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Fahrenheit 451 – A Charred Existence Essay

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.

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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
resulted 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
was 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
vulnerable 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
the 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
appearance, 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
his 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
destroys 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
in 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
illustrates 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… someday we’ll stop
making the goddamn funeral pyres and jumping in the middle of them. We pick
up a few more people that remember every generation (Bradbury 163).

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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
described, 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,
later 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
knows 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,
too, 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
wife, 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).

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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
eyes 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
society 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
operates 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
this 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
senseless, 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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Fahrenheit 451 - A Charred Existence Essay
Artscolumbia
Artscolumbia

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 con

2018-12-27 03:15:36
Fahrenheit 451 - A Charred Existence Essay
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