“I volunteer!” I gasp. “I volunteer as tribute!”
At the outset of Chapter 2, just after Prim has been selected in the reaping, Katniss volunteers to serve as the female tribute for District 12 in the Hunger Games. This event sets the rest of the plot in motion, and for the remainder of the book we watch Katniss struggling to survive the Games. The reason Katniss volunteers is, of course, to save Prim, her little sister. Despite the odds being in her favor, Prim is selected by the lottery system that decides which children become tributes. Because she is just twelve years old, and because she is a sensitive, nurturing person who has difficulty with any kind of suffering or violence, she is almost certain to die in the Games. Katniss, meanwhile, is four years older and very protective of Prim, and so without hesitation she volunteers to take her sister’s place. Moreover, she has years of experience hunting (and therefore killing) and is far less sensitive than her sister, making her more likely to survive the ordeal of the Games.
Katniss’s volunteering is also notable because, as Katniss explains, volunteers in her district are basically unheard of. Tributes from poor districts, such as Katniss’s District 12, rarely win the Games because their poverty puts them at a distinct disadvantage. They are often malnourished compared to the children from the wealthier districts, making them weaker and less able to endure prolonged exertion and difficult conditions. Additionally, as we learn later, some children in the wealthy districts actually train their whole lives to take part in the Hunger Games. Volunteers in these districts are common because winning the Games is a great honor for them. But because the tributes from the poor areas are vastly more likely to be killed, it is exceedingly rare that someone volunteers, even apparently to take the place of a sibling. Katniss’s gesture instantly earns the respect of her district and makes her unusual among the tributes in the Hunger Games.