Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Fahrenheit 451 doesn’t provide a single, clear explanation of why books are banned in the future. Instead, it suggests that many different factors could combine to create this result. These factors can be broken into two groups: factors that lead to a general lack of interest in reading and factors that make people actively hostile toward books. The novel doesn’t clearly distinguish these two developments. Apparently, they simply support one another.
The first group of factors includes the popularity of competing forms of entertainment such as television and radio. More broadly, Bradbury thinks that the presence of fast cars, loud music, and advertisements creates a lifestyle with too much stimulation in which no one has the time to concentrate. Also, the huge mass of published material is too overwhelming to think about, leading to a society that reads condensed books (which were very popular at the time Bradbury was writing) rather than the real thing.
The second group of factors, those that make people hostile toward books, involves envy. People don’t like to feel inferior to those who have read more than they have. But the novel implies that the most important factor leading to censorship is the objections of special-interest groups and “minorities” to things in books that offend them. Bradbury is careful to refrain from referring specifically to racial minorities—Beatty mentions dog lovers and cat lovers, for instance. The reader can only try to infer which special-interest groups he really has in mind.
As the Afterword to Fahrenheit 451 demonstrates, Bradbury is extremely sensitive to any attempts to restrict his free speech; for instance, he objects strongly to letters he has received suggesting that he revise his treatment of female or black characters. He sees such interventions as essentially hostile and intolerant—as the first step on the road to book burning.
Knowledge versus Ignorance
Montag, Faber, and Beatty’s struggle revolves around the tension between knowledge and ignorance. The fireman’s duty is to destroy knowledge and promote ignorance in order to equalize the population and promote sameness. Montag’s encounters with Clarisse, the old woman, and Faber ignite in him the spark of doubt about this approach. His resultant search for knowledge destroys the unquestioning ignorance he used to share with nearly everyone else, and he battles the basic beliefs of his society.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
In the beginning of “The Hearth and the Salamander,” Montag’s bedroom is described first as “not empty” and then as “indeed empty,” because Mildred is physically there, but her thoughts and feelings are elsewhere. Bradbury’s repeated use of such paradoxical statements—especially that a character or thing is dead and alive or there and not there—is frequently applied to Mildred, suggesting her empty, half-alive condition. Bradbury also uses these paradoxical statements to describe the “Electric-Eyed Snake” stomach pump and, later, the Mechanical Hound. These paradoxes question the reality of beings that are apparently living but spiritually dead. Ultimately, Mildred and the rest of her society seem to be not much more than machines, thinking only what they are told to think. The culture of Fahrenheit 451 is a culture of insubstantiality and unreality, and Montag desperately seeks more substantial truths in the books he hoards.
Animal and Nature Imagery
Animal and nature imagery pervades the novel. Nature is presented as a force of innocence and truth, beginning with Clarisse’s adolescent, reverent love for nature. She convinces Montag to taste the rain, and the experience changes him irrevocably. His escape from the city into the country is a revelation to him, showing him the enlightening power of unspoiled nature.
Much of the novel’s animal imagery is ironic. Although this society is obsessed with technology and ignores nature, many frightening mechanical devices are modeled after or named for animals, such as the Electric-Eyed Snake machine and the Mechanical Hound.
Fahrenheit 451 contains a number of religious references. Mildred’s friends remind Montag of icons he once saw in a church and did not understand. The language Bradbury uses to describe the enameled, painted features of the artifacts Montag saw is similar to the language he uses to describe the firemen’s permanent smiles. Faber invokes the Christian value of forgiveness: after Montag turns against society, Faber reminds him that since he was once one of the faithful, he should demonstrate pity rather than fury.
The narrative also contains references to the miracle at Canaa, where Christ transformed water into wine. Faber describes himself as water and Montag as fire, asserting that the merging of the two will produce wine. In the biblical story, Jesus Christ’s transformation of water into wine was one of the miracles that proved his identity and instilled faith in his role as the savior. Montag longs to confirm his own identity through a similar self-transformation.
The references to fire are more complex. In the Christian tradition, fire has several meanings: from the pagan blaze in which the golden calf was made to Moses’ burning bush, it symbolizes both blatant heresy and divine presence. Fire in Fahrenheit 451 also possesses contradictory meanings. At the beginning it is the vehicle of a restrictive society, but Montag turns it upon his oppressor, using it to burn Beatty and win his freedom.
Finally, Bradbury uses language and imagery from the Bible to resolve the novel. In the last pages, as Montag and Granger’s group walk upriver to find survivors after the bombing of the city, Montag knows they will eventually talk, and he tries to remember appropriate passages from the Bible. He brings to mind Ecclesiastes 3:1, “To everything there is a season,” and also Revelations 22:2, “And on either side of the river was there a tree of life . . . and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations,” which he decides to save for when they reach the city. The verse from Revelations also speaks of the holy city of God, and the last line of the book, “When we reach the city,” implies a strong symbolic connection between the atomic holocaust of Montag’s world and the Apocalypse of the Bible.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Blood appears throughout the novel as a symbol of a human being’s repressed soul or primal, instinctive self. Montag often “feels” his most revolutionary thoughts welling and circulating in his blood. Mildred, whose primal self has been irretrievably lost, remains unchanged when her poisoned blood is replaced with fresh, mechanically administered blood by the Electric-Eyed Snake machine. The symbol of blood is intimately related to the Snake machine. Bradbury uses the electronic device to reveal Mildred’s corrupted insides and the thick sediment of delusion, misery, and self-hatred within her. The Snake has explored “the layer upon layer of night and stone and stagnant spring water,” but its replacement of her blood could not rejuvenate her soul. Her poisoned, replaceable blood signifies the empty lifelessness of Mildred and the countless others like her.
“The Hearth and the Salamander”
Bradbury uses this conjunction of images as the title of the first part of Fahrenheit 451. The hearth, or fireplace, is a traditional symbol of the home; the salamander is one of the official symbols of the firemen, as well as the name they give to their fire trucks. Both of these symbols have to do with fire, the dominant image of Montag’s life—the hearth because it contains the fire that heats a home, and the salamander because of ancient beliefs that it lives in fire and is unaffected by flames.
“The Sieve and the Sand”
The title of the second part of Fahrenheit 451, “The Sieve and the Sand,” is taken from Montag’s childhood memory of trying to fill a sieve with sand on the beach to get a dime from a mischievous cousin and crying at the futility of the task. He compares this memory to his attempt to read the whole Bible as quickly as possible on the subway in the hope that, if he reads fast enough, some of the material will stay in his memory.
Simply put, the sand is a symbol of the tangible truth Montag seeks, and the sieve the human mind seeking a truth that remains elusive and, the metaphor suggests, impossible to grasp in any permanent way.
After the bombing of the city, Granger compares mankind to a phoenix that burns itself up and then rises out of its ashes over and over again. Man’s advantage is his ability to recognize when he has made a mistake, so that eventually he will learn not to make that mistake anymore. Remembering the mistakes of the past is the task Granger and his group have set for themselves. They believe that individuals are not as important as the collective mass of culture and history. The symbol of the phoenix’s rebirth refers not only to the cyclical nature of history and the collective rebirth of humankind but also to Montag’s spiritual resurrection.
At the very end of the novel, Granger says they must build a mirror factory to take a long look at themselves; this remark recalls Montag’s description of Clarisse as a mirror in “The Hearth and the Salamander.” Mirrors here are symbols of self-understanding, of seeing oneself clearly.
by curthis_h, December 13, 2012
seems alot like we are now
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