Catching Fire: This Again, From a New Point of View

Cover of Catching Fire

Title: Catching Fire

Author: Suzanne Collins

Publication Date: 2009

LC Call Number: PZ7.C683

I was a little concerned about reading Catching Fire because I’d heard it wasn’t as good as The Hunger Games.  This is true—but then, The Hunger Games was really good. Catching Fire is definitely another page turner, and it made me want to read Mockingjay right away—but I’ll wait, nevertheless. I don’t know how much I really have to say about this book, but here are some things I noticed…

Oh, and this post is full of spoilery spoilers. Beware.

The scope of Catching Fire is a little broader than the scope of The Hunger Games, which was really about Katniss and the injustice of the world in which she lives—and how she could see through it.  Catching Fire is more about figuring out what the rules really are, how much freedom one has within them and where they can be bent or pushed.  In pursuit of this goal, the novel finds itself interested not only in Katniss but in other characters as well.  In The Hunger Games, other people were seen mostly in terms of their effect on Katniss; Catching Fire makes more of an attempt to understand who they are and why they do what they do.  This may be partly because Katniss has matured a little; it also seems to be because Collins is setting up some things that will happen in Mockingjay. The most interesting character development in the book is, surprisingly, Haymitch’s.

In the first book, Haymitch is, to Katniss, part of the Games.  She’s very upset that he is the only person she can turn to for help, and she is disgusted by both his alcoholism and his cynicism.  Throughout the first book, though, she learns that she can communicate with him on a strategic level and, in a way, they understand each other. It’s not that we like him, since he is essentially pushing her into a nonconsensual relationship with Peeta, but we see how he is useful.  Now that she is a survivor of the Games, he’s a little more humanized in her eyes, and, ultimately, in ours too. He laughs at the idea of an uprising, not because he is naturally cynical, but because he has spent his entire life being beaten down by the Capitol. It’s almost as if he has seen something like this before. In any case, we feel much more sympathy for him as we begin to see what the aftermath of the Games is like and the way that it leads to a life of being tightly controlled and constantly retraumatized.  The Games aren’t over when they’re over, and although we kind of knew this, Catching Fire really drives it home.

It’s hard to imagine Katniss having any interest in Haymitch’s experience in the arena in the first book—but in the second book, she does, and so do we.    I said above that this book is really about finding out where the boundaries of freedom are in this world and how they can be pushed, and it was only as I typed that that I realized that Haymitch does this very literally when he seeks out the bounds of the arena and ultimately uses them to his advantage.  The new arena also literalizes this; it’s all about finding that invisible wall and making sure that you don’t run into it and get killed. Getting near it is dangerous, since they don’t know exactly where it is, but also important, because the available area is quite small, and because they need to be near it in the puzzle-solving moment at the end.  So it’s not that different from giving speeches in District Eleven, where Katniss needs to express her gratitude and condolences to Rue’s and Thresh’s family and friends, but also needs to avoid activating the wrath of the state.  She runs into the wall in this case. She’s still learning, but it tells us that she’s willing, at least sometimes, not to err on the side of caution.  She’s still a rebel. Naturally, the Capitol is also playing this game—trying to figure out how far they can push people before they have a problem—but their motivations are a little less clear.

In any case, Katniss’s commitment to behaving like decent human being as much as possible within the constraints imposed upon her isn’t consistent throughout the book.  Her behavior in District Eleven is in contrast to what she tells President Snow when he turns up at her house.  It’s not surprising that she would make different choices at different times, of course, but in general she seems to be a little more willing to rebel on someone else’s behalf than her own. I’m not sure what this means exactly.  If it’s intended to make her more sympathetic to the reader, then I have a problem with it, because it plays up some cultural ideas about self-sacrificing women that are dangerous in any case but especially in a context like the one Collins has set up here.  I don’t think that’s it, though, if only because there is a moment in which Katniss questions her own motivations and tries to figure out what she thinks of herself because of them.  I think, more than that, it’s about how necessary solidarity is.  Katniss certainly can’t bear the entire weight of the revolution on her shoulders, but in the prisoner’s dilemma of life, she can be the loyal partner.  This was true in the first book with the berries; this book doesn’t have such a clear parallel but it does show how the Capitol wants to divide and conquer, how eager it is to set up distinctions among people in order to prevent them from cooperating with each other.

It’s also interesting that not all of Katniss’s problems derive from the malice of the Capitol. Her anger at the very end of the book, when she discovers that the revolution has been going on without her and she’s been made an unwitting symbol of it, is very important.  Control isn’t only the privilege of despotic governments; it’s also present among the people who should be her friends.  Their motives aren’t that dissimilar, either.  They want a good show, just as the Capitol does, though for different reasons. It’s not just at the end that Katniss’s friends seem to have turned against her, though. Peeta really began creeping me out in this book.  He keeps making these comments that might be appropriate if he and Katniss were actually in a romantic relationship, but are kind of gross given that she’s already told him that she doesn’t really want that with him, or at least, not at this time—and it’s even worse under extreme circumstances where they are thrown together in a hostile environment and also likely to die.  Surely this is stressful enough already?

A couple words about the plot—I was really skeptical about the decision to put Katniss and Peeta back in the arena again. Haven’t we done this already? It turned out that there were pretty important differences between the way the arena worked in the first book and the way it worked in this one, in terms of both plot and characterization. It’s very different with the new cast of characters (and Mags, my god).  Still, I thought this would be very repetitious unless it was somehow interrupted—and it was, so I guess I have the choice between thinking that it was predictable and just saying I called it. Either way, I guess I’m surprised Collins didn’t think of a new horrible thing to have happen.

So that’s where I am with this.  I’m excited about reading Mockingjay and will when I get a chance. I’m pretty concerned about Cinna.

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