For the past five weeks we have been engaged in the provocative world of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and it has been the most rewarding and engaging five weeks of the year for most of my 16 year old students.
The prose is so beautifully written with vivid images that resonate in the mind. Take, for example our introduction to Clarisse: “Her head was half bent to watch her shoes stir the circling leaves. Her face was slender and milk-white, and in it was a kind of gentle hunger that touched over everything with tireless curiosity. It was a look, almost, of pale surprise; the dark eyes were so fixed to the world that no move escaped them. Her dress was white and it whispered … The trees overhead made a great sound of letting down their dry rain.” This poetic style in his descriptive passages makes you sort of settle in to enjoy the journey. The images are vivid and apt, and they help the imagination get on board.
I must say, it has been interesting to hear the silence when students become aware that they are reading about a world which is so similar to their own, yet did not exist in the 50s when Bradbury sat at his rental typewriter in the basement of the UCLA library. It is sobering to think that he could forecast so much so accurately. People with sound beads in their ears; multiple large screen televisions; speeding on motorways; a loss of contact with nature; “ignorant armies” clashing overhead – for a forgotten cause; and, perhaps most importantly, the dangers of an unthinking mind.
Once we had read the book and looked at the characters, and at the more obvious themes, done some close reading, as one does, that’s when the conversation started! We began tracing the use of water as a motif and made a profusion of discoveries. Clarisse says at the start of the novel: “I like to put my head back, like this, and let the rain fall into my mouth. It tastes just like wine.” and then towards the end there are these complex words: “He would be Montag-plus-Faber, fire plus water, and then, one day, after everything had mixed and simmered and worked away in silence, there would be neither fire nor water, but wine. Out of two separate and opposite things, a third.” We discussed the miracle of changing water to wine, and the even greater miracle of changing one element into another – fire into water. What is the lead up to miracles occurring? How and why do they happen?
Montag reaches the river after running from the city after the burning of his house. “He touched it, just to be sure it was real. He waded in and stripped in darkness to the skin, splashed his body, arms, legs, and head with raw liquor; drank it and snuffed some up his nose. Then he dressed in Faber’s old clothes and shoes. He tossed his own clothing into the river and watched it swept away. … He felt as if he had left a stage behind and many actors. He felt as if he had left the great seance and all the murmuring ghosts. He was moving from an unreality that was frightening into a reality that was unreal because it was new.” So, what does Faber represent? The Bible speaks of baptism and new life, of putting on new clothes and shedding the old. Here Montag dresses in Faber’s old clothes, goes through the water, and recognises a newness in his life. If changing water into wine was Jesus’ first, and best known miracle, how much more difficult would it be to change Montag (fire) to the new man he becomes once he has waded through the river?
But there are always more questions – “a reality that was unreal because it was new” – what is reality? Does something only become “real” when it settles into a habitual pattern of life?
This book has been such a pleasure to study, and next time I look at it, I know there will be more to find, things I haven’t noticed, but which some astute student will point out and question. And I am looking forward to that already.