Montag, the protagonist of Fahrenheit 451, starts out as a typical "fireman": he takes a primitive joy in his job -- which is burning books -- and never stops to question why things are the way they are. But after a series of reversals makes him question his assumptions, Montag begins a painful metamorphosis, eventually becoming first becoming a full-fledged rebel against his repressive society.
At the beginning of the book, Montag is living what Henry Thoreau might call an "unexamined life": He believes what he's taught, respects his Fire Captain boss, and thinks that he is happy. But, after he meets young Clarisse McClellan, Montag's "happiness" crumbles away, and he finds himself left with a profound void inside. For the first time he lets himself be aware both of the problems of the world and of his own unsatisfied desires for knowledge, philosophy, and intimacy with other people. Finding that everyone else in his consumeristic culture is also skating on the thin ice of denial, Montag seeks friends and mentors in the thinking outcasts of society -- people like Clarisse, Faber, and Granger's group -- and looks for answers and fulfillment in the forbidden realms of history, philosophy, and literature: in the very books he used to burn. As he loses his job, his wife, his house, and eventually any place in the society he once helped control, Montag nevertheless grows more self-aware until, by the time he joins Granger's "library" men in the unpredictable post-war world, Montag seems to feel that he knows himself and the path he'll take at last.
The process of change is not easy for Montag. In fact, he finds it very painful; frequently we find him thinking dazedly that his mind or body feels totally numb, or spinning out of control and later calling himself an idiot. Insofar as Fahrenheit 451 is a metaphor for the real world, Montag represents everyone who's ever discovered that their "respectable" life in a consumeristic, suburban, detached world doesn't offer the sense of fulfillment or human connection they desire. Montag's world simply takes that alienation and superficiality to extremes, making the contrasts more obvious.
What actually "triggered" Montag's self-awakening? He himself connects it to the night he both met Clarisse and discovered Mildred's attempted suicide attempt. Later, however, we learn that he's been quietly stowing books away for the past year. And he's kept Faber's address with him for a long time. Maybe his rebellious nature was always latent in Montag, just waiting to wake up.
Montag's wife, Mildred, seems to be a typical suburban housewife of the future. She spends most of the day watching the four wall-TVs in her parlor, she spends her nights with Seashsell radios in her ears, and she visits with her friends to gossip -- and to watch TV, of course. But Mildred's life also has a darker side. She has begun to overdose on her sleeping pills, and she reveals to Montag that some nights, she takes the car out into the countryside and drives all night -- hitting and killing rabbits, dogs, and other small animals -- in order make herself "feel wonderful." Although Mildred steadfastly insists that she is happy, Montag begins to think of her as holding a another self deep inside, a second Mildred who is so terribly unhappy that "the two women had never met."
If Mildred's life seems oddly empty, there may be reasons for that: In the way Bradbury writes about Mildred, we can see the reflection of the decade he was writing in -- neither Mildred nor her friends have jobs, like their husbands do, and they don't seem to expect anything more than the life of the "typical 1950s housewife." In this sense, Mildred's isolation and misery seem to reflect the cultural trends Bradbury was commenting on in the world of 1953, as well as what he feared might be coming in the future.
In the society of Fahrenheit 451, Mildred is a good example of the person who has bought into the values which society and government put forth, to the point of losing her own sense of self. She is the perfect consumer, but she has lost contact with her husband, lost her memories of her earlier life, and lost her sense of self. The worst of it is that she cannot even acknowledge she isn't happy. Her tragic trajectory drives her to turn Montag in and flee from his radical questioning, and eventually she becomes a symbol of the old way of life in its final, dramatic destruction.
Clarisse McClellan, Montag's eccentric seventeen-year-old neighbor, plays a decisive role in changing Montag's life. Before he meets Clarisse, Montag is -- or thinks he is -- happy in his work, in love with his wife, and comfortable in the world he lives in. But Clarisse's remarkable perspective, which values the natural world, human communication and the lost art of literature, starts a line of self-questioning in Montag which will eventually lead him to abandon his comfortable way of life.
We never learn much about Clarisse's origins or family, although she mentions them often. Her family stays up late at night not to watch TV but to talk, and her uncle is a known eccentric who has been arrested for such things as "being a pedestrian" late at night. After the family's abrupt disappearance, which Mildred attributes to Clarisse's having been hit and killed by a car, Montag learns from Beatty that the fire department -- rather sinisterly --"has a record" on the McClellans.
Montag's first meeting with Clarisse -- by moonlight, late at night, when the suburban streets are abandoned -- is typical of his later interactions with her. Clarisse pushes him to take note of the details of the natural world (dew, moonlight, rain), and asks incisive questions about their society's history and its present: why people drive so fast, why they no longer talk on their front porches, and, of course, why firemen burn books. It's this habit of asking "why" that causes school officials to tag Clarisse as needing regular visits to a psychiatrist, and which Beatty cites as the dangerous character flaw which led to her downfall. To Montag, though, Clarisse is both a disturbing catalyst and a beacon which leads him toward independent thought. In his eyes, she always seems to radiate light: notice the series of symbols Bradbury associates with her -- the moon, a candle, a clock at night, a mirror, snow.
Beatty is the Fire Chief of Montag's station, and Montag's immediate boss. Although he starts out seeming to be a friendly and jovial type, it soon becomes clear that he knows something's going on with Montag, and is playing a psychological game with him. Beatty seems to be aware of Montag's inner turmoil all along -- sending the Mechanical Hound to his house, half-pretending not to know about Montag's stash of books, and finally ordering Montag to set fire to his own house -- until, on the lawn in front of the burning house, Montag, who has just lost everything, reacts to his final taunts by attacking Beatty with the fire hose, thus destroying him with the fire Beatty has al;ways loved so much.
Beatty is a psychological puzzle. A well-read man, he quotes famous works of literature to Montag, but tries to convince him that books are valueless. At times he seems to be genuinely fond of Montag -- but at other moments he becomes cruel and taunting, tormenting Montag as a cat plays with a mouse. Montag believes that Beatty wanted to die, a "realization" which offers him some sense of absolution after he incinerates Beatty with the fire hose. Perhaps Montag is just trying to ease his conscience -- or perhaps Beatty is one of those people who, like Mildred, spend their lives desperately trying to convince themselves that their way of life really does make them happy, despite the gnawing despair which led Mildred to swallow all her sleeping pills and which, perhaps, led Beatty to play dangerous games with the desperate Montag.
Faber is a retired English professor who Montag met, by accident, in the city park one afternoon. For reasons he can't explain to himself, Montag sat and talked with the old man for an hour, letting Faber recite him a rhymeless poem or two, instead of turning him in as a collector of books. When Montag starts questioning his fireman's profession, he calls Faber, who becomes a friend and mentor: Faber helps Montag understand what he is reading, and the two communicate via Faber's ear-microphone, the "green bullet." Later, Faber helps Montag escape to the countryside, and at the end of the book Montag has reason to believe Faber is safe, travelling to meet up with other elderly book-lovers to try to aid in the rebirth of civilization.
Along with Montag and Beatty, Faber forms the third point of a sort of philosophical triangle, in which two opposing points of view each try to convince Montag that they are correct. While Beatty is the mouthpiece for the new society, trying to "explain" to Montag the value of censorship and the uselessness of books (although he is never very convincing), Faber fills Montag in on the history of literary thought and gives him his own philosophy on why books are important. Montag turns to Faber as a fount of wisdom, and Faber almost literally becomes the voice of his conscience, whom Montag can hear talking to him -- almost directly into his mind -- through the green microphone in his ear. We might easily view Faber as being a mouthpiece for the opinions of Ray Bradbury himself, especially in passages like the one in "The Sieve and the Sand" in which, inside Faber's house, Faber expounds to Montag his philosophy of literature and art. Ultimately, Faber seems to be a figure of hope, albeit an ambiguous one: we are almost sure he survived the bombing (just as we are almost sure that Clarisse is dead), but Faber and all his friends are so old and worn-out that it's hard not to question how much energy they have left to try to rebuild the world.
Mrs. Phelps and Mrs. Bowles
Mrs. Phelps and Mrs. Bowles are two friends of Mildred's, who come over one evening to watch TV and gossip but are surprised by Montag, who insists on reading them the poem "Dover Beach" by Matthew Arnold. This powerful and depressing poem causes Mrs.. Phelps to break down weeping, and the two women angrily leave Montag's house. Later, Montag learns -- none too surprisingly -- that both women called in an alarm on his house to the fire station.
These women, though they are very minor character and only appear for a few pages, are archetypes of the society which Montag finds increasingly disgusting. Mrs. Phelps's disdain for children, and Mrs. Bowles's callous way of talking about her own, exemplify the disintegration of human relationships in Montag;'s world, as does the deliberately removed way they talk about their husbands, who have gone off to the war. The "ladies" don't think deeply about politics -- they decided which presidential candidate to elect on the basis of who looks better on TV -- and they get very irritable when Montag turns off the television. By reading them a poem, Montag hopes to "scare the living daylights out" of them, but although he succeeds in this -- at least with Mrs. Phelps -- it seems that the final result hurts him more than it does them.
The Mechanical Hound
The Mechanical Hound is a nightmarish robot which "assists" the foremen with their work. Bradbury describes it in terms of its several different terrifying attributes, instead of giving us a complete picture: The Hound has eight legs, with "rubber-padded paws" -- on which it runs incredibly swiftly -- and in its muzzle there is a four-inch-long needle with which it injects its victims with a powerful dose of morphine or procaine, to render the victim unconscious. The Hound contains a sensitive mechanism, like a "nose," which can be programmed to track down the specific acidic composition of a person. It seems that it is used to hunt down and seize, or kill, people suspected of being criminals -- such as those who still have books.
The Hound has no intelligence of its own, but it plays an important part both in the plot of Fahrenheit 451 and in its symbolic scheme. To Montag, it is s figure of terror, which seems to grow more and more "hostile" toward him as he becomes more involved with hoarding books and questioning authority. (We might interpret the Hound's mysterious behavior as a result of Beatty having programmed it to react slightly to Montag, as part of Beatty's cat-and-mouse game with him.) Eventually, the Hound does come after Montag, who destroys it -- ironically -- with his fire hose. But a second Hound is sent to hunt Montag down, serving as a symbol of the society which so relentlessly persecutes and destroys nonconformists. When Montag escapes to the countryside and the Hound destroys an innocent man instead, Montag's departure from his former society -- as well as the total cynicism of the government -- seem to be encapsulated in this act.
Granger and the Old Professors
Granger is a former sociologist who fled from the city when the firemen came to burn his books, long ago. Now he is the unofficial leader of the group of exiles who live in the woods outside Montag's city. His companions -- aging men like himself, once writers and professors who refused to live in the new world order -- think the same way he does: All of them carry books memorized in their heads, and all of them live and travel quietly, remembering their knowledge, and hoping that someday the world will change and they'll have a chance to write it down again. Part of a loosely organized national network, these old men welcome Montag when he flees to the wilderness. They give him a chemical mix to change his scent, so the Hound will never find him, and fill him in on their way of life. And when the city is finally bombed -- just as they had expected -- they begin to walk, with Montag at the front, back toward the city, to see if they can be of help.
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Points to Ponder
Did You Know
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Part 1 (IV)
Part 1 (V)
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Part 3 (I)
Part 3 (II)
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Part 3 (IV)
Part 3 (V)
Part 3 (VI)