i. Overview — Part I: “The Hearth and the Salamander”
Part One of Fahrenheit 451 is titled “The Hearth and the Salamander”, referring to the floor of a home’s fireplace – the foundation – and the lizard-like amphibian with a fantastical history. These are two very symbolic things to our protagonist, Guy Montag. A career fireman in a futuristic world where books are forbidden and any sign of uniqueness is a sign of illness.
Part one seeks to acclimate us to Montag’s disenchanted reality: his job, his house, his wife—and now—their new neighbor, Clarisse. Clarisse is an unorthodox, curious girl who Bradbury often describes her using the moon and various other flora and fauna to symbolize the young catalyst. Ray Bradbury’s uses a great deal symbolism all throughout 451 and a certain level of understanding will not only allow you to better understand the novel, but it will also allow you to enjoy Fahrenheit 451 in a way that you may not have before. When it comes to Ray Bradbury, what you read is not always what he meant.
ii. Content Analysis
a The Hearth — a symbol of the home and center of a family. Part one serves as an exposition to the world in which Montag lives and Bradbury has created. It more closely focuses on the home and life he shares with his wife, Mildred. This symbolism is ironic because the hearth is seen as warm and welcoming – a place for the family to gather, eat and bond. Montag’s house is not described as such; Bradbury even compares it to a tomb at one point (an obvious point of foreshadowing) right before Montag enters the bedroom he shares with Mildred to find that she has attempted to take her own life. The contrast depicted between Montag’s reality and the symbol of the hearth not only sets the tone of the novel early on, it also gives the reader a crash-course introduction to Guy Montag and the world in which he calls home. b The Salamander — in ancient mythology and folk lore, salamanders were thought to actually live in fire [e.g. volcanoes, fireplaces (i.e. hearths), etc.] and were thus unaffected by the extreme temperatures.
In Montag’s world, the salamander is emblazoned on his fireman’s badge, igniter, etc. as a part of his uniform showing his society’s confidence in their control over fire. The symbol of the salamander only contributes to the idea that the firemen in this society are at home in the flames, finding joy in the destruction of books. The very first paragraph – actually the first six words of Bradbury’s novel sum up the disposition of these futuristic firemen. The firemen, or at least Montag, enjoyed burning the books and found a twisted joy in being the agent of destruction. Just like the salamander, the firemen are at home in the midst of flames and chaos. “It was a pleasure to burn.”
II. THE ANTI-UTOPIA
i. Overview— Warped Medicine: Mildred & Clarisse
When he finds her nearly lifeless body in their bed, Montag rushes his wife to the hospital. After having her stomach and blood pumped clean from the sleeping pills, she is sent home to sleep it off. No psychiatric evaluation, no reasons, no questions: nothing. Montag tries to talk to her about what had occurred the night before but she denies it and becomes frustrated with him when he attempts to press the matter. When he realizes there will be no forward progress with Mildred, Montag decides to leave for work.
It is on his walk to work that he has another run in with his newest (strangest) neighbor, Clarisse. It is during this encounter that she informs him she must see a psychiatrist. Clarisse says that she is made to go to these appointments by the authorities because her interest in nature and her surroundings makes her ‘unsociable’ and that’s a serious problem for them — not for Clarisse though, instead she makes up stories to tell them instead. ii. Content Analysis
In Montag’s society, people are brainwashed and controlled through these projected ‘wall-screens’. Those that are not so easily swayed are given psychiatric therapy because independent thought is seen as pathological and in need of treatment. They are taught to revolve their worlds around their wall-screens, destroy any books they find and they do it all without question. The society Ray Bradbury developed in his novel is one based on control and the ignorant majority. “Sheeple” — referring to a person, or group of people, that can/will not take charge of their own fates or be their own master. Easily led along to graze obediently by the shepherd;
blind trust; regurgitates information without actually digesting it. Does not question authority or society; ignorance is truly bliss in the lion’s den. When Mildred tries to kill herself and the hospital just simply pumps her stomach and sends her on her way – with seemingly no memory of the event – this is seen as normal by everyone and even Mildred questions nothing. The next day, only stating she is extremely hungry right before picking up the script she received for the latest ‘Parlor Play’ that would be on the wall-screens later that night. Her detachment and apparent amnesia bother Montag and when he tries to ask her about the night before and she denies everything and seems to be distracted and/or frustrated. Clarisse is a poetic, eccentric girl and this troubles the authorities of her society. Instead of wanting to watch television all day and be force-fed information like the rest of her peers, she prefers to walk around enjoying nature and learning things on her own. Instead when she is in her therapy sessions, she makes up stories and confuses her psychiatrist. Clarisse balances carefully between enlightenment and insanity. Her words eventually get through to Montag and it doesn’t take long for him to begin evaluating his own reality. “Are you happy?”
III. QUESTIONS FOR CRITICAL THINKING
i. Dystopia is defined as “an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives” by the Merriam-Webster dictionary online. How does this definition differ from the dystopian world in which Montag lives?
ii. In our world, firemen put out fires and try to prevent things from being destroyed. In Ray Bradbury’s novel, firemen destroy books – burning them and the houses that housed them. Why is this? How does this contribute to the dystopian environment Bradbury is creating?
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