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Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols


The Duplicity and Power of Appearances

Right from the start, Katniss and many of the people close to her must maintain appearances that often contrast with reality, and as the story progresses we see several cases of characters who appear to be one thing but turn out to be quite another. To begin with, Katniss and Peeta have to act as if they’re in love so that the Capitol can keep up the lie that their threat of suicide at the end of the previous novel was simply the desperate act of two love-crazed teenagers and not a gesture of defiance. That fear speaks to the power of appearances, since as President Snow explains to Katniss, if people saw Katniss as a rebel, that alone could encourage the districts to revolt. Katniss, it turns out, has already become a symbol of the rebellion, but again the appearance doesn’t reflect the truth. Katniss has no involvement with any organized rebel movement and doesn’t even know one exists for most of the novel. She even spends the first part of the novel trying to appease President Snow and keeping up the love act with Peeta in the hopes of subduing any potential uprisings. (Admittedly, she isn’t very successful and actually does end up encouraging people to defy the Capitol.) In both situations, however, what’s important isn’t what Katniss actually believes or feels. Her value to both sides is primarily as a symbol, which suggests that her image is perhaps more powerful than she is herself.

Gradually, we learn that Katniss isn’t the only character maintaining a public persona that doesn’t correspond with reality. Plutarch Heavensbee, the new Head Gamemaker, is revealed to be part of the rebellion. Finnick isn’t the shallow womanizer he appears to be, and several tributes, including some like Finnick who’ve enjoyed fame and wealth in the Capitol, are actually part of the rebellion. Many of the events in the Quarter Quell also turn out to be covers for hidden agendas. The tributes’ efforts to keep Peeta alive have nothing to do with turning him into a leader, as Katniss believes, but are just to keep Katniss cooperating with them. Some aspects of the Quarter Quell itself were even engineered to help the tributes escape, notably the wire Beetee invented being included among the weapons. The last chapters of the novel largely center on Katniss finally coming to understand the truth of many of these events. In most of these cases, the reason for the false public image is fear of the Capitol, which harshly punishes dissent of any sort. The power of the lie is that, as long as the Capitol believes it has control, it allows the rebels to work without detection to undo that control.

The Struggle for Control

Much of the conflict in the novel revolves around a struggle for control, with the Capitol always at one end trying to maintain control and various characters or groups on the other trying to take back control. Katniss’s confrontation with President Snow essentially centers on this idea. He wants to dictate nearly everything she does even down to what she wears, as when he selects the dress she wears for the tributes’ interview with Caesar Flickerman. The control President Snow exerts over Katniss parallels the control the Capitol wants over all the people in Panem. Through its laws and the squads of Peacekeepers it deploys to enforce them, the Capitol systematically maintain control over all the districts. Any act that defies the Capitol’s control results in harsh punishment. Notably, the Hunger Games themselves are meant as a reminder to the people that they have no control and that they have to obey the Capitol.

All the forms of rebellion we see in the novel are variations on people regaining, or at least fighting to regain, control. When Katniss tells Peeta she doesn’t want to be a pawn in the Capitol’s Games, she’s saying she doesn’t want to be controlled. When we see how Haymitch rebelliously won his Games, it was by finding a loophole in the Capitol’s control—since the Capitol never intended the force field to be used as a weapon—and exploiting it. The reason the mockingjay is symbolic is that it represents the Capitol’s lack of control, since the bird was actually an unintended consequence of a weapon created for use against the rebels that ultimately backfired. What the rebels want is to retake control of their lives and no longer have the Capitol forcing them to live by its restrictive laws and do things like sacrifice their children in the Hunger Games.

This fight for control is precisely why Katniss has become a symbol of the rebellion. At the end of the Hunger Games, when she had the idea for her and Peeta to commit suicide, she was essentially rejecting the rules set up by the Capitol. In doing so, she denied the Capitol control of her life and took it back into her own hands. The act evident set a precedent for all the viewers watching at home, suggesting that they too could take back control from the Capitol.

The Ignorance of the Privileged

The privileged of Panem are chiefly those people who live in the Capitol, and their ignorance stems from the fact that they’re insulated from the hardships faced by the people in the districts. They are relatively wealthy and always have enough to eat. They aren’t forced into exhausting and often dangerous labor. Their children also don’t have to participate in the Hunger Games. Because their lives are so comfortable and secure, they generally don’t have to think of things that people in the districts think of, such as how to feed their families. As a result, many if not all are oblivious to the harsh realities that most of the people in Panem face.

This ignorance is apparent any time Katniss encounters people from the Capitol, which usually means her hair-and-makeup team. The first time in the novel that they arrive at her house in District 12, she notes that their concerns are almost entirely about frivolous things like parties and appearances. Later, during the feast at President Snow’s mansion, Katniss and Peeta are both appalled when they’re told that people in the Capitol will often make themselves vomit at feasts so that they can keep eating. Katniss thinks of the numerous people starving back home and how insensitive and insulting her prep team sounds. The scene prompts Peeta to wonder if they should try to subdue dissent. That same ignorance is apparent in the fact that people in the Capitol consider the Hunger Games, in which children are forced to kill one another, entertainment. The example suggests that their ignorance isn’t necessarily of the facts: they know that the children of people in the districts are drafted into the Games. It’s of the experience of life outside their privileged bubble. They appear completely unwilling, and perhaps even unable, to imagine what life in the districts is like, and consequently they seem to have no compassion for the everyday struggles of people like Katniss beyond what’s broadcast on their televisions for their amusement.



The novel often pays special attention to the clothing Katniss wears, emphasizing the theme of the duplicity and power of appearances. At the start of the novel, as Katniss returns from the woods, she changes out of her old clothes, which she clearly feels fit her character better, into the new clothes she got after winning the Games. She finds these new clothes uncomfortable, but she also recognizes they’re more suitable to her new “status,” as her mother puts it. In a sense they hide her feeling of still being the same poor but self-sufficient girl she was before the Games. Designing clothes also happens to be the talent she’s developing, even though it’s really Cinna doing all the work, which is again a kind of duplicity. After Peeta publicly proposes, Katniss has to film a special about finding her wedding dress as though she’s thrilled with the events, when in fact she’s distraught about them.

Later, President Snow tries to demonstrate his control over Katniss by choosing the dress she’s to wear during the tributes’ interview with Caesar Flickerman, but Cinna turns that desire for control against him. He rigs the dress so that it burns away when Katniss twirls, leaving her clad in the highly symbolic mockingjay costume. He turns President Snow’s bid for control into a statement against the Capitol. He also designs the costume Katniss wears for the televised introduction to the tributes, and the novel gives special emphasis to Katniss’s detailed description of the fabric, which mimics a glowing coal ember to suggest power and also recalls Katniss’s nickname of “the girl who was on fire.” In each instance, the clothes are significant because they project an image, one that can be misleading, like the wedding dresses, or extraordinarily powerful, like the mockingjay costume.


Secrets proliferate throughout the novel, creating much of the conflict that drives the plot. For the most part, there are two types of secrets: those that characters try to keep from the Capitol, and those that characters try to keep from Katniss. The first category includes Katniss’s hunting in the woods and her time spent with Gale. It also includes the entire rebellion, which works surreptitiously to bring down the Capitol. These things are kept secret because the Capitol brutally punishes anyone that breaks its law, though we do learn that Capitol does, in fact, know about Katniss’s rendezvous with Gale in the woods outside District 12.

The second category, secrets kept from Katniss, include all the rebellion’s plots, which neither Haymitch nor the other tributes tell Katniss about. Several events in the Quarter Quell, for instance, like the tributes’ plan to escape and the reason the tributes are doing everything they can to keep Peeta alive, aren’t revealed to Katniss until the very end of the novel. Katniss also isn’t told just how highly symbolic she’s become to the rebellion. She suspects something after meeting the two refugees from District 8 who show her the mockingjay cracker, but it isn’t until after she’s out of the arena that Haymitch explains the full scope of her symbolic value. It’s a secret he’s kept from her throughout the novel, even lying to her at times to protect it. He’s also lied to her to keep the truth from her about District 13.

The two categories overlap in several instances. The tributes all hid the truth about their plans to escape during the Quarter Quell from Katniss and the Capitol. There are also secrets that don’t fall into either category, such as the truth about Katniss’s relationship with Peeta, which everyone, for various reasons, works to hide from the public.


Mutliple characters’ mouths disturb Katniss, until finally they become the central image of a nightmare. As Katniss and President Snow talk in her house at the start of the novel, Katniss notices his lips and mouth, thinking he must have had cosmetic surgery. His lips are overly full, suggesting there’s something unnatural about them, and the effect discomforts Katniss. Later, when Katniss first meets Finnick, she notes how he wets his lips with his tongue. Rather than make him seem more alluring in her eyes, it brings to mind Cray, the former Head Peacekeeper of District 12 who was notorious for luring young girls into his bed. She pictures Cray salivating over a vulnerable woman. At the end of that same chapter, Katniss learns that Darius, another Peacekeeper from her district, has been turned into an Avox. The Capitol has, among other things, cut out his tongue, rendering him mute. Katniss has already been suffering from nightmares, and shortly after she has a terrifying one about tongues and mouths. In it she watches Darius’s tongue being cut out, then finds herself at a party where a man with flicking wet tongue in a mask reveals himself to be President Snow. His lips are dripping with bloody saliva. The dream ends with her own tongue feeling dried out, as it did when she nearly died of dehydration in the Games.



The most prominent symbol in the novel is the mockingjay, and its exact meaning shifts somewhat over the course of the story. Initially, at least for Katniss, it still has a connection to Rue, the girl Katniss befriended in the Hunger Games. In the previous book, Rue and Katniss used the birds to communicate by having them repeat a certain melody. It’s for that reason the old man in the crowd in District 11 whistles a melody to signal everyone to put up the gesture of respect in District 12. When Katniss sees the birds in the woods early in the story, her thoughts turn to Rue immediately. It also represents a mistake by the Capitol, and thus a lapse in its control. As Katniss explains, the Capitol never intended for the bird to exist. It was an accident brought about by the Capitol’s genetically engineered jabberjays breeding with wild mockingbirds. The jabberjays were created to spy on the rebels but they were ultimately used by the rebels against the Capitol. Thus the mockingjays remind the Capitol, as well as the people of the districts, that the Capitol can’t control everything.

For the people in the districts, the mockingjay has begun to take on another meaning. Katniss wore a mockingjay pin throughout the Hunger Games and used the birds to communicate with Rue. Consequently, the mockingjay has come to be associated with her. (It’s even become a fashionable accessory in the Capitol because of Katniss’s pin in the Games.) But since Katniss herself represents defiance of the Capitol, the mockingjay has taken on that meaning as well and become a symbol more broadly of the rebellion. That’s why the two refugee women from District 8 in the woods show Katniss a cracker with the image of her mockingjay, and why Plutarch Heavensbee uses a mockingjay on his watch’s face to signal to Katniss that he’s allied with the rebellion. That dual meaning of the mockingjay also explains what Plutarch means when he tells Katniss they needed to keep her alive and cooperating because she is the mockingjay.


Katniss symbolizes defiance of the Capitol and the rebellion working to bring it down, though she isn’t even aware of the full extent of this symbolism for much of the novel. At the end of the Hunger Games, Katniss defied the Capitol’s rules by threatening to commit suicide with Peeta. The Capitol intended for there to be only one victor, but Katniss forced them to accept two or lose both. It’s not until she meets the refugees from District 8 in the woods, however, that Katniss and the reader begin to see that people in the districts did, in fact, take her act as a gesture of outright rebellion against the Capitol. It’s the first inkling Katniss has of her status as a figurehead of sorts. Further hints crop up that Katniss in some way represents defiance of the Capitol, like the mockingjay costume Cinna creates for her, but it isn’t until the end of the novel that the extent of her symbolism becomes clear. As Haymitch explains, Katniss is the mockingjay, meaning she herself is the symbol of the rebel movement working to bring down the Capitol.

A bow and arrows

These weapons have a specific meaning to Katniss: They represent security. First, they allow Katniss to hunt. It’s because she knows how to hunt that her family has survived as long as it has, and she’s always felt that as long as she has these weapons and game to kill she can feed herself and her family. That knowledge brings her a great deal of comfort, and in the act of hunting in the woods itself she feels more comfortable than she does anywhere else. In the arena, a bow and arrows represent a different type of security. They allow Katniss to feel that she’s able to protect herself. Consequently they give her confidence and a feeling of safety in the midst of uncertainty and hostility.

Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz

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Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz



What theme ultimately allows an underground rebellion to form without the Capitol knowing?
The ignorance of the privileged
The duplicity of appearances
Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz

Themes, Motifs & Symbols QUIZ

Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz