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Playing with Fire:The Mythological symbolism in Fahrenheit 451

Updated on October 16, 2014

This article will reveal the implied mythological symbolism that is evident in the novel, and also demonstrate the reverse of the mythological principle of the Hero reverting personal authority to a powerful state in order to ensure that the conditions of the struggle for existence do not overwhelm him. I will also oppose certain conclusions rendered by Dr. Sigmund Freud regarding the gradual submission of the individual to an omnipotent community.

The author of Fahrenheit 451, Raymond Bradbury, wrote this novel in the spring of nineteen fifty, and had intended that it would be characterized as: “a ‘dime novel’ of a remote future, lacking the serious implications and characteristics of comparative novels such as: George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. There are numerous mythological, religious, and cultural references present in the novel that clearly imply that the unconscious is a significant factor in the construction of fiction, even when writing science fiction about a “remote future”.

The challenge of Fahrenheit 451 was to advance beyond the obvious “Dragon and Phoenix” motif, that any reader with experience in Chinese restaurant cuisine would probably recognize; to the slightly more obscure references to the Salamander, and descending beyond to the hidden Promethean archetypes that seem the reverse of Sigmund Freud’s articulation that society was losing individual identity to a form of sublimation to the state in every sense. It is these things that are not as clear.

The novel is confined to small events that concern a few characters living in the city of Los Angeles, California. These characters reflect a strictly middle class lifestyle. The population of the future is employed in service oriented positions. The forms of entertainment are limited to situational soap opera dramas on television and physical sports. The importance of Education has stagnated and reading, in any form, is forbidden.

The main character, Guy Montag is employed as a fireman, and has worked at the position for ten years. His wife is named Mildred but they do not have any children. The reasons are explained later by the women in this book, who are portrayed as very self-centered and are susceptible to control. This is accomplished by constant exposure to propaganda through television accompanied by heavy drug usage. Children are a hobby, like tending a garden plot, and they spend most of their time in behavior modification schools. They are only home with their parents three days out of every month. This is similar to the remarks by Sigmund Freud in The future of an illusion, addressing the atheistic proposal that children be removed from parents, so that they would not be corrupted by them on the false beliefs of a religious system.

Montage leads a fashionable, but dull existence. Up to this point he has never questioned or doubted the meaning of his life, and has had complete confidence in the state. A fireman of the future resembles the storm troopers of the German fascist state both in appearance and mindset. His assignment is to start fires, an interesting mythical displacement of the book burning of the Nazis regime. He serves as a mythological representative of the fires of a Promethean lordship over the community, and instead of bringing knowledge; he removes it by the very element that allowed man to survive in his struggle against the others that Kronos had designed. Esoterically, fire is one of the four elements, and in the teachings of the mystical orders of Rosicrucians and Hermetists, fire, like man, has a body (the visible flame), a soul (astral fire), and spirit. It also has a four-fold aspect heat equivalent to life, light to the mind, electricity representing molecular powers, and the radical cause of existence. Occultists regard elementals as beings having substance but visible only to those who have inner sight, some elementals are regarded benign, others as malignant. Most of the homes in this futuristic community are fireproof. This is symbolic of the Salamander Feather, which is the name given by alchemists to Asbestos.

The symbolism of his uniform, carrying the insignia of 451, the temperature at which paper bursts into flame, and the Salamander, is a representation of the elementals in the aspect of fire. It is one of the four spirits evolved in and from inhabiting one of the four elements. The others being: a Sylph (spirit of the Air), a Gnome (spirit of the Earth), and an Undine (spirit of Water). The uniform also features a Phoenix disc on the chest and the smell of kerosene is a permanent signature of the presence of the “perfume” of the fireman.

Montage has very little contact with others in his private life. His occupation tends to strike fear due to his uniform and others naturally avoid him, perhaps an allusion to the secret police of Nazi Germany. One evening in autumn, he believes he is being followed on his return from work. This turns out to be a neighbor, a girl of seventeen years of age named Clarisse. She is very different from other women that Montag has known. She represents a form of innocence and eventually she will become the “Iphigenia” sacrifice to Montag. The quest revolves around her suggestion that he read the books he burns. To slow down, appreciate the beauty of nature around him and to identify what makes him happy.

He recalls a flashback encounter with an old man, who is symbolic of the ancient wisdom of Western thought, noting that the similarity between the innocent girl and the old man lay in their ability to converse well. Montag begins to awaken and question, with a desire to know the truth. The routine of life begins to diminish in value, as he discovers his own individuality. He falls from the brotherhood that he once knew at his place of employment. The loss of the power to mentally link with the fire pole and the animosity of “The Hound”, a mechanical beast that serves as a displacement once again for the former firehouse mascot. This was a deliberate insertion on behalf of Mr. Bradbury, who saw the image as a unique terror, similar to A. Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles.

Many years later, after reviewing the work once again for a major anniversary reprinting, he admitted that one of his characters, Captain Beatty, may have had a secret death wish, based on what had been written, and noted that a role seemed to be played by the unconscious during the development of his novel, whose presence he had been completely unaware of when he completed this work as a young man. This is a perfect example of how the unconscious knowledge of myth can appear unintentionally within the writings of an author.

The climatic turning point in the novel for our character is when the fire department answers a report of an old house suspected of harboring illicit books. Upon arrival, they are confronted by an old woman who refuses to leave the now condemned property. The Captain confronts her and slaps her around, yet at no point do they make any effort to physically carry her out to safety. The implication is that suicide is never interfered with in this new world order.

It is also possible that the firemen may not even know how to handle such a situation as she stands among the scattered books while they are filling the house with kerosene. She quotes: “Play the man Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” She eventually lights a match herself and perishes among the flames. In this case, probably a symbolic act of defiance in defense of the virtues of the written word, and in the ancient world, allied with virginity. Montag is in a state of shock. He wonders how books could be of such value that a person would commit suicide rather than live without them. He asks Captain Beatty what she meant by the quote.

Beatty responds: “A man named Lattimer said that to a man named Nicholas Ridley, as they were being burnt alive at Oxford, for heresy, on October 16, 1555”. It becomes obvious to Montag that the Captain must be well read. Yet his actions demonstrate a deep seated hatred for books.

Montag returns home despondent over what he has witnessed, and is now unsure of his occupation. He is driven to introspection and becomes critical of his lifestyle, his lack of knowledge of the truth, and he begins to harbor doubts about his wife, and wonders if their entertainment and fun has been at the expense of poorer countries. He is now totally awake.

He is informed of every detail that happened to society in a conversation with the old man, a former professor of English, who had been thrown out upon the world forty years prior when the last liberal arts college shut for lack of students and patronage. War, the professor claims, will destroy what remains.

Montag possesses a book that he hands over to the professor. It is believed to be the only existent copy of the Holy Bible. The society of the future does know about Christ; he is just a character in the daily “family” on government controlled television. (This would be equated with “Facebook” today to have a proper understanding of the relationships between the “family” and the citizens watching the programs.)

Captain Beatty has become aware that Montag may have books in his possession, but is waiting for Montag to return them after satisfying his curiosity. When he fails to return, the supervisor makes a personal call to his residence. He knows what is ailing Montag (who had reported in as sick) for he had been at this point himself as a younger man. The Captain reveals why society has changed. In a lengthy speech that constitutes a form of magnum opus for Beatty, he relates how schools gradually dropped courses, disbanded any requirements for learning how to read or write, imparting that minorities of every description placed pressure on the government and eventually technology and exploitation of the masses led to enslavement. “People want to be happy” he said. Therefore all books that do or may be perceived as offensive to minorities were confiscated. Any that may create fear (as in smoking causes cancer) were confiscated as well. No funerals, no religion, no philosophers, everything that causes negative emotions to be redeemed by fire; because it is bright and clean. (Beatty was unknowingly reinforcing the esoteric qualities of fire.) He concludes by praising the pragmatic man over the intellectual, and believes he has clarified things to Montag, recommending that he not read any books because they have nothing to say. These passages are uncannily prophetic in their accuracy.

Montag returns to the firehouse with a substitute book and hands it in to the Captain. Beatty believes that the crisis for Montag has past and all is well. At this, he begins to rattle off phrases he has memorized from books to mock him:

“Truth is truth, to the end of reckoning, we’ve cried. They are never alone that are accompanied with noble thoughts, we’ve shouted to ourselves: ‘Sweet food of sweetly uttered knowledge’. Sir Philip Sidney said, but on the other hand: ‘Words are like leaves and where they most abound, much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found.” Alexander Pope.

What do you think of that Montag?

“Or this? A little learning is a dangerous thing, Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring; there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again. Pope, same Essay.”

Where does that put you? (P. 106)

Beatty continues to press Montag, claiming he had a dream where they were debating about books. Montag towering with rage, quoting Dr. Johnson, and Beatty seeing himself as parrying every thrust with a counter quote. All this time, Montag is listening to advice being given to him by the old man who created an ear-inserted two way radio, who informs Montag to keep cool and remain calm. Beatty reveals his belief that all books are traitors. He informs Montag that they will be going out on a call to another house prior to the intended arrest of Montag, one last job. A place containing forbidden books.

The Dragon is wheeled out (fire engine). It takes a leisurely trip and stops in front of Montag’s home. The Dragon, in this case, the Dragon of Wisdom, ordinarily is representative of a type of wisdom known as the atma-buddhi, which is born of Fire and Water that symbolizes the higher self, generated from Spirit (fire), and Reality (water), on the side of matter. As the composition of a fire engine now is to dispense kerosene instead of water, it is in a sense, a spiritual tool utilized by society against books. The idea of the Dragon as atma-buddhi can also be interpreted as a pre-condition, hidden in the unknown darkness of the un-manifest; for the time of creative activity is not yet. The eventual divine purpose is to form the Archetypal man, the progenitor of the human race. In this case, Montag has become the Archetypal man. At this point, Captain Beatty believes he has won Montag over and tells him to fetch his own books with the rest of the crew and burn them himself. “Old Montag wanted to fly near the sun and now that he has burnt his dam wings, he wonders why.” Here is the mythological comparison to Icarus, proving that the Captain is acquainted with Mythology.

`Montag realizes that he has been betrayed by his mindless wife. She leaves him permanently, as many other wives have done in this future society, many of them on their seventh husband or more. In reaction, Montag begins to destroy his own house. Beatty reminds him that the purpose is to burn the books and they are compared to a Phoenix, leaping and dancing like roasted birds, their wings ablaze with red and yellow feathers. Beatty confirms the suspicion that his wife turned Montag over. The Captain now resorts to more insults. He informs Montag that he will be placed under arrest and continues that reading books is a form of snobbery. “Give a man a few lines of verse and he thinks he’s the Lord of all Creation. You think you can walk on water with your books. Well the world can get by just fine without them. Look where they got you, in slime up to your lip”.

The old man has been communicating with Montag all this time. He is hearing words from the Holy Bible. The book of Job was read to prepare him for his encounter with the Captain. When Beatty discovers the ear transmitter, Montag closed his grip on the flamethrower. He is surprised that he could contemplate such an idea. When he reflects upon this later, he cannot decide whether it was his hands or the eye-widening reaction of Beatty that gave him the final push toward murder.

Montag’s life now identifies with Job. He has lost what little life he had, the people he cared about are presumed to be dead, the old man will soon be rounded up and destroyed, he has lost his home and all of his possessions and as he stands on the ashes of everything, his wife, (who betrayed him), leaves without saying a word.

The Captain resumes his taunts. “Why don’t you belch Shakespeare to me, you fumbling snob? “There is no terror, Cassius, in your threats, for I am armed so strong in honesty that they pass me as an idle wind, which I respect not!” “How is that? Go ahead now, you second-hand litterateur, pull the trigger.”

In the post scriptum, Bradbury claims that in looking back upon his work some fifty years earlier, claims that the Captain actually wanted to be removed from the false society he so voraciously served. Beatty is well acquainted with books, quotes them easily, and must have spent time in the old days reading them to perhaps: “Know the enemy.” Whether this is true or not is left to the reader.

Montag replies to Beatty: “We never burned right….” He launches the flamethrower at Captain Beatty, who goes down in flames on the lawn. Montag knocks out the rest of the crew and destroys the mechanical hound with flame as it was launching an attack against him, but the hound wounds him in the leg, making escape more difficult. Escape depends on staying one step ahead of the authorities. He believes in his heart that Beatty wanted to die. He heads for the old abandoned rail tracks that lead away from the city. He notes a sign at a fueling station that “War has been declared”. Once again his country is at war (similar to the constant state of war in Orwell’s novel, 1984).

Montag enters the countryside. He had been there once in his youth and remembered the farm he had visited. It was one of the few times that he discovered what is termed as: beyond the seven veils of unreality. These are symbolic of a life of suffering, inferred by the famous “Dance of the Seven Veils of Salome” in Matthew 14:6-11, where the seven veils of “unreality” are exposed to reveal the “naked truth”. This dance was popularized by Richard Strauss in his opera entitled: Salome in 1905

Our hero eventually reaches a group of people who seem like vagrants, but are experienced intellectuals. He learns of his own capture and execution on family television, a work of deception in the world he just escaped. His companions welcome him back from the dead. His advisor, a man named Granger reveals that each has had a similar experience and they are now a living library of books. “We are an odd minority, crying out in the wilderness.” The character expresses hope that after the war is over that their little society may be of some use.

Eventually the city that Montag had lived and worked in is destroyed by atomic warfare. The “Phoenix” is expressed by Granger as the best example of the way a society rises and falls. The novel mysteriously ends with a quote from the book of Revelation, Chapter 22, verse 2: “And on either side of the river was there a tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of nations.” In Biblical tradition, the tree of eternal life was the one tree that God prevented man from partaking of by force. If he had, his fallen condition would have been an eternal one. Therefore man in a symbolic sense, rises and falls, as civilizations do. The eventual hope is redemption even if it is an unconscious goal.

Guy Montag has come full circle from the person without individuality in submission to the state, to an independent free thinking one. As a fully endowed, heroic archetype, the world will once again be rebuilt in a mythological age of heroes. This is the reverse of Freud’s articulation that society was losing individual identity in a form of sublimation to the state. This future culture does not exist in total, but the prophetic reality of the novel, perhaps unintentionally, warns of the dangers in our present world. This presentation has pointed to many mythological and symbolic references. I doubt that Mr. Bradbury consciously wrote these in as intentional elements. But he did admit that the unconscious plays a role in the development of any novel, and Fahrenheit 451 is one of them.


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    • Steele Fields profile image

      susan beck 3 years ago from drexel hill,pa

      I'm so glad to hear that sales are brisk- that's welcome news! You're so right- people walk away with varying degrees of understanding after reading any book, I suppose. It's nice to chat with a knowledgeable person like yourself about a book so near and dear to my own heart. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and expertise. All the best to you,

      Steele

    • Gart Williams profile image
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      Michael Ziegler 3 years ago from Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania

      Hello Steele! Well, books have been my business since 1989, I am still selling. Sales are not as good as the old days, but classics are still in demand. It was Bradbury's notes on the 50th that caught my attention. As a young man, he claimed he did not intend to emulate Orwell or Huxley, so the Captain Beatty death wish went unnoticed. He was just trying to get a book on the market. It is interesting how we can draw so much on what was intended as an obscure novel.

    • Steele Fields profile image

      susan beck 3 years ago from drexel hill,pa

      Very interesting premise. I taught 451 for years, but never from that particular angle. For me, the work is poetic, prophetic and even somewhat romantic in that it yearns for that connection with nature prior to the widespread societal disconnect initiated by the Industrial and honed by the Technological Revolutions. "The falcon cannot hear the the falconer." Indeed. But save the kerosene. We don't need to actually burn the books. We simply refuse read them. The dummying down of our culture is as Bradbury predicted. The study of psychology was a natural offshoot of Industrialization, as machines afforded mankind the time and the luxury with which to look inward and explore his condition. Perhaps this deserves a mention in your article. It would lend credence to Bradbury's use of symbolism and offer some insight into his motivation for doing so.

    • Gart Williams profile image
      Author

      Michael Ziegler 3 years ago from Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania

      Thank you for your comment. I was told by a Professor from Duke that the symbolic identification has not been done before for 451, so it is new. I have not read "Zen"...yet! I have read everything George Orwell wrote and Huxley's Brave New World. The unconscious plays quite a role when we write that is for sure!