Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury's classic science fiction work, remains relevant in the 21st century thanks in part to the subtle symbolism attached to its characters.
Each character in the novel struggles with the concept of knowledge in a different way. While some of the characters embrace knowledge and take responsibility for protecting it, others reject knowledge in an effort to protect themselves and their own comfort, most notably the novel's protagonist, who spends much of the novel trying to remain ignorant, even when he willingly seeks knowledge in a fight against himself.
Guy Montag, firefighter, is the protagonist ofFahrenheit 451. In the novel's universe, the traditional role of the firefighter is subverted: buildings are largely made of fireproof materials, and a firefighter's job is to burn books. Instead of preserving the past, a firefighter now destroys it.
Montag is initially introduced as a contented citizen of a world where books are treated as dangerous. The novel's famous opening line, "It was a pleasure to burn," is written from Montag's perspective. Montag delights in his work and is a respected member of society because of him. However, when he meets Clarisse McClellan and she asks if he is happy, he experiences a sudden breakdown, suddenly imagining that he is splitting into two people.
That divisive moment defines Montag. By the end of the story, Montag has given in to the idea that he is not responsible for his own increasingly dangerous acts. He imagines that he is controlled by Faber or Beatty, that his hands move regardless of his will when he steals and hides books, and that Clarisse is somehow speaking through him. Montag has been trained by society not to think or question, and tries to maintain ignorance of him by separating his inner life from his actions. Only at the end of the novel, when Montag attacks Beatty, does he finally accept his active role in his own life.
Mildred is Guy's wife. Although Guy cares deeply for her, he has become a person that he finds strange and horrible. Mildred has no ambitions beyond watching television and listening to her 'shell thimbles' of hers, constantly immersed in entertainment and distraction that requires no thought or mental effort on her part. She represents society as a whole: seemingly happy on the surface, deeply unhappy on the inside, and unable to articulate or deal with that unhappiness. Mildred's capacity for self-confidence and introspection was extinguished.
At the beginning of the novel, Mildred takes more than 30 pills and almost dies. Guy rescues her and Mildred insists it was an accident. However, the "plumbers" who pump her stomach comment that she routinely deals with ten such cases each night, implying that it was a suicide attempt. Unlike her husband, she Mildred shies away from any kind of knowledge or admission of unhappiness; where her husband imagines himself splitting into two people to deal with the guilt that knowledge of her brings, she Mildred buries herself in fantasy to maintain her ignorance.
When the fallout from her husband's rebellion destroys their home and fantasy world, Mildred doesn't react. She simply stands in the street, unable to independently think, like society in general, that she stands by while destruction looms.
Captain Beatty is the most widely read and well educated character in the book. However, he dedicated his life to destroying books and keeping society ignorant. Unlike the other characters, Beatty has embraced his own guilt and chooses to use the knowledge he has gained.
Beatty is motivated by his own desire to return to a state of ignorance. He was once a rebel who read and learned in defiance of society, but the knowledge of it brought fear and doubt. He searched for answers, the kind of simple, solid answers that could guide him to make the right decisions, and instead he found questions, which in turn led to more questions. He began to feel hopeless and helpless, and finally decided that he was wrong to seek knowledge in the first place.
As a firefighter, Beatty brings the passion of converts to his job. He despises books because they failed him and embraces his work because it is simple and understandable. He uses his knowledge in the service of ignorance. This makes him a dangerous antagonist because, unlike other truly passive and ignorant characters, Beatty is smart and uses his intelligence to keep society ignorant.
A teenager who lives near Guy and Mildred, Clarisse rejects ignorance with childlike honesty and courage. Not yet broken by society, Clarisse still has a youthful curiosity about everything around her, demonstrated by her constant questioning of Guy, a questioning that fuels her identity crisis.
Unlike those around her, Clarisse seeks knowledge for knowledge's sake. She doesn't seek knowledge to use as a weapon like Beatty, she doesn't seek knowledge as a cure for an internal crisis like Montag, nor does she seek knowledge as a way to save society like exiles do. Clarisse just wants to know things. Her ignorance is the natural and beautiful ignorance that marks the beginning of life, and her instinctive efforts to answer questions represent the best of human instincts. Clarisse's character offers a glimmer of hope that society can be saved. As long as people like Clarisse exist, Bradbury seems to suggest, things can always get better.
Clarisse disappears from the story early on, but her impact is enormous. She not only pushes Montag closer to open rebellion, but she remains in her thoughts. Clarisse's memory helps him organize his anger in opposition to the society he serves.
Professor Faber is an old man who was once a professor of literature. He saw the intellectual decline of society in his own life. He positions himself as the opposite of Beatty in some respects: he despises society and strongly believes in the power of reading and independent thinking, but unlike Beatty, he is afraid and does not use his knowledge at all, choosing to hide in the dark. darkness. . When Montag forces Faber to help him, Faber is easily intimidated into doing so, as he is afraid of losing what little he has left. Faber represents the triumph of ignorance, which often comes in the form of hard-hitting practicality, over intellectualism, which often comes in the form of weightless ideas with no practical application.
Granger is the leader of the homeless that Montag meets when he flees town. Granger rejected her ignorance, and with her, society was built on that ignorance. Granger knows that society goes through cycles of light and dark, and that they are at the end of a Dark Age. She taught her followers to preserve knowledge using only her minds, with plans to rebuild society after her self-destruction.
The old woman appears early in the story when Montag and his fellow firefighters discover a cache of books in her house. Instead of handing over her library, the old woman burns her books. Montag steals a copy of the Bible from his house. The Ancient One's hopeful act of defiance against the consequences of ignorance remains with Montag. He can't help but wonder what books he might contain that would inspire such an act.