Essay on Symbolism in 'Fahrenheit 451'

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Fire can be used as a weapon of great destruction as well as an opportunity for new beginnings and life. Throughout the novel, it serves as a symbol of ruin as well as rebirth. The firemen use fire as a weapon to both destroy books and the homes of those who possess them. We can see within our own history the destructive properties of fire that strangely coincide with the novel. Montag witnesses both sides of fire in his lifetime. He has seen it cause pain and destruction but also bring hope and new beginnings. Just as a Phoenix rises from its own ashes, so too does Montag who rises from his faults and transforms into a flaming spirit of life lit by the words of wisdom derived from works of literature.

Throughout the novel, Fahrenheit 451, fire can be seen as a symbol of destruction and chaos. The firemen use fire to burn away all works of literature and continue their hunt for books until all are destroyed. The main purpose of burning books is to destroy people's society’s ability to think for themselves. As Captain Beatty puts it,” 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” (58). In other words, captain Beatty is totally fine with the idea of an ignorant populace and a heavily controlling government. Books get the human mind thinking and that is exactly what the dystopian society does not want people doing. Their ideas can lead to rebellion thus causing a disturbance in their way of living, which is only for pleasure.

The burning of all great works of literature contributes to the corruption of the dystopian society. In 1823, the poet Heinrich Heine wrote the words, “Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen,” or “Where books are burned, in the end, people will also be burned.” Heinrich’s words strangely coincide with the novel as seen in the passage where the woman burns her books. “The woman knelt among the books, touching the drenched leather and cardboard, reading the gilt titles with her fingers while her eyes accused Montag”(35). This woman saw the firemen take away the one thing that inspired her, she held her books for the last time as they were drenched in kerosene waiting to be caught among the flames. She could not bear to leave them and lit her own match to burn with her one refuge of knowledge. Just as in Fahrenheit 451, the dystopian society used fire to destroy all works of literature as well as use it as a weapon against those who stood up for books.

Within the novel, books are burned for the main purpose of keeping society from coming up with ideas. Fire is used to burn away the hidden wisdom within the literature, to never be heard or seen, only turning to ashes of forgotten knowledge. We can find in our own history books that we too once did this. Dating as back as the middle ages the burning of books has been an issue in our own history. In the book Christianity, Book-Burning and Censorship in Late Antiquity: Studies in Text Transmission, Dirk Rohamm states, “some late antique emperor and early medieval kings used book-burning and censorship as a means of social control”(18). In other words, fire has been used as a weapon to burn books in the hopes to control nations socially and intellectually. If they are only given certain content they will not question the way society is living and this is exactly what it is like within the dystopian society of Fahrenheit 451. It is taken to the extreme, in the sense that people often fear books, finding them a threat to their way of living.

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Although fire can be used as a source of destruction, it can also be seen as a symbol of life. As Montag escapes the city he wanders onto a railroad track where he can see a far off into the distance a familiar glow. All his life he has known fire as a weapon to only bring destruction, but now he has found a new and more hopeful meaning. He follows the flames and it leads him to a group of men, all lovers of literature. Montag thinks to himself, “It was not only the fire that was different. It was the silence” (139). In other words, Montag learns that fire is neither good nor evil. It is how you choose to use the fire, whether it be the intent to do good or evil. He has never seen or felt fire as a substance of comfort but now it seems to be calling him home and he soon feels like he has found a place where he belongs.

Fire can also be a symbol reminding us of the beauty of rebirth. Just as after a forest fire when everything is burned, trees are destroyed. From the ashes, there begins new life already sprouting. Just as this cycle occurs so will history repeat itself within the dystopian society. But to Montag and Faber and all those who stand up for literature, a new opportunity emerges. This is their chance to start anew, opening up the door leading to a brighter and better future. Where education and the content that is within the books can once again be appreciated and seen for how important they are.

The legend of the Phoenix is a story of renewal within Mediterranean culture. It is said that the bird is swallowed by flames but then rises up from its own ashes as it begins a new life. After the city has been reduced to ashes by the bombers Granger makes a direct comparison to this mythical bird, “But every time he burnt himself up he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again”(156). He continues to say that the society they are living in seems to be doing the same exact thing, repeating the cycle of complete destruction. Both destroy themselves and are reborn among the ashes. Just as a Phoenix rises from its own ashes so will the city. Those that still fight for the preservation of books may bring the hope that with that rebirth a new and brighter city will emerge. If people keep books history may not repeat itself and humanity will be able to learn its lesson from prior tragedies.

Fire is not only a symbol of utter destruction but a symbol of renewal and rebirth. From the burning of books to the ruin of entire cities, just as a phoenix rises from its own ashes so too will the city rebuild itself. Brick upon brick and book upon a book there is hope with this rebirth that humanity will learn from its mistakes.

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Essay on Symbolism in ‘Fahrenheit 451’. (2023, February 24). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from
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