The Symbolism of Fire in Fahrenheit 451
Looking Past the Smokescreen
“Fire represents many things to many people and cultures. It is recognized as a purifier, a destroyer and as the generative power of life, energy and change. It represents illumination and enlightenment, destruction and renewal, spirituality and damnation” (Varner). Throughout history, fire became a very significant element in the principle of human development because of its versatility, such as lighting, communicating, and protection from predators. In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury takes the representation of fire to a whole new level. Imagine living in a world where people are not in control of their own thoughts. Imagine living in a society populated by non-readers, people with no sense of their own history, a government that has banned books. Imagine being Guy Montag, a fireman in Fahrenheit 451 who burns books for a living. In Montag’s world, firemen produce fires instead of eliminating them to destroy any works of literature, for they promote creativity and free thinking, which is a threat to the government. Set in the 24th century, in the midst of a nuclear war, this dystopian novel tells the story of a futuristic period of time when books are illegal, and the punishment for whoever holds one in possession is to have his books and house burned to ashes. While walking home from work, Montag meets a young, bright girl named Clarisse. She tells him that firemen once used to put fires out instead of starting them, which he thinks to be nonsense. Later on, Montag realizes that fire can mean much more than what he uses it for. Throughout the novel, fire is present to imply several meanings that can be made explicit by referring to destruction, warmth and beauty, and resurrection.
Fire seems to have many symbols throughout the novel, but the most recognisable is destruction. At the beginning of the book, Montag is shown as a fireman that is filled with pleasure as books are burned. The very first passage in the novel states, “It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed” (Bradbury, 1). This narration by Montag expresses his love for fire and the ruin that follows. Fire is destruction, fire is power. One flame can burn a whole house down to the ground. After meeting Clarisse, she asks about his job, his marriage, why he burns books, and if he is truly happy. Being faced with these questions, Montag realizes that he is not happy with his life, and he thinks that books might contain answers for the reason of his unhappiness. Although he is an enforcer of the law of books being banned, Montag is found a lawbreaker himself. Later in the novel, Montag starts stealing a couple of books from collections he is sent to burn. He brings these books home and hides them in the furnace, secretly reading them day by day. However, his wife Mildred has a different point of view when it comes to books; she did not quiet agree with her husband’s actions. One day, Montag leaves for work, not knowing that his wife has other arrangements. While on the job, the alarm goes off, meaning another house to burn. Montag realizes that the address shown on the screen of the alarm, is his own. Once he arrives with his co-workers at their destination, he sees his wife driven away in a taxi with a suitcase. He realizes that his wife must have called in the alarm on him. Beatty, the captain of the fire department, orders Montag to burn his own house with his flamethrower. In the process of burning the house, Montag narrates, “The house fell in red coals and black ash. It bedded itself down in sleepy pink gray cinders and a smoke plume blew over it” (Bradbury, 54). At that moment, it is evident that Montag sees fire as a negative force, a destructive nature of firemen. Although Montag sees pleasure in burning in the beginning of the novel, his view of fire changes to destruction when he loses his books and home.
In contrast to destruction, in the course of the novel, Montag’s opinion on fire changes once more, making him interpret fire to be beautiful and a source of warmth. It is beauty. “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” (Bradbury, 68). In his eyes, everything about fire cried beauty, from its intense colours to its dancing flames. Another way fire is expressed to be beautiful is when Beatty says, “Its real beauty is that it destroys responsibility and consequences. A problem gets too burdensome, then into the furnace with it” (Bradbury, 53). The reason to why books are burned is because the government wants its people to not worry about problems, for it is believed that with too much knowledge comes responsibilities and complications. After breaking the law, Montag runs away and finds a camp fire where he meets a man named Granger and many other intellectuals. He realizes that the camp fire was welcoming, much different than he has always known it to be, destructive. He is surprised by his thought when he sits around the fire with the others by narrating, “It was not burning; it was warming! He saw many hands held to its warmth, hands without arms, hidden in darkness […] How long he stood he did not know […] He stood a long time, listening to the warm crackle of the flames” (Bradbury, 68). Through the symbol of ‘the hearth’, which is usually found in the centre of homes as a source of heat, it is revealed that fire can be warming as well. Although at the beginning of the book, Montag has a love for the destructive side of fire, by the end of his journey, he is able to see a beautiful, warming side to it.
Equally important, fire gives a symbolic meaning of resurrection when referring to the Phoenix. “There was a silly damn bird called a Phoenix back before Christ: every few hundred years he built a pyre and burned himself up. He must have been first cousin to Man. But every time he burnt himself up he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again…” (Bradbury, 76). After the nuclear war and the bombing of the city, Granger associates mankind with the Phoenix bird that burns itself up in flames and is reborn out of its ashes. “It looks like we’re doing the same thing, over and over, but we’ve got one damn thing the Phoenix never had. We know the damn silly thing we just did. We know all the damn silly things we’ve done for a thousand years, and as long as we know that and always have it around where we can see it, someday we’ll stop making the goddam funeral pyres and jumping into the middle of them. We pick up a few more people that remember, every generation” (Bradbury, 76). The difference between humans and the phoenix is that humans have the ability to identify their mistakes, and are aware of not committing them over and over again. The fire brings the death of old, and the birth of new. This similarity is effective because it provides the reader with a sense of self-renewed hope for humankind. In the last section of the novel, fire is represented as the rebirth of mankind by building another society where man would embrace knowledge instead of be afraid of it.
Destruction, warmth and beauty, and resurrection are three of the most noticeable representation of fire in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. At first, Montag only knows the damaging power of fire, yet gradually comes to appreciate that fire can be engaging and renewing. The author uses the symbol of fire as a destructive force by burning books and homes of characters in the novel. When Montag realizes that fire can be used for more than just destroying houses, he associates it with warmth and beauty. Last but not least, the Phoenix signifies fire because it destroys itself in flames and is then reborn, just as Montag’s world is destroyed by the nuclear weapons in order to start a new beginning. Ray Bradbury was telling us that fire impersonates the actions of the characters, and how they view fire to be a negative or a positive force. The author successfully shows the various interpretations of fire through the development of Montag’s mind, and the same fire that had control over Montag before, will now assist him in creating a new intellectual world.
Bradbury, Ray.Fahrenheit 451. Ed. Book Club. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967. http://lhsblogs.typepad.com/files/complete-text.pdf>.
Varner, Gary. “Fire Symbolism in Myth and Religion.” AuthorsDen, 2009. Web. 12 July 2014. http://www.authorsden.com/categories/article_top.asp?catid=62&id=43114>.