In Ray Bradbury’s science fiction novel Fahrenheit 451, to own or read books is now a crime. The lack of readiness to expose themselves to books creates this mentality of self-censorship in the society to which the people willingly conform to. As a fireman in this futur American society it is Guy Montag’s job to burn books and the houses of the people who illegally own them. Due to certain influenceable events, Montag’s symbolical comprehension for the use of fire changes throughout the book. Because of his initial understanding of fire and the influence of Captain Beatty , his introduction to Clarisse and the information given to him by Faber, Montag’s sentiment towards fire is developed. The element of fire gives off life sustaining warmth and shines in the darkest places. Consequently, it can also bring about devastating pain, destruction and death.
Therefore, understanding the symbolic significance of fire can vary depending on the context in which it is applied.At first, Montag is lead to believe by society that there is nothing wrong with burning books, in fact he actually enjoys it. As depicted in the quote ” It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed”(Bradbury 1). The reader can see that in Montag’s eyes fire is a beautiful thing that make him feel dominant while giving him the illusion of happiness in his less than stimulating life. When he describes that “..
. the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history” (Bradbury 1). This shows that for him fire is a tool that makes him feel powerful and that this tool is used to maintain the public’s ignorant happiness as they continue to distract themselves with their hedonistic lifestyle. Throughout the novel Montag is also influenced by the words of Captain Beatty, who is his superior at the fire station. Beatty has always sensed Montag’s self-doubt, even before Montag was aware of it himself. This makes Beatty feel the need to remind Montag as to why books are unlawful and why they should be burned.
When he says:We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. (Bradbury 55-56)This is a glimpse into the mentality of the society towards books. After all, books are a source of history and knowledge that the people living in that society are too lazy and afraid to understand. David Fox believes that Bradbury claims that Fahrenheit 451 shows that “danger is what is not going on in our schools,”(qtd. In Aggelis 141-142) referring to growing illiteracy that makes people vulnerable to propaganda. (3)As this dystopian society shows that in order to avoid feeling intense emotions or think about life’s big questions people choose to stop pursuing knowledge.
Although what Beatty undoubtedly wants is for Montag to keep having the fireman’s perspective and thoughts on books. This is understood when Captain Beatty says “Forget them the books. Burn all, burn everything. Fire is bright and fire is clean” (Bradbury 57). Since Montag is conditioned to conform and not ask questions, he mindlessly accepts Beatty’s words as the truth and believes that the fire he uses for for the greater good of society.
It is not until Montag meets an odd young lady named Clarisse in the street one evening that he begins to question everything he was lead to believe. As a matter of fact when Clarisse asks him “Are you happy?” (Bradbury 7) this deeply troubles Montag. Because for the first time he pauses for a moment to think about his life and he realises that he is not truly happy.
This fowl mood stays with him until he gets home, only to find the atmosphere to be cold and dark. After the event of his wife’s suicide attempt it makes him wonder if anyone is genuinely content with their lives. Also after witnessing a woman burn herself and all her books Montag tells Mildred that “There must be something in books, things we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing” (Bradbury 48).
This is the first time Montag openly admits that there must be some importance to books and that maybe they should not be burned. Not to mention, even Clarisse can tell that Montag is not like other firemen because when they speak to each other, he actually pays attention to her and when she made a comment about the moon, he looks up and observers the moon. Therefore, when Clarisse says “That’s why i think it’s so strange you’re a fireman, it just doesn’t seem right for you, somehow” (Bradbury 21). This statement creates a rift inside Montag, because on one hand he thought that everything he does is for a good cause. That the fire he uses to destroy books is just a given to his craft as a fireman. Yet this conversation with Clarisse sparks a train of thought that provokes him to think about a new vision of fire.
As she reminds him of candle-light, a fire well-controlled that in this connotation symbolizes a new found self-awareness in him. Generally speaking, with all the confusing thinking he has done, Montag is in desperate need to find answers. As a result of reading certain books but not comprehending what they mean. He is forced to seek out the help of Faber, a retired English professor. Faber makes him understand the importance of books