How is identity used in Fahrenheit 451?
A person's sense of identity usually dictates how they behave. If people don't know who they are or what they stand for, then they can be confused and behave inconsistently. This can cause a person grief. On the other hand, people who know who they are, and where they want to go, tend to behave in ways that help them to achieve their goals. Most characters in Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 know who they are and act accordingly—except for Guy Montag. He is confused and conflicted about life in a hedonistic society and travels down a path of self-discovery over the course of the novel. The characters who do understand their own identities also stand as examples for who Montag wants to become. For example, by knowing and learning about the lives of Faber and Beatty, Montag can choose which life to follow as he creates his own identity. Therefore, the search for identity moves the protagonist through different conflicts and towards his own goals of self-discovery.
First, Faber is a former professor of English who is also a self-proclaimed coward. He has wisdom and knowledge that could help reform society, but he is not brave enough to fight against the status quo. Faber describes himself to Montag as follows:
"I've lived alone so many years, throwing images on walls with my imagination. Fiddling with electronics, radio transmission has been my hobby. My cowardice is of such a passion, complementing the revolutionary spirit that lives in its shadow. . ." (90).
Faber's cowardice leads him to create a listening and speaking device that can be hidden in someone's ear. Faber can speak and hear everything that is going on around Montag from the comfort of his home. Even though he is a self-proclaimed coward, Faber is also a genius, resourceful, and stable in the knowledge of his own identity.
Captain Beatty, on the other hand, was once confused about society and read books to find his own answers. Unfortunately, he chooses to believe in the hedonistic ways of society and became a captain of the firemen. Beatty is intelligent as well, but he chooses to use his intelligence to support illiteracy and hedonism. He also enjoys having the power to control others through intimidation. He intimidates people by his position of authority, by his knowledge of books and history, and by being able to control the Mechanical Hound—which is an intimidation device as well as a killing machine. Beatty loves having all that power and control; therefore, his identity is linked to cruel and manipulative authority.
Montag also bases his developing identity on the examples of two women—Clarisse and Mildred. These two characters behave according to their strongly defined identities, and, like Faber and Beatty, they are on opposite ends of the social spectrum. Clarisse is a free-thinking person who does not choose to live a hedonistic life. However, Mildred identifies with the majority of society who love TV, fast cars, and sleeping pills. Neither of these women is confused by who she is because both are secure in their identities. Again, all of these characters help Montag on his path to discovering who he is, what he accepts, and how he will behave once he understands his own identity.
Identity is used in Fahrenheit 451 in order to illustrate conflict. Bradbury displays that Montag does not know what to do. Various times throughout the novel, Montag displays his confusion in whether to continue to burn books or change himself into the person he wants to be by reading them. Montag feels that he can find life's answers in these god-forsaken books, but he has to first escape the government so he is not killed. Overall, Bradbury uses identity to illustrate Montag's confusion of what do to.