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The Power of Language in Fahrenheit 451

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In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 there are those who defend the cause of language; those who attempt to destroy the value of words and those who are victims of the abuse of power over language and thought, wielded by the government. The fireman, Montag, attempts to use language as weapon against the entrenched ignorance of his dystopian world. Conversely, the Fire Chief Beatty, uses the power of language as a weapon against those who would free humanity from the tyranny of ignorance.

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In the scene where Montag reads poetry to ‘the ladies’, their subconscious response to the poem ‘Dover Beach’ reveals the capacity of imagery to transform a listener. Mildred Montag and her “bunch” of ladies are victims of the systematic debasement of language and values instituted by the government. Finally, the scene in which Beatty confounds Montag, with his encyclopaedic knowledge of contradictory quotations, demonstrates the destructive potential of language. In his attack upon ignorance, Montag uses the power of figurative language to incite an unexpected response in his listeners.

When he reads the Matthew Arnold poem ‘Dover Beach’ to his wife’s intellectually stunted friends, one of the women, Mrs Phelps, begins to ”sob uncontrollably”. The poem speaks of the need for love and loyalty. The poem also attempts to capture the complexity and uncertainty of life when it says “ah, love, let us be true to one another! For the world, which seems to lie before us is a land of dreams… [and] has neither joy, nor love, nor light…”. Uncannily, the poem is describing the hollow world in which the characters live.

Perhaps it is this realisation, at some subliminal level, that elicits the emotional outburst from Mrs Phelps, who like Montag’s own wife, has long since been divorced from both reality and human emotion. In this scene the power of figurative language is shown to move an audience in a manner that transcends understanding. In the world of Fahrenheit 451, the power of language to communicate has been debased, reduced to a vocabulary of mindless consumerism. Mildred Montag hopes for a “fourth wall” in her parlour, a fourth wall television screen, to ‘make her life complete’.

The conversation between Montag and Mildred, to which we are first privy, reveals that Mildred has bought a script for a “wall-to-wall circuit” play in which she responds to the onscreen characters. She enthusiastically explains to Montag that “when it comes time for the missing lines, they all look at me from out of the three walls and I say the lines”. When she is asked how the play ends she says “I haven’t read that far”. Mildred is not interested in interpretation or intellectual stimulation but merely the mechanical activity of reciting the line “I sure do” at the appropriate moment.

In preference to human interaction she yearns for the verisimilitude offered by her television “family” demonstrating that both her language and values have been debased. The language level of adults in Fahrenheit 451 has regressed to that of children making the population vulnerable to suggestion by the government. Montag describes Mildred’s conversation as “a two-year-old child building word patterns, talking jargon, making pretty sounds in the air”. Mildred has lost the ability to hold a lucid conversation but rather repeats the slogans of the consumerist world in which she is immersed.

When Beatty comes to Montag’s house for the first time, he mentions the “snap ending” to which Mildred parrots “snap ending”. When Beatty describes the kind of programmes broadcast on the televisions as “…everything bang, boff and wow” Mildred repeats “wow”. When Mildred has nothing to say she merely regurgitates a line she has acquired through her hours of television consumption: “that’s all the lady wrote”. Mildred has fallen victim to the systematic reduction of the English language and is, therefore, easily manipulated by the corrupt government in Fahrenheit 451.

The Fire Chief and antagonist of the plot, Beatty, is the main perpetrator of the abuse of language in the novel. Beatty is a complex, contradictory character that (hypocritically) uses his vast knowledge of literature, history and philosophy against all those who attempt to preserve the value of knowledge. After the “firemen”- whose job is to set fire to books- burn down Mrs Blake’s house full of books, with her inside, Montag questions Beatty about her final words. Play the man Master Ridley; we shall this day light a candle…as I trust shall never be put out” said Mrs Blake shortly before striking the match herself, denying the firemen the personal satisfaction of burning her books. Beatty responds to Montag immediately saying “a man named Latimer said that to a man named Nicholas Ridley, as they were being burnt alive at Oxford, for heresy, on October 16, 1555. ” Latimer and Ridley can be described as martyrs to the cause of free thinking.

This intensifies the irony that Beatty, an agent against radical thinking, should be so well acquainted with this story. Beatty thus demonstrates an encyclopaedic knowledge of the past while simultaneously condemning those who read and preserve history. Beatty uses his knowledge to attack Montag after the fireman has made the decision to join the radicals and to oppose the burning of books. Montag returns to the fire station in order to surrender a book, creating the illusion of conforming to Beatty’s expectations.

Before Montag has an opportunity to speak Beatty begins to confound him with contradictory statements from authors across the centuries. “…Power [Beatty said] and you, quoting Dr Johnson, said ‘Knowledge is more than equivalent to force! ’… Dr Johnson also said ‘He is no wise man that will quit a certainty for an uncertainty’”. Beatty “brow beats” Montag into silence by continuing in this vein, quoting opposing points of view to demonstrate the apparent and ‘dangerous’ contradictions that people would have to face if they had access to books.

Beatty abuses his power by preventing the population access to knowledge and by, hypercritically, attacking Montag with the very same ideas to which he claims to be opposed. Throughout the novel, Fahrenheit 451, the authorities oppress those who advocate the use of complex language and radical thinking. Beatty and the firemen actively seek out and destroy those who would attempt to preserve knowledge. Montag, a convert to the cause of free thinking, is powerless to use language against the might of Beatty’s considerable literary acumen but did effect a change in Mrs Phelps.

Mildred and her friends have been so victimised by the reduction of language and values that they have lost the capacity to appreciate the power of language. Despite the attempts by the government in the novel to reduce language to a childlike series of monosyllabic utterances and commercial slogans, both Montag and Mrs Blake attempted to – in the words of the 16th century radical, Latimer: “light a candle…as I trust shall never be put out”.

Cite this The Power of Language in Fahrenheit 451

The Power of Language in Fahrenheit 451. (2016, Oct 25). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/the-power-of-language-in-fahrenheit-451/

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