Symbols in “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury Essay
Updated: Sep 30th, 2020
The second half of the past century was characterized by a blistering rise in the popularity of science fiction. Although this genre actually appeared much earlier, it was this period of time that served as the unique environment in which it was able to evolve and become one of the most popular genres of literature today. Several factors promoted the increased attention given to science fiction. First of all, was the revolution in the sphere of technology. Space flight, the Moon landing, the creation of computers, and other such technological advances obviously impacted people’s mentality and encouraged the appearance of concerns connected with technology. As their previous fantasies came true, people were able to dream about new goals. For this reason, new perspectives appeared, and dreamers started to create completely new stories. However, at the same time, the second half of the 20th century was a complex period characterized by the end of many old traditions, lifestyles, and beliefs caused by significant alterations in international policy, mentalities, world wars, and more. Indeed, the combination of these unique aspects stimulated the development of science fiction and gave rise to a number of stories that are today considered to be classics (Chandler 44). Fahrenheit 451 is one of these stories. The story contains numerous symbols and allusions to the problems peculiar to the modern society which make it a great dystopian novel and help the author to convey his message to people.
Ray Bradbury was among the most important authors who managed to impact the genre of science fiction and its evolution greatly. His works are appreciated by the majority of literary critics and are considered a great cultural heritage. Most of the themes and plots used by Bradbury still remain topical and make people think about important issues or problems (Nolan 12). Although there are many sci-fi stories and even chronicles written by this acclaimed author, only a few are especially important for his creativity as well as modern society; Fahrenheit 451 is one of these stories. Many critics consider it to be the greatest Bradbury story of all because of the unique importance of the issues it touches upon, its style, its stylistic devices, and more (Roberts 17).In fact, Fahrenheit 451 is one of the most popular dystopian novels which are recognized by people all over the world. In this story, Bradbury uses a sci-fi setting to discuss problems that were not only topical for the society of that time but for the modern one as well (Bradbury and Weller 34). Bradbury managed to foresee how the future could possibly develop, and his viewpoint is fascinating.
Fahrenheit 451 presents a future American society that lives in accordance with unique laws. Firemen do not fight fires anymore. On the contrary, in fact, their main duty is to set fire to books, which are strongly prohibited as they are said to create conflict. The main character, Guy Montag, is one of these firemen. He has a well-paying job, a wife, and a nice house. However, he is not satisfied with his life and feels some anxiety. Later he meets a teenage girl named Clarissa McClellan, who is completely different from the other people he knows. She also realizes her otherness “I’m seventeen and I’m crazy” (Bradbury 12). Meeting her becomes a turning point in his life. Montag understands that his idea about happiness is wrong and one that society has tried to cultivate. Montag has a chain of insights and eventually realizes that books are one of the greatest assets of any society. When he arrives at another fire, he sees a woman who refuses to leave her house and burns with her books. This event impresses Montag greatly, and he starts to collect different volumes. His meeting with Faber speeds up the reconsideration of his value system. When his wife Mildred betrays him, Montag burns his house and Captain Beatty, and then he runs away to meet book lovers in the countryside. Finally, the town dies in an atomic explosion: “And the war began and ended in that instant” (Bradbury 77). Montag and his new friends go back to create a new society.
Upon reading Fahrenheit 451, it is clear that it is full of different symbols and references such as fire, books, war, reality, etc. which contribute to the appearance of several layers of sense. Thus, while writing the story, Bradbury obviously noted the decreasing popularity of books. At the same time, recent events out of Nazi Germany were still fresh in society’s mind (Bertonneau). In fact, the burning of books was one of the aspects of this totalitarian society that destroyed millions of people all over the world. In his book, Bradbury draws a parallel between these events. Indeed, it is no accident that the book ends with a great war and an atomic explosion that kills millions of people and wipes out the previous human civilization. In this way, books can be seen as a great symbol of everything good in humanity. They accumulate knowledge and act as society’s conscience, helping people remain themselves and appreciate basic human values. The prohibition of books, then, results in a loss of identity. That is why Clarissa McClellan is the brightest character in the book. She embodies all of the qualities that should be appreciated by human beings, including the hope for a better future. However, she dies. Her death is another symbol introduced by Bradbury to show that this particular society is doomed and that there is no hope for it (LaBrie 31).
As stated above, there are many allusions in this book to the reality in which Bradbury lived. The fact is that at first glance, the society in the book seems happy. Montag lives in a nice and convenient house that is equipped by a number of different devices, the most notable of which are the parlor walls. They are obviously very expensive; however, Mildred insists on buying them as she spends the greater part of her life watching shows. In the parlor walls, one can observe a clear parallel with modern television. Bradbury was able to predict its rapid rise and the overwhelming impact it would have on people’s mentality. Obsessed with it, Mildred notices nothing real in her life and is sure that she is happy. Montag’s hesitations are not important to her, as there are always new episodes of her favorite show. At the same time, TV does not tell the truth, as there is no news about the war or other threatening events around the world. In such a way, Bradbury reveals the unique power of this new tool and the way it can shape human mentality.
Another important aspect of the book is family and the gradual decline of the importance of this institution. When analyzing Mildred and Guy’s relationship, it is clear that there is no intimacy between them. The manner in which they communicate, live, and spend time together seems more like distant friends than husband and wife (LaBrie 31). Montag is not able to share his feelings with Mildred as she does not understand his anxiety and thirst for knowledge. It turns out that Clarissa becomes closer to the main character than his wife because only she truly understands him. Finally, Mildred’s denunciation reveals the real character of their relationship. Through this action, Bradbury reveals that in a society deprived of any values, true feelings and intimate relations between a man and a woman are impossible. Montag’s speech to Mrs. Bowles could be considered the embodiment of this idea:
Go home and think of your first husband divorced and your second husband killed in a jet and your third husband blowing his brains out, go home and think of the dozen abortions you’ve had, go home and think of that and your damn Caesarian sections, too, and your children who hate your guts! Go home and think about how it all happened and what did you ever do to stop it? Go home, go home! (Bradbury 65)
Through these words, Bradbury blames the hedonistic society that prefers to ignore real problems and instead live in an imaginary world with TV shows and no troubles. However, this obsession with TV results in the elimination of the institution of family and a loss of respect to partners.
The world in which Montag lives is very important to understanding the plot and the main message of the novel. At the very beginning of the novel, this society is presented as an ideal place where people are happy. Not accidentally, the book opens with these words: “It was a pleasure to burn” (Bradbury 1). Montag is satisfied with his job and does not know that firemen used to struggle against fire rather than set it. This shifting role is another bitter irony introduced by Bradbury as the traditional task of firemen is replaced with a new, devastating one that reflects the spirit of society. However, when reading the book, readers realize that there is a war going on that is not noticed by common people. Moreover, the youth of this society is also spoiled, as they have no other entertainment but to race, which is extremely dangerous. Clarissa is an exception, however, and she is an outcast because of her dissidence. Gradually, the readers come to understand that this is a dark and unpleasant world where human beings act like a flock with no individual demands or values (Kollar 11).
Captain Beatty is the embodiment of this world. Asa representative of power, he tries to control people’s lives and keep books from spreading. He knows that firemen used to fight fires and explains this fact to Montag. He also used to be a reader, and there are many books that he managed to read. However, he starts to hate books because of the content. In one of the most important scenes of the novel, Beatty makes Guy burn his own house and then dies, wrapped in flames. Thus, some researchers state that Beatty wants to die (Dolan 14). He provokes Montag by saying, “There is no terror, Cassius, in your threats, For I am arm’d so strong in honesty That they pass by me as an idle wind, Which I respect not!’ How’s that? Go ahead now, you second-hand litterateur, pull the trigger” (Bradbury 108). As a public authority, Beatty knows perfectly well how society works and what future it will face. That is why he hates it and at that moment realizes his desire and opportunity to escape. This episode is central to the story as it has a great symbolic meaning. Guy burns his past and rejects this society with its senseless hedonism. He becomes an outcast, but it is a conscious choice that saves his life.
The ending of Fahrenheit 451 is also very symbolic as it demonstrates the fate of this world. Having escaped, Montag meets a group of book lovers and joins them. He realizes that they appreciate real values that come from the books they have known and shared with each other. He has no regrets about his past. He is sure that finally, he has found the right path. To emphasize the great symbolism of the novel and show what future society like that could expect, Bradbury ends the story with an atomic strike that wipes out the city where Montag used to live (Toth 91). There are no longer people like a fireman, Mildred, and her hypocritical friends or things like robotic dogs and parlor walls. They all are swallowed by the fire. However, Faber escapes, which is another symbol as he is the bearer of knowledge and might bring hope to a new society. Montag and his new friends will build a new society in which books are appreciated.
In the end, readers of this story can understand the message that the author is sending and find all symbols and allusions. Bradbury warns people about the great danger that comes from oblivion. If people forget the past and start to burn books again, they will live in a dystopian society doomed to collapse. Using books and fire as main symbols, Fahrenheit 451 demonstrates a joyless future of the world where people are enslaved by television and hedonistic values.
Bertonneau, Thomas. “Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Political Correctness, and Soft Totalitarianism.” The Business Journal, 2009, Web.
Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. Simon & Schuster, 2012.
Bradbury, Ray, and Sam Weller. Ray Bradbury:The Last Interview: And other Conversations. Melville House, 2014.
Chandler, Lance. A History of Science Fiction: A Brief Introduction to the Genre, the Books, and the Culture that Defines It. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014.
Dolan, Kelcy. “Bradbury ‘s Guy Montag: An Ontology of Conflict and Fire.” Senior Capstone Theses, vol. 12, 2014, pp. 1-23, Web.
Kollar, Dora. Dystopian Writing in the Twentieth Century: A Comparative Analysis of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. VDM Verlag, 2008.
LaBrie, Michael. “Now Was Then, Then Is Now: The Paradoxical World of Fahrenheit 451.” Pell Scholars and Senior Theses, vol. 55, 2010, pp. 1-48, Web.
Nolan, William. Nolan on Bradbury: Sixty Years of Writing about the Master of Science Fiction. Hippocampus Press, 2013.
Roberts, Adam. The History of Science Fiction. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Toth, Michelle. ” Bradbury ‘s Message in Fahrenheit 451.” Student Publications, vol. 11, 2014, pp. 91-93, Web.
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