors of the Nut in District 2. They are the Capitol’s slaves, she says: “That’s why I killed Cato . . . and he killed Thresh . . . and he killed Clover . . . and she tried to kill me. . . . who wins? Not us. Not the district. Always the Capitol. But I’m tired of being a piece in their Games.”
As the novel progresses, as Katniss and the crew move through the mined streets of the Capitol, into the sewers, and toward the president’s mansion, Katniss sees the Games’ worst consequences and begins to realize that only under one condition can she and the others cease to be pieces in the game of war: The game must end. It must be brought to an end.
Katniss thinks that the end will come when she kills Snow, but in fact, at least two opponents are required for a game. Coin is the other “power player,” and she reveals how invested she is in the game when she proposes continuing the torment of the arena “to balance the need for vengeance with the least loss of life.” Katniss knows that Snow’s death will take care of itself, but Coin is strong and protected. By agreeing to commit Capitol children to an arena, Katniss creates the illusion that she has accepted her role as a piece in Coin’s game. Her lie allows her the liberty to kill Coin.
In isolation in the Training Center, with Coin and Snow both dead, Katniss is still not convinced that she will no longer be a piece in someone’s Games. She decides that the only control she can exert over her life is suicide. Two days into her self-starvation, Haymitch enters and announces simply, “We’re going home.” Even this, Katniss can’t control. She can’t choose to go or stay; she must be carried to the hovercraft. But she has learned something important during her time in the Training Center. She has this much autonomy at least, and she has exercised it repeatedly. She had many opportunities to lie down and die, to let herself be killed, or to take her own life. Yet she chose to get up one more time, to try again to survive and to change her world. Katniss is a wavering hero for much of the trilogy, pulled by competing forces. But she discovers that she has “plenty of fire” to fuel her burning desire for freedom.
One of Katniss’s central traits is her capacity for empathy and self-sacrifice. From the moment in the first novel, when she volunteers for Prim to her final act against Coin, the circle of her empathy gradually, though not evenly, expands. Because she develops her capacity for empathy, she becomes not the warlike Mockingjay that Coin hopes and Snow fears she will be, but the compassionate Mockingjay that Prim and Peeta know she can be.
In a sense, Katniss’s alter ego, the Mockingjay, fits the concept of empathy. To feel empathy or sympathy requires an ability to think and feel as another person does. Just as the mockingjays hear and then repeat songs that people whistle or sing, Katniss easily grasps what people are feeling and is able to connect their emotions with her own. Empathy is risky; it involves the sympathizer in emotions that may be painful or may force decisions and actions that bring danger. So it makes sense that at first, in The Hunger Games, Katniss reserves her empathy for those dearest to her, especially Prim and her father. Katniss understands, for example, that Prim needs creatures to love and care for, so she tolerates Buttercup and connives to get Lady for her sister. However, Katniss is still young; her frame of experience is limited. So she cannot, or will not, empathize with her mother’s loss and depression, instead judging and nearly detesting her for it. Later, after her own experiences with grief, and after she learns about her mother’s heartbreak when a dear friend dies in the Games, that she can begin to understand her mother’s reaction to the mining accident. To empathize, Katniss requires an analog in her own life to which to compare another’s feelings, and her experiences in the Games and rebellion provide many.
To take a few examples, because Katniss and her family nearly starved after her father’s death, she is sensitive to Gale’s family’s needs after the mines close, in Catching Fire. And because she remembers the shame of not being able to feed herself and Prim, she offers Gale’s mother help in a way that respects her dignity. She empathizes as well with the desperate young women Cray preys on because she understands feeling so hungry and faint that she expected death. In the arenas, Katniss extends her sympathy to the tributes who want to kill her and Peeta, and she continues to mourn their deaths, even the deaths of brutal Career Tributes like Cato, well after the event.
In Mockingjay, Katniss has many terrible and tragic experiences to serve as analogs for others’ feelings. Some of the remarkable extensions of her empathy include her affection for her prep team. She has a hard time explaining to Gale why Venia, Octavia, and Flavius deserve her empathy, but in fact, they deserve it merely for their kindness to her. She understands, because she has similar experiences, how out of place they feel in District 13, how lonely they are for the life they knew in the Capitol, and how unprepared they were for a life of relative privation. As the novel proceeds, readers see that Katniss’s empathy for the trio is the crack in the door that, during the city’s assault and evacuation, swings wide to allow her to feel sad for the many citizens who lose their homes and in some cases their lives. In addition, she draws on imagined scenes of her father’s death in the mines and on her memories of waiting for news about survivors to argue against burying everyone alive in the Nut.
Haymitch is another example of Katniss’s growing capacity to empathize. At first, she regards him as a stinking, out-of-control drunk, but then she endures the arena, and then she faces the knowledge that she will have to mentor the next female tribute from District 12, who will likely die. She views the recordings of what Haymitch endured in his Games and learns, later, how Snow punished him for winning. And, in her anxiety over Peeta and fears for Prim, she at last understands why he drinks to oblivion as she feels the draw of the morphling. Their relationship is fraught, but Katniss’s willingness to set aside her detestation and understand why Haymitch is who he is binds them.
Perhaps the oddest act of empathy of which Katniss becomes capable is her grasp of Snow and Coin and their plans. Only because she can enter into their thinking—especially Snow’s—can she see that Snow is correct about Coin. She abhors Snow, and he deserves her hatred, but when she recalls him saying that they “had agreed not to lie to each other,” she is able to make a leap into his twisted thinking and know with certainty that Coin, too, is a monster.
The sweetest form that Katniss’s empathy takes is likely her gradual acceptance of Peeta after his hijacking. She resists this empathetic connection long and vigorously, and in fact, it is Haymitch, who is so like Katniss and understands her reluctance, who must guilt her into viewing Peeta through empathetic eyes. “You’re punishing him over and over for things that are out of his control,” he insists. Peeta would never do that to her. Haymitch actively pushes her to think empathetically: “I think it’s time you flipped this little scenario in around in your head,” he says. And she does, because she can. Empathy is her gift and her curse. It is the trait that makes her the Mockingjay who can not only rouse the districts to rebellion but also take the risk of assassinating Coin, an act she believes will surely lead to her execution, because if Coin rules Panem, “Nothing will ever change . . . .”
As Katniss watches her children play, years later, she describes her psychological state: “on bad mornings, it feels impossible to take pleasure” in the ordinary because joy seems so fragile. On those mornings, Katniss applies her gift of empathy to her own troubled mind, listing “every act of goodness I’ve seen someone do” and drawing from these memories strength and comfort.