In Fahrenheit 451, why do the women react the way they do when Montag reads them poetry?
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Mrs. Phelps and Mrs. Bowles, like Mildred, are addicted to the parlour shows. They are the typical sheep of their society. They have more of a relationship with the characters on these shows than they do with actual people in their lives. Therefore, these three women live and behave like passive spectators. They have been conditioned to avoid critical thinking and to never reconsider their way of life. They are comfortable and avoid anything that might challenge that comfort. When Montag pulls the plug on the parlour wall, the women are immediately uncomfortable. Montag tries to talk about the upcoming war. Mrs. Phelps, again to avoid challenging her comfort zone, remarks that even if her husband dies, she has conditioned herself to be unaffected:
Anyway, Pete and I always said, no tears, nothing like that. It's our third marriage each and we're independent. Be independent, we always said. He said, if I get killed off, you just go right ahead and don't cry, but get married again, and don't think of me.
This shows how Mrs. Phelps treats her actual marriage and yet she and the other two women get positively excited and emotionally involved when they talk about the parlour shows. These women do not want to deal with real emotion in their real lives; they fear it. An evocative poem and challenging conversation might awaken such emotion and cause them to face that fear.
Montag tries to keep the conversation centered around real life which the women continue to find uncomfortable. When Montag reappears with a book of poetry, the women are uncomfortable still because books and certainly poetry are forbidden in their society; therefore, books threaten their way of life. When Mrs. Phelps starts to cry, she doesn't really understand why she's crying. Montag has made them uncomfortable by turning off the parlour shows, then by having conversations about real life events, and finally confronting the women with the forbidden book. So, that tension is then added to the experience of hearing an emotional reading of poetry, which is something new and thought-provoking for Mrs. Phelps. She is overwhelmed with that unsettling discomfort, the tension, and the beauty of the poem. Mrs. Bowles adds that it is awful to use poetry to make others cry; it is clear that she would rather not deal with real emotion as well.
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