Symbolism & Symbols in Fahrenheit 451: Examples & Analysis

Instructor: Joel West

Joel has taught middle and high school English and has a master's degree in literature and cultural studies.

Ray Bradbury's ''Fahrenheit 451'' is a novel that contains many symbols that are essential to understanding the deeper meanings within the story. This lesson will shed light on several of these symbols and help readers better understand them.

Recognizing Major Symbols in Fahrenheit 451

Have you ever been reading a novel and wondered why an author chose to use a vague reference, rather than stating what they meant directly? Authors use symbols, which can be everyday objects or even hidden concepts, to convey deeper meaning within a work of literature. Symbolism is the author's use of these symbols to conceal or convey these messages.

Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is a cautionary dystopian novel that features various symbols and uses symbolism to address major themes and concepts without stating his opinions directly. In this lesson, we're going to focus on some of the major symbols in the novel and briefly explain their role in the narrative.

They're Not Just Books

The most pronounced use of symbolism in the novel is the books themselves. The main role of the Firemen is to destroy all books and the properties that contain them. What is so threatening about a book, and why must all traces of them be destroyed? The books represent ideas and knowledge--and knowledge is power.

The Firemen are in charge of making sure no one gains knowledge over another. Consider Captain Beatty quoting Alexander Pope on page 102:

'A little learning is a dangerous thing. Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring; There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.'

This quote means that when we begin to learn, it makes us thirst for more, but we ultimately become aware of much more in the process. The Firemen, who represent the government's interests, don't want unhappy, deep thinkers questioning the status quo, or the way things currently are. So it's beneficial for them (the government) to destroy the very things that can further knowledge and, therefore, questions. In other words, they wish to destroy books.

Two of the novels biggest symbols interact when books are burned
Two of the novels biggest symbols interact when books are burned.

This might sound a bit alien, but this kind of thinking exists today. You might have heard that the culture in North Korea is strictly controlled by the state to the point where citizens are unable (or nearly unable) to obtain books or other forms of art produced outside the country. This is because the North Korean government doesn't want its citizens to be offered alternative knowledge to the narrative the government has given them.

The Dual Nature of Fire

Consider the last rainstorm you were caught in. It might have been merely annoying, but as you probably know, heavy rain can cause a lot of trouble, such as flooding or traction issues on a highway. But remember this: if we didn't have rain, we would lose quite a few crops and plant life (not to mention how dry the air would get!). This is an example of dualism.

In the novel, the symbol of fire can be viewed as a dualistic, or two-sided, force. Readers may be quick to judge the role of fire in the novel, but we have to wonder if there could be a deeper meaning to the role fire plays in the larger narrative.

Certainly, fire is the tool of destruction used by the Firemen to destroy the books, which, as we learned earlier, symbolize knowledge. However, fire can also be viewed as a tool, at least when it's used responsibly. This is certainly the case near the end of the novel, when Montag is fleeing from the city and comes across a group of men who are warming themselves by the fire. In this instance, Montag makes the realization that fire can bring people together rather than separating them from each other. If that's not dualistic, I don't know what is!

Passing on the Torch

You might be asking yourself at this point how torches are symbolically different from fire. Much like the symbolic use of fire in Fahrenheit 451, the instruments that create or contain fire (in this case, the torch) also serve a symbolic function in the narrative.

The torch in the novel is the tool the Firemen use to harness the destructive power of fire and direct it at the books and the homes that contain them. It's their source of power (derived from their ability to destroy knowledge), until one woman decides to set herself on fire in her home with her books, using a match.

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