"Montag, take my word for it, I've had to read a few in my time, to know what I was about, and the books say nothing! Nothing you can teach or believe. They're about non-existent people, figments of imagination, if they're fiction. And if they're non-fiction, it's worse, one professor calling another an idiot, one philosopher screaming down another's gullet. All of them running about, putting out the stars and extinguishing the sun. You come away lost." (1.629)
Mildred uses the same defense against books, claiming that they are not "real." What are the criteria, in the world of Fahrenheit 451, for what is real and what is not?
"Come on, woman!"
The woman knelt among the books, touching the drenched leather and cardboard, reading the gilt titles with her fingers while her eyes accused Montag.
"You can't ever have my books," she said. (1.346-8)
This woman recognizes what Montag will not realize for some time – the value of books is not physical and doesn’t lie in the tangible pages. That’s why, although they burn this woman’s books, they never really take them from her.
"You weren't there, you didn't see," he said. "There must be something in books, things we can't imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don't stay for nothing." (1.546)
Notice how it takes a person to get Montag’s attention. People like this woman, Clarisse, Faber, and eventually Granger get him to notice the substance behind literature.
"It's not just the woman that died," said Montag. "Last night I thought about all the kerosene I've used in the past ten years. And I thought about books. And for the first time I realized that a man was behind each one of the books. A man had to think them up. A man had to take a long time to put them down on paper. And I'd never even thought that thought before." He got out of bed.
"It took some man a lifetime maybe to put some of his thoughts down, looking around at the world and life, and then I came along in two minutes and boom! it's all over."(1.556-7)
All his life Montag has known only destruction, only one half of the cycle. Destruction has no meaning for him until he begins to recognize the work he is undoing, the construction half of the cosmic routine.
How inconvenient! Always before it had been like snuffing a candle. The police went first and adhesive-taped the victim's mouth and bandaged him off into their glittering beetle cars, so when you arrived you found an empty house. You weren't hurting anyone, you were hurting only things! And since things really couldn't be hurt, since things felt nothing, and things don't scream or whimper, as this woman might begin to scream and cry out, there was nothing to tease your conscience later. You were simply cleaning up. Janitorial work, essentially. Everything to its proper place. Quick with the kerosene! Who's got a match! (1.332)
Guy will soon prove his misconception when he comes to the realization that every book represents the man who wrote it. At the end of the novel, he’ll realize that books also represent those who read and learn from them.
"I've heard rumours; the world is starving, but we're well-fed. Is it true, the world works hard and we play? Is that why we're hated so much? I've heard the rumours about hate, too, once in a long while, over the years. Do you know why? I don't, that's sure! Maybe the books can get us half out of the cave. They just might stop us from making the same damn insane mistakes!" (2.27)
It’s possible this is a reference to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in which we’re all ignorant and, you know, stuck in cave together. The enlightened man is the man who removes his shackles and walks out of the cave into the real world. The idea here is that books are what enable us to do so.
Mildred kicked at a book. "Books aren't people. You read and I look around, but there isn't anybody!" (2.20)
This is what the rebels in the woods disprove at the end of the novel.
"So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless." (2.129-30)
It is this desire for comfort that has allowed the government to rule the way that it does. Very little enforcement is needed, as the citizens are essentially doped up by their own shallow happiness. Books threaten this happiness by reminding the citizens what the rest of the world is like.
Mrs. Bowles stood up and glared at Montag. "You see? I knew it, that's what I wanted to prove! I knew it would happen! I've always said, poetry and tears, poetry and suicide and crying and awful feelings, poetry and sickness; all that mush! Now I've had it proved to me. You're nasty, Mr. Montag, you're nasty!" (2.338)
Montag has done Mrs. Bowles a favor in getting her to feel something, anything, even if it’s negative. Remember when he earlier told Mildred that she had never really been bothered by anything? Exactly; he’s dragged this woman out of the emotionless sterility of her world.
"What traitors books can be! You think they’re backing you up, and then they turn on you. Others can use them, too, and there you are, lost in the middle of the moor, in a great welter of nouns and verbs and adjectives." (2.386)
Beatty misses the point. The reason books are valuable is because they are contradictory, conflicted, and confusing. It means that the reader can – or has to – think for himself, as Montag so desperately wants to himself.
"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."
He felt his body divide itself into a hotness and a coldness, a softness and a hardness, a trembling and a not trembling, the two halves grinding one upon the other. (1.207-8)
Montag’s identity crisis begins during his conversations with Clarisse. We immediately sense conflict between his desire to be a dutiful member of society and his inner belief that something is wrong.
Montag swallowed. "Its calculators can be set to any combination, so many amino acids, so much sulphur, so much butterfat and alkaline. Right?"
"We all know that."
"All of those chemical balances and percentages on all of us here in the house are recorded in the master file downstairs. It would be easy for someone to set up a partial combination on the Hound's ‘memory,’ a touch of amino acids, perhaps. That would account for what the animal did just now. Reacted toward me." (1.228-30)
This is an interesting passage as it raises the question: how do we define identity and being? If it’s all just chemical in the end, what is the difference between a Mechanical Hound and a real one? What’s to stop a piece of technology from experiencing "human" emotions?
Fool, thought Montag to himself, you'll give it away. At the last fire, a book of fairy tales, he'd glanced at a single line. "I mean," he said, "in the old days, before homes were completely fireproofed–" Suddenly it seemed a much younger voice was speaking for him. He opened his mouth and it was Clarisse McClellan saying, "Didn't firemen prevent fires rather than stoke them up and get them going?" (1.309)
Montag escapes the guilt of betraying his duty by ascribing his actions to other things: in this case, to another person (Clarisse).
And then he shut up, for he remembered last week and the two white stones staring up at the ceiling and the pump-snake with the probing eye and the two soap-faced men with the cigarettes moving in their mouths when they talked. But that was another Mildred, that was a Mildred so deep inside this one, and so bothered, really bothered, that the two women had never met. He turned away. (1.560)
Remember when Montag talks about having a mask of happiness? Exactly; Mildred still has hers.
Montag's hand closed like a mouth, crushed the book with wild devotion, with an insanity of mindlessness to his chest. (1.336)
As the identity crisis worsens, Montag distances himself from parts of his own body, blaming his hands for his actions and pretending he has no agency over them.
The numbness will go away, he thought. It'll take time, but I'll do it, or Faber will do it for me. Someone somewhere will give me back the old face and the old hands the way they were. Even the smile, he thought, the old burnt-in smile, that's gone. I'm lost without it. (2.73)
Montag isn’t just talking about the numbness in his legs; he’s afraid of his new rebellious, fugitive self.
The old man would go on with this talking and this talking, drop by drop, stone by stone, flake by flake. His mind would well over at last and he would not be Montag any more, this the old man told him, assured him, promised him. He would be Montag-plus-Faber, fire plus water, and then, one day, after everything had mixed and simmered and worked away in silence, there would be neither fire nor water, but wine. Out of two separate and opposite things, a third. And one day he would look back upon the fool and know the fool. (2.353)
Remember an earlier line about friendship being formed drop by drop? It was from a book that Montag read. He learns all these lessons not from reading them, but from experiencing them himself.
He waded in and stripped in darkness to the skin, splashed his body, arms, legs, and head with raw liquor; drank it and snuffed some up his nose. Then he dressed in Faber's old clothes and shoes. He tossed his own clothing into the river and watched it swept away. Then, holding the suitcase, he walked out in the river until there was no bottom and he was swept away in the dark. (3.225)
This isn’t just about getting the smell out of his clothes – Montag is symbolically cleansing himself of his old being.
"When I was a boy my grandfather died, and he was a sculptor. He was also a very kind man who had a lot of love to give the world, and he helped clean up the slum in our town; and he made toys for us and he did a million things in his lifetime; he was always busy with his hands. And when he died, I suddenly realized I wasn't crying for him at all, but for the things he did. I cried because he would never do them again, he would never carve another piece of wood or help us raise doves and pigeons in the back yard or play the violin the way he did, or tell us jokes the way he did. He was part of us and when he died, all the actions stopped dead and there was no one to do them just the way he did. He was individual. He was an important man. I've never gotten over his death. Often I think, what wonderful carvings never came to birth because he died. How many jokes are missing from the world, and how many homing pigeons untouched by his hands. He shaped the world. He did things to the world. The world was bankrupted of ten million fine actions the night he passed on." (3.361)
This is the solution to the big identity question in Fahrenheit 451: identity is crafted by action. Montag takes this lesson to heart. Mildred, he realizes, doesn’t actually do anything – which is why she seems to have no real identity.
"I'm still crazy. The rain feels good. I love to walk in it.
"I don't think I'd like that," he said.
"You might if you tried."
"I never have."
She licked her lips. "Rain even tastes good." (1.164-8)
Clarisse is a foil to Beatty; she represents nature while he stands for technology and modernization.
"Bet I know something else you don't. There's dew on the grass in the morning."
He suddenly couldn't remember if he had known this or not, and it made him quite irritable.
"And if you look"—she nodded at the sky—"there's a man in the moon."
He hadn't looked for a long time. (1.50-3)
Clarisse instigates Montag’s rebellion not by telling him what to think, but by inviting him to think.
Without turning on the light he imagined how this room would look. His wife stretched on the bed, uncovered and cold, like a body displayed on the lid of a tomb, her eyes fixed to the ceiling by invisible threads of steel, immovable. And in her ears the little Seashells, the thimble radios tamped tight, and an electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk and music and talk coming in, coming in on the shore of her unsleeping mind. The room was indeed empty. Every night the waves came in and bore her off on their great tides of sound, floating her, wide-eyed, toward morning. There had been no night in the last two years that Mildred had not swum that sea, had not gladly gone down in it for the third time. (1.76)
The fact that this listening device is called a "Seashell" is ironic – it’s far from natural, and is in fact an element of the machinery which opposes nature in this novel.
"Yet somehow we think we can grow, feeding on flowers and fireworks, without completing the cycle back to reality. Do you know the legend of Hercules and Antaeus, the giant wrestler, whose strength was incredible so long as he stood firmly on the earth? But when he was held, rootless, in mid-air, by Hercules, he perished easily. If there isn't something in that legend for us today, in this city, in our time, then I am completely insane. Well, there we have the first thing I said we needed. Quality, texture of information." (2.130)
Again we see the dichotomy of nature and technology ever-present in the novel. Books represent nature because they are investigations into natural life.
"No, no, it's not books at all you're looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us. " (2.128)
Did you notice that Montag doesn’t stop to think until he’s floating in a river? Exactly – Faber’s words here are proven later in the text.
He was three hundred yards downstream when the Hound reached the river. Overhead the great racketing fans of the helicopters hovered. A storm of light fell upon the river and Montag dived under the great illumination as if the sun had broken the clouds. He felt the river pull him further on its way, into darkness. Then the lights switched back to the land, the helicopters swerved over the city again, as if they had picked up another trail. They were gone. The Hound was gone. Now there was only the cold river and Montag floating in a sudden peacefulness, away from the city and the lights and the chase, away from everything. He felt as if he had left a stage behind and many actors. He felt as if he had left the great seance and all the murmuring ghosts. He was moving from an unreality that was frightening into a reality that was unreal because it was new he was a thing of brush and liquid. (3.226)
Fahrenheit 451 is the battleground for a war between nature and technology. Here we see that Montag identifies with natural, almost primitive elements of identity more than with calculated, machine-like qualities.
He touched it, just to be sure it was real. He waded in and stripped in darkness to the skin, splashed his body, arms, legs, and head with raw liquor; drank it and snuffed some up his nose. Then he dressed in Faber's old clothes and shoes. He tossed his own clothing into the river and watched it swept away. Then, holding the suitcase, he walked out in the river until there was no bottom and he was swept away in the dark. (3.225)
Notice that it is the river which cleanses Montag of his old smell, his old identity. Getting in touch with nature, as cheesy as that sounds, is his saving grace against the machinery of the government.
"Yes, I believe that, if there's nothing else I believe. It saved itself up to happen. I could feel it for a long time, I was saving something up, I went around doing one thing and feeling another. God, it was all there. It's a wonder it didn't show on me, like fat. And now here I am, messing up your life. They might follow me here." (3.152)
There is something unnatural about the way man is forced to live in the world of Fahrenheit 451. Montag, sensing this, rebels against these restrictions.
"What is there about fire that's so lovely? No matter what age we are, what draws us to it?" Beatty blew out the flame and lit it again. "It's perpetual motion; the thing man wanted to invent but never did. Or almost perpetual motion. If you let it go on, it'd burn our lifetimes out. What is fire? It's a mystery. Scientists give us gobbledegook about friction and molecules. But they don't really know. Its real beauty is that it destroys responsibility and consequences. A problem gets too burdensome, then into the furnace with it. Now, Montag, you're a burden. And fire will lift you off my shoulders, clean, quick, sure; nothing to rot later. Antibiotic, aesthetic, practical." (3.20)
Fire should be an element of the natural world, but it has been appropriated by man for solely destructive purposes.
"More sports for everyone, group spirit, fun, and you don't have to think, eh? Organize and organize and super organize super-super sports. More cartoons in books. More pictures. The mind drinks less and less. Impatience. Highways full of crowds going somewhere, somewhere, somewhere, nowhere. The gasoline refugee. Towns turn into motels, people in nomadic surges from place to place, following the moon tides, living tonight in the room where you slept this noon and I the night before." (1.610)
This need for constant motion hints at the citizens’ dissatisfaction. The system is designed to mask that discontent, not to fix it.
"It is computed that eleven thousand persons have at several times suffered death rather than submit to break eggs at the smaller end."
Mildred sat across the hall from him. "What does it mean? It doesn't mean anything!" (1.882-3)
Oh, the irony. At its heart, Fahrenheit 451 is about rebellion – which is what this egg line from Gulliver’s Travels refers to. The idea is that, regardless of the rules themselves, there’s something in humans that simply rebels for the sake of rebelling. It’s just like the epigraph to the novel (see "What's Up With the Epigraph?"). There’s no need to write the other way on lined paper, but you should do it just because the human spirit doesn’t like rigidity.
"Here or there, that's bound to occur. Clarisse McClellan? We've a record on her family. We've watched them carefully. Heredity and environment are funny things. You can't rid yourselves of all the odd ducks in just a few years. The home environment can undo a lot you try to do at school. That's why we've lowered the kindergarten age year after year until now we're almost snatching them from the cradle." (1.624)
The existence of people like Clarisse McClellan – or even like Guy Montag – makes Fahrenheit 451 an optimistic novel. It’s that whole "the human spirit prevails" thing.
"Surely you remember the boy in your own school class who was exceptionally ‘bright,’ did most of the reciting and answering while the others sat like so many leaden idols, hating him. And wasn't it this bright boy you selected for beatings and tortures after hours? Of course it was. We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man's mind. Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man? Me? I won't stomach them for a minute." (1.614)
Beatty cites many different reasons for the abolishment of books, but this one is perhaps the most terrifying. Fear and jealousy imagine intellectualism as a weapon. Bradbury reminds us that those who can not fight with words or ideas use violence as a substitute.
That was all there was to it, really. An hour of monologue, a poem, a comment, and then without even acknowledging the fact that Montag was a fireman, Faber with a certain trembling, wrote his address on a slip of paper. "For your file," he said, "in case you decide to be angry with me." (2.38)
The rules don’t even have to be enforced on the citizens in this novel – they are self-imposed.
"Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord. You firemen provide a circus now and then at which buildings are set off and crowds gather for the pretty blaze, but it's a small sideshow indeed, and hardly necessary to keep things in line. So few want to be rebels any more. And out of those few, most, like myself, scare easily. Can you dance faster than the White Clown, shout louder than ‘Mr. Gimmick’ and the parlour ‘families’? If you can, you'll win your way, Montag. In any event, you're a fool. People are having fun." (2.171)
Notice that the government fights rebellion with happiness. Rather than cut down insurrection, they assure that it won’t happen in the first place. This means that they have restricted not only the actions of the citizens, but their thoughts as well.
"Sounds fine," said Mrs. Bowles. "I voted last election, same as everyone, and I laid it on the line for President Noble. I think he's one of the nicest-looking men who ever became president."
"Oh, but the man they ran against him!"
"He wasn't much, was he? Kind of small and homely and he didn't shave too close or comb his hair very well."
"What possessed the ‘Outs’ to run him? You just don't go running a little short man like that against a tall man. Besides, he mumbled. Half the time I couldn't hear a word he said. And the words I did hear I didn't understand!"
"Fat, too, and didn't dress to hide it. No wonder the landslide was for Winston Noble. Even their names helped. Compare Winston Noble to Hubert Hoag for ten seconds and you can almost figure the results." (2.284-8)
It’s clear that this election was fixed. What’s scary is that it was fixed not with guns or cheating, but by intellectual manipulation – which is more powerful and more frightening.
Somewhere the saving and putting away had to begin again and someone had to do the saving and keeping, one way or another, in books, in records, in people's heads, any way at all so long as it was safe, free from moths, silverfish, rust and dry-rot, and men with matches. The world was full of burning of all types and sizes. Now the guild of the asbestos weaver must open shop very soon. (3.243)
Montag has escaped the rigidity of the government’s rules, but he has discovered another system of order – that of nature.
"It was pretty silly, quoting poetry around free and easy like that. It was the act of a silly damn snob. Give a man a few lines of verse and he thinks he's the Lord of all Creation. You think you can walk on water with your books. Well, the world can get by just fine without them. Look where they got you, in slime up to your lip. If I stir the slime with my little finger, you'll drown!" (3.38)
It’s odd that Beatty makes so many religious references (like walking on water), given that the Bible is a banned book…
"Hell!" the operator's cigarette moved on his lips. "We get these cases nine or ten a night. Got so many, starting a few years ago, we had the special machines built." (1.98)
This is the first hint we get that all is not hunky-dory in the future. But Mildred’s quick recovery also proves that such dissatisfaction is repressed, kept below the surface.
"I don't know what it is. I'm so damned unhappy, I'm so mad, and I don't know why I feel like I'm putting on weight. I feel fat. I feel like I've been saving up a lot of things, and don't know what. I might even start reading books. […] Before I hurt someone. Did you hear Beatty? Did you listen to [Beatty]? He knows all the answers. He's right. Happiness is important. Fun is everything. And yet I kept sitting there saying to myself, I'm not happy, I'm not happy."
"I am." Mildred's mouth beamed. "And proud of it." (1.653-4)
How can Mildred be "happy" if she tried to kill herself at the beginning of the novel?
"If you don't want a house built, hide the nails and wood. If you don't want a man unhappy politically, don't give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none." (1.627)
It is this very lack of options that leaves Montag so unhappy. Books may be challenging, but the alternative is a brainless void – hardly satisfying to the individual.
"I'm going to do something," said Montag. "I don't even know what yet, but I'm going to do something big." (1.655)
Montag’s rebellion is more about personal gratification than any sort of altruism.
"Let me alone," said Mildred. "I didn't do anything."
"Let you alone! That's all very well, but how can I leave myself alone? We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?" (1.558-9)
Fahrenheit 451 reminds us that there are no highs without the lows. Montag can not ever be happy because he’s never been sad.
"Millie? Does the White Clown love you?"
"Millie, does—" He licked his lips. "Does your ‘family’ love you, love you very much, love you with all their heart and soul, Millie?" (2.62-4)
Does love exist at all in the world of Fahrenheit 451? Because it seems like Mildred and Montag don’t even love each other…
"I don't know. We have everything we need to be happy, but we aren't happy. Something's missing. I looked around. The only thing I positively knew was gone was the books I'd burned in ten or twelve years. So I thought books might help." (2.127)
Do books allow for happiness, or threaten it? After all, they do challenge and confuse, as Beatty points out. Would books really help Montag through this crisis?
"Ten million men mobilized," Faber's voice whispered in his other ear. "But say one million. It's happier." (2.231)
If one million deployed soldiers is a happy thing, what does that tell you about violence in this world?
"We're used to that. We all made the right kind of mistakes, or we wouldn't be here. When we were separate individuals, all we had was rage." (3.316)
Do Granger and the other people still have rage now that they’ve banded together? What is the advantage in numbers? Are they any more effective than they would have been alone?
"I'm afraid of children my own age. They kill each other. Did it always used to be that way? My uncle says no. Six of my friends have been shot in the last year alone. Ten of them died in car wrecks. I'm afraid of them and they don't like me because I'm afraid. My uncle says his grandfather remembered when children didn't kill each other. But that was a long time ago when they had things different." (1.270)
That violence is so prevalent in this world reveals a flaw in the system. People must be fundamentally unhappy.
"‘Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.’" (1.325)
Here is our first hint that, in this novel, fire is more than just destructive. But Montag won’t realize this until he encounters the "warming" fire at the end of the novel.
The sight of it rushed the men out and down away from the house. Captain Beatty, keeping his dignity, backed slowly through the front door, his pink face burnt and shiny from a thousand fires and night excitements. God, thought Montag, how true! Always at night the alarm comes. Never by day! Is it because the fire is prettier by night? More spectacle, a better show? (2.368)
Words like "pretty" and "beautiful" are used several times on Fahrenheit 451, and often to describe flames. Violence is not only everyone’s favorite pastime, but an art form as well
"Only a week ago, pumping a kerosene hose, I thought: God, what fun!"
The old man nodded. "Those who don't build must burn. It's as old as history and juvenile delinquents."
"So that's what I am."
"There's some of it in all of us." (2.204-7)
It’s passages like this that remind us: Fahrenheit 451 isn’t as clear-cut as it seems. This isn’t a case of good guys create, bad guys destroy. We’re reminded that both construction and destruction are part of life, and that even the good guys have predilections for both.
A minute later, Three White Cartoon Clowns chopped off each other's limbs to the accompaniment of immense incoming tides of laughter. Two minutes more and the room whipped out of town to the jet cars wildly circling an arena, bashing and backing up and bashing each other again. Montag saw a number of bodies fly in the air.
"Millie, did you see that?"
"I saw it, I saw it!" (2.259-61)
These women are as fascinated by violence as Clarisse claims her classmates to be.
A bomber flight had been moving east all the time they talked, and only now did the two men stop and listen, feeling the great jet sound tremble inside themselves.
"Patience, Montag. Let the war turn off the ‘families.’ Our civilization is flinging itself to pieces. Stand back from the centrifuge."
"There has to be someone ready when it blows up."
"What? Men quoting Milton? Saying, I remember Sophocles? Reminding the survivors that man has his good side, too? They will only gather up their stones to hurl at each other. Montag, go home. Go to bed." (2.178-81)
Faber scoffs at Montag’s idealism, but really, the man has a point. It is books and knowledge that will help the world re-build "when it blows up." In fact, this is what happens at the end of the novel. Right?
The fire was gone, then back again, like a winking eye. He stopped, afraid he might blow the fire out with a single breath. But the fire was there and he approached warily, from a long way off. It took the better part of fifteen minutes before he drew very close indeed to it, and then he stood looking at it from cover. That small motion, the white and red colour, a strange fire because it meant a different thing to him.
It was not burning; it was warming. (3.270-1)
This is the first time Montag realizes that there are two parts to the cycle of life – destruction and also creation.
Far down the boulevard, four blocks away, the beetle had slowed, spun about on two wheels, and was now racing back, slanting over on the wrong side of the street, picking up speed. (3.121)
Look at the thirst for violence here, even in a car full of children. Clarisse wasn’t exaggerating…
"All of those chemical balances and percentages on all of us here in the house are recorded in the master file downstairs. It would be easy for someone to set up a partial combination on the Hound's ‘memory,’ a touch of amino acids, perhaps. That would account for what the animal did just now. Reacted toward me." (1.230)
Technology is so fierce in this novel that it is given even the power of human emotion.
"Will you turn the parlour off?" he asked.
"That's my family." (1.493-4)
As a term of any meaning and significance, "family" has gone by the wayside in this world. Montag has already admitted that he might not cry if his wife died, and Mildred’s girlfriends later say the same of their husbands. By this definition of family – as a relationship without emotion or love – the TV characters actually do fit the bill.
"Christ is one of the ‘family’ now. I often wonder it God recognizes His own son the way we've dressed him up, or is it dressed him down? He's a regular peppermint stick now, all sugar-crystal and saccharine when he isn't making veiled references to certain commercial products that every worshipper absolutely needs." (2.124)
Nothing is spared modernization in this novel. Bradbury instills in his reader a fear of technology as a nearly leveling force, a weapon of insipidness.
"Thank God for that. You can shut them, say, ‘Hold on a moment.’ You play God to it. But who has ever torn himself from the claw that encloses you when you drop a seed in a TV parlour? It grows you any shape it wishes! It is an environment as real as the world. It becomes and is the truth. Books can be beaten down with reason. But with all my knowledge and scepticism, I have never been able to argue with a one-hundred-piece symphony orchestra, full colour, three dimensions, and I being in and part of those incredible parlours." (2.138)
The TV parlours overwhelm because they have no substance. They rely on the senses because they can not touch the mind.
"And something more! It listens! If you put it in your ear, Montag, I can sit comfortably home, warming my frightened bones, and hear and analyse the firemen's world, find its weaknesses, without danger. I'm the Queen Bee, safe in the hive. You will be the drone, the travelling ear. Eventually, I could put out ears into all parts of the city, with various men, listening and evaluating. If the drones die, I'm still safe at home, tending my fright with a maximum of comfort and a minimum of chance." (2.218)
Though we have so far seen it only as a tool of the government, we now see that technology can be used for rebellion, too.
Then the lights switched back to the land, the helicopters swerved over the city again, as if they had picked up another trail. They were gone. The Hound was gone. Now there was only the cold river and Montag floating in a sudden peacefulness, away from the city and the lights and the chase, away from everything. (3.226)
Reaching the river means Montag is safe from the Mechanical Hound. In symbolic terms, nature trumps technology.
With an effort, Montag reminded himself again that this was no fictional episode to be watched on his run to the river; it was in actuality his own chess game he was witnessing, move by move. (3.202)
Part of Montag's transformative epiphany has to do with finally accepting reality. He is forced to face the world as it truly exists –not as it is presented in television. That’s what happens here in this chase scene.
And there at the bottom of the hayloft stair, waiting for him, would be the incredible thing. He would step carefully down, in the pink light of early morning, so fully aware of the world that he would be afraid, and stand over the small miracle and at last bend to touch it.
A cool glass of fresh milk, and a few apples and pears laid at the foot of the steps.
This was all he wanted now. Some sign that the immense world would accept him and give him the long time needed to think all the things that must be thought.
A glass of milk, an apple, a pear. (3.242-5)
Having lived in, and now rejected, a scientific, technological world, it’s fitting that Montag’s desired haven is one of natural elements.
He took Montag quickly into the bedroom and lifted a picture frame aside, revealing a television screen the size of a postal card. "I always wanted something very small, something I could talk to, something I could blot out with the palm of my hand, if necessary, nothing that could shout me down, nothing monstrous big." (3.164)
Faber recognizes the danger of technology – its ability to take over. He trumps this danger physically, by keeping the threat literally small.
"Off-hours, yes. But time to think? If you're not driving a hundred miles an hour, at a clip where you can't think of anything else but the danger, then you're playing some game or sitting in some room where you can't argue with the fourwall televisor. Why? The televisor is ‘real.’ It is immediate, it has dimension. It tells you what to think and blasts it in. It must be, right. It seems so right. It rushes you on so quickly to its own conclusions your mind hasn't time to protest, ‘What nonsense!'" (2.131-4)
Check out what happens when Montag hits the river and has real pause to think, for the first time in the novel…
"Nobody listens any more. I can't talk to the walls because they're yelling at me. I can't talk to my wife; she listens to the walls. I just want someone to hear what I have to say. And maybe if I talk long enough, it'll make sense. And I want you to teach me to understand what I read." (2.125)
For Montag, books are more about communication than anything else. That’s why it wasn’t enough for him to read them on his own, why he insisted that his wife do it with him and later, realizing she was inadequate, that he find a teacher.
Montag walked to the kitchen and threw the book down. "Montag," he said, "you're really stupid. Where do we go from here? Do we turn the books in, forget it?" He opened the book to read over Mildred's laughter. Poor Millie, he thought. Poor Montag, it's mud to you, too. But where do you get help, where do you find a teacher this late? (2.31)
Montag doesn’t have the strength to rebel alone and always looks for an accomplice.
"I don't want to change sides and just be told what to do. There's no reason to change if I do that."
"You're wise already!" (2.237-239)
Fahrenheit 451 reminds us that it’s the process of independent thought that matters, more than the knowledge itself.
Montag sensed it was a rhymeless poem. Then the old man grew even more courageous and said something else and that was a poem, too. Faber held his hand over his left coat pocket and spoke these words gently, and Montag knew if he reached out, he might pull a book of poetry from the man's coat. But he did not reach out. His hands stayed on his knees, numbed and useless. "I don't talk things, sir," said Faber. "I talk the meaning of things. I sit here and know I'm alive." (2.36)
Books hold value for Faber only in so far as they apply to life. He’s not a pedant by any stretch of the imagination.
The sun burned every day. It burned Time. The world rushed in a circle and turned on its axis and time was busy burning the years and the people anyway, without any help from him. So if he burnt things with the firemen, and the sun burnt Time, that meant that everything burnt! (3.231)
This is the wisdom Montag gains in the course of the novel, that life is made of both constructive and destructive phases. He reads this in a passage of the Bible, of course, but it holds no meaning for him until he can experience it for himself.
Would he have time for a speech? As the Hound seized him, in view of ten or twenty or thirty million people, mightn't he sum up his entire life in the last week in one single phrase or a word that would stay with them long after the Hound had turned, clenching him in its metal-plier jaws, and trotted off in darkness, while the camera remained stationary, watching the creature dwindle in the distance—a splendid fade-out! What could he say in a single word, a few words, that would sear all their faces and wake them up? (3.177)
This is why Montag likes books: their ability to put words to otherwise incommunicable emotions.
He walked on the track.
And he was surprised to learn how certain he suddenly was of a single fact he could not prove.
Once, long ago, Clarisse had walked here, where he was walking now. (3.266-8)
Real wisdom isn’t learned from books or taught by others: it’s intuitive, self-taught.
He floated on his back when the valise filled and sank; the river was mild and leisurely, going away from the people who ate shadows for breakfast and steam for lunch and vapours for supper. The river was very real; it held him comfortably and gave him the time at last, the leisure, to consider this month, this year, and a lifetime of years. He listened to his heart slow. His thoughts stopped rushing with his blood. (3.229)
Remember when Mildred said that books weren’t real? Compare that to this passage, in which the river is "very real." Does this remind you of Faber’s claim that books matter because they show us the real fibers of life?