What is the significance of Montag seeing his reflection in Clarisse's eyes in Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451?
In Ray Bradbury’s science fiction novel of a futuristic dystopian society in which the possession of books, with the knowledge they contain, is a serious crime, and in which firemen exist to burn books when discovered, the character of Montag is a symbol of the repressive state in which this city’s residents live. He, of course, is a fireman, and is accustomed to setting fire, along with his colleagues, to previously-hidden caches of books, and to the buildings in which they were stored. He has had no reason to question the nature of his profession; it’s a job, and the government deems it essential. His encounter with 17-year-old Clarisse, however, precipitates the gradual but steady transformation in Montag’s psyche that will propel Fahrenheit 451 to its eventual conclusion. This encounter occurs early in the novel, and Montag is quickly removed from his insulated, safe comfort zone by this inquisitive and lovely young woman. Firemen are authority figures to be feared, in this society, but Clarisse does not shy away from engaging Montag in conversation:
"So many people are. Afraid of firemen, I mean. But you're just a man, after all..."
He saw himself in her eyes, suspended in two shining drops of bright water, himself dark and tiny, in fine detail, the lines about his mouth, everything there, as if her eyes were two miraculous bits of violet amber that might capture and hold him intact. Her face, turned to him now, was fragile milk crystal with a soft and constant light in it. It was not the hysterical light of electricity but-what? But the strangely comfortable and rare and gently flattering light of the candle. One time, when he was a child, in a power-failure, his mother had found and lit a last candle and there had been a brief hour of rediscovery, of such illumination that space lost its vast dimensions and drew comfortably around them, and they, mother and son, alone, transformed, hoping that the power might not come on again too soon ....
This encounter with Clarisse is transformative. Montag, for the first time, is seeing human existence through a different light – the light that emanates from this vivacious and beautiful girl. She is innocent and seemingly carefree, and suggests to the hardened fireman an alternative reality. When he sees his reflection in Clarisse’s eyes, he is viewing himself through a previously closed window. In a sense, this passage could be considered platitudinous, a little of the old ‘the eyes are the windows to the soul’ routine. Only, Montag isn’t peering into Clarisse’s soul; he’s peering into his own, and he begins to not like what he sees. The symbolism of this scene, then, lies in the awakening Montag experiences from having gazed into the eyes of innocence and freedom.
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When Montag sees his own reflection in Clarisse's eyes, I think he is seeing himself through a different lens, or way of seeing things. Everything Montag perceives in his life in Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is based upon the propaganda he has been fed all his life, which he believes without question. With Clarisse's infuence, we see...
...the transformation of Montag from an obedient servant of the state to a questioning human being.
Clarisse provides a new point of reference so that Montag starts to question what he believes of the world, of himself, and of his place in the world—burning books, houses, and eventually, watching a woman die rather than give up her books.
When Montag meets Clarisse, they begin to discuss her ideas, which are extremely foreign to Montag. She asks questions that are often difficult or impossible for him to conceive, let along answer.
"Are you happy?" she said.
"Am I what?" he cried.
Happiness is a concept that Montag does not think about. He thinks about his job. He likes to watch things burn. He essentially remains passive, avoiding any behavior that might draw attention to him. (This is especially important later when we learn that Montag's theft of a book from the fire at 105 Elm is not his first.) At first he insists in a conversation in his brain that he is happy, but quickly realizes that he is lying to himself. Had Clarisse not asked the question, he would never have asked himself.
In their discussions, Montag notes:
How like a mirror, too, her face. Impossible; for how many people did you know that refracted your own light to you?
Clarisse is honest with Montag. This act opens his eyes.
Early on, Clarisse notices things about him when they speak of his profession. He tells her that he can never quite get rid of the smell of the kerosene they use to burn the books. Her questions get Montag to thinking:
Last night I thought about all the kerosene I've used in the past ten years. And I thought about books. And for the first time I realized that a man was behind each one of the books.
And in looking at the reflection of himself in Clarisse's eyes, he realizes that he doesn't see the cows in the fields or colors of the flowers as his car speeds along its way. He does not have fun: putting a yellow flower beneath his chin or catching rain on his tongue. In Clarisse, the child is still alive, full of questions—simple questions that have anything but simple answers.
As he perceives himself through Clarisse's eyes, he begins to question everything in his world. And though Clarisse is later killed in a car accident, her way of looking at the world has changed Montag. In studying himself through Clarisse's worldview, his perceptions change, and ultimately, so does his destiny. In the challenges Clarisse put to Montag, she not only allows him to start thinking for himself, but eventually the enlightenment he experiences saves his life.
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