Set My Hands on Fire

Katniss Everdeen seems a cold character, often defined by her less-positive traits: her lack of empathy, selfishness, and anger. She is emotionally distant to all but a few—and yet, so many become endeared to her. The rare times she allows someone close, when she reaches out to them physically and emotionally, are meaningful; once she lets a person in, she will likely kill—or even die—for them. It’s only those she trusts not to burn that she will touch.

From the mine explosion that kills her father to the war she becomes a figurehead of, she finds herself protecting those around her, even the people who stoke her anger more than anything else. She volunteers for Prim, is willing to sacrifice her life for Peeta, stocks up on white liquor for Haymitch, risks punishment to help her prep team imprisoned in District 13, and on and on. Most of her life is driven by the need to keep those she can safe and secure, despite her fears of getting hurt or hurting others through her actions.

Because of the poverty in District 12, and the harsh childhood forced upon her, Katniss’ personal philosophy strongly revolves around the idea of debt, and of paying back those who have helped her. We can tell, from her interactions with characters like Haymitch and Thresh, that this view of the world isn’t isolated to just Katniss–anything taken must be repaid, often unbalancing Katniss in her relationships. She always seems in debt to others.

Take Peeta, initially a boy who saved her life at 11,  who she has since owed an unpayable debt to. In his endless kindness, and his affection for Katniss, he increasingly does more to help her as The Hunger Games continues, and she finds herself further and further in his debt. She doesn’t go to save him out of the kindness of her heart when the rules of the Games change to allow two victors; she knows life in her home District would be unlivable with his blood on her hands, and she knows that she at least owes him his own life in return.

However, Peeta is one of the greatest examples of Katniss’ soft heart, despite her attempts to keep it armored. By the end of Mockingjay, he is someone she genuinely loves. Her prep crew is another example. A group of Capitol citizens complicit in the slaughter of children, they become people she finds herself caring for, though more in the sense of pets.

To her, they are innocent, naive, and stupid. Though they are associated with the Games, their odd, Capitol fashions and their tears at her potential death in Catching Fire endear them to her. Her hatred can only be sustained for so long, her fire softened by those she reads as truly kind deep down. In her mind, kindness is a luxury, and giving it can risk her own well-being. It makes sense, then, that she would subconsciously value it in others, even if their actions and words are misguided.

Kind people have a way of rooting their way inside me and taking hold.

The Hunger Games, page 42

Not one to hide her feelings towards others, therefore struggling in the lead-up to her participation in the 74th Hunger Games, her physical interactions with others speaks a lot for her emotional state. This is more obvious in the films, and even highlighted by the first film’s various close-ups on her and Peeta’s clasped hands. This film, perhaps more than the others, understands the physical links built between Katniss and Peeta during their first Games. The visuals of their clasped hands in the film link beautifully with Katniss finding comfort in entwining her fingers with Peeta’s in the novel of Catching Fire after months of icy silence.

The first time the two touch in The Hunger Games.
The first time the two touch in The Hunger Games.

But Peeta isn’t the only person let into Katniss’ life who remains until the end. Haymitch, the mentor for District 12, begins as someone she detests for the way he never gave the previous tributes a chance, blurred from the world with his alcoholism. He, like Peeta, is one of the few people left in Katniss’ life when the war ends, returning to 12 too. One of the few people who trusts her so that he will even appear to condone a new Hunger Games with the Capitol’s children.

Though the two have a very fiery relationship, they also understand each other. They are, after all, very similar people, built to survive at all costs. He cares for her deeply–cares for Peeta too–likely because his life has been so empty, and these two kids are all he has left in the world. When Snow drops a carpet of roses on the bombed surface of District 13, and Katniss finally understands what being the Mockingjay means for Peeta, Haymitch is the person who she reaches for, whose arms she finds comfort in.

Several sets of arms would embrace Mr.  But in the end, the only person I truly want to comfort me is Haymitch, because he loves Peeta, too. I reach out for him and say something like his name and he’s there, holding me…”

Mockingjay, page 163

mockingjay haymitch katniss

Katniss often follows rituals and rules, perhaps finding solidity in them in world in which she has no control. She believes, when knowing she will be reaped for the Quarter Quell, that with the right words a accompanied by the correct physical touches, she can perfectly let go of and close out the people she loves. She also believes these small, planned-out rituals of farewell will help those she leaves behind, perhaps not understanding that others’ emotions don’t always reflect hers.

In her mind, each person has a particular gesture necessary for the goodbye. It’s not just her words, but her proximity and the touches between them. For Prim, a stroke of her hair; Gale, a caress of his face; Madge, a squeeze of her hand. The way she physically interacts with the people she loves is often calculated, whether she realizes it or not. For every touch, a reason; the right interaction for their level of closeness.

When she must act in love with Peeta in The Hunger Games, her sense of the physical and the emotional likely gets muddled when it comes to the baker’s son. Generally one to be withdrawn, she is forced to act intimate and share not only personal details, but also physical touch with a boy she barely knows, all for an audience’s sake.

But by the midpoint of their victory tour in Catching Fire, she finds comfort in his arms in private, without it forced upon her. Not just because she has grown closer to Peeta, but also because she has come to associate his arms with steadiness and comfort. It’s another ritual for her, to awaken screaming from nightmares, and to have Peeta there to hold her.

catching fire katniss peeta sleeping

In fact, though the Capitol forces not only Peeta, but also Haymitch, Effie, Cinna and her prep team upon her, she finds each of them becoming people she genuinely cares for–though the iteration of her story, be it the novel or film version, changes the people with her in the end slightly.

The films, though cutting much, give Effie a more prominent role in Mockingjay, using her to replace the prep team, and to fill in much of Plutarch’s part. This, in turn, gives the films a much stronger sense of found family with the District 12 team—one of the reasons I love the latter films so.

Katniss, Peeta, and Haymitch, who all lose or have lost much of their own families both prior to and during the series, find themselves reliant on and loving each other. Like a real family, they don’t have a choice in being together. Effie, too, is forced upon 12’s team, and through them she learns empathy for the Districts and ends up loving her little team too. Her growth within the films is beautiful, and shows how much Katniss can affect and change even the most Capitol-esque people.

Though not in the novels, Effie’s hugs with Katniss during the Mockingjays emphasize the bond the two form over the series. In my opinion, Effie’s inclusion in the final two films elevates them above the books in certain ways as she gives Katniss, someone who still struggles in her relationship with her mother, a near-maternal figure who loves her openly. In a similar way, she gives Haymitch a partner, not necessarily romantically—though there are hints of that—but in caring for their two tributes-turned-victors and attempting to keep them alive.

Even though Katniss fears letting people in and relying on them, she brings her District 12 team together into their strange little family. They go from strangers she dislikes, to people she reaches out to physically–and thus emotionally. Her ability to bring people together is why she is so successful in becoming the Mockingjay, and it’s what draws people like Rue and Boggs to her.

She, like her mother and sister, has a deep sense of wanting to nurture and protect. Though she is not a healer, instead a hunter like her father, her care for those around her comes out in different forms. She is proof that someone doesn’t have to be outwardly warm and open to be a person others will love.

Katniss may be an isolated person, with walls built from trauma and a cruel life, but many people find their ways into her heart throughout the series through kindness and respect for the districts’ unspoken rules. In both the films and the books—though perhaps moreso in the films—the way she physically interacts with those around her often speaks volumes for how close she feels to them emotionally, or where she will end up in her relationships with them.

One of the greatest tragedies of the series is understanding how much Katniss needs physical and emotional affirmations from those she loves, but realizing that she is so withdrawn and afraid that she usually can’t find it. She is often in direct physical contact with Prim, from holding her hand to the reaping in the first film, to the way Prim idly plays with her hair in the second novel, showing the amount of easy comfort she finds in her sister.

mockingjay katniss prim

At times, she shows this ease with Peeta, and though she seems to have it with Gale, it’s eventually lost. With everyone else there is distance, both in her heart and in her world. For such a young woman, there’s no way this doesn’t deeply affect her, especially when she loses the one person she can be fully open with.

But at the end, she refuses to let the people who have died disappear from her life. The kindness they have shown her during their lives remains with her, and she forms a new ritual in listing off all the acts of good she’s witnessed from others. As well as this she, Peeta, and Haymitch create a book of memories for those they have loved and lost. Something physical, something Katniss can hold and touch, to capture the people who took root in the girl on fire’s heart despite her best efforts to keep them out.


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