Katniss walks through a mysterious wood. She thinks about her recent victory. As a result of winning the annual “Hunger Games,” she now lives in Victor’s Village, and will soon march through a Victory Tour, surrounded by reporters. She thinks about the people who helped her win the games: her stylist Cinna, who designed her outfits, and her escort, Effie Trinket. Katniss wants to forget the Hunger Games altogether, but the Capitol forces her—and everyone else—to remember them. In this way, it reminds the districts of the Capitol’s great power.
While Collins clearly expects readers to have read The Hunger Games—the prequel to Catching Fire—the opening pages of this book are also meant to be disorienting. Whether we read the last book or not, we’re confused about where Katniss is and what the oppressive government of the Capitol will do to her next. Indeed, the only “certain” thing in this opening section is the vast power of the Capitol.
Katniss is walking through the woods to hunt on behalf of her lifelong friend Gale Hawthorne, whose family isn’t rich enough to buy meat from town. Katniss and Gale used to go hunting together, but now Gale works in a coal mine, and Katniss hunts alone. Technically, hunting in the woods is illegal, though it is fairly easy to evade punishment. Now, Katniss only sees Gale on Sundays. While they’re still friends, Katniss and Gale feel a distance between each other because of the Hunger Games.
From this section onward, Collins emphasizes many class and economic differences. Gale, whose family is poorer than most in his already poor district, has to break the law just to survive. At this point in the novel, it’s fairly easy for characters to break the rules of their world—Katniss and Gale can still hunt, even though it’s technically illegal.
Katniss proceeds with her hunting, using traps to catch a large number of rabbits and other small animals. She walks back to her community, District 12. Katniss’s family—her mother and her sister, Prim—are happy to live in Victor’s Village, but Katniss herself prefers her childhood home in District 12.
Collins shows Katniss to be an enormously resourceful young woman. While “hunter” is a stereotypically male profession, Katniss does a man’s job—both in the abstract sense of hunting and in the specific sense of doing Gale’s work for him.
Katniss walks to her house. There, she changes out of her hunting clothes and notices her bow and arrow—the weapons that helped her win the Hunger Games—hanging on the wall. She thinks that she is famous and rich because she won, but also hated in the Capitol for the way she won.
Collins doesn’t have time for a detailed recap of the last novel, but she establishes the basic takeaway of the book: Katniss won the Games but alienated the Capitol in the process. Clearly, this will be the principle conflict of the novel.
Katniss leaves her house and walks through the streets of District 12, carrying some of her catches. She sees Hazelle, Gale’s mother. Katniss recalls that an explosion killed both Hazelle’s husband and Katniss’s father years ago. After Hazelle lost her husband, Gale became the primary supporter of his family, which consists of his mother, his two brothers, Rory and Vick, and his baby sister, Posy. Katniss gives Hazelle the animals she caught that morning. Hazelle smiles and mentions that Gale looks forward to seeing Katniss every Sunday. Katniss blushes.
Unlike the protagonists of many other novels about children and young adults, Katniss and Gale are given real adult responsibilities, like providing for their families by working and hunting. This early “adulthood” comes from family tragedy—Gale is forced to be the “father” in his family precisely because he doesn’t have a father.
After leaving Hazelle’s house, Katniss walks to Hob, a market area where Katniss usually sells her catches. Katniss regards the Hob as a shady, crime-ridden area, but she also knows that it was a resident of the Hob, Greasy Sae, who raised funds to “sponsor” Katniss and Peeta during the Games. During the Games, Districts are allowed to pay for gifts for their competitors. Today, Katniss doesn’t have any catches left to sell, but she buys liquor, bread, coffee, and other foodstuffs. The liquor is for Haymitch, the man who mentored Katniss and Peeta, the two co-winners of the Games. Their victory was the first time in history that two people won the Hunger Games instead of just one.
Collins takes this section as an opportunity to catch us up on the events of the previous novel, The Hunger Games. Peeta and Katniss’s victory was only possible because of the help of many people, including Haymitch, who is seemingly an old alcoholic. Katniss’s purchase for Haymitch is a gesture of gratitude for his help, rather than an approval of his alcoholism. In this way, Collins reinforces the point that Katniss is, in many ways, more mature and grown-up than the adults in her world.
Katniss walks to Greasy Sae’s stall in the Hob, where she crosses paths with a Peacekeeper named Darius. Darius greets Katniss happily, and asks her when she’s leaving District 12 for her tour. Katniss explains that she’s leaving by train at noon. Greasy Sae asks Katniss about Gale, Katniss’s “cousin.” This reminds Katniss of the strange lie that reporters have circulated about Gale. Because reporters wanted to ”play up” Katniss’s romance with Peeta during the Games, they couldn’t have Gale, who’s very handsome, distracting from the story. Thus, they pretended that Gale was Katniss’s cousin. Katniss notes ruefully that even people in District 12 seem to have forgotten that Gale and Katniss aren’t, in fact, related at all.
At the beginning of the novel, there’s more leeway in the laws of the land. This is aptly symbolized by Darius, a “Peacekeeper”—in other words, a soldier and police officer from the Capitol—who is nonetheless friendly and warm with Katniss. Collins also reminds us of the strict censorship of the press in the world of Panem: anything that doesn’t support the approved “story” is twisted or censored. Because Gale’s existence complicates the media’s love story, he’s changed from Katniss’s friend into her cousin. The irony is that, from Collins’s perspective, Gale’s existence actually makes Katniss’s “love story” more interesting, as we’re meant to wonder whom Katniss will end up with: Peeta or Gale.
Katniss leaves the Hob and walks to Victor’s Village, a small community near District 12 where the winners of the Games, and those close to them, are allowed to stay. Katniss has a huge house in the Village, which she shares with her mother and sister. Haymitch and Peeta have similarly massive houses. Katniss walks into Haymitch’s house, which is luxurious but filthy, since Haymitch is lazy and always drunk. She sees Haymitch sleeping on the floor, and irritably yells at him to wake up. Haymitch wakes up, and Katniss reminds him that he’d asked her to wake him before the reporters arrive in Victor’s Village.
We begin to get a sense of the adults in Katniss’s life. Some, like her mother, are mostly remarkable because they accept Katniss’s generosity without question. Others, like Haymitch, seem remarkable only insofar as they’re immature—drunk, lazy, and forgetful. It’s like Katniss is the parent, waking Haymitch up for his big day—not the other way around.
As Katniss and Haymitch bicker, Peeta walks into the room. He has been baking bread in Haymitch’s house—Katniss notes that this is his “job” now, just as it’s her job to hunt. Peeta is stiff and awkward around Katniss, and Katniss behaves the same way around him. They have been awkward since they won the Games together, but they both recognize that the reporters and spectators of the Games want them to be in love. Haymitch calls Peeta and Katniss “lovebirds,” and tells them to get ready for the tour.
Collins paints a strange picture of a “family” in this scene. Katniss, the active, athletic hunter, is the “father-figure,” while Peeta, the cook, is the “mother,” and Haymitch is the lazy, drowsy child. This goes to show that all the usual stereotypes about people—how they should behave based on their age and their gender—hold no currency with Collins.
Katniss leaves Haymitch’s house and walks to her own. There, her mother is waiting for her. She tells Katniss that a messenger is waiting to talk to her, and Katniss notices that she looks frightened. Katniss, who knows better than to disobey anyone working for the Capitol, follows the messenger into a room of her house. There, she finds President Snow, the leader of the Capitol.
The first chapter, like most of the others in the novel, ends with a “cliff-hanger,” meant to build suspense and leave us wanting to know what happens next. We’ve been given hints of the enormous, ominous power of the government already, so it’s doubly shocking to see the Capitol’s leader appear in the novel so soon.