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.
Symbols and Interpretations ThemeTracker
Symbols and Interpretations Quotes in Catching Fire
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
[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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.