Symbolism in Fahrenheit 451
Light, especially fire, and darkness are significantly reoccurring themes in Fahrenheit 451. Guy Montag, the main character, is a fireman, but in this futuristic world the job description of a fireman is to start fires wherever books are found; instead of putting them out. Montag takes a journey from a literary darkness to a knowledgeable light. This journey can be compared to the short story Allegory of the Cave by Plato, in which a prisoner experiences a similar journey.
An example of light, in reference to knowledge, occurs just after Montag meets Clarisse for the first time. “When they reached her house all its lights were blazing” (9). Since Montag had rarely seen that many house lights on, I interpreted those lines as saying “that house is full of knowledge and enlightenment; not like the rest of the houses around here which are always dark.” Clarisse went on to explain to Montag that her mother, father, and uncle were just sitting around and talking. This was also something that wasn’t very commonplace in the city.
Fire is an important element of symbolism in Fahrenheit 451. Fire consumes minds, spirits, men, ideas, and books. Fire plays two very different roles in this book. The role of a destructive, devouring, and life ending force, and the role of a nourishing flame. The first role that fire plays in Fahrenheit 451 is apparent from the very beginning of Bradbury’s novel. “IT WAS A PLEASURE TO BURN. It was a pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed” (3). In these first two sentences, Bradbury creates a sense of curiosity and irony because in the story, change is something controlled and unwanted by the government and society, so it is very unlikely that anything in Guy Montag’s society could be changed. The burning described at this point represents the constructive energy that later leads to catastrophe. A clear picture of firemen is first seen when the narrator says, “With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black” (3). Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which books burn and is symbolically written on the firemen?s helmets, tanks, and in the firestation.
During a moment of revelation Montag comes upon an interesting idea about fire and the burning of books that takes place. He states, “the sun burnt every day. It burnt time?So if he burnt things with the firemen and the sun burnt Time, that meant that everything burnt! One of them had to stop burning. The sun wouldn?t, certainly” (141). With this comment Montag realizes that he can no longer be a book burner, but that he has to preserve books.
After this revelation, Montag happens upon fire once again. “That small motion, the white and red color, a strange fire because it meant a different thing to him. It was not burning. It was warming ? He hadn?t known fire could look this way” (145-46). Montag was now seeing fire as a nourishing, life giving flame. The title of the third part of the book, “Burning Bright”, shows that even while the city is still burning brightly from the war?s destruction, the spirit of all the exile men is also burning brightly. This signifies a future of hope and optimism.
Throughout Fahrenheit 451 Montag goes through a transformation from book burner to book preserver. Montag mirrors the path taken by one of prisoners in Plato?s Allegory of the Cave. The prisoner went through a metamorphosis from illusion to wisdom.
In the Allegory of the Cave there are many prisoners; all with their arms, legs, and heads shackled so that they could only look forward. This represents how the totalitarian government in Fahrenheit 451 forces everyone to see only the government?s beliefs and views.
While in this cave, there is a fire above and behind them, and between them and the fire is a wall. This wall is acting like a screen in a puppet show. There are other men walking along the wall carrying statues and carvings of animals which appear over the wall. This symbolizes Montag?s job of burning books and his helping to keep others in the dark; only showing them what the government wants them to see and know. The prisoners, like Montag and others in his society, can only see the shadows of the statues along the cave wall, and this is what they believe to be the truth.
Somehow one of the prisoners is able to escape, and at first he is in pain. Just as Montag escaped the beliefs and views of his society, with the help from Clarisse and Faber. At first, Montag could not and would not accept books, but he began to see the power they had, he began to see the truth. This pain comes from the light (truth), and the prisoner is compelled to look away from the light, and to take refuge in the objects which he could see.
Once again, the prisoner carries himself towards the cave entrance, and this time he sees the sun. At first, the sun hurts him also, but the prisoner grows accustomed to the light. The same way Montag felt when he first learned the truth; it hurt to know that all he knew was false, but he began to accept it and he liked it and wanted to share this knowledge with others. After learning the truth of the cave, the prisoner also tries to return to the others that are held captive and free them to show them the truth.
However, they only believe what their illusions, and the prisoner is ridiculed, called crazy, and exiled from the cave. This also happened to Montag when he tried to share his knowledge with others; such as his wife, her friends, and Captain Beatty.