Symbolism in Fahrenheit 451
Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451 uses forceful figurative language and imagery through suggestive symbols which depict and cover the main themes of the novel.
In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Montag’s escape through the river symbolizes his salvation, along with several other things. . In several other instances besides the river, water is used to contrast fire and to thus show the difference between good and evil. Also, the forest through which he travels river symbolizes the innocence of mankind before civilization. This is merely a scratch on the surface of this novel’s seemingly endless symbolism. Fahrenheit tells the story of a fireman named Montag whose job is to set fire to books in order to maintain society’s ignorance.
When Montag kills Beatty, the Fire Chief, he decides to run from the world that he has lived his whole life in. His newfound friend Faber, another person on the outskirts of society, tells him that he will be safe if he makes it to the river. This is an illustration of literal salvation. Rivers often represent “divine emissaries, life, and the entrance into the afterlife” (Jobes 1341). “After a long time of floating… [Montag] knew he must never burn again” (Bradbury 141). This shows that the river changes Montag or is at least the cocoon in which he stays while he undergoes a metamorphosis into what is basically a different person. Also, it is interesting that, in the old South as well as in Biblical times, the baptisms of new Christians often would take place in the nearest river or creek Montag’s journey in the river seems to be a baptism of sorts, as it frees him from the shackles and chains of his former life.
The river, however, is only the vessel in which Montag travels to the heart of the forest. The forest is the “abode of man in his state of innocence, and a Hebrew symbol for kingdom” (Jobes 594). In the novel, the forest and the river are likened to one another at times, such as when Montag describes the forest floor as “a dry river smelling of hot cloves and warm dust” (Bradbury 144). When Montag several men who, like him, are on the outside of society looking in, they are at the old railroad tracks that cut through the heart of the forest like a rusty dagger wielded by the filthy hand of industry. It is here that he finds his real redemption.
The river is not the only use of water as symbolism in Fahrenheit 451. Water symbolizes “baptism, cleansing, resurrection, and is a source of both good and evil” (Jobes167). Water is used on numerous occasions to contrast with fire, which is representative of “divine love, fervor, and life, but also divine anger, destruction, and death” (Jobes 571). Usually, they contrast good and evil, and although fire is generally associated with evil, its symbolism begins to change toward the end of the novel When Montag sees the fire the men in the forest are using to warm themselves, he realizes “he [has] never thought in his life that fire [can] give as well as take” (Bradbury 147). The fire is a metaphor for Montag; he finally realizes that he can change the world for the better instead of for the worse.
The title of the book represents the temperature at when books burn, and from another perspective, it shows up to what point the books can take censorship until they are eliminated. The fire was a part of Montag toward the beginning of the novel. It wanted to ‘purify’ him from thoughts of books and differing or conflicting opinions. In the opening chapter of the book, after doing a routine burning of books his feelings are as follows:
“Montag knew that when he returned to the firehouse, he might wink at himself, a minstrel man, burnt-corked, in the mirror. Later, going to sleep, he would feel the fiery smile still gripped by his face muscles, in the dark. It never went away…” The fire from the book burning burned his soul to emptiness. He was ignorant; he was in bliss, as the saying goes. The burning represented the society’s desire to burn everything down so everybody can be the same, since fire burns everything to ashes, regardless of what it is. Today, this is the same thing as the Ten Commandments controversy in Alabama. The burning in the book and the push to remove the commandments represents the purification and appeasement of all groups to burn things down to the ashes so it becomes appealing to all groups and factions.
Each symbol that that Bradbury used in his novel did illustrate the turmoil and struggles that went with Montag, and his eventual changes. He went from ignorance to the attempt of pursuing knowledge. The symbols that show Montag’s changes also teach the audience a lesson of the importance of being knowledgeable, because it fills the void inside you left by the fire of the televisions radios and computers. Fahrenheit 451 revolves around the image of a fireman, not as a symbol of preservation, but as a being of destruction of man’s knowledge. Mogen explains the role of the fireman as the “American Dream gone awry: for in this appalling future the community firehouse has become the impersonal agent of fire itself, destroying rather than preserving the community institutions” (Mogen 106).
The opening of Fahrenheit 451 describes Guy Montag’s excitement as he completes another job, “It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed” (Bradbury 1). Montag is a fireman whose job it is to burn books, and accordingly, discourage the citizenry from thinking about anything except four-wall television. “Montag’s intense pleasure in burning somehow involves a terrible, pseudo-masochistic temptation to torch the globe, to blacken and disintegrate the human heritage” (Watt 21).
Captain Beatty is the ringleader of their destructive job, and warns Montag to hold back the flood of confusing ideas contained in books, which would put out the firemen’s torch. Montag’s mentor, Professor Faber, warns him of Captain Beatty before he enters the firehouse for the last time as a fireman, “Remember that the Captain belongs to a most dangerous enemy to truth and freedom, the solid unmoving cattle of the majority. Oh, the terrible tyranny of the majority (Bradbury 109). Beatty represents the tyranny of the majority when he tries to explain to Montag the reason for destroying books. He contends that the glory of fire is that it eliminates controversy, discontent, and unhappiness. Captain Beatty represents Bradbury’s satirical target not big
Brother, but the potentially tyrannical small-mindedness of the common man, perverting the most basic community institutions to enforce conformity (Mogen 105). “Ultimately, the book probes in symbolic terms the puzzling, divisive nature of a man as a creative/destructive creature” (Watt 22).In a society where books are illegal, the only source of information is through technology, which is slowly poisoning Montag’s society. His wife, Mildred, can always be found listening to Shell earplugs or watching the television. After his encounter with Clarisse McClellan, Montag returns home to find that she has taken thirty sleeping capsules. Mechanics from the emergency hospital arrive, and tell Montag that the operation is so common, the disease so widespread, that they can handle nine or ten cases a night. The implication is clear:
Mildred is no special case. “The poisonous darkness within her has become endemic to their way of life. The darkness suggests all the unimagined, psychic bile that builds up in people, to embitter them, alienate them from one another, snuff out any inner light on their mode of existing” (Watt 26). The next morning, Mildred denies ever taking the pills. The technology of Montag’s society has alienated the idea of a traditional homemaker. Mildred submerges herself in the river of radio waves and pixels, rather than doing common chores of the home. She begs Montag to buy another television screen for their living room, stating, “If we had a fourth wall, why it’d be just like this room wasn’t ours at all, but all kinds of exotic people’s rooms” (Bradbury 20).
During their first encounter, Montag described her presence: “He felt she was walking in a circle about him, turning him end for end, shaking him quietly, and emptying his pockets, without once moving herself” (Bradbury 6). Clarisse is an inquisitive, nature-loving character, a total opposite of Montag’s wife who spends her day immersed in technology. She points out some disturbing facts that Montag cannot escape: he answers her questions quickly without thinking; he can not remember if he knew there was dew on the early-morning grass or not; he can not answer the question of whether he is happy or not. A growing unrest with his own lack of individual sensibilities creeps into Montag at Clarisse’s challenges. Montag is inspired to remember a time without technology when he sees Clarisse’s inner-light shining through her face: “It was not the hysterical light of electricity but – what? But, the strangely comfortable, rare and gently flattering light of the candle” (Bradbury 7)
The thought reminds Montag of an incident in his childhood when, during a power failure, he and his mother lit one last candle and discovered “such illumination” in their quiet silence that they did not want the power to return to quickly. The figure of Clarisse glowing gently like a candle – slender, soft, serene- provides a marked contrast to the voracious acts of arson committed by the firemen. “Montag’s growth is a journey away from the mechanized, conformist environment of the firehouse, to the natural setting of the woods” (Watt 25). Although Clarisse is only in Montag’s life for a short time, her influence eventually causes the murder of Beatty, and the discovery of Granger’s group in the forest.
Throughout the novel, Montag hears the drone of bombers flying overhead and brief messages of updates on the war, but who and what his society is fighting for is never mentioned.” An aural refrain through the novel is the din of passing bombers which has simply become background noise. This suggests a total separation of political action from everyday social life…” (Huntington 88). The society’s ignorance to the war proves they are completely absorbed in technology; living fake lives with no worry of the events happening in reality. The omnipresent dark is an emblem of their age; the menacing jets symbols of the approaching doom of civilization (Watt 25). During an afternoon meeting with her friends, Mildred attempts to bring up the subject of politics, but they are only able to mention that the army said it would be a short war, not any solid information on the war itself. The war represents the impending doom of Montag’s society and technology is what is blinding and deafening the citizens from the truth. “Bradbury’s satire is directed not at American ideals but as simplistic perversions of them, as well as at the American innocence that assumes totalitarianism can’t happen here” (Mogen 107).
Fahrenheit 451 is a story built around book burning, but the action is representative of all sorts of censorship. As Bradbury states in a coda to the novel, “The point is obvious. There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running around with lit matches” (Bradbury 176). Bradbury wrote the story that would grow into Fahrenheit 451 in 1950, a time when relations between the Soviet Union and the United States were uneasy. The tensions were of the Cold War were played out on numerous economic, political, and territorial fronts in Europe. Fahrenheit 451 is often referred to as a “cold war novel” because Bradbury deals with subjects and issues that were shaped by the political climate of the United States in the decade immediately following World War II. After World War II, the threat of communism led to a panic in the United States as rumors surfaced about communist spies active in Canada.
Ray Bradbury’s novel offers a rich tapestry of symbolism to all those who read it. Bradbury weaves a seemingly endless amount of symbols into his story in a way that is wonderfully eloquent, distinctly American, and easily accessible to the casual reader. His passionate cry against censorship and engaging story has enthralled readers for the past 50 years. He uses symbolism to help get his point across, and thus makes the story work on a deeper level. Through symbolism, Bradbury has found a way to affect the reader in the very core of their being, and he has made this novel one whose jarring impact stays with the reader long after they have turned he final page.
Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” depicts the struggle of a fireman in a world of ‘equality’ and censorship. Guy Montag’s troubled character in was conflicted with feelings of conformity and a longing to find the truth. Each symbol in the book represented a either a struggle or characteristic of Montag. The most important symbols were of and about fire. They were about burning, fire, and the title itself, Fahrenheit 451. The fire represented a characteristic of Montag’s inner depths.
Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Ballentine Books, 1953.
Colmer, John. “Science Fiction.” Coleridge to Catch-22. Boston: St. Martin’s, 1978. 197-209.
Huntington, John. “Can Books Convert Dystopia into Utopia?” Readings on Fahrenheit 451.Ed. Katie de Koster. San Diego: Greenhaven, 2002. 107-12.
Mogen, David. Ray Bradbury. Boston: Twayne, 1986. 105-11.
Moss, Joyce, and George Wilson, eds. “Fahrenheit 451: The Temperature at Which Books Burn.” Literature and Its Times. Vol. 4. New York: Gale, 1994. 95-100.
Walt, Donald. “Burning Bright: Fahrenheit 451 as Symbolic Dystopia.” Modern Critical Interpretations: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2001. 21-38.