The novel, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury was written in 1953. This novel portrays the cultural environment in America in the early 1950s and political and social relations in society (Nolan 3). Bradbury portrays a society where firemen burn any books they can find in order to prevent proliferation of progressive ideas and knowledge. This novel is full of symbolism which helps the author to appeal to readers and create a unique atmosphere in the novel. Bradbury creates a story conflict and appeals to emotions of readers through images and unique symbols which support plot development and unveil cultural and social problems and false ideals.
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The novel is structured around fire and death as though it were necessary to conceive new rituals and customs from the ashes of an America bent on destroying itself and possibly the world. Bradbury’s vision of America and Americans assumes the form of the game of the possible because he wants it to be played out in reality. That is, the book imbues the metaphorical images with a political gesture aimed at influencing the reader’s conscience and subsequent behavior in society (Blakey 34). While Bradbury obviously takes a position against the mass degradation of humanity, there are curious massive contradictions in his illumination of social tendencies which make his own position questionable (Bustard 32). The symbol of fire can be seen as the struggle of the individual against the state, or individualism versus conformity.
Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord. You firemen provide a circus now and then at which buildings are set off and crowds gather for the pretty blaze, but it’s a small sideshow indeed, and hardly necessary to keep things in line.” (Bradbury 94)
In the process, despite the overwhelming powers of state control through mass media and technology, he has his hero Montag undergo a process of re-humanization (Clareson 11). That is, Montag must shed the influences of the state’s monopoly of the consciousness industry and regain touch with his humanistic impulse. Significantly it begins with his entering the firehouse where he will start doubting his profession. The mood is set by the firemen playing cards in the tidy, polished firehouse, idling away the time until they can destroy, and the
radio hummed somewhere. … war may be declared any hour. This country stands ready to defend its’” (Bradbury 38).
Thus, in Beatty’s view, the firemen are keepers of peace. He cynically argues that the profession of firemen had to expand to keep the people happy and satisfy their complaints. This is why it conducts espionage and has a computerized system to keep track of each and every citizen in the United States. Yet, despite Beatty’s explanation, Montag is firm in his resolution, for he suspects that there is more to Beatty’s analysis than meets the eye. Intuitively he recalls Clarisse’s discussion about her uncle and the front porches which were eliminated from people’s homes because the architects (i.e., the government) did not want people to be active, talking, and communicating with one another (Hofstadter 39).
The image of death is fully impressed upon him when he becomes aware that his wife has attempted suicide. This is startling, but what is even more startling for Montag is the mechanical, indifferent way the operators treat his wife with a machine that revives her by pumping (Wetzel 34). As Bradbury’s mouthpiece, Clarisse wonders whether Montag is actually happy leading a death-in-life, and Montag quickly realizes that he is not happy when he enters his sterile and fully automatic house (Reid 12). He proceeds to the room where his wife Mildred is ostensibly sleeping and senses that “the room was cold but nonetheless he felt he could not breathe. He did not wish to open the curtains and open the French windows, for he did not want the moon to come into the room. So, with the feeling of a man who will die in the next hour for lack of air, he felt his way toward his open, separate, and therefore cold bed” (Bradbury 19).
As a law-enforcer, Montag symbolizes those forces of repression which were executing the orders of McCarthy supporters and the conservative United States government led by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, John Foster Dulles, and J. Edgar Hoover. He is not a simple law officer but belongs to the special agency of liquidation and espionage, similar to the FBI and CIA (Scholes and Rabkin 22). Moreover, he is an insider, who at thirty years of age has reached full manhood and is perhaps at his most virile stage (McGiveron 282). This is exactly why he was created and chosen by Bradbury.
And it looks like we’re doing the same thing, over and over, but we’ve got one damn thing the phoenix never had. We know the damn silly thing we just did. We know all the damn silly things we’ve done for a thousand years and as long as we know that and always have it around where we can see it, someday we’ll stop making the goddamn funeral pyres and jumping into the middle of them. (Bradbury 177).
At thirty, Montag is also entering a critical stage and is most susceptible to outside influences. Therefore, he is perfect for initiating the game of the possible. Montag likes his job. He gets pleasure out of burning, and his virility is closely linked to “the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world.” (Scholes and Rabkin 28), Readers first encounter Montag in a fit of orgasm, idealistically fulfilling his mission of purging the world of evil books. The image of book-burning, the symbolic helmet, the uniform with a salamander on the arm and a phoenix disc on his chest suggest a situation of the past, namely the Nazis, swastikas, and book-burning of the 1930s. But it is not far from the realm of possibility in the early 1950s of America that Montag as an American fireman might be pouring kerosene over books and burning them. The censorship of books which dealt with socialism, eroticism, and sexuality in the early 1950s made the extension of Montag’s actions conceivable for Bradbury and his readers (Scholes and Rabkin 37). Indeed, the novel begins with an acceptable statement for the silent 1950s in America which demanded a silence to all dissent: “It was a pleasure to burn” (Bradbury 11). Here male identity is immediately associated with liquidation and destruction, with dictatorial power. Bradbury plays with the unconscious desires of the American male and extends them into the future as reality while at the same time he immediately questions that reality (Suvin 88).
The image of learning experience is initiated by Clarisse McClellan, who makes him wonder why people talk and why he does not pay attention to small things. The name Clarisse suggests light, clarity, and illumination, and Montag must be enlightened. His own ability to discuss, see, feel, and hear has been muted. He is unconscious of his own history and the forces acting on him (Suvin 76). Clarisse infers that his consciousness has been stunted by the two-hundred foot-long billboards, the parlour walls, races, and fun parks, all of which she avoids because they prevent her from being alone with her own thoughts (Reid 62). Thus, she illuminates the way Montag must take not only for his own self-questioning but for the reader’s own questioning of the consciousness industry in America. Bradbury wants to get at the roots of American conformity and immediately points a finger at the complicity of state and industry for using technology to produce television programs, gambling sports games, amusement parks, and advertising to block self-reflection and blank out the potential for alternative ways of living which do not conform to fixed national standards (Suvin 76).
Throughout the novel, war lurks in the background until it finally erupts. The obvious reference here is to the Cold War and the Korean War which might lead to such an atomic explosion as that which occurs at the end of the book (Segall 87). Again the media spread one-sided news about the nation’s cause, driving the people hysterically to war instead of convincing them to seek means for communication and co-existence. Montag gradually learns how the government manipulates the masses through the media, shows of force, and legal measures to pursue its own ends. His first lesson is quick and simple when he discusses a man who was obviously sane but was taken to an insane asylum because he had been reading books and had built his own library.
Captain Beatty remarks: “‘Any man’s insane who thinks he can fool the Government and us’” (Bradbury 39). Montag’s next lesson comes from his direct experience of witnessing a woman destroy herself because her books are burned by the firemen. This incident causes Montag to bring a book back to his own house and to question what it is in books that would make a woman want to stay in a burning house. For the first time in his life he realizes that human effort and feelings go into the making of a book, and he resolves, despite a warning visit from Beatty, to pursue an experiment with his wife so that they can understand why their lives are in such a mess. This time he tries a different ploy by placing the responsibility on the people and arguing that the different ethnic minority and interest groups did not want controversial subjects aired in books (Clareson 44). This led to vapid and insipid publications.
‘But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic-books survive. And the three-dimensional sex-magazines, of course. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade-journals’” (Bradbury 61).
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A pill can be seen as a symbol of total control and state control over life of citizens. Moreover, he becomes highly disturbed when the pill given to his wife by the operators makes her unaware the next morning that she had tried to take her own life. Montag witnesses-because Clarisse has made him more sensitive-the manner in which technology is being used even in the field of medicine to deaden the senses while keeping people alive as machines. He is part of the deadening process. In fact, dead himself he now begins to rise from the ashes like the phoenix. He is testing wings which he never thought he had (Scholes and Rabkin 63).
In sum, symbols support plot development and help Bradbury to create vivid and bright images of wrong social values and the image of totalitarian society. Here Bradbury suggests that the anti-intellectual strain in America forces most intellectuals to take an outsider position from which it is difficult to influence people. Using symbols of fire, firemen and books Bradbury unveil that the capacity of humans to control the labor process through machinery is seized upon by management from the beginning of capitalism as the prime means whereby production may be controlled not by the direct producer but by the owners and representatives of capital. The mass of humanity is subjected to the labor process for the purposes of those who control it rather than for any general purposes of ‘humanity’ as such.
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Bustard, N. Fahrenheit 451 Comprehension Guide, Veritas Press, 2005.
Clareson, Th. D. ed. Voices for The Future, Bowling Green: Bowling Green Univ. Popular Pr., 1976.
Hofstadter, R. Anti-intellectualism in American Life. New York: Knopf, 1963.
McGiveron, R. O., To Build a Mirror Factory: the Mirror and Self-Examination in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Critique, 39, 1998, pp. 282-287.
Nolan, W. F. The Ray Bradbury Companion, ed., William F.. Detroit: Gale Research, 1975,
Reid, R. A. Ray Bradbury: A Critical Companion. Greenwood Press, 2000.
Scholes, R., Rabkin, E. S. Science Fiction: History-Science-Vision. London: Oxford Univ. Pr., 1977,
Segall, S. Another Way to Burn a Book. Policy Review, 122 (2003), 87.
Suvin, D. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction. New Haven: Yale Univ. Pr., 1979.
Wetzel, E. The Firebrand: Fifty Years after Its Publication, Ray Bradbury’s Classic Fahrenheit 451 Shows No Sign of Flaming Out. September-October 2003, p. 34.