In Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, in which books are illegal in society, Guy Montag holds a career as a fireman. Unlike firemen of today who fight fires, firemen in Fahrenheit 451 create fires in order to destroy books as well as the knowledge, individuality, and freedom they hold. Fire plays a crucial role in this novel, with Bradbury giving the story “impact and imaginative focus by means of symbolic fire” (Watt 2). As Watt puts it, fire is “Montag’s world, his reality” (Watt 2). Although Montag’s reality is fire, his perception of fire changes with each fire he sets, evolving from pleasureful, to innocent, to rebellious, to renewing, to knowledge-filled and even to regenerating. These developing perceptions mirror Montag’s personal development as the novel progresses.
In the beginning of Fahrenheit 451, Montag holds a great passion for burning books and carrying out his duties as a fireman, expressing the “pleasure” (Bradbury 1) of seeing “things blackened and changed” (Bradbury 1) through his grimace or “fiery smile...that never went away” (Bradbury 1). Montag perceives fire as merely a recreational activity that brings him a sense of gratification and satisfaction through its destruction of books and knowledge. He “enjoys its qualities” (“Themes and Construction” 3) and “even likes the soot that it leaves behind” (“Themes and Construction” 3). Montag feels no sympathy toward the books, vital parts of society’s cultural heritage and the keys to knowledge, destroying them without a single thought or twinge of guilt. Montag also feels empowered by fire and the adrenaline rush it produces, which provides him with the idea that he plays a beneficial role in society. Montag’s relationship with fire abruptly transforms when he is introduced to Clarisse, his wide-eyed, seventeen year old neighbor, a lover of life and nature who is extremely curious and
deeply aware of the world around her. Clarisse, literally sparking Montag’s curiosity and personal development, reminds Montag of the “strangely comfortable...light of a candle” (Bradbury 5). Montag’s new, contradictory perception of fire escorts the belief that fire, when gentle, can flicker with a nurturing form of knowledge and self-awareness. The young, ambitious Clarisse, who refuses to conform to the ways of society, awakens a new kind of burning in Montag: a burning curiosity that begins to overtake him. Soon after their first encounter, Montag and Clarisse develop a friendship, one which continues to fuel Montag’s overwhelming spirit of inquiry. When Montag is informed of Clarisse’s death, he grieves for the absence of the only source of innocence in his life and sets out to oppose society’s mindless pursuit of happiness.
After suffering the loss of the one person with individuality in his life, Montag begins to question himself and the world he lives in. When Montag witnesses the woman on Elm Street set herself ablaze alongside her books, he begins to question everything: his wife, his boss, his profession, society, books, and, most importantly, himself. Montag becomes intrigued by and determined to find out what books contain that drive one not to be able to survive without them. Fire becomes a sense of rebellion for Montag.
Near the end of the novel, when Montag’s hidden books are exposed, he is forced to set fire to his own home. When Montag burns “the bedroom walls and the cosmetic chest because he wanted to change everything, the chairs, the tables, and in the dining room the silverware and plastic dishes, everything that showed that he had lived here in this empty house with this strange woman who would forget him tomorrow" (Bradbury 110), he utilizes fire as a method of purification. Montag allows the fire to destroy his past of conforming to the superficial people
and mindless activities of society and allows it to blaze a new path for him, one of individuality and curiosity. Montag proudly, using fire,...
Cited: Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012. Print. 11 March 2014.
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