He used the format of literature to describe his fears in the futuristic science fiction novel Fahrenheit 451. In the novel, Bradbury uses symbols to illustrate his concerns about future generations living in a technological society without books. Bradbury uses the symbol of hands to represent human conscience, the symbol of the phoenix to mark rebirth, and the symbol of the mechanical hound to stand for the cold inhumanity of technology. The first symbol, the symbol of hands, demonstrates human conscience.
Bradbury’s descriptions of the hands of his various characters represent that character’s current state of human consciousness. Guy Montag, the novel’s main character, develops a human conscience throughout the course of the novel. Montag is a firefighter in Fahrenheit 451’s futuristic world of technology. Montag’s job is to burn books, which destroys the wisdom and insight that the books contained. At first, Montag does not feel any moral conflict with this task. Indeed, he finds it “a pleasure to burn” (Bradbury 3). Montag’s displays his true lack of conscience in how he describes his actions (McGiveron 1).
Montag glorifies his actions as a firefighter by describing how “his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters in charcoal ruins of history” (Bradbury 3). Montag’s hands are clearly in control of his actions in the way he describes his work, because a “conductor” is a person who is in control. Also, Montag’s description shows that he has no conscience guiding the work of his hands as a firefighter because he does not even recognize the “blazing and burning to bring down the tatters in charcoal ruins of history” as a sad event (Bradbury 3).
Montag’s conscience does not begin to develop until he meets a young girl named Clarisse, who is a “sensitive, observant person who questioned society” (Sisario 2). Montag and Clarisse have a conversation in which Clarisse asks Montag many thought-provoking questions about the world. Clarisse’s questioning leads Montag to view the world differently. Clarisse awakens Montag’s conscience and changes his opinions on his job as a book-burning firefighter. Bradbury expresses Montag’s newfound consciousness through the actions of Montag’s hands (McGiveron 2).
For example, Bradbury writes that “[Montag’s] hand had done it all, his hand with a brain of its own, with a conscience and a curiosity in each trembling finger, had turned thief” (Bradbury 37). This quote is from the scene where Montag is opening his first book to read. Montag talks about his hands having a conscience because he is not ready to acknowledge that he has a conscience. Therefore, Montag’s hands are symbolizing his development of a human conscience. In contrast to Guy Montag’s active, conscious hands, Mildred Montag, Guy’s wife, has dull, listless hands.
Montag describes his wife as having “hands that don’t [seem to be] doing anything at all…[t]hey just hang there at her sides or they lay there on her lap or there’s a cigarette in them, but that’s all” (Bradbury 156). Mildred’s unmoving hands show that her inner conscience is not existent. Mildred is the opposite of Guy; she is fully absorbed in the television-obsessed future society and lacks the ability to feel and act human. The novel suggests that it is people like Guy, rather than those like Mildred, who will decide the fate of the future world (McGiveron 2).
Bradbury voices this belief through Guy, who explains “[the future] will come out of our hands” (Bradbury 161). People like Mildred are too unfeeling, unthinking, and television-obsessed to create any big changes in the world. In order for people like Mildred to have any hope of influencing the future, they would have to first open their minds to exploring new ideas. Guy represents the people who have successfully done that. Once Guy opened his mind to new ideas and self-reflection, he allowed himself to develop a human conscience, which spurred him to take action.
The future, then, will come out of the hands and actions of those, like Guy, who have developed a human conscience because they are the ones with the inner vision to see the changes needed and the motivation to create those changes. Furthermore, the transformation of the world of Fahrenheit 451 is the main idea behind the symbolism of the phoenix. The symbol of the phoenix represents rebirth. The phoenix was a mythical bird that “periodically burned itself to death and resurrected from its own ashes to a restored youth” (Sisario 1).
The symbolism of the phoenix myth turns fire into an instrument of renewal (Telgen 12). This renewal is apparent in Montag’s murder of Captain Beatty. Montag chose to kill Captain Beatty because Captain Beatty was trying to prevent Montag from reading books and gaining a conscience. Montag took the flame-thrower that Captain Beatty had been using to burn down Montag’s house and precious store of books, and then Montag used it to burn Captain Beatty to death (Bradbury 119). In this way, Beatty’s tragic death by fire is “for Guy a rebirth to a new intellectual life” (Sisario 2).
Captain Beatty represents the world of blind allegiance to society, and, by burning Captain Beatty, Montag is definitively stating that he will no longer be a member of that society—he has chosen to read, to learn, to be reborn! The symbolism of the phoenix continues after the burning of Captain Beatty with the burning of whole cities. The government in the world of Fahrenheit 451 tried to control its citizens through fire (KnowledgeNotes 6). Thus, it is fitting that the government, and the cities that they controlled, were destroyed with fire (KnowledgeNotes 6).
The novel suggests the hope that “a new society will be born from the ashes of the old one” (Telgen 12). Thus, while the death of Captain Beatty represented rebirth for one person, Guy Montag, the burning of whole cities represents potential regrowth for all of humanity (KnowledgeNotes 6). The last symbol in the novel is the symbol of the mechanical hound, which represents the cold inhumanity of technology. Although most of the people who live in the cities of Fahrenheit 451’s world do not realize it, there is an ongoing war happening.
One side of the war is the “manufactured reality” of the technological society. The other side of the war is the “natural life” existence of the people who find their way out of the city (KnowledgeNotes 6). The mechanical hound is like a soldier in this war on the side of the technological manufactured reality. The mechanical hound is trying to keep people trapped in the mechanical world of the city (KnowledgeNotes 6). The soldiers on the other side of the war are the people like Montag and Granger, who are trying to help society find their way back to human consciousness.
The mechanical hound is at once “the perfect creature of the system…and the most complete violation of humanity,” because it represents a “replacement of the human with a machine” (Eller 2). The mechanical hound is thus a terrifyingly inhuman soldier, and it embodies the way that “technological advances can be used for destructive purposes (Telgen 12). With its “hypo-dermic needle tounge,” the mechanical hound “paralyzes the offending book lover” (Joyce 1).
Even when book lovers do manage to destroy a mechanical hound, another hound comes to take its place, which suggests, “technology used destructively cannot be easily demolished” (Telgen 12). Though hard to kill, the mechanical hound is not actually alive because it “lacks a mind of its own and a body that feels” (Eller 2). The mechanical hound is therefore the ultimate symbol of the “dehumanizing side of technology” (Telgen 12), for it is a cold, thoughtless, senseless machine that destroys human book-lovers who try to fight against it.
Bradbury’s use of symbolism is central to examining important ideas in Fahrenheit 451. The mechanical hound, the phoenix, and the imagery of hands are all seemingly straightforward elements to the story that represent crucial concepts. The use of the mechanical hound, distorting a living creature, to represent the evils of technology is especially creative. Bradbury’s genius is in using objects to symbolize these important ideas.