What does fire mean to Montag in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451?
The first sentences in Ray Bradbury’s science fiction classic Fahrenheit 451 provide a good indication of Guy Montag’s initial view of the use of fire as a tool of his trade:
“It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed.”
Montag is himself an instrument of government policy. Bradbury’s depiction of a dystopian society in which possession of books is a crime punishable by the burning of one’s home places those who administer that punishment in an exalted position. Bradbury’s society enlists firemen for the purpose of executing a totalitarian policy intended to ensure a compliant and ignorant population. As Fahrenheit 451 progresses, however, especially after meeting 17-year-old Clarisse and Professor Faber, the latter the repository of historical knowledge and understanding regarding the government’s ban on books, his views both on the government and on his role in enforcing immoral edicts begins to evolve. This evolution occurs prior to his encounters with Professor Faber; it is his conversations with Clarisse and the emotional emptiness he increasingly feels towards both his job and his wife that open the door to a reexamination of his life. As Bradbury’s protagonist reflects on his job and on the laws he is paid to enforce, his doubt about both assume a more prominent place in his demeanor. During a serious lapse in judgment – questioning the status quo before his superior, Captain Beatty – Montag recalls one of Clarisse’s comments:
“Montag hesitated, ‘Was-was it always like this? The firehouse, our work? I mean, well, once upon a time...’
‘Once upon a time!’ Beatty said. ‘What kind of talk is THAT?’
Fool, thought Montag to himself, you'll give it away. At the last fire, a book of fairy tales, he'd glanced at a single line. ‘I mean,’ he said, ‘in the old days, before homes were completely fireproofed.’ Suddenly it seemed a much younger voice was speaking for him. He opened his mouth and it was Clarisse McClellan saying, ‘Didn't firemen prevent fires rather than stoke them up and get them going?’"
Montag begins to view fire not as an instrument of good, but of evil. The burning of books and of homes takes on a more sinister connotation in his mind, and he begins to equate fire with immorality. But his evolution is not yet complete. Fire is an inanimate object. It is neither inherently good nor evil; its value resides in the purpose to which it is put. Later in the novel, following Faber’s advice, Montag flees to the river to escape this totalitarian society and to seek redemption. His encounter with the other people who fled that system before him allows him to view fire again in a positive, if more humane light: fire as a source of warmth and of light. As Fahrenheit 451 approaches its conclusion, Montag sees this transformation and begins to relate to fire in a more objective light, specifically, in terms of its use to provide warmth and light and, of particular importance, to enlighten. As Bradbury wrote in one passage,
“Montag tried to see the men's faces, the old faces he remembered from the firelight, lined and tired. He was looking for a brightness, a resolve, a triumph over tomorrow that hardly seemed to be there. Perhaps he had expected their faces to burn and glitter with the knowledge they carried, to glow as lanterns glow, with the light in them. But all the light had come from the camp fire, and these men had seemed no different from any others who had run a long race, searched a long search, seen good things destroyed, and now, very late, were gathering to wait for the end of the party and the blowing out of the lamps.”
Bradbury’s title, of course, refers to the temperature at which books burn. Fire used as an instrument of subjugation, however, is a far cry from fire used to illuminate one’s surroundings.