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What Does Fire Symbolize in Fahrenheit 451

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Struggles between knowledge and ignorance often occur in society. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the government attempts to control the people by enforcing censorship of information and the burning of books. The main character, Guy Montag, struggles against himself, his boss, Beatty, and the government as he tries to stop promoting ignorance and seeks change in a conformist society. In this novel, the author cleverly changes the significance of the fire motif to represent the change from a negative association to a positive association with knowledge.

Initially, Ray Bradbury uses the motif of fire to depict a negative association with knowledge by emphasizing destructive burning in Fahrenheit 451. Montag is a fireman who burns books and houses down and envisions his hands as “the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning” (Bradbury 3). Montag’s society destroys knowledge that comes in the form of wisdom obtained from books. Montag “flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black” (3). He views the burning positively because, in his society, a fireman’s responsibility is to burn books, thereby destroying the supposed evils of knowledge, promoting ignorance, and maintaining sameness within society. Bradbury describes that the books “blew away on a wind turned dark with burning” (4). The use of vivid negative imagery via the words “wind turned dark with burning” allows the reader to visualize that the evils of knowledge are blackened and destroyed by fire. Montag comments that he “knew that when he returned to the firehouse, he might wink at himself, a minstrel man, burnt-corked, in the mirror” (4). He winks at himself because he enjoys burning. He is proud of his accomplishments as an eager participant that destroys harmful knowledge. Montag uses a metaphor to compare himself to a minstrel man with a dark face from the soot and smoke of the fire. He seems to view himself favorably, like a performer in a minstrel show, rather than as a man engaging in destructive actions. Bradbury also uses similes and imagery to convey knowledge being destroyed by fire. This is evident when the firemen throw magazines while at Mrs. Blake’s house. Montag describes, “They fell like slaughtered birds” (37) and “The books lay like great mounds of fishes left to dry” (38). The vivid imagery created by the similes “like slaughtered birds” and “like great mounds of fish left to dry” emphasizes death and that fire is being used to destroy books and in turn the wickedness of knowledge.

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In contrast, as Fahrenheit 451 progresses, Ray Bradbury uses the change in the motif of fire to represent Montag’s symbolic change from viewing knowledge negatively to seeing it in a more positive light by detailing Montag’s use of fire to find knowledge. Montag meets Faber at his home and asks for guidance. Faber shows him that books are valuable and have meaning. Montag changes his long-standing beliefs and realizes that having knowledge is good. He confides in Faber that his boss, Captain Beatty, could change his mind, stating, “‘His voice is like butter. I’m afraid he’ll talk me back the way I was. Only a week ago, pumping a kerosene hose, I thought: God, what fun!’” (85). Faber replies, “‘Those who don’t build must burn. It’s as old as history and juvenile delinquents’” (85). With this analogy, Faber describes the function of the firefighters, who destroy books and prevent people from furthering their knowledge. He believes that authors and intellectuals “build up” society positively, while individuals who do not give back to society, like juvenile delinquents, contribute to its destruction. Due to Montag’s new attitude towards knowledge, he decides to destroy both his home and his previous life with Beatty. He burns down his house because “he want[s] to change everything, the chairs, the tables, and in the dining room the silverware and plastic dishes, everything that show[s] that he had lived here…” (116). He wishes to forget his old life now that he has developed a positive association with the value of knowledge. Montag comments, “‘We never burned right…’” (119). This stresses that he has changed and is using the fire equipment for the right reason by burning, or eliminating, the ignorance that is ruining his society. Montag burns Beatty, symbolically destroys the negative effects of the control his boss had over his life, and turns him into “a shrieking blaze, a jumping, sprawling, gibbering mannikin, no longer human or known, all writhing flame on the lawn as Montag shot one continuous pulse of liquid fire on him” (119).

Finally, Ray Bradbury uses the change in the motif of fire through the symbols of the sun, the campfire, and the phoenix to represent Montag’s symbolic change from viewing knowledge negatively to positively. After Montag burns Beatty and runs away, he ponders about how both he and society needs to change. He notices that “if he burnt things with the firemen and the sun burnt Time, then meant that everything burnt!” (141) Montag no longer believes that burning and destruction are desirable. Bradbury’s repetition of the word “burning” accentuates the sense of revelation that Montag undergoes. He must alter his ingrained perceptions of fire and burning and, in doing so, change his view of knowledge as well. He used to be a fireman that thrived on burning, but now he must morph into a champion for freedom of thought and new ideas. When Montag meets Granger and the intellectuals they are warming themselves next to a fire. He reflects, “he hadn’t known fire could look this way. He had never thought in his life that it could give as well as take. Even its smell was different” (146). Montag notices that the people are not fearful of using fire to warm their hands. He changes his opinion about fire being destructive because he sees is now able to see it positively due to its benefits. Also, Granger mentions the word “‘phoenix,’” describes it as a bird that “‘built a pyre and burned himself up,’” (163) and emphasizes how “‘every time he burnt himself up he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again’” (163). The phoenix symbolizes Montag’s rebirth and ascent from the ashes like the phoenix because he set fire to his old life and resurfaced with a new perspective on fire as constructive and knowledge as beneficial.

In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury skillfully uses changes in the fire motif to symbolize a change in attitude towards knowledge from negative to positive. At first, Montag uses fire destructively to burn books and destroy the evils of knowledge. As the novel progresses, fire represents freedom and a search for knowledge as Montag breaks free from his old, oppressive life, embraces knowledge, and journeys toward freedom of thought. At the end of the novel, fire symbolizes the rebirth of knowledge and Montag’s journey from a flame-loving fireman hell-bent on destroying books to a man who realizes their importance. Knowledge is an essential part of a person’s life, which can be destructive or constructive, depending upon the situation.

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