Though the dystopia shown in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) wants to destroy all written words, paradoxically, the firemen assigned to this job often use metaphors and allusions in their speech. This itself is a sly metaphor about the power of books; even as the firemen burn texts, words and ideas from them are burnt into their brains. Thus, metaphors and allusions operate at several levels in Bradbury’s novel. An example of the complex way Bradbury uses metaphor is the following lines, in which the protagonist, Montag, recalls his captain, Beatty, describing the pleasures of book burning:
“Sit down, Montag. Watch. Delicately, like the petals of a flower. Light the first page, light the second page. Each becomes a black butterfly. Beautiful, eh?” ... There sat Beatty, perspiring gently, the floor littered with swarms of black moths that had died in a single storm.
For Beatty, the intact pages are as delicate as flowers, yet the killed pages are even more beautiful, fluttering like butterflies. Beatty's metaphor mocks the notion that freedom and beauty are inherent in words. He suggests that unlike what people in previous generations thought, words are truly free when destroyed and turned into crisp, flying flakes. Yet, for Montag, the burnt words represent not dancing black butterflies but dead, charred moths, a metaphor for the death of free thinking.
Further, the names of each of the three sections of Fahrenheit 451 are metaphors too: In section 1, “The Hearth and the Salamander,” the salamander, along with the phoenix, forms the insignia of the firemen. The salamander's significance as the insignia is its mythical fireproof nature. The salamander both makes an inspiring motto for the firemen—they stay safe among the flames—and a metaphor for their resistance to the “fire” books ignite within people. Part 2, “The Sieve and the Sand,” is a metaphor for the mind. The mind is like a sieve, while knowledge is like sand. As Montag discovers a love for books, he hopes by reading them fast enough, he will be able to retain some sand in the sieve of his brain. Part 3, “Burning Bright,” is a metaphor for Montag’s enlightened state of mind and a renewed sense of hope. It is also an allusion to these lines from William Blake’s poem “The Tyger”:
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
Allusions to books are natural in the world of Fahrenheit 451, because the firemen pile and torch books for a living. Even as they incinerate books, bits and pieces from them stick in the memory of the firemen. Beatty makes a reference to the stickiness of words and knowledge when he confesses: “I’m full of bits and pieces. ... Most fire captains have to be. Sometimes I surprise myself.” The context of these words is an allusion made by an old woman whose house they have just burnt down. Preferring to be destroyed with her books rather than watch them burn, the old woman lights herself on fire, too. But earlier, after the firemen have entered her house, she quotes:
Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.
The lines are said to have been spoken by sixteenth-century cleric Hugh Latimer to his fellow priest Nicholas Ridley, right before the two were burnt alive at the stake for their Protestant beliefs. The old woman is comparing herself to the clerics who died by fire for their principles. Later, when Montag wonders why the old lady took the name “Master Ridley,” Beatty refers to Latimer.
In the middle of the novel’s second section, Montag recites Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach” in its entirety before his wife Mildred and her friends. The reckless moment marks Montag’s suppressed voice finally breaking through, just like the poem bursts out of him. Significantly, the poem rues the loss of faith in religion, mirroring the sense of loss Montag feels in a world bereft of literature.
Later that evening, Beatty can sense the completeness of the change in Montag. In a strange sequence, the captain directs a tirade at Montag consisting mostly of quotes from several books. By alluding to differing ideas from different books, Beatty is trying to confuse Montag and show him that since books speak so many varying truths, the knowledge in them cannot be truthful, since the truth can only be one. I have included the referenced texts in parentheses.
Beatty chuckled. “And you said, quoting, ‘Truth will come to light, murder will not be hid long!’ And I cried in good humor, ‘Oh God, he speaks only of his horse!’ And ‘The Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.’ [The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare] And you yelled, ‘This age thinks better of a gilded fool, than of a threadbare saint in wisdom's school!’ [Old Fortunatus, Thomas Dekker] And I whispered gently, ‘The dignity of truth is lost with much protesting.’ [Cateline: His Conspiracy, Ben Jonson]
By quoting the Shakespearean lines beginning “The Devil can cite” in particular, Beatty is alluding to the fact that words are slippery and can be used by anyone to suit their nefarious purposes. Of course, Beatty’s easy familiarity with such old literary texts is the text’s meta-metaphor about the infectiousness of writing, which even Beatty cannot escape.