Catching Fire

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Symbols and Interpretations Theme Analysis

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Pain, Pleasure, and Self-Control  Theme Icon
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Symbols and Interpretations Theme Icon

At the “twist ending” of Catching Fire, it becomes clear that Suzanne Collins has been deliberately misleading us for most of the book. Haymitch Abernathy, who had seemed to be little more than a lazy alcoholic, turns out to be a shrewd, resourceful man, one who has been planning a rebellion President Snow’s government. This surprise ending encourages us to go back and rethink our initial assumptions about Catching Fire.

On closer inspection, Catching Fire is largely about how to interpret ambiguous signs and symbols. The most overt symbol in the novel, the mockingjay, is subject to interpretations from many different characters. To Twill and Bonnie, for instance, the mockingjay is a symbol of Katniss’s defiance of the government’s orders. It represents actions like her refusal to allow Peeta to die during her first Hunger Games, or her noble speech about Rue, a young girl who died in the Games. On the other hand, to many of the people who live in the Capitol, the mockingjay is merely a symbol of the Hunger Games themselves, and thus a symbol of the government’s power (or its tyranny). Through the symbol of the mockingjay, Collins outlines the basic problem with symbols and non-literal messages: they’re so open to interpretation that they can mean essentially opposite things to different people.

Throughout Catching Fire, Katniss is herself faced with ambiguous signs, like President Snow’s expression, Plutarch Heavensbee’s watch, and Haymitch’s advice that she should remember the “real enemy.” Katniss is forced to interpret these signs, and often she interprets them incorrectly. It’s appropriate that Catching Fire is the middle book in Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy, as here Katniss is caught in an awkward “in-between” stage, and this is reflected in her confusion regarding signs and symbols. Just as Katniss is often unable to interpret the symbols she encounters, she is also unable stop herself from being interpreted and treated as a symbol by other people. When she makes a speech about Rue, for instance, her words are immediately interpreted as a sign of rebellion against President Snow, and given a meaning that Katniss herself never considered.

Partly because Catching Fire isn’t the conclusion of her trilogy, Collins doesn’t fully resolve the ambiguity in the mockingjay. Katniss isn’t entirely sure where she stands politically, and thus she can’t stand behind any one interpretation. Similarly, Collins doesn’t detail any foolproof way of interpreting symbols—sometimes Katniss interprets correctly and sometimes she doesn’t. In the simplest terms, however, Collins suggests that one should interpret ambiguous signs by paying close attention, collecting as much information as possible, and never rushing to conclusions. Thus, at the end of the novel, Katniss finally reaches the “correct” interpretation of Haymitch’s advice by patiently thinking it over again and again. At the same time, Katniss declines to be a pawn for the government, and instead takes decisive action. At the same time that she reaches a stable interpretation of the world, she seems to be arriving at a stable interpretation of herself and what she stands for.

The problem of how to interpret signs and symbols is crucial to Catching Fire—so much so that Collins can’t entirely solve it. She will return to this theme in the third volume of her trilogy—titled, appropriately enough, Mockingjay.

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Symbols and Interpretations ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Symbols and Interpretations appears in each chapter of Catching Fire. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Symbols and Interpretations Quotes in Catching Fire

Below you will find the important quotes in Catching Fire related to the theme of Symbols and Interpretations.
Chapter 1 Quotes

If it were up to me, I would try to forget the Hunger Games entirely. Never speak of them. Pretend they were nothing but a bad dream. But the Victory Tour makes that impossible. Strategically placed almost midway between the annual Games, it is the Capitol’s way of keeping the horror fresh and immediate. Not only are we in the districts forced to remember the iron grip of the Capitol’s power each year, we are forced to celebrate it.

Related Characters: Katniss Everdeen (speaker)
Page Number: 3-4
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Katniss offers an explanation of the Hunger Games, the brutal competition she was forced to compete in the previous year. The Hunger Games are an annual event in which the people of the districts of Panem are forced to send players, who compete with one another for the "honor" of winning the Games. The Capitol—the ruling government of Panem—hosts the Hunger Games, along with a Victory Tour that keeps memory of the Hunger Games fresh in everyone's minds. During the Victory Tour, Katniss, as a champion of the Games, must tour the country celebrating her own "success."

In one sense, Katniss's quote emphasizes the personal toll the games have taken on her. She won the tournament, but in the process she was forced to kill opponents, betray friends, and experience great trauma and loss. She's haunted by her own actions, and the Victory Tour is torturous because it forces her to remember the most traumatic events of her life. In a broader sense, though, the quote also alludes to "societal memory." The Capitol's goal in instituting the Victory Tour is to force all of Panem to remember the events of the Hunger Games. In doing so, the Capitol builds allegiance between the Districts of Panem: everyone in the country unites together around the Games and therefore the Capitol. Furthermore, the constant emphasis on the Hunger Games as a source of both entertainment and fear keeps the people of Panem from joining together against the government.


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Chapter 2 Quotes

People viewed your little trick with the berries as an act of defiance, not an act of love. And if a girl from District 12 of all places can defy the Capitol and walk away unharmed, what is to stop them from doing the same?

Related Characters: President Coriolanus Snow (speaker), Katniss Everdeen
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

President Snow's speech to Katniss illustrates both the strength and the flaws of the government he heads. Snow has come to warn Katniss not to "misbehave" during her Victory Tour. She's under strict instructions to stick to the script at all times—to act like a typical lovestruck teenage girl, not a potential rebel leader. Snow knows that Katniss despises his government, and he also knows that she is hugely influential and has a talent for improvising—as a result, he's scared that Katniss will try to denounce or criticize the government during her Tour. Since Katniss will have an audience of millions at this time, Snow is right to be afraid.

A natural question would be, "Why doesn't Snow just cancel the Victory Tour?" Canceling the Tour might be the easiest way to ensure that Katniss doesn't do harm to his government, but it would also undermine the importance of tradition in Panem. Because Panem celebrates the Hunger Games every year—and because Snow's government maintains its power in part because of the popularity of the Hunger Games—Snow has no choice but to allow Katniss to make her tour as usual, despite the risk. Snow's speech demonstrates the power and the weakness of his government, while also showing us how Katniss might use her popularity to oppose Snow. With her widespread fame and national platform, Katniss has a powerful weapon on her side: if she were to criticize Snow, millions of people would listen to her. It's a mark of Katniss's danger that Snow has to threaten to hurt her family in order to make her "behave."

Chapter 5 Quotes

Did I do it? Was it enough? Was giving everything over to you, keeping up the game, promising to marry Peeta enough?
In answer, he gives an almost imperceptible shake of his head.

Related Characters: Katniss Everdeen (speaker), Peeta Mellark , President Coriolanus Snow
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

At the conclusion of Katniss's Victory Tour, Katniss is unsure if she's pleased President Snow or not. While she's been careful not to say anything that could be interpreted as a denunciation of Snow's government, Katniss has inadvertently caused riots and rebellions across Panem. (A few chapters after this quote, Katniss realizes just how successful she's been in challenging the government's authority: she's caused full-scale uprisings against the Capitol in several districts.)

The quote also illustrates the extent to which Katniss will go to protect her family and keep up appearances. Because she's afraid that her mother and sister will be murdered for her defiance of the rules, Katniss tries to overcompensate by getting engaged to Peeta, her co-champion in the Hunger Games. While Katniss has romantic feelings for her childhood friend, Gale, she's loyal first and foremost to her family. Thus, she decides to marry Peeta in the hopes that she'll entertain the country and please Snow. Snow's shake of the head, however, seems to indicate that Katniss hasn't done enough to neutralize her own threat. But because Snow's gesture is so small and hard to read, it's not completely clear if Katniss's interpretation is right or wrong. Snow's head-shake is only the first of many ambiguous symbols and speeches in this book.

Chapter 6 Quotes

There was something strange about it. Almost clandestine. But why? Maybe he thinks someone else will steal his idea of putting a disappearing mockingjay on a watch face. Yes, he probably paid a fortune for it, and now he can’t show it to anyone, because he’s afraid someone will make a cheap, knockoff version. Only in the Capitol.

Related Characters: Katniss Everdeen (speaker), Plutarch Heavensbee
Related Symbols: Mockingjay
Page Number: 83
Explanation and Analysis:

At the "meet and greet" for the year's new edition of the Hunger Games—in which both Katniss and Peeta are being forced to compete—Katniss meets the new designer of the Hunger Games, a man named Plutarch Heavensbee. Plutarch flashes Katniss his new watch, which is adorned with the image of the mockingjay. The mockingjay was also the symbol Katniss chose for herself during her previous Hunger Games, and lately it's become a popular symbol of Katniss herself.

At Katniss describes the scene, Plutarch's mockingjay watch is a symbol, which she tries with difficulty to interpret correctly. Katniss's interpretation of the watch is that Plutarch is an arrogant man, and he's trying to show it off to Katniss without giving away the idea to his peers. Katniss's interpretation of the watch reflects her opinions about the people of the Capitol themselves: that they're arrogant, materialistic, and superficial.

It's not until much later that Katniss realizes the truth: Plutarch is secretly an ally to Haymitch and other rebels, and a friend to Katniss. By showing Katniss his watch, he's actually trying to give her a hint that he's on her side, and cluing her in about the nature of the upcoming Hunger Games; namely, that the arena is designed to resemble a watch. Katniss's confusion in interpreting the mockingjay—supposedly a symbol of rebellion, or even of Katniss herself—illustrates the strangeness of all symbols. Seen from different points of view, Katniss—herself a living symbol—can be interpreted as a mascot for the Capitol, or its worst enemy.

Chapter 7 Quotes

The jabberjays were muttations, genetically enhanced male birds […] The jabberjays were left to die. In a few years, they became extinct in the wild, but not before they had mated with female mockingbirds, creating an entirely new species.

Related Characters: Katniss Everdeen (speaker)
Related Symbols: Mockingjay
Page Number: 91-92
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, Katniss explains where mockingjays—a futuristic form of mutated bird—come from. Because the mockingjay is explicitly described as being a symbol of Katniss herself, it's fitting that Katniss's explanation is full of symbolic allusions to Katniss's own personality. As Katniss explains, the mockingjays are natural survivors: their very existence is a testament to their ancestors' cleverness and strength. Furthermore, the mockingjays' nature is deeply divided: half mockingbird (a peaceful, natural bird) and half jabberjay (a brutal, government-bred animal). In much the same way, we might say that Katniss's own personality is resilient and deeply divided. Katniss is a natural survivor, who manages to win the Hunger Games due to her speed and skill. She's also a conflicted young woman: in part, she's peaceful and gentle, but she's also capable of acts of incredible brutality. Above all, the comparison between Katniss and the mockingjay reminds us that Katniss is partly—but not entirely!—a tool of the government. While she's been partly "bred" by the Capitol, she's also abandoned her role and rejected the Capitol, in much the same that the mockingjays have rejected the jabberjays' mission to help the government that created them.

Chapter 12 Quotes

[Gale] must also know that if we don’t revolt in 12, I’m destined to be Peeta’s bride. Seeing me lounging around in gorgeous gowns on his television… what can he do with that?

Related Characters: Katniss Everdeen (speaker), Peeta Mellark , Gale Hawthorne
Page Number: 170
Explanation and Analysis:

This darkly humorous quotation shows the psychological consequences of living in a world where one's actions are filmed and recorded at all times. After a Victory Tour and a session in the Hunger Games, Katniss is used to being watched. With opposition to the government at an all-time high in District 12, Katniss is well aware that there might be a rebellion in the District very soon—by the same token, she knows that government officials like President Snow and Romulus Thread are aware of the rebellion, too. In this section, Katniss finds herself thinking like Thread; i.e., putting herself in the position of a government official. She's so used to being watched that the thought process comes naturally to her.

Furthermore, Katniss's thoughts about the uprising in District 12 betray some of the weaknesses in the government of Panem. Although the government has an obvious interest in subduing the 12 districts of Panem, it also draws a lot of its power from the Hunger Games—in other words, from creating action, excitement, and violence. Katniss is only half-joking when she says that Thread has no interest in keeping her subdued and boring in her wedding dress. As absurd as it sounds, the government partly has an interest in creating a revolt in District 12: it thrives on diversions of exactly this kind. Katniss's joke reminds us that she is both an asset and a liability for the government: she entertains the masses (the source of the government's power) but also has the potential to mobilize the masses against the government.

Chapter 14 Quotes

Effie doesn’t know that my mockingjay pin is now a symbol used by the rebels. At least in District 8. In the Capitol, the mockingjay is still a fun reminder of an especially exciting Hunger Games.

Related Characters: Katniss Everdeen (speaker), Effie Trinket
Related Symbols: Mockingjay
Page Number: 190
Explanation and Analysis:

As Katniss prepares to compete in her second round of the Hunger Games, she reunites with her publicist, Effie Trinket. Effie is strangely oblivious to Katniss's "cult status" as a mascot for the revolution against the government—as far as she's concerned (or so Katniss believes), Katniss is just an especially popular victor. Effie's cluelessness is reflected in her adoption of the mockingjay pin: Effie wears this pin on her body, unaware that for some people, the pin is a symbol of rebellion against the very government she serves.

More broadly speaking, Effie's adoption of the mockingjay pin points to the basic ambiguity in Katniss's role as a national celebrity. Because Katniss is forced to speak in allusions and riddles (rather than denounce the government directly), many of her remarks can be interpreted as either pro- or anti-Capitol. Katniss herself is a symbol—an instantly recognizable national celebrity—and like any popular symbol, she can be interpreted in more than one way. Katniss hates the government, but she's still unsure if she wants to commit to the dangers of becoming a revolutionary. In all, the ambiguity of the mockingjay pin reflects Katniss's uncertainty about her own identity and her future.

Chapter 16 Quotes

Kids in costumes are silly, but aging victors, it turns out, are pitiful. A few who are on the younger side, like Johanna and Finnick, or whose bodies haven’t fallen into disrepair, like Seeder and Brutus, can still manage to maintain a little dignity. But the majority, who are in the clutches of drink or morphling or illness, look grotesque in their costumes.

Related Characters: Katniss Everdeen (speaker), Finnick Odair , Johanna Mason , Brutus , Seeder
Page Number: 214
Explanation and Analysis:

At Katniss prepares to compete in the Hunger Games for a second time, she meets her competitors—previous victors in the Games. This is Katniss's opportunity to study how other people have dealt with fame and celebrity. What she discovers is "pitiful." The vast majority of people who have won the Hunger Games haven't weathered success very well. Most have become addicted to drugs or alcohol—either because they need a vehicle to escape from their memories of murder, or because they've turned to extravagance in their fame. The prevalence of addiction among the victors suggests that victory is its own prison: for all their fame and glory, the winners of the Hunger Games are just as bound to the government as the other citizens of Panem.

Although Katniss is sizing up her competition and trying to figure out how to protect the people she loves, her thought process also reminds us of how strong and mature she is in comparison to most. It's true that she hasn't had to live as a victor for very long, but she also clearly maintains greater self-control than most of her peers.

Chapter 17 Quotes

They will be looking for some sign that their battles have not been in vain. If I can make it clear that I’m still defying the Capitol right up to the end, the Capitol will have killed me …but not my spirit. What better way to give hope to the rebels?

Related Characters: Katniss Everdeen (speaker)
Page Number: 243
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, Katniss makes the difficult decision to sacrifice her own life in order to save Peeta's. Although she's won the Hunger Games alongside Peeta before, she's certain that the government won't allow her this way out a second time. Because the purpose of this edition of the Hunger Games is to weaken Katniss's power, there's no way Katniss and her "husband" will be allowed to survive together.

Although the only goal of the Hunger Games is to survive (one could say that its guiding principle is "Look out for yourself"), Katniss decides to protect Peeta's life instead of her own. The beauty of this decision is that it's at once instantly sympathetic and rebellious against President Snow's government. By sacrificing herself, Katniss would be breaking the rules of the Hunger Games (even if it's the unwritten rule of self-preservation) and therefore encouraging the people of Panem to break the rules, too—i.e., to challenge Snow's authority. While challenging Snow's authority isn't Katniss's priority—her priority is protecting her friend Peeta—her decision also reflects her growing commitment to the rebel cause.

Chapter 18 Quotes

A shadow of recognition flickers across Caesar’s face, and I can tell that he knows that the mockingjay isn’t just my token. That it’s come to symbolize so much more. That what will be seen as a flashy costume change in the Capitol is resonating in an entirely different way throughout the districts. But he makes the best of it.

Related Characters: Katniss Everdeen (speaker), Cinna , Caesar Flickerman
Related Symbols: Mockingjay
Page Number: 253
Explanation and Analysis:

As Katniss prepares to begin the Hunger Games, she's forced to give a series of TV interviews with Caesar Flickerman, a popular TV personality. Although the interviews are intended to be glossy and mindlessly entertaining, Katniss uses them as an opportunity to speak to her rebel supporters across Panem while also conducting a traditional interview. Mostly with the help of her designer, Cinna, Katniss manages to play both sides of the field by wearing her symbol, the mockingjay. To mainstream fans of the Hunger Games, Katniss seems no different from any other victor. To rebels, however (and to Caesar, who clearly knows about the significance of the mockingjay), Katniss's mockingjay is a sign of solidarity and support; a gesture of disrespect and even outright rebellion against the government.

Yet Katniss's hidden resistance is uneven and unpredictable: there's no guarantee that it'll inspire any real rebellions, since her mockingjay could easily be interpreted as a normal victor's "costume." But her hidden resistance is also the safest and arguably the most powerful way to oppose the government, considering that the government is powerful and all-seeing. Instead of firing shots at Snow and then trying to hide, Katniss uses her mockingjay to hide in plain sight.

Chapter 20 Quotes

One way or the other, I have a very valuable piece of information. And if they know I have it, they might do something to alter the force field so I can’t see the aberration anymore. So I lie.

Related Characters: Katniss Everdeen (speaker)
Page Number: 284
Explanation and Analysis:

Thanks to a conversation with her two competitors, Beetee and Wiress, Katniss learns that it's possible to see the force fields that the government had placed around the perimeters of the Hunger Games arena: there's always a telltale shimmer around the forcefield generator. But, as the quotation explains, Katniss chooses not to share this information with her competitors—and even more importantly, she chooses not to let the ever-present cameras know that she knows how to detect a forcefield.

Katniss's decision suggests a few things about her character. She's playing the game very strategically, recognizing that she shouldn't share a huge advantage—knowledge of how to detect the forcefield—with her competitors. Evidently, Katniss has learned from her prior experiences to be careful and tactical. It's also clear that Katniss has learned a lot from her Victory Tour: she's used to being filmed and watched at all times, whether she's in the Games or not. In general, Katniss's behavior shows how strategic, hidden resistance can be more effective than direct rebellion against the government. Instead of challenging the government's power directly—by complaining about the forcefield and trying to fight it, for example—Katniss exhibits self-control and files away the information for the future. Her subtlety pays off in the novel's climax, when she finally takes a decisive step—firing an arrow at the generator—and translates hidden resistance into direct rebellion at the perfect time.

Chapter 22 Quotes

I stare into the night, thinking of what a difference a day makes. How yesterday morning, Finnick was on my kill list, and now I’m willing to sleep with him as my guard. He saved Peeta and let Mags die and I don’t know why.

Related Characters: Katniss Everdeen (speaker), Peeta Mellark , Finnick Odair , Mags
Page Number: 314
Explanation and Analysis:

During the Hunger Games, Katniss makes alliances with her competitors, and changes these alliances several times. For instance, she begins by thinking that Finnick Odair is a devious, dangerous young man, but after Finnick saves Peeta's life not once but twice, Katniss decides that can trust Finnick—there's no reason for Finnick to save Peeta's life, except that he, like Katniss, is trying to help Peeta survive.

The passage is also important because it reinforces the theme of ambiguous symbols. Here, one could say that Finnick himself is the "symbol"—he projects an image of seductive, untrustworthy charm, yet also displays clear signs of compassion and honesty. Katniss is unsure how to interpret Finnick's behavior, pointing toward her general confusion about how to interpret the Hunger Games, her friends' actions, and her place as a celebrity in Panem.

Chapter 24 Quotes

My mouth drops open in shock. No one, ever, says anything like this in the Games. Absolutely, they’ve cut away from Johanna, are editing her out. But I have heard her and can never think about her again in the same way. She’ll never win any awards for kindness, but she certainly is gutsy. Or crazy.

Related Characters: Katniss Everdeen (speaker), Johanna Mason
Page Number: 346
Explanation and Analysis:

During the Hunger Games, with millions of people watching her, Johanna makes a joke about the people of Panem rebelling against the government. Naturally, the editors of the Games will never allow this sentiment to be broadcast. Still, the fact that Katniss finds Johanna's word so shocking and impressive—far more so than any literal action could be—says a lot about the kind of woman Katniss has become over the course of this novel. As Katniss proceeds with her tour of Panem, being filmed at all hours of the day, she becomes so used to the camera that she can't conceive of the camera ever turning off. Even when she's alone in her bed, she has the reflexive feeling that someone, somewhere, is filming her. Because she has the sense of always being watched, and because she knows very well that if she doesn't "behave" on camera, her family will be murdered, Katniss has no choice but to follow directions, opposing the government's authority only in the smallest, subtlest ways.

When one considers Katniss's history with surveillance, then, it's not surprising that she's so impressed with Johanna's direct statement. It's Katniss's burden to always check her own statements for fear that they'll anger Snow. She's certainly willing to incite rebellion against the government, but she'd never dare to oppose it as Johanna just has—she's also probably jealous of Johanna for being able to speak her mind so plainly.

Chapter 27 Quotes

But will Peeta know that or will he keep fighting? He’s so strong and such a good liar. Does he think he has a chance of surviving? Does he even care if he does? He wasn’t planning on it, anyway. He had already signed off on life. Maybe, if he knows I was rescued, he’s even happy. Feels he fulfilled his mission to keep me alive. I think I hate him even more than I do Haymitch.

Related Characters: Katniss Everdeen (speaker), Peeta Mellark , Haymitch Abernathy
Page Number: 387
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final pages of Catching Fire, Katniss is rescued by a group of rebels including Haymitch, Plutarch Heavensbee, and others. Peeta, on the other hand, is kidnapped by the government of Panem and placed in captivity as a warning to Katniss, now perceived (correctly) as an enemy of the government. In simplest terms, Katniss was trying to save Peeta's life by sacrificing her own, only to find that Peeta's life has been placed in danger because of her own rebellious escape (and furthermore, he was trying to sacrifice his life to save hers).

As Katniss realizes, she's become increasingly emotionally reliant on other people since winning the Hunger Games last year. Traumatized by the violence she witnessed, she's relied on Peeta (one of the few people who understands what she's going through) for love and understanding. The advantage of emotional dependence is that in Peeta, Katniss has a good friend: someone who can empathize with her and lessen her pain. But the challenge of emotional dependence, of course, is that when Katniss loses Peeta to the government, she feels more pain than she ever thought was possible: her connection with Peeta is now a horrible burden. In the depths of her misery, Katniss even says that she hates Peeta—a clear sign that she resents the bond of guilt and fear that now links her to him.