The Girl Who Was On Fire (Part Two)

Yesterday we started looking at the ways in which Katniss was transformed by fire into a new and better person (you can read that post here).

Her resurrection is short-lived, however. Within a few hours, the entire forest is ablaze with fire, set by the Gamemakers to add a bit of “spark” to the Games. “The world has transformed to flame and smoke. . . . The heat is horrible,” (172). “In a matter of minutes, my throat and nose are burning,” every breath sending “searing pain through my chest,” (173). She ends up vomiting, purifying her body by expelling the fire’s polutants (173-174). Then, something shoots fireballs at her in the woods (175-176), catching her leg on fire (177-178) and burning her ponytail away (176). If, as we have suggested, Katniss is represented by “bread,” then these are literal parallels to the “burns” on the bread which are scraped away as the bread is purified. She even connects her burns in the Games to the burnt bread: “I hate burns, have always hated them, even a small one gotten from pulling a pan of bread fro the oven. It is the worst kind of pain to me, but I have never experienced anything like this,” (178). But then the “fire” of the forest fire mingles and is transformed by a new sort of fire, that of the golden fiery light of dawn (177). She is caught in the fiery explosion of the Career’s supplies.

The nature of the fire in the book then takes a different, more internalized turn. Having passed through external fire, she must now pass through the internal purifying fires of Rue’s death (which, like Dobby’s in Harry Potter, unlocks Katniss’s internal strength). She must pass through the transforming fire of grief for Rue, who for Katniss essentially is her sister Prim (the two are clearly identified on 234; both ask Katniss to win the games and she promises to do so). This is, indeed, the novel’s, and Katniss’, turning point. Now she believes she can win the games, and is determined to do so. “Something changed when I was holding Rue’s hand, watching the life drain out of her. Now I am determined to revenge her, to make her loss unforgettable . . .” (242). Of course, revenge is not a good motive, and it too must eventually be purged from Katniss.

The second internal purification comes from Peeta’s return. Hardened Katniss can now win with Peeta alive also, and she is determined to make that happen. She has never trusted others for her survival, but now she is thrown into a situation where she must look out for another as well as herself. She finds him and must care for him throughout the rest of the book, and begins to fall in love with him. Even going through the actions to get them food and medicine, even playing the narrative out causes her to truly care for him. Bread, as a symbol of world-material transformed by the transforming fire of the baker’s oven, unexpectedly reappears when the bread district, district 11, sends her bread for what she did for Rue (bread, as pointed out, in the Hunger Games represents the Philosopher’s Stone, the Elixir of Life, and Katniss herself when she is finally transformed).

When she returns to the arena to get Peeta’s medication, the final stage of her purification has begun. The light of the fiery dawn light “glints off the golden Cornucopia” in the center of the clearing (282). Peeta’s medication is in yet another “orange” backpack (284). She goes through another symbolic death as Clove prepares to torture her, and it takes place beneath the golden Cornucopia (286). Katniss “braced myself for the agony that’s sure to follow,” (286), but Thresh spares her life for what she did for Rue. Symbolic death and resurrection in the presence of the golden Cornucopia, which will play a substantial role in Katniss’ final transformation. “You’d better run, Fire Girl,” Thresh says, (288). In this section, the fire is the flame of passion kindled between her and Peeta, and it does move beyond mere performance: “This is the first kiss where I actually feel stirring inside my chest. Warm and curious. This is the first kiss that makes me want another,” (298). Just as the burnt bread of Peeta’s that “burned into her,” this kiss summons feelings within her that are “warm and curious.” Like bread, or more accurately, what the bread pointed towards all along.

When they leave for the final confrontation at the golden Cornucopia, the sun’s fire has returned. The creek is “bone-dry,” the lake drained, the “hot sun” endangering them with dehydration (325-326). They arrive and find “the gold Cornucopia glowing in the slanting sun rays,” (328). When the horrible Muttations appear, all three of them, Katniss, Peeta and Cato, are driven to the golden Cornucopia, with its shining, “pure gold surface,” (331) molded to imitate the harvest cornucopias used in the Districts to symbolize a feast. The Cornucopia is, in this case, symbolizing the same thing as the TriWizard Cup in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the Philosopher’s Stone and Elixir of Life, which turns all it touches to gold. It points to Katniss’s final purification by fire. And the Golden Cornucopia is fiery; it burns like scorched bread clutched to Katniss’ chest. The golden surface of the Cornucopia “feels hot enough to blister my hands,” (332). Collins connects the scorching Cornucopia with their love directly: “the Cornucopia, which burned so when I first climbed it, slowly turning to ice,” but as she and Peeta lie together, she finds it “a bit warmer, sharing our body heat inside my double layer of jackets,” (338). The fire has shifted from outward to inward.

Katniss’ desire for  revenge on Rue’s killers is finally purged out of her as she and Peeta lay on the top of the scorching golden Cornucopia, listening to the horrible sounds of Cato being tortured. Finally unable to take the brutality of it, Katniss kills Cato, not out of revenge, but out of mercy, as the dawn sun is rising. “Pity, not vengeance, sends my arrow into his skull,” (341).

Finally, the fires of love between baker and bread is what provokes their attempted double-suicide, preferring to be dead together than to be forced to kill one another (a clever inversion of the tragic end of Romeo and Juliet). This fiery passion in Katniss bursts forth in all its glory as she screams and rants as Peeta is seen by the medical team. “I start hurling myself against the glass, shrieking . . .” (348). “But I’m held here,” watching Peeta on the verge of death, “both by the hovercraft walls and the same force that holds the loved ones of the dying.” Why do you stay and watch someone you love die? “It’s because you have no choice.” Yet Peeta returns from his symbolic death, resurrected and glorified by Cinna’s fiery costumes. The “girl who was on fire” is finally reunited with the “boy who was on fire” in the interview and are, at least for that brief moment the alchemical couple, the “couple who was on fire.”

There are more elements to explore (we could include the red-haired girl as a form of transformative symbol of the Rubedo (red) alchemical stage in which Katniss is transformed into a girl who can ask for forgiveness for sin and wrongdoing, and be absolved). There are many more elements we could potentially explore as further examples of this fiery transformation, but the point is clear enough. Katniss Everdeen is a Phoenix, rising from the ashes of her old self into new life.

She is the girl who was on fire.

  1 comment for “The Girl Who Was On Fire (Part Two)

  1. Mary Ellen
    November 22, 2011 at 8:32 am

    Terrific essays — thank you! I enjoyed the first Hunger Games book enormously. It was, of course hard to miss all the fire imagery, but I did not put the fire-bread-alchemical symbols together. Your analysis has helped me see Hunger Games’ artistry and message much more clearly.

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