Guest Post: A Passover Reading of Catching Fire’s Quell

In honor of Passover this week, here is a guest post from Hanna on the traditional symbolism of the Plagues in Egypt that appear in the Quarter Quell of Suzanne Collins’ Catching Fire.

I think you’ll agree with me that this layering of supernatural and historical referents on top of the alchemical sequencing of that Games’ events gives the Tick-Tock time bomb its nightmarish palimpsest quality.

I was re-reading my Passover Haggadah and it struck me that the Gamesmaker plagues echo the ten plagues and the events of the Exodus and even the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai (though scrambled and hidden as is only right since they were created by un-redeemed humans, not by G-d).

So here’s my key to the Catching Fire arena as an allegory of our going out of Egypt (in Hebrew: mitzrayim or the ‘place of narrowness or constriction’):

Sector 1: Blood rain is the arena challenge in sector 1; Ex. 7:14–25 lists blood as the First Plague — a dead giveaway that Collins is deliberately using Biblical symbology to hint that the Arena is the beginning of long and difficult journey from slavery into freedom.

Interesting that commentaries on Exodus say that Pharaoh’s sorcerers and astrologers (the gamesmakers/clockmakers) were able to duplicate this plague.  (After Sector One the order of plagues is scrambled, hinted at by the way the gamesmakers spin the arena clock).

Sector 2: The fog that causes hideous skin lesions.  This is clearly the plague of sh’khin, generally translated as boils, which commentaries say came from contract with soot from a furnace thrown upwards in the air by Moses.  In Exodus, boils are the Seventh Plague

Sector 3: The muttation monkeys.  Most likely Plague Four, which is called in Hebrew, aruv and generally translated as wild animals;  the word, aruv, has a second meaning, “mixing”, which fits well with the muttations being genetically engineered.

Sector 4: The jabberjays.  This one is puzzling until you think about the fact that the tributes each hear the cries of the ones they love most in the world. The jabberjays therefore echo the final Plague of the First Born that caused great weeping and anguish, even in the palace itself.

Sector 11:  The horrible but unseen clicking insects, are no doubt muttation locusts, appearing in Exodus as plague number 8.

But wait!  There are twelve arena sections and only ten plagues.  That ‘problem’ is solved if we think of the wave as a symbol of the Parting of the Sea, and the beach as a further allegory of how we reach salvation and true freedom.  The water is salvation for Katniss, Peeta and their allies, but only because they are brave enough to first venture into the mysterious sea.  Chassidic commentators say the waters of the Yam Souf, the Sea, are a symbol of the hidden truths, while the land is the physical or material world.  It is only by being willing to immerse ourselves in the hidden depths of spiritual water that we can be saved.

And the lightning?  The best fit here is not the plague of hail, which was accompanied by lightning, but rather the lighting that crowned the Mountain of Sinai at the giving of the Law, which symbolizes the searing light of G-d’s revelation and our ability to completely transform the world by observing G-d’s Law.

Katniss sees the chink in the fake arena’s force field and by harnessing the lightning, the revelation of Divine power, destroys the illusionary world of Pharoah and his sorcerers.

The three part structure of the Hunger Games trilogy also fits the Exodus story well:

Part 1.  Going down to Egypt (Hunger Games) . “And there was famine in the land of Canaan”, so the Jewish people went down to the depraved, vastly wealthy and materialistic world of Pharonic Egypt, even at the risk that they might be enslaved and die.  The commentaries cited in the Hagaddah stress that the Jews struggled to maintain their identity against the pull of the dominant culture and that this was one of the reasons they were ultimately saved (Peeta: I just wish I could think of a way to tell them they don’t own me.  If I’m gonna die I want to still be me”  Katniss’ father “As long as you can find yourself, you’ll never go hungry”).

Part 2.  The Exodus and giving of the Law (Catching Fire).  For much of the time, the story is full of suffering, increasing desperation and extremely well hidden clues and signs; it culminates with a flash of revelation that is so shocking, so mind-blowing that commentaries say those witnessing it fell to the ground as if dead.  That revelation marks the beginning of the real journey in….

Part 3.  The Desert (Mockingjay).  Forty years of wandering, searching, major mistakes, misunderstandings, arguments, backtracking, until finally the lessons have been learned deeply enough so that the Jews can go home and begin again.   But they are not the same as the people who went down to Egypt.  Many (most) who started on the journey have died.  Those who live have been seared and changed by their experiences.  Even though they cross the Jordan joyously, they morn the loss of many and must still struggle to live in a new way and build a new world.

Before closing, I ask that you please note that I am not sharing my thoughts to proselytize; orthodox Judaism does not consider this either necessary or acceptable since tradition teaches that gentiles can serve G-d perfectly well from where they are.

Rather, I’m sharing this both for fun and general edification, and also because the symbolism is so extremely obvious that even the most ardent secularists must admit that Collins is drawing on one of humanity’s great shared texts.  Without an understanding of our ancient shared texts it is nearly impossible to grasp many of our greatest works of art, literature and music.

Blessings to all for a powerful journey this week from slavery into freedom and from un-reality into the light of G-d’s truth.


  1. Wow, that is really insightful!
    I find those connections to the plagues in Egypt to be kind of creepy yet accurate at the same time. This is the kind of post that just makes me go “ah-ha!”. I’m sure the next time I crack the cover of CF I’ll see those connections myself.
    Cool post!

  2. Thank you for posting my musings, John. I love the paintings you chose as illustrations and your description of the Hunger Games’ layers of meaning as a “nightmarish palimpsest” is perfect.

  3. Hanna – This is really wonderful. I gave myself a pretty good headsmack when I was done reading. When I was reading HG the blood rain made me pause, but I couldn’t figure out how the other pieces worked. Thank you for explaining!

  4. Dr. Mellark says

    A fascinating discussion! I never thought of the clock representing the plagues! Thank you for your insight!

  5. I was totally thinking this.
    I was thinking that the lighting storm was only half of the thunder and Hail and perhaps on of the other sections had hail.
    I thought that the Jabberjays might have been like a twisted locus because you can hear them coming and they are blinding and disorienting and they don’t seem to have any stop, ask some of the people in their path here in America.
    I totally thought of water to blood when I saw blood rain
    I also didn’t know if the giant wave was like the frogs coming to shore from the nile.
    Also thought the insects would be the lice and gnats.
    The monkeys could be the beasts of burden
    Also since they never describe the beast it would be like flies
    I agree that the fog is like boils
    And the silent areas might include the destroyer like the first born.
    And maybe there is a darkening fog or thick trees that cause darkness in another section so all the plagues are shown just three of them are not shown in the books or movies.
    But I am glad that I am not the only one that thought of this during Passover. Actually watching the ten commandment and I thought of all that because I love the Ten Commandments.

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