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Fahrenheit 451 – A Charred Existence

Imagine living in a world where you are not in control of your own thoughts. Imagine living in a world in which all the great thinkers of the past have been blurred from existence. Imagine living in a world where life no longer involves beauty, but instead a controlled system that the government is capable of manipulating. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, such a world is brought to the awareness of the reader through a description of the impacts of censorship and forced conformity on people living in a futuristic society.

In this society, all works of literature have become a symbol of unnecessary controversy and are outlawed. Individuality and thought is outlawed. The human mind is outlawed. All that is left is a senseless society, unaware of their path to self-destruction, knowing only what the government wants them to know. By telling a tale of a world parallel to our own, Bradbury warns us of a future we are on a path to – a future of mind manipulation, misused technology, ignorance, and hatred.

He challenges the reader to remain open-minded by promoting individualism, the appreciation of literature, the defiance of censorship and conformity, and most importantly, change. Bradbury’s inspiration to convey the themes involved in the novel esulted mainly from the social situation of the time. First of all, the novel was written shortly after World War II and increasing numbers of authors began writing about serious topics. Also, the invention of the atom bomb had aroused the Cold War and the use of technology as a form of destruction.

Seeing technology as a potential threat to the well-being of mankind, Bradbury uses Fahrenheit 451 to state his distrust for it in the novel, which explains why the devices are depicted as “chilling, impersonal gadgets of mechanized anti-culture,” (Mogen 141). Also, as the television as becoming the main form of communication in the 50’s, Bradbury believed that it was “reducing society to very mediocre tastes”. As a defense against the degradation of literature (as well as peoples’ minds), Bradbury intended to teach us of the importance of books by showing us the misery involved in a world that lacks them.

Another social consequence leading to the writing of Fahrenheit 451 was that, at the time, the country was going through what was called the era of McCarthyism. During this time, many Americans were accused of attempting to undermine the United States government (Touponce 124). It was a time of book-burning and close panic, which left Bradbury in disbelief that “[we] would go all out and destroy ourselves in this fashion” (Moore 103). The writing of this novel was also an opportunity for Bradbury to speak out against the censorship of written literature that was taking place by showing the consequences of it.

Bradbury believed that the censorship of books destroyed important ideas, knowledge, and opinions and restricted the world from learning about the problems of their culture. His writing came to show that without such knowledge, society could become very passive, which would make it ulnerable to the control and mind manipulating techniques of the government. Ironically enough, this book itself was subject to censorship on its initial release. The political, social, and military tensions of the 50’s lent to Bradbury’s own tensions, calling him forth to alert the people of their own self-destructive behaviors.

The setting in which the story takes place has a significant effect on the theme expressed in the novel. The most notable aspect of the setting is the time at which it is set. The time that Bradbury is trying to illustrate is never simply stated, but rather implied and described through he lives of the characters and the technology available to them. The existence of a “four-walled television” (Bradbury 20) and high-speed jet- propelled “beetle” cars (Bradbury 9) inform us that this story takes place sometime in the distant future, keeping in mind this novel was written in the 1950’s.

The time that the story takes place in is very closely associated with the place of its occurrence. Yet it is not so much a matter of a specific location, but rather the “world” that it takes place in – a world brought about by the ignorance of the people that reside in it. In ppearance, this “world” seems almost identical to ours, except the only difference occurs in the minds of the people of this world. This close resemblance of these two worlds provides a way for Bradbury to implicate that our future can be like that of the story’s society if we are not careful.

As critic Tom Bradford put it, “… elements of the real world must be among the constituent ingredients” (69). He tempts the reader look beyond the science fiction aspects of the novel and realize that this story is a reflection of our future, as it may become. Perhaps the most effective of Bradbury’s methods in the portrayal of is theme is symbolism. Throughout the story, almost every object and situation seems to serve a purpose in the representation of Bradbury’s dystopian society and its change from it . The most symbolic of such objects is fire.

Bradbury’s use of fire throughout the story is, like Montag’s character, very dynamic. All through the story, the meaning, emotional reaction to, and use of fire is changed, until its final use in the “rebirth” of society. Using fire, “Bradbury frames the dominant themes of degradation, metamorphosis, and rebirth. ” Most of this change is shown through the character of Montag, who starts as a fireman. But unlike today’s firemen, Montag burns books and sees fire as the only solution to problems until he is later “enlightened” and escapes the norms of society.

At the start of the novel, fire seems to be directly associated with the image of destruction. The description of pages being consumed and blackened by flames in the opening of the book serves to place a predisposed image of fire as evil and destructive. The sole use of fire to annihilate the knowledge and opinions associated with books shows that its only intent is to destroy. It destroys books, it destroys homes, it destroys lives, it estroys Captain Beatty, it destroys Montag’s house, and in the end, it destroys the city from which Montag barely escapes.

Fire’s representation in Bradbury’s dystopian society is censorship. Since, in Fahrenheit 451, books are burned to keep any controversial information from reaching the minds of the passive citizens, it becomes evident that fire is ultimately the censoring force. The link that Bradbury makes between the initial representation and description of fire shows that his message is that censorship is destructive. But fire’s purpose seems to take a turning point n the novel after Montag’s “awakening” realization about the need to express his thoughts among a society of conformists.

Fire is then seen as a symbol of rebirth and purification. Even Beatty himself, captain of the firemen, believes that, “fire is bright, and fire is clean” (Bradbury 54), showing the uniquely cleansing property of flames. Fire allows something to be wiped-out completely and changed, allowing a fresh new start – the start of a new society. When Montag sets his own house ablaze, he undergoes an uncommon emotional experience, in which he views the fire as a new starting point, a change in his life.

Even the opening of the book claims, “It was a pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed” (Bradbury 3). Also, Bradbury’s frequent reference to the Phoenix, as on Beatty’s helmet and car, as well as its reference by Granger at the end of the book, serves as a metaphor to this rebirth. The Phoenix was a mythical bird of ancient Egypt that, after its five hundred-year existence, consumes itself in flames and is reborn from its own ashes (Sisario 105). The resurrection of the Phoenix signifies the cyclical nature of human life and civilization.

Beatty is burned to death, and his death by fire symbolically llustrates the rebirth that is associated with his Phoenix sign. At the end of the book, one of the book-saving outlaws, Granger, refers to the Phoenix and claims that: [The Phoenix] must have been the first cousin to Man. But every time he burnt himself up he sprang out of his 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 that the Phoenix never had.

We know all the damn silly things we’ve done for a thousand years and… omeday we’ll stop making the goddamn funeral pyres and jumping in the middle of them. We pick p a few more people that remember every generation (Bradbury 163). This significant quote serves to inform us that the only way to avoid the repetition of history is to learn about the past and the problems of the past. Through Granger, Bradbury expresses the hope that mankind might use his intellect and knowledge of his own intellectual and physical destruction and keep from going through the endless cycles of disintegration and rebirth (Sisario 105).

At the end of the book, the final positive use of fire is finally seen. A scene of men sitting around a campfire, a fire that provides warmth and security, and reading books is escribed, altering the earlier perception of fire as destructive. This clearly shows Bradbury’s intent to depict the dual sides of fire. Even the title of the first part of the book is: “The Hearth and the Salamander. ” The hearth represents the warmth and comfort provided by fire. In Greek mythology, the salamander was a creature that could endure flames without burning (Wildmann 2).

Regarding the fact that the symbol on the shoulders of the firemen was that of a salamander, this creature was intended to represent the destruction of fire and man’s self-destructive actions. Even Faber, and ex-English professor who, despite his cowardice, also values books, states that, “The salamander has devoured its own tail” (Bradbury 90). This statement implies that through their destructive behaviors, the firemen have destroyed themselves. This shows the reader that if we continue to censor works of literature and suppress the thoughts of our great authors, we will end up doing more damage to ourselves than avoiding it.

Another use of symbolism occurs with the portrayal of water as a cleansing, purifying object. Bradbury creates this image by illustrating the use of water in cleansing Montag’s soul as he makes a fresh start. The first instance where water is used to show the renewal of Montag’s soul is when he first meets Clarisse McClellan, his open-minded seventeen-year-old neighbor who does not fit the status quo of the rest of society. Clarisse teaches Montag of the simple beauties of life and shows him how to value his existence.

She is what causes the turning point in his life by revealing to Montag that he is unhappy, leading him to his rebirth. When Montag asks her why she likes to “taste the rain” (Bradbury 17), she asks him to try it and he states that he does not think he would like it. Yet, ater he tries it for himself and discovers that, in actuality, he is very pleased by its taste. This is the first step he experiences in the start of his new life. This situation is analogous to his reading of books, since he assumes that he would not find any value in them, yet once he tries reading one, he is actually “enlightened” by its contents.

Another instance in which water is used to purify is when Montag is on the run from the government and he stops to “wash his hands and face and towel himself dry” (Bradbury 125) in an attempt to cleanse himself of all evils and absolve himself of all that he gone through. Bradbury also uses the concept of water as a means of renewing when Montag is leaving from Faber’s home and he asks Faber to turn on the sprinklers to eliminate the scent and suspicion of Montag’s presence (Colmer 109). Montag “carries a few drops of this rain with him on his face” (Bradbury 136).

The significance of this is that it proves to the reader that Montag has changed to a wiser man, and he plans to carry this newfound knowledge with him and use it in his new life. In addition, when Montag is escaping the helicopters and the mechanical hound, a “criminal”-hunting robot, the river becomes his sanctuary until he nows it is safe on land. Montag finally immerses himself in the water he longed for. “There was only the cold river and Montag floating in a sudden peacefulness, away from the city and the lights and the chase, away from everything” (Bradbury 140).

Montag feels a sense of peacefulness and purity upon contact with the water, which provides him a way to escape from the harsh reality of the city. Bradbury’s use of water as a means of purity, in this case, closely resembles the Christian faith’s use of Baptisms, used to cleanse the body and the soul of all evils. Montag’s contact with water, oo, is ridding him of the evils of his “former” life. Another effective form of symbolism that Bradbury puts to use to project his intended theme is the use of color and light in his descriptions.

His use of light and dark throughout the book also serves as a form of characterization, since it helps describe the personality of the characters. At the beginning of the book, Montag is perceived as a sinister, cold-hearted man through his association with the color black. His “burnt-corked” (Bradbury, 4) appearance and his black eyes and hair signify his representation of burning and fire. Also, all of the other firemen are similar in appearance, with dark faces, soot-covered skin, and black uniforms.

In addition, their station is described to be a dull and dreary environment with its “dim lighting” and “dark corners” (Bradbury, 26). Even the names of two of the firemen, Stoneman and Black, reveal their dark and cold hearts. Also, the city is “dark and silent, lit by softly illuminating lights” (Bradbury, 6). In this case, darkness is meant to represent the lack of life and the oppressive nature of a society that burns books (Sisario 106). Also, the gloomy appearance of Montag and his ife, Mildred’s, bedroom demonstrates the lack of love between couples that has occurred.

Bradbury believes that the absence of thought-provoking material and the reliance on technology, such as the “TV parlor,” has made a void between couples and has made marriages more like coexistences. By describing such a void, Bradbury shows us a consequence of the degradation of literature on our future. Apart from the perceptions of darkness, Bradbury also uses the color white to represent enlightenment, knowledge, and freedom. The character of Clarisse, whose beauty immediately appeals to Montag, uses such a technique.

She is described as having a “slender and milk-white face” and wearing “a white dress that whispered” (Bradbury 5). Her bright and innocent appearance is effective in portraying her as free and happy. It almost makes her seem like an angel that has arrived briefly to Montag to enlighten him. Another character that has a similar effect on the reader is the wise, retired professor known as Faber. His appearance, like Clarisse, is centered on the concept of whiteness. Montag notices that “[Faber] and the plaster walls inside were much the same.

There was white in the sides of his mouth and his cheeks, and his hair was white, and his yes had faded, with white in the vague blueness there” (Bradbury 71). In this case, Faber’s whiteness in appearance represents his enlightened knowledge and wisdom. Bradbury uses such perceptual concepts, like dark and light, to portray different aspects of the personalities of each character, while displaying the notion that the free and knowledgeable beings are happy among such a dark, oppressive society.

Symbolism is also existent in the “Mechanical Hound,” an eight-legged mechanized robot used by the government to hunt down and kill suspected criminals. The Hound’s actions, and even its shape, are reflections of the ociety that Bradbury had predicted to come. “The Mechanical Hound slept but did not sleep, lived but did not live” (Bradbury 24). Like the Hound, society was alive and yet dead at the same time, drudging through life mindlessly. This society continues on without thought, without any emotions, without any real reason.

It just functions however the government wants it to by feeding its people nonsense information through the television and “seashell thimble,” a small radio earpiece. They continue through life, all believing the same thing, becoming brainwashed by the government, conforming to any ideas set by it. The Mechanical Hound perates in the same way: it does not think; it just functions. It does feel emotions; it just attacks. Even Beatty claims that, “It just ‘functions’. It has a trajectory we decide on for it.

It follows through. It targets itself, homes itself, and cuts off…. It does not think anything we don’t want it to think” (Bradbury 20). Like the Hound, society was “programmed” to not think, wonder or ever ask why. It was just a controlled system, incapable of ever thinking differently. They were all just “products of an empty society”. The perversion of Montag’s society was also eminent in the shape of the Mechanical Hound. As the word ‘Hound’ suggests, the robot should resemble a dog in appearance. Yet, a hound with “eight spidery legs,” a metal body and electric eyes is far from the normal structure of a canine. Like the Hound, society was far from normal.

The society was strange, backward, and completely abnormal. There was no compassion for life, as revealed through Mildred’s solution to stress: “It’s fun out in the country. You hit rabbits. You sometimes hit dogs. Go take the beetle” (Bradbury 64). Anyhow, the citizens perceive this seemingly abnormal behavior as normal, because they have been conditioned and have conformed to such unmoral actions. Schools in this society no longer teach an education, but instead nonsense that “programs” the conforming children for their future of false happiness. Montag’s society hasn’t the time, nor the interest to better themselves with knowledge.

Instead they destroy it. Another aspect of The Mechanical Hound that is symbolic is its use by the firemen, representing the misuse of technology that Bradbury is predicting in the future. Again, referring to its title as a ‘Hound’ gives it the animalistic characteristics of a dog. In our society, the dog is frequently referred to as “man’s best friend. ” Yet, in his twisted society, everything has been turned against him, even his own best friend. Today, especially in the 50’s, technology may have seemed like man’s aide in making life easier, and therefore his friend.

But Bradbury believes that one day such technology will be intended for things other than its initial purpose, making technology, along with our reliance on it, a potential threat to mankind. One critic of the novel claimed that, “[Bradbury] is not interested in the precise mechanisms of the rocket, but in the mentality and the morals of fallible beings who make and use rockets” (Kirk, 68). Bradbury’s main focus of the novel is not of the technology of the future society, but rather the minds of the unmoral and evil-intended government that put it to use in the city of ignorant minds.

Through various writing techniques, Ray Bradbury is successful in portraying a futuristic society in which the written word has become a sign of controversy and is forbidden. In such a society, the people are prevented from thinking for themselves and instead conform to the ideas and opinions of the government. Their whole life is “programmed” by fear and the menaces of technology to the point where their existence is a enseless, government-manipulated system. But, like all systems do, this one must “crash” some time.

In Bradbury’s society, all communication to the disturbing outside world had been cut off in order to keep the citizens from worrying. Yet, the society had been living in blind happiness, oblivious to the war raging outside their “world” and the bomb that finally destroyed them. The horrific society that Bradbury had depicted had been intended to be parallel to our own in order to provide us with a warning. He is warning us of the consequences of censorship and conformity. He is warning us of a future of ignorance. He is warning us of a path we may take if we are not careful.

He incites us to remain open-minded and to take on our own quests for self-improvement through knowledge. He teaches us to value books in order to gain that knowledge. He pushes us to fight the censorship that suppresses great minds and hides this knowledge, of which without, we may never know the problems of our culture. Our future depends entirely upon the truth and intellectual freedom, and if we do not rise from the ashes of our present like the Phoenix, we may fall victim to self- destruction and ultimately put an end to ourselves, much like Bradbury’s fictional society.

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