Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” is a novel which depicts the natural human urge to build and analyze knowledge. With the protagonist Montag taking on the role of a fireman in the context of a world in which books are banned, the book speaks to the cyclical nature of human life. As humans develop large bodies of knowledge, they come to destroy these because of conflict over this information.
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In the context of the conflict occurring in the novel, Montag is gradually socialized into understanding this truth by four teachers, Clarisse, Faber, Granger, and Beatty. As Montag ultimately and finally leaves the world in which he lived and worked burning books to enter the fringes of society, he contributes to this cyclicality by joining a fringe group which will attempt to preserve and create knowledge once society reconstructs itself.
Beginning with the character of Beatty, he is a fireman who has also broken so many of the fundamental rules of his profession. Indeed, and with Beatty having followed the same path which Montag is following years earlier, he has also shownj a rebellious streak. This said, his rebellion is of a variety which has led him to embrace the status quo. Viewing books as intrinsically dangerous because their meaning is subject to interpretation and thus brings about difference in the world, Beatty comes to represent everything that Montag does not wish to be. Indeed, and with Beatty’s mind shut to any new information, he comes to represent a type of opposition to the type of man that Montag wishes to become because of his close-mindedness.
Beatty thus states that “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?” (Bradbury, 28). With Beatty thus viewing the interpretation which books are subject to as representing a danger to society, he is a critical foil against which Montag’s building curiosity must be examined. Indeed, it is not so much that Beatty teaches Montag lessons directly inasmuch as it is that Montag wishes to avoid becoming what Beatty is which makes the latter such an important teacher for him.
Moving forward to the character of Clarisse, her influence on Montag is far more open in nature, and stands in stark juxtaposition to the close-mindedness of Beatty. Indeed, Clarisse never overtly attempts to influence him in any significant manner. Rather, and in a context where Montag has long lived an unquestioning life, it is the free-spirited and borderline subversive worldview displayed by Clarisse which influences Montag most significantly. In this respect, Clarisse has a dialogue with Montag in which she states “And if you look – she nodded in the sky – there’s a man in the moon” (Bradbury, 4).
This type of playful free-spiritedness leads Montag to once again be willing to think critically about the world around him, and even leads him to steal a book from one of the homes he is setting on fire. In this respect, Clarisse does not teach Montag anything substantive. Rather, the importance of her character is associated with the fact that she teachers Montag to think once again after the years of indoctrination that he has undergone. Even after she has died, this influence persists because Clarisse’s character has indelibly imprinted itself upon Montag’s changing character and approach to life.
In turn, the character of Professor Faber provides Montag with some of the foundations of the philosophy on books which he will develop via the opening of his curiosity as facilitated by Clarisse. Indeed, Faber teaches Montag that books are subject to interpretation in a manner which reflects life. In this respect, and despite the fact that he regularly denigrates Montag, Faber provides Montag with the important insight that he can use the contents of the books which he consumes, and previously burned, to find meaning in his life, and produce meaning about the world more broadly
Interestingly, Faber states “remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord. You fireman 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 keeping things in line” (Bradbury, 41). From this, Faber teachers Montag another important lesson because he demonstrates that when faced with a totalitarian ideology, the people stopped seeking out alternative viewpoints on their own. With the firemen thus representing nothing more than a spectacle associated with the state prohibition on books, Faber’s insights on this subject illustrate the manner by which Montag’s previous beliefs about his role in the world were founded on such significant false premises.
Finally, Granger is also an important teacher for Montag because of the manner by which he provides Montag with the critical insight that society is cyclical in nature. When hell tells Montag that “you’re not important. You’re not anything,” Granger is making it clear to Montag that whether he is destroying books or reading them, the natural processes which have served to perpetuate society in a cyclical fashion for centuries will continue (Bradbury, 76). Indeed, Granger is potently demonstrating that knowledge will continue to be produced and destroyed regardless of government.
In this respect, the character of Granger is important because his well-articulated philosophy of society anchors that which Montag has learned from other teachers like Beatty, Clarisse and Faber. Indeed, Granger provides a more coherent philosophical framework through which Montag can explore his curiosities in a manner which grounds this emergent philosophy within the legitimate constraints which surround him. In other words then, Montag is a more direct teacher than the others because he actively works to spread a worldview that is commensurate with Montag’s curiosities in the context of a structure of constant exploration and rebellion.
Ultimately, it is perhaps Montag himself who best illustrates that which these four teachers have taught him when he states that:
Nobody listens anymore. 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.” (Bradbury, 38-39).
Burning books is ultimately something which breaks the fireman that Montag was, and which serves to gradually transform him into the book-lover and knowledge-seeker that he becomes. Interestingly, Montag uses these teachers to lose his previous identity and build a new one.
With the above in mind, and while these four individuals taught Montag so many things, what they first and foremost did was facilitate a process of unlearning. Because Montag had been indoctrinated into structures of totalitarianism, his biases leaned heavily towards the regime’s positions that all books needed to be burned so as to preserve public safety, and prevent what ostensibly might come to represent chaos. In this respect, Montag was taught to abandon ideology, and to instead embrace the type of openness which Clarisse demonstrated in her day to day life. Thus, despite the fact that Clarisse likely was the least substantive of Montag’s teachers, she is the one who most likely facilitated Montag’s transition in the most significant fashion.
In the end, the four teachers who accompanied Montag through this journey were ones which allowed him to understand the blinders which had been placed upon him by an oppressive social structure. Varying in significant degrees as it pertains to substantive information versus allusions to alternative possibilities, these teachers thus all affected Montag in different ways. Ultimately then, and while Granger was critical for making Montag aware of cyclicality while Clarisse was necessary for making him understand the power of free thinking, it is truly the combination of all these teachers who transformed Montag and his worldview.
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