What effect does Clarisse have on Montag?
Before Montag meets Clarisse, his sixteen-year-old neighbor, he is little more than an automaton, a book-burning robot. He reports to work, copes with his suicidal wife, and walks through his television-obsessed world, but he hardly notices what he is doing. Clarisse shakes Montag out of his stupor, forces him to examine the world around him, and inspires him to take drastic and violent steps. She does all of this indirectly, however. Her key function in the novel—the function that sets all of these changes in motion—is to show Montag what it means to be a writer.
Like a nascent novelist, Clarisse is keenly aware of and interested in the world she lives in. In a series of conversation, she shows Montag the way she observes society, savors lovely things, and reflects on what she sees. She shares her insights into people, expressing wonderment at the way they blather to each other without talking about anything meaningful, race past beautiful sights without observing them, and fail to educate children. She points out small details, such as the dew on the grass and the man in the moon. She delights in old superstitions, such as the idea that dandelions show whether someone is in love. She shares metaphors, comparing the rain to wine and the fallen leaves to cinnamon. She displays curiosity about other people’s motivations and lives, asking Montag whether he is happy, and whether it’s true that firefighters like him once put fires out rather than starting them. By speaking openly to Montag and showing him the way her mind works, she allows him to see the world through her eyes—the eyes of someone who actually thinks about what’s going on around her and whose knack for observation makes her seem destined to become a writer.
Getting to know Clarisse inspires Montag to observe the world with the same writerly care she does. He turns from an automaton into a thinking, feeling, analyzing being. He looks at his deadened house and his emotionally stunted wife through new eyes. He starts wondering about the history of firefighting. He notices that most people care far more for their television families than they do for their real ones. He realizes that he is not in love with anyone, as Clarisse’s lighthearted dandelion game indicated. Instead of drifting through society in an unthinking daze, without analyzing it, he begins to contemplate the way his countrymen live and how he fits into the social fabric. He begins to interrogate the ways in which he is similar to and different than his coworkers. He notices, for example, that all the other fireman look exactly as he does: dark-haired and unshaven, “mirror images” of Montag. At the same time, he realizes that his physical resemblance to the other firemen belies the hesitance he feels about performing his job, a hesitance the other firemen don’t seem to share.
Once Montag understand what it means to think like a writer, he has a revelation about what it means to be a writer. He realizes that writers are people who think as Clarisse does (and as he is beginning to) and who then organize and shape their thoughts on paper. As he tells Mildred, it dawns on him that “‘a man was behind each one of those books. A man had to think them up. A man had to take a long time to put them down on paper.’” For most of his adult life, he has thought of books simply as physical objects. Thanks to Clarisse, he understands that the books he is burning are products of human endeavor. They represent an individual writer’s entire life, including his or her way of viewing the world. When he burns them, Montag realizes, he is symbolically burning writers like Clarisse. This revelation shows him how immoral his work is, and ultimately leads him to take brave and violent action.
Clarisse disappears fairly early on in the novel, but she is the key that unlocks Montag. She opens his eyes and inspires him to change. Although she is a bright, slightly naïve teenager, Clarisse is also the closest thing Bradbury has to a representative in the novel. With her eye for detail, her cutting social insight, and her passion for observation, she seems like the kind of girl who might go on to write a novel such as Fahrenheit 451.