Catching Fire picks up a few months after Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark were declared the victors of the 74th Annual Hunger Games. Now 17, Katniss is adjusting to her new life of plenty after spending her entire childhood in poverty and hunger. Despite her family's lush new house in Victor's Village and her newfound wealth, Katniss still chooses to hunt in order to feed her friends. Gale Hawthorne, her former hunting partner and best friend, now works in the coal mines, so Katniss goes out alone. However, she gives whatever she kills to Gale's family - his mother Hazelle, the resourceful laundress of District 12, and his brothers Rory and Vick and baby sister Posy.
Gale refuses Katniss's insistence he take money, but he begrudgingly accepts the meat she brings. Meanwhile, Hazelle is grateful for Katniss' help, as her husband was killed years ago in the same mine explosion that killed Katniss's father. One afternoon, after delivering the food to Gale's house, Katniss continues to the Hob, District 12's black market, where she traded for years. Moneyed now, she makes purchases rather than trades. She buys a few bottles of white liquor for Haymitch Abernathy, her mentor in the Hunger Games and now her neighbor in Victor's Village. Despite his surly drunkenness, Katniss feels obliged to help Haymitch because he helped to keep her and Peeta alive in the Games.
Cray, the Head Peacekeeper (law enforcer) of District 12, jokes with Katniss about her liquor purchase. She shares soup with another friendly Peacekeeper, Darius, at Greasy Sae's stall. Although they are the Capitol's representatives in District 12, Cray and Darius are lenient, partaking in the same harmless illegal activities as the District 12 citizens. Greasy Sae teases Katniss about her "cousin" Gale - a lie District 12 maintains to keep him safe. The illusion of romance between Katniss and Peeta meant they both got to return home after the Games. The true nature of Katniss's relationship to Gale would be a threat to her public image and therefore, her safety. However, after everything that has happened, Katniss is not even sure what that relationship is.
Katniss goes to Haymitch's unkempt house and wakes him out of a drunken stupor. He sleeps with a knife in his hand and Katniss has to jump out of the way to avoid being slashed. This is the day the Victory Tour begins. Katniss, Peeta and Haymitch, all Hunger Games victors, will be whisked to each District for a celebration before a final banquet in the Capitol. Peeta arrives at Haymitch's house to help get him camera-ready. He and Katniss are formal with one another; Peeta is clearly still hurt from learning that Katniss's affections for him were mere performance.
Katniss goes home to get ready herself and is greeted by her worried mother at the door. President Snow is waiting for Katniss in the study. Katniss understands immediately that she is in some kind of trouble. Snow, cold and firm, brings up the moment at the end of the Games when Katniss pulled out a bag of poisonous berries and threatened to kill herself rather than fight to the death with Peeta. This act, which the Capitol views as rebellion, forced the Gamemakers to choose between a double suicide and no victor, or allowing there to be two victors. The President tells Katniss that he wishes Seneca Crane, the Head Gamekeeper for the 74th Games, had blown her up on the spot instead of allowing her to live. Katniss infers from Snow's tone that Crane has been executed.
The citizens of the Capitol were convinced that the ploy with the berries was motivated by Katniss's feelings for Peeta, but the Districts viewed it as "an act of defiance, not an act of love" (21). President Snow warns Katniss that uprisings may spring up from this general feeling of unrest, which could, in turn, start a revolution. Many people would die, and the conditions faced by those who lived would be horrendous. The entire infrastructure of Panem would collapse. Without thinking, Katniss responds "'It must be very fragile, if a handful of berries can bring it down'" (22).
After Katniss's mother serves tea, Snow continues his tirade against Katniss: "the girl who was on fire...[has] provided a spark that, left unattended, may grow to an inferno that destroys Panem" (23). Katniss wonders why Snow doesn't just kill her, either publicly or by an engineered accident. However, Snow knows that Katniss' death would only stoke the fires of insurrection. He instructs her to convince the people of Panem that the act with the berries was indeed an act of love, and nothing more. If not, great harm will come to her loved ones, including Gale.
Katniss remembers the few weeks after her return to District 12 as a victor. Her favorite memory is Parcel Day, a monthly delivery of food packages to be shared by all of District 12 for a year after a Games victory. After the obligatory celebrations and constant attention, Katniss was finally able to meet Gale alone in the woods. After a day of hunting and trapping, Gale surprised her with a passionate kiss before disappearing. When they met the following week, Gale mentioned nothing of the kiss. Though she also pretends it never happened, Katniss is still not sure how she feels about it.
Snow tells Kantiss she must do better than convincing the Capitol of her love for Peeta - she must convince him, and he knows about her kiss with Gale. Katniss keeps the subject of her meeting with Snow a secret from her mother so as not to worry her or Prim. She realizes she also can't tell Gale, Peeta, or even Cinna, lest she draws them into her trouble. She deduces that the only person she can confide in is Haymitch.
Octavia, Venia, and Flavius, Katniss's stylist prep team, arrive from the Capitol and immediately begin fussing over her. They remind Katniss that during the upcoming Quarter Quell, a special version of the Games that occurs every 25 years, Katniss will be serving as a mentor for the first time. Each Quarter Quell has different rules that were determined before the very first Hunger Games. For the 50th Games, the second Quarter Quell, each District had to send two male and two female tributes instead of one. Haymitch was the victor.
When she is ready, Katniss finds Cinna downstairs and they embrace. She has kept up with him by telephone since the Games. He remains one of her true friends. Every victor must have a talent to display during the Victory Tour, but Katniss was unable to think of one - other than hunting, which is illegal. She finally settled on fashion design with the understanding that Cinna would do all of the work. Effie Trinket arrives to keep them on schedule and they film demonstrations of Katniss's "talent."
Prim has dressed up for the event and even though she has matured since the Games, Katniss can't help but be reminded of her ally Rue, the tribute from District 11 she watched die. Katniss knows she has to keep up appearances in order to prevent more of her loved ones' deaths. So, she puts on her game face as Effie leads the sisters out to find Peeta. Katniss jumps into Peeta's arms on camera. Though he is almost knocked off balance because of his artificial leg, Peeta is able to maintain the performance. They kiss, and Katniss knows that Peeta is still looking after her.
Haymitch, Katniss, Peeta and their teams bid District 12 goodbye and settle into their berths on the train. Katniss seeks out Haymitch and intimates that she needs to talk to him. They go outside, away from any surveillance the President may have in place. She tells Haymitch about her conversation with Snow. He tells her the only way to avoid harm coming to her family is to carry out the charade of loving Peeta beyond the Victory Tour. At that moment, Katniss realizes that she must marry Peeta.
A year older than in the first book, Katniss is still the same uncertain teenager facing seemingly insurmountable problems. Many themes present in The Hunger Games are explored or amplified in Catching Fire. Coming-of-age, class division, violence, spectacle and the media all play important parts in the story of Katniss Everdeen and her country, Panem. Catching Fire is written in first-person, continuing Katniss' narration of the world around her and her direct experiences. In the beginning of the novel, she maintains her stoicism under pressure and continues to be wary of authority. The events in Catching Fire chart the maturation of Katniss as she evolves from a protector of close family and friends into a symbol of hope for a nation.
Despite her trademark brusqueness, Katniss's life has changed significantly since winning the Hunger Games. Her family now lives a life of luxury in Victors' Village and her District receives packages of food from the Capitol, both prizes that are awarded annually to the winner. This helps to amplify the theme of division between classes that permeated The Hunger Games. Katniss is still keenly aware of the less fortunate around her; she continues to hunt for her friends and is more than willing to share the spoils of her victory. Life in District 12 is still mired in poverty and peril: Gale Hawthorne, Katniss’s closest friend before the Games, is now a coal miner, the profession that killed both his and Katniss's fathers. Trading for goods and illegally purveyed food continues on as usual in the Hob, the black market; and Gale’s mother Hazelle is one of the many citizens of District 12 that are permanently on the bubble of being able to provide for their children. As the story continues, the division between the poor and the rich in the Capitol grows wider and the sparks of rebellion begin to catch fire.
Nevertheless, Katniss seems to miss her life of struggle. When she is back in her old house, she laments that the situation changed so rapidly around her - even though her life was once marked by poverty and hunger, she knew who she was. Being poor made Katniss learn how to rely on her wits to survive, which has become an inextricable part of her character. However, this yearning for her old life reflects the desire to return to a simpler time – before she was aware of how complicated life is beyond the Seam. Though she had been long inured to brutality and death, Katniss was relatively innocent about the ways of the world. Her only concern was how to eke out a living, so to her, it was futile to think about the possibility of changing the world. Now that she has had exposure to the excesses and machinations of the Capitol, she can no longer close her eyes to the injustice around her. But she is still a teenager and perhaps not yet able to cope with the complexities of the adult world – despite having killed other people during the Games, when it was necessary. Katniss is experiencing a rather extreme version of growing pains and it is natural to want to return to a time that she completely understood, a time when she was not yet an enemy of the Capitol.
Notably, Katniss's political awakening is a throughline of Catching Fire, beginning in the first Chapter with President Snow's visit. The subject of their meeting is Katniss’s act at the end of the Hunger Games. Rather than killing Peeta or vice versa, Katniss suggested they both eat poisonous berries. This forced Seneca Crane, the Head Gamemaker, to choose between the prospect of no winner or two winners. Crane opted for the latter, so both Katniss and Peeta survived. The Capitol spun this outcome as the culmination of a romance between the two, but there are lasting political implications. Snow believes this was an act of rebellion, one that has stoked feelings of unrest in the already tenuous situation in the Districts. Katniss, however, does not know what to think. Though it was clearly an act of defiance, she has always operated in survival mode. She was not thinking of love (Peeta and Katniss manufactured their romance to play on the sympathies of wealthy Capitol citizens who could sponsor them) nor was she thinking of starting a revolution. She was indeed upset with the system that forced her to kill other children and bear witness to the deaths of allies and friends, including 12-year-old Rue. At this point, Katniss is not ready to take on the mantle of symbol of the rebellion. Snow, however, pushes her into this role by threatening her family. His insistence that she play up the romance angle for the cameras – or else Prim, her mother, Gale and others shall face the consequences – ultimately stokes Katniss's desire to fight back. This will be examined fully in later chapters.
The frank conversation between Katniss and President Snow reveals a few of the many tactics used by the Capitol to keep the Districts in line, of which surveillance and manipulation of the media are the most prevalent. The romance between Peeta and Katniss is one such manipulation, but the Capitol’s exploitation of the media is much more nefarious. This will be explored in further chapters. Here, Collins shows her readers a sense of the Capitol's reach. President Snow knows about a private kiss between Gale and Katniss. The idea that the government can be watching your every move is a common motif of dystopian novels as exemplified by Big Brother in George Orwell’s classic Nineteen Eighty-Four. This idea has gained contemporary significance in the aftermath of 9/11, as video-taped surveillance became increasingly prevalent throughout the United States. Katniss learns that, as in the arena, no place is safe from the prying eyes of the Capitol. This information shades her interaction with her allies and enemies throughout the novel and helps to explain the amount of subterfuge and secrecy that the characters must enact in order to stay alive.
Snow exposes the lengths to which he is willing to go during his meeting with Katniss. He heavily implies that Seneca Crane was murdered for his choice at the end of the Games. Katniss wonders why she isn’t just killed herself, a flippant remark that illustrates just how ingrained execution and assassination are to the political system in Panem. Catching Fire significantly ups the stakes established in The Hunger Games. Death is as real possibility outside the arena as it is during the competition.
These chapters also set up the nature of authority in District 12, which is significantly more lapsed than in the Capitol. The Peacekeepers, Darius and Cray, joke around with Katniss and the traders of the Hob. They not only excuse illegal behavior, but partake in it themselves. The Peacekeepers' prevailing policy is to look the other way, and letting slide harmless activities that The Capitol could construe as corruption. The Peacekeepers are themselves a part of District 12. This touches upon a motif of apathy. After 75 years of oppression, the Districts have played their part, manufacturing goods for the Capitol while sending in their children to die in the Hunger Games arena every year. The Capitol uses distractions like the spectacle of the Games and manipulation of the media to gloss over the rampant injustice. Rebellion ultimately takes hold in the districts because of the increased abuses inflicted by the Capitol and their lack of control over the story. The status quo in District 12 gets upended as Snow’s forces crackdown on even the most minor infractions and Katniss’s act in the Games proves that defiance is possible.
Finally, Katniss’s horror at having to marry Peeta raises one more element of life in Panem – personal freedom – and a window into Katniss’s inner life. Though citizens of the districts have no control over where they live or what they will do for a living, they are free to marry whomever they wish. That President Snow would insist that Katniss marry Peeta and, in all likelihood, have children who could be reaped in the future, is the grossest affront for Katniss. Not that romantic love ever seemed to be important to Katniss - though she is the object of affection for both Peeta and Gale. Like the interest in fashion that Cinna manufactures for her, Katniss has a hard time engaging in anything she deems inessential; if it won’t contribute to her survival, she’s not interested. In fact, for Katniss, love can be hazardous. Her love of Prim led her to volunteer for the Hunger Games. She knows that loving someone will mean sacrificing everything in order to keep him or her safe. At this point, love is too costly for Katniss to entertain.