Fahrenheit 451: The Symbolic People

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When last we visited the fire-blackened dystopia of Fahrenheit 451, we learned two key things. First, I didn’t enjoy the book quite as much as I thought I would, and second, that has nothing to do with Ray Bradbury’s powers as a wordsmith, which are staggering. Take any sentence from Fahrenheit consisting of more than five words, and I would probably be perfectly happy reading just that sentence over and over again for hours on end. When it comes to the English language, Bradbury is a master craftsman.

So why wasn’t I completely enamored of Fahrenheit? It has a great deal to do with the characters populating Bradbury’s book-burning hellscape. I like a good hellscape as much as the next guy, but a great book has to show it to me through the eyes of interesting people. I would never suggest that Bradbury doesn’t know that, but in this case, he seems not to care. Fahrenheit 451 is more of an allegory than an actual story. Its characters are symbolic representations, not people. They serve a purpose for Bradbury’s message, but they don’t grow or change — not even Guy Montag.

That’s bizarre to say, because on the surface, the whole book is about Montag changing, from an unthinking fireman in love with the act of burning to an outlaw member of a social resistance responsible for carrying books in their minds. Montag is the everyman, the regular guy rebelling against his own ignorance. Supposedly, it’s getting to know Clarisse McClellan that awakens his curiosity, and her abrupt death that drives him to act on his convictions (which is problematic in and of itself, as we’ll see later). But there are clues in the text that suggest Montag isn’t just like everyone else, even before he starts to, in the modern parlance, get woke.

“You’re not like the others. I’ve seen a few; I know. When I talk, you look at me. When I said something about the moon, you looked at the moon, last night. The others would never do that. The others would walk off and leave me talking. Or threaten me. No one has time any more for anyone else. You’re one of the few who put up with me. That’s why I think it’s so strange you’re a fireman, it just doesn’t seem right for you, somehow.”

This Clarisse quote alone is enough to suggest that Montag isn’t your everyday fireman. She comes right out and says that Montag doesn’t possess the typical fireman’s disposition, regardless of the artificial smile plastered across his face or the novel’s opening words, “It was a pleasure to burn.” Perhaps Montag does enjoy the act of burning, but he doesn’t enjoy the idea of destroying knowledge, and didn’t even before he met Clarisse. After all, prior to his first encounter with the girl, he had already been taking books and hiding them in his house. And apparently unlike the other firemen, Montag possesses curiosity; not only does he fail to destroy knowledge, he actively seeks it out. His initial meeting with Faber, the cowardly intellectual, occurred a year before the events of the novel, and it occurred because Montag saw Faber with a concealed book and decided to talk to him. Montag intently absorbs everything Faber tells him, including poetry, and even though Faber freely offers his address to the fireman, Montag does not turn him in.

Finally, a key moment early in Fahrenheit is when the Mechanical Hound, the robotic hunting dog who serves as the ultimate weapon of the firemen and the police state in which they live, has a hostile reaction to Montag, despite there being no clear reason for it. The Hound seems to be sniffing out the first seeds of rebellion in Montag planted by Clarisse just a few pages earlier, the first signs that Montag is unhappy with his profession…except Montag then discusses the incident with Captain Beatty, saying, “This isn’t the first time it’s threatened me. Last month it happened twice.” And Beatty himself drops a hint or two that he might already be on to Montag’s book-stealing – a fair assumption given the extreme intelligence he demonstrates later on. Montag suggests that the Hound could have been programmed to target him. Beatty replies that Montag has no enemies, and that the Hound is simply malfunctioning. Given the fact that Beatty spends large portions of the novel taunting and poking at Montag before finally revealing that he knows everything, programming the Hound to react to Montag’s presence, occasionally and subtly, seems exactly like Beatty’s modus operandi. At the very least, we know that this behavior from the Hound is not new, and at most, we know that Beatty has suspected Montag for a while.

The back cover of my copy of Fahrenheit 451 reads, in part: “He had…never questioned anything until he met a seventeen-year-old girl who told him of a past when people were not afraid. Then he met a professor who told him of a future in which people could think…and Guy Montag suddenly realized what he had to do!” But that’s not actually how the story goes. It begins that way, sure, as though it were the book that back cover summary claims it to be, with Montag having fun with his fires and repeating the dogma he’s been taught to repeat in the face of Clarisse’s questioning nonconformity. It seems like it’s going to be the story of Montag shedding his blinders thanks to this chance encounter with his strange teenage neighbor.

But then we learn that the Hound has been weird towards him. Then we learn that he has been hoarding books for quite some time. Then we learn that he had sought out a conversation with Faber one whole year prior. As Fahrenheit goes on, Montag seems less like a former mindless fireman who’s seen the light, and more like a fireman who has never been content, never been mindless, or at least not for some time before he met Clarisse McClellan. Does Montag really change at all? Or did he merely take off his mask to reveal the person he had always been?

As for the other characters, there honestly isn’t a whole lot to them. Beatty, the Chief Burner, is probably the most interesting, largely due to his intelligence and the tragic backstory of a book-lover turned book-burner, the second of which was only revealed in a stage adaptation long after Fahrenheit was originally published. But even with this tragic element added, Beatty is still a one-note character, the intellectual traitor who, rather than be given any chance at change or redemption, is simply murdered by Montag.

Clarisse has tremendous potential as a character, and indeed, she is the main reason to keep reading through the first part of the novel. She’s just ridiculously likeable, and all the more so because she’s viewed as being crazy for saying things we know to be sane. But she gets killed just as Montag is getting to know her, and the rest of the story is incalculably worsened by her loss. Moreover, you can’t help but feel like Clarisse’s sudden demise, which spurs Montag to action, is a 1950s version of the “girls in refrigerators” trope, in which a female character is sacrificed for the sake of a male character’s plot or development. Add to that the fact that there are some definite “manic pixie dream girl” elements to Clarisse’s character, and she becomes extremely problematic. One almost gets the sense that Bradbury killed her off in part so that she could drive Montag to rebellion without him developing any less-than-appropriate feelings for her.

Montag’s wife, Millie, and his mentor, Faber, are even more one-dimensional. There’s nothing to Millie at all; she simply serves as the book’s example of a citizen slave, mindless, unquestioning, pacified. The only hint that she might be anything more is at the beginning, when she’s saved from a sleeping pill overdose. It’s left ambiguous whether Millie overdosed accidentally or whether she was attempting suicide; if the latter is true, it must mean that Millie is secretly unhappy with her life of entertainment-fueled servitude. If so, however, it is never addressed again, leaving us desperately reading between the lines to try and find an ounce of nuance in her character. But no, Millie’s ultimate role is to turn Montag in to his own fire department, then leave him. Like Beatty, she is unrepentant, irredeemable, and doomed, as she presumably dies in the final bombing of the city Montag escaped. Montag does mourn for her, both during her life and after her death, but that just makes her more explicitly the only thing she is: a victim. Between her and Clarisse, both of whom die so Montag can be sad about it…not a great look for Bradbury’s only two female characters, even if it was the ‘50s.

And there’s even less to say about Faber, the cowardly intellectual who serves primarily as an information and explanation conduit. It’s Faber’s job to tell the reader, through Montag, why books are so important. But if Montag is meant to be a symbol of the uneducated everyman with a heart of gold, then Faber is the impotent professor, the ivory tower elitist who stood by and said nothing while the world went to hell. Faber’s role is to inform, while Montag’s role is to act, the implication being that intellectualism can accomplish nothing without the down-to-earth practicality of the little guy. This idea is only reinforced at the end of the book by the introduction of Granger and his rugged band of campfire bibliophiles, “five old men sitting there dressed in the dark-blue denim pants and jackets and dark-blue shirts.” These are the real heroes of the story, these men dressed like real men ought to dress, living off the land as real men ought to live, sharing Faber’s love of books and understanding of their importance, but nothing else. Granger is what Faber could have been, were he not such a squeaking sissy, and Granger is what Montag should be — what he aspires to be in the end.

I don’t want to sound overly dismissive of Bradbury’s worldview. I might see it as old-fashioned and simplistic, but that doesn’t necessarily make it wrong. That said, Fahrenheit 451 is so up-front about its message. It doesn’t dress anything up or bother to try and hide anything. It has a point to make, and it slaps you in the face until you get the idea. The characters serve this goal, and as a result, they’re not very good characters. I wrote previously about Bradbury’s skill with metaphor; these characters are metaphors instead of people, as the entire book is more allegory than story.

And so, since the message of the book is the only truly important element, in my next post, I’ll finish off my discussion of Fahrenheit 451 by analyzing what it’s actually trying to say, and whether or not it holds up more than 60 years after its initial publication.

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