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In Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, the salamander is referred to continuously.
In "The Hearth and the Salamander," the book's first section, we are introduced to Guy Montag, a fireman—except that rather than putting out fires, in this society he is a fireman that starts them: burning books—and homes that hide the books.
The salamander is a symbol that Guy wears on his uniform; his fire truck is called a salamander. This is an allusion to the mythology once associated with salamanders. Many years ago, it was believed that salamanders lived within fire, were born of fire and (like Moses' "burning bush") would never be consumed by the flames.
The salamander is important to the story because of the prominent place fire holds in the novel. However, it is also important to Montag: for at the beginning, like the mythical salamander, he loves his job burning things.
It was a pleasure to burn.
It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed.
As the story begins, Montag is superficially satisfied with his life. He burns houses, a true crusader for a government that does not want its population to read—in essence, it does not want its people to think or ask questions. Wall-sized TVs on the parlor walls, Seashell radios in one's ears while sleeping, and enormous billboards with government print large enough to be absorbed by a speeding car all control the people. Montag is unaware that he is being manipulated, like most of society.
It is not until Montag meets Clarisse McClellan that he begins to consciously question the world and purpose. When Clarisse asks if he ever reads the books he burns, he immediately says it would be against the law. However, she also asks him if he is happy. Once again, his response is instantaneous: of course he is happy! However, upon returning home—when he actually thinks about it—he realizes he is not.
He felt his smile slide away, melt, fold over and down on itself like a tallow skin, like the stuff of a fantastic candle burning too long and now collapsing and now blown out. Darkness. He was not happy. He was not happy. He said the words to himself. He recognized this as the true state of affairs.
Interestingly, this description not only alludes to burning and melting, like a candle, but it is a metaphor for Montag, whose perceptions of the world are also burning away and melting.
Later, when Montag arrives at 11 No. Elm to burn, he finds the owner still there, determined to die rather than live without her books. Burning now becomes personal and offensive to Montag who never realized before that there were real people attached to those houses he burned: he had thought he was burning things, but he finally realizes he was destroying people's lives.
While Montag is very much like a salamander at the beginning, content living in a world of fire and burning things, he begins to think outside of the confines of the government's rhetoric. This begins a journey for Montag, as he will begin to question and rebel. Eventually he will make a break from society to join other free thinkers like him.
At the beginning, the quote reads that Montag liked to watch things burn—that fired changed things. By the end of the novel, fire has changed Montag, driving his new-found desire for a fuller, more meaningful life. By the end of the story, he is no longer a salamander, but a phoenix, a mythical bird that would burn and be reborn from the flames.
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