Mockingjays and Jabberjays
When Katniss tries to return the mockingjay pin to Madge, Madge insists that she keep the gift and explains to Katniss that the pin was her aunt’s. Mockingjays are just songbirds, she says, but Katniss thinks differently. The Capitol’s genetically enhanced male jays were “highly controlled” yet failed as spies. Their offspring with female mockingbirds were born outside of, and despite, the Capitol’s control: “They hadn’t anticipated its will to live,” Katniss says of the mockingjay.
The Gamemakers still breed jabberjays when they need them, putting them to use in the third Quarter Quell arena to manipulate those who hear their cries into terror. The jabberjays suggest so much that is cruel and controlling about the Capitol: They are a perversion of something good—birds and their songs. They are disposable, bred and programmed by the Gamemakers, like all muttations, without regard to their lives or suffering; Katniss shoots as many as she can as they scream in Prim’s voice. They were, when first bred, and still are among the many tools used by the Capitol to suppress.
So it’s somewhat ironic and fitting that the unintended offspring of this distorted muttation, the mockingjay, becomes the symbol of resistance against the Capitol. The irony arises from the use of something the Capitol tried to control against its own designs; the fittingness comes from what readers learn about Madge’s aunt, the dear friend of Katniss’s mother, whose pin Madge gives Katniss as a district token. Kidnapped, in essence, from her sister (possibly her twin sister), friends, and family, Maysilee is Haymitch’s ally, for a while, in the second Quarter Quell. Because she died, Madge’s mother is stricken with debilitating headaches, yet a silent bond exists between the Undersees and Katniss’s family. It is fitting that Katniss—the victor—carries the token of the victim into the arena and out again. In a sense, Maysilee’s death was also the death of happiness for Katniss’s mother when she was Katniss’s age. The death is part of the event that drove Haymitch to alcoholic isolation; it carved out the heart of her family and represents the death of every reaped child and its consequences. Maysilee’s token, whether Katniss likes it or not (and she is fairly sure that she does not through this novel), gives rise to the resistance’s central symbol and is permanently connected to the “girl on fire” who wore it into not one but two barbaric arenas.
District 13 is a shadowy presence in the trilogy’s first novel but nevertheless functions symbolically in both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire—in two contrasting ways. The Capitol wields District 13 as a warning: Rebels will be annihilated. If District 13, the best-armed, best-defended district, could not prevail against the Capitol, then what chance do the farmers of District 11 or the ranchers of District 12 have? The Capitol makes sure to expose the districts to regular District 13 updates, showing the ruins of the Justice Building again and again as an emblem of the Capitol’s firepower. In the annual reading of Panem’s history that precedes the reaping, too, the “obliterated” District 13 is held up to represent the folly of resistance. The area is “nothing but rubble,” Katniss and most people believe because of Capitol propaganda—and their own districts could follow.
However, over the course of Catching Fire, District 13 comes to represent the utter opposite of the Capitol’s presentation of it. Twill and Bonnie explain that the often-seen footage has a tell: The same mockingjay (appropriately, given the bird’s symbolism) can be seen flying by the ruins in the background, no matter what the reporter is doing in the foreground. Since the same image is used repeatedly, a rumor begins that something more is going on in District 13—and that the Capitol is trying hard to keep the other districts from knowing what that is. Resisting the Capitol’s attempts to force District 13 into its narrative of necessary oppression, people assign a new meaning to District 13: hope. They hope for a safe place of refuge—that’s why Bonnie and Twill are trying to reach 13. They hope for an “independent, thriving” underground movement that is poised to break out against the Capitol. Very little is known, Bonnie admits, but “we’re just holding on to the hope that they exist.”
The Clock Arena
The arena for the third Quarter Quell functions as both an important setting and a richly visual symbol of the Capitol’s control over Panem. Partly, this is by design: The Gamemakers have gone out of their way to create a layout that echoes Panem’s geography: “a shining Capitol ringed by thirteen districts.” Now, of course, only twelve districts remain, each represented in the arena by a wedge of the clock; the Cornucopia—source of precious life-sustaining items provided by the Capitol—sits in the center, a“shining gold metal horn,” beckoning the tributes to risk safety to reach it. The entire arena is under a dome, physically, and under control of the Gamemakers, technically. If only they could control the actual districts so neatly, they would not need to fear rebellion. Yet while the point of this Quarter Quell is, ironically, to drive home the message that even the victors survive only at the Capitol’s mercy, readers become increasingly aware that the Capitol’s control is slipping. Snow’s grip was loosened when Katniss threatened to eat the berries, and he tells her as much: The system is “fragile,” and its demise would lead to great suffering. Snow hardens his grip on Katniss by threatening those she loves, including Gale, but in doing so and in cracking down on the districts and reaping from the beloved victors, the Capitol risks revealing how fragile its authority truly is.
The arena features a punishment per district and a relentless schedule that limits time for the tributes to rest, plan, and recover from each ordeal. The dome, with its deadly force field, prevents escape. In these ways, too, the arena’s design resonates with the enslavement, in essence, of the work forces in the districts, who must produce on time, deliver on time, do the work assigned them rather than work they seek, and in almost all ways hand over their labor, energy, and results for the Capitol’s use. They are worked nearly to death—in some cases entirely to death—and are isolated from help, just as the tributes in the arena are.
Or seem to be—in fact, readers learn, one Gamemaker is at work to undo the Capitol’s control. Plutarch Heavensbee is also on a schedule, but Katniss, in her ignorance, forces his hand and destroys the arena and the Capitol’s control over the tributes when she shorts out the force field. The shattering of the dome threatens the shattering of the fragile system Snow is trying to reinforce; the Capitol’s crackdown is swift, brutal, and enraged as Snow responds to the smashing of even symbolic control.
Food, lack of food, and excess of food not only figures in the plot but acts as a metaphor for Panem’s oppression of the districts. Readers will recall that in The Hunger Games, Katniss describes the hunger and in fact starvation that she and others in District 12 suffer. She notes the disgust Effie feels for the previous tributes, who are so starved that they eat frantically, with their hands, while on the train to the Capitol, having never seen such food. She learns from Rue that in District 11, where much of the Capitol’s food is grown, the workers are not allowed to eat what they grow and harvest and are punished severely if, out of starvation, they break this rule. Because of District 11’s gift in the arena, bread itself becomes a symbol. But it is in Catching Fire, during the Victory Tour and the party at President Snow’s mansion, that food reaches its full use as a metaphor. The description of the feast, in Chapter 6, alone captures the excesses of the Capitol and the terrible irony of the contrast to the districts, kept just shy of starvation; it is, Katniss says, “the real star of the evening.” Whole roasted animals, all kinds of birds and seafood, “Countless cheeses, breads, vegetables, sweets, waterfalls of wine, and streams of spirits”—these details only begin to describe the feast, and at first, Katniss and Peeta are dazed by the variety and want to try everything.
But their attitude changes when Katniss’s prep team makes them aware of the table of tiny glasses of clear liquid—an emetic used by guests who are full to painfulness yet want to keep eating. Peeta leads Katniss away, muttering that they’ve gone along and played their roles, “thinking maybe they’re not so bad, and then you—”. Words cannot describe their revulsion. Katniss thinks of “the emaciated bodies of the children” her mother tries to treat but cannot because the unavailable remedy for their poor health is adequate food. The contrast between the world Katniss and Peeta come from and the world in which people are “vomiting for the pleasure of filling their bellies again and again” perfectly captures not only the Capitol’s exploitation of the districts but also its callousness. Perhaps some of those at the party are in fact naïve about conditions in the districts; they’ve been fed strategically edited films about the happy districts, happily producing the Capitol’s goods, and they have an odd affection for the celebrity-victors. In the same way that, during the United States’ years of chattel slavery, narratives were woven to demonstrate that enslaved peoples were happy in the fields, the Capitol may have citizens like Flavius, Venia, and Octavia fooled. However, as the novel continues, readers learn that while some in the Capitol work to enforce the food imbalance—literally and metaphorically—others have had enough. Like Peeta, they are disgusted; like Katniss, they are appalled.