In Ray Bradbury’s futuristic story of a dystopian society in which books are banned because of the knowledge they contain, and because of the social dynamics they depict, the sun represents both life and death. Fahrenheit 451 is about a fireman, Guy Montag, whose job, to which he is deeply committed, is to burn books, and the homes of those discovered to be in possession of them. Montag, as with the rest of the firemen, led by Captain Beatty, takes for granted the wisdom of those who control this autocratic society and executes without question the mission of eliminating all vestiges of the previous, presumably fatally-flawed system that this totalitarian regime has long-since replaced. Throughout Bradbury’s narrative, the sun plays a prominent role. Early in the novel’s first section, Montag encounters a teenaged girl of 17, new to his neighborhood. This vibrant, idealistic child is revelatory to the older, jaded fireman. Note, for instance, the following passage from their first meeting:
"Well," she said, "I'm seventeen and I'm crazy. My uncle says the two always go together. When people ask your age, he said, always say seventeen and insane. Isn't this a nice time of night to walk? I like to smell things and look at things, and sometimes stay up all night, walking, and watch the sun rise."
This passage provides the first glimpse of the role the Earth’s nearest star will play, suggesting that it symbolizes enlightenment and innocence. This theme of the proverbial ‘new dawn’ continues, with Montag’s contemplation of this peculiar but welcome newcomer. In the following passage, Bradbury depicts his protagonist as associating this cheerful, optimistic young adult with the light and warmth of the sun:
“Montag shook his head. He looked at a blank wall. The girl's face was there, really quite beautiful in memory: astonishing, in fact. She had a very thin face like the dial of a small clock seen faintly in a dark room in the middle of a night when you waken to see the time and see the clock telling you the hour and the minute and the second, with a white silence and a glowing, all certainty and knowing what it has to tell of the night passing swiftly on toward further darknesses but moving also toward a new sun.”
The reader, then, can be forgiving for concluding that Bradbury’s narrative will focus on the theme of an awakening as Montag begins to reconsider his life and his role in advancing a political agenda that may not be as beneficent as once believed. Montag’s transformation, subtly initiated with the arrival of Clarisse, gains speed with the destruction of the old woman’s books and home, a development marked by the victim’s self-immolation in her final act of defiance. In this scene, the light from the fire illuminates the wisdom and poetry contained in these doomed volumes. It is obviously no accident that the one sentence that briefly catches Montag’s eye, and that literally and figuratively burns itself into Montag’s consciousness, is from the 19th century poet Alexander Smith: "Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine." If the sun represent enlightenment, that association is perverted by the regime that rules this society with an iron fist. Explaining to his subordinate the reason books were banned, Captain Beatty rails against the darkness books once represented, telling Montag, that the academics who produced works of nonfiction were “running about, putting out the stars and extinguishing the sun.”
The sun, in other words, means different things to different people, depending upon one’s views of the autocratic system that governs this society. To Montag, the sun means life; to others, like his wife, Mildred, and to Beatty, it means security from the thoughts and facts expressed in books. In one scene at his home, his decision to pursue knowledge coming between his already distant and uncaring wife and himself, he contemplates the darkness of the parlour in their home and how that room could “teem with life if they switched on the electronic sun.”
It is Part III of Fahrenheit 451, titled “Burning Bright,” that the importance of the sun to Bradbury’s story is given its greatest illumination. Captain Beatty having discovered Montag’s secret, the too-perceptive commander has cornered the now-insubordinate fireman: "Well," said Beatty, "now you did it. Old Montag wanted to fly near the sun and now that he's burnt his damn wings, he wonders why.”
Montag has begun to view the sun in the duality that dominates Bradbury’s narrative. It represents life and death; darkness and illumination. In perhaps the novel’s seminal passage, Montag comes to his greatest realization of the role he has played in the world and the existential need to break from his past:
“He saw the moon low in the sky now. The moon there, and the light of the moon caused by what? By the sun, of course. And what lights the sun? Its own fire. And the sun goes on, day after day, burning and burning. The sun and time. The sun and time and burning. Burning. . .Burning. . .After a long time of floating on the land and a short time of floating in the river he knew why he must never burn again in his life. The sun burned every day. It burned Time. The world rushed in a circle and turned on its axis and time was busy burning the years and the people anyway, without any help from him. So if he burnt things with the firemen, and the sun burnt Time, that meant that everything burned! One of them had to stop burning. The sun wouldn't, certainly. So it looked as if it had to be Montag and the people he had worked with until a few short hours ago.”
As Fahrenheit 451 draws to a close, Montag has fled the city and its destruction, the fires of the burning metropolis lighting the distant horizon. Now, again, the sun’s role in Bradbury’s narrative returns full-circle. The first appearance of the sun with the start of a new day is highly symbolic of Montag’s role in rebuilding a new society—one characterized by the wisdom and beauty contained in the minds of those who endeavored to memorize the contents of books. The sun once more represents light and warmth, in more than just the literal sense.
The core of the sun contains incomprehensible levels of heat and thermonuclear activity. It contains the power to destroy the solar system, as it will eventually do in the normal course of a star’s life. In Ray Bradbury’s story, the light and heat generated by the sun both destroys and renews.