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Imagine a world full of people who are ignorant of what is going on around them. A world in which books and learning are outlawed and the government controls everything. A place where people do not even think for themselves. Young adults engage in violent games of murder and are not raised by their parents.. A future where wall-sized televisions and radio seashells hypnotize citizens (Lenoff, 14). Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 depicts such a lifestyle. In the futuristic novel, there are many symbols criticizing the modern world.
The best place to start is always at the beginning, so we will start with the title, Fahrenheit 451. The symbolism here is because 451 degrees is the temperature at which paper burns and therefore books burn. This ties directly into the changes that we see in the firemen, from fighting to put fires out, as they do now, to setting entire houses on fire, burning everything and everyone inside. Other houses are unaffected by the flames because they have been built to be fireproof.
(Bradbury, 4). This shows the drastic changes that have happened to firemen and shows how a government can control people by burning the books and eliminating their ability to think (Webley, 25).
It took me a couple of times reading the second chapter “The Sieve and the Sand“ to truly grasp the meaning of this chapter and see the symbolism that comes from the title. There are two events that happen that shows how people have been training only to hold in their minds what is presented to them at the moment and not to think of anything outside what is presented to them.
The first event takes place during Montag’s childhood and the second event takes place in a subway that causes Montag to remember the first. Onboard the subway Guy Montag is trying to read The Book of Ecclesiastes from the bible. However, he cannot retain the words in his mind because of all the advertisements playing onboard the subway which distracts everyone. Every time he tries to memorize the words he only hears the jingle to the Denham’s Dentifrice toothpaste. The thought of the words sifting through his minds reminds him something that took place during his childhood. In this memory, he was sitting upon a dune of sand trying to fill a sieve with sand because his cousin has told him that if he managed to fill the sieve with the sand, he would get a dime. But, the faster he poured the sand into the sieve the faster it empties out through the other side, and soon, he starts to feel the tears roll down his cheeks because he knows that he can not do it. In the title, the sieve represents the people’s minds only holding the little bits told them by the television and radio, and the sand represents the information bombarding them each day through the televisions and what they could learn from books. However, the only things being held onto are the biased things they are told through the television and radio.
In the third chapter, “Burning Brightly,” the Phoenix is the symbol of death and rebirth. It has been said that if we were to fail, it would be because we would lead ourselves to our doom. Our future will not be imperiled by an authoritarian state, but rather our behavior. In the novel, there is a reference to the Phoenix,
Granger looked into the fire. 'Phoenix.' 'What?'
'There was a silly damn bird called a Phoenix back before Christ: every few hundred years he built a pyre and burned himself up. He must have been first cousin to Man. But every time he burnt himself up he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again. 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 goddam funeral pyres and jumping into the middle of them. We pick up a few more people that remember, every generation.' (Bradbury, 77).
, this passage shows that everything, including humanity, has its beginning and end. However, there will always be something else to come and replace the previous trend and will continue to repeat throughout history just as the Phoenix is destined to burn itself down and then return.
Ray Bradbury’s symbolism does not stop there. He takes the symbolism even further into the characters. Each character brings out the different symbolisms and different things we can see in everything around us and hear in social media and the news. The largest symbolism used in almost every story is the “lovers triangle..” In Fahrenheit 451 this is made up of Guy Montag, his wife, Mildred, and their next-door neighbor, Clarisse McClellan.
Beginning with the main character, Guy Montag, who is also the narrator of the story. He symbolizes the independence caused by the realization that books are not as bad as he has been lead to believe. At the beginning of the novel, he is a “firefighter” that burns books. This is completely different than putting out the fire the way that we see firefighters in our own society. Eventually, he betrays these standards by reading the books that have been banned. Many times people say they would never do something like this. However, they forget that it has not only happened once but many times in history. At the beginning of the novel, Guy meets his neighbor Clarisse; this begins the change of his viewpoint on why he wasn’t reading the books he burned and how his job is potentially corrupting him. As they talk together, Clarisse asked him different questions. However one of the peculiar questions she asks is, “Do you ever read any of the books you burn?” (Bradbury, 5) By asking the question, she shows that there are people out there that are still reading books.
The first chapter “The Hearth and the Salamander” is another symbol that helps define the main character. The hearth is the area in front of or the floor of a fireplace. Here it is used as a symbol of the home. The salamander symbolizes both the firemen and their fire trucks. Both of these are extremely important characteristics of Montag’s life. Montag may even be able to be perceived as the salamander because the ancients believed that salamanders were immune to fire (Evens). “It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed (Bradbury, 1). Before Guy started reading books, he didn’t think there was anything wrong with his job. It did not bother him that he was burning down people’s homes filled with their prized possessions. Before he began reading, all that mattered to Montag was being a fireman and carrying out his duties. In this dystopian future people believe that all these rules would make the society better. Captain Beatty explained this to Montag as justification for their profession of making everybody the same as a precondition for happiness: “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 58). Captain Beatty’s clever remarks which are meant to justify the work of firefighters, adds to the horror of the thought of a society built on this vision. As Lee states, “for the troubling nature of equality and happiness in such a society has already been made abundantly clear by the point in the story that Beatty makes these comments to Montag” (Lee, 142).
The second most important character is Guy Montag’s neighbor, Clarisse McClellan. Her love of life and everything around her makes her an outcast in this society. Even her name means clear and bright. Clarisse’s bright spirit and different outlook are a refreshing change but seem to bring animosity from Montag’s wife. Some people may see Clarisse as a temptress, bringing chaos, while others may see her as a rescuer. “From the moment that he first recognizes and values the female’s mysterious otherness he begins to differentiate himself as well from the rest of society. Since she is not like other women, he can no longer be like other men. This realization is, of necessity, an unsettling one. When he suddenly sees himself through her eyes, the image is scarcely flattering” (SparkNotes Editors). Gossman’s quote shows that while Clarisse may have been helpful to Montag, she also tempted him to something that would ultimately harm him.
The third side of this triangle is Montag’s wife, Mildred. In the beginning, you would expect for Mildred to be the typical wife: affectionate, loving, and laid-back. Mildred, however, is anything but typical. She seems to only care about sitting and watching the television. “In 1945, when the U.S. population was nearly 140 million, there were only about 10,000 tele- visions in American households. By 1950, 9 % of house- holds had TVs, a figure that grew to over 64 % by the mid- 50s, and to more than 87 % by 1960” (Patai, 42). Mr. Bradbury used what he saw around himself to show what could happen if this trend went unchecked. Mildred can also be seen as a manipulator and betrayer. To the point that she turns-in Guy, her husband, for reading books. Then she allows her house to be burnt to the ground to prevent Guy from being able to read the books and suffer the consequences of him being able to educate himself.
Symbols shown in the book are ironic. At the beginning of Fahrenheit 451, the main character, Montag, is happy with his job. However, this fades away as he realizes that he is being harmed by the fires he sets as well. He begins to see how setting the fires and how burning books has ruined society and in return ruined his life. He sees how this society has ruined his home as shown by Mildred's heavy addiction to television sets to distract herself and her frequently taking sleeping pills which she even tried to overdose.
Two moonstones looked up at him in the light of his small hand-held fire; two pale moonstones buried in a creek of clear water over which the life of the world ran, not touching them. 'Mildred! '
Her face was like a snow-covered island upon which rain might fall; but it felt no rain; over which clouds might pass their moving shadows, but she felt no shadow…
…The object he had sent tumbling with his foot now glinted under the edge of his own bed. The small crystal bottle of sleeping-tablets which earlier today had been filled with thirty capsules and which now lay uncapped and empty in the light of the tiny flare. (Bradbury, 7)
This goes to show that in this society the lines between life and death are blurred because the paramedics are able to save her life and now she no longer knows whether she is dead or alive. The paramedics explain that it is a common thing for people to try and overdose using sleeping pills. Thankfully in our world, the lines between life and death are very distinguished.
Bradbury uses symbols in this novel to add insight and depth to his storyline. Understanding the meanings of these symbols helps us to understand what Bradbury was trying to convey. In 1953, Bradbury seemed to have a futuristic insight unlike any other. As frightening as it is, he was right on the mark that technology has taken over the world today. We can easily form associations to our own regulated and addictive multimedia world. One must ask the questions “How many hours are spent on the Internet or watching television?” versus “How much time is spent reading a book?” Sadly, we all know the answers.
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