"Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451," in Explicator, Vol. 54, No. 3, Spring, 1996, pp. 177-81.
[Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 revolved around the imagery of hands and what they are capable of with or without the guidance of sufficient thought. The hands of Montag and the characters act on their own volition and only when Montag has decided to do good did his hands reflect his intentions and started to follow through. Bradbury's preference for the anxiety commonly associated with intentions to do good is preferable over the deceptive calm akin to non-adherence to the dictates of conscience.]
Ray Bradbury's 1953 Fahrenheit 451 contains a number of interesting stylistic devices. Robert Reilly praises Bradbury for having a style "like a great organ...." (73). David Mogen comments on the novel's "vivid style" (110). Peter Sisario applauds the "subtle depth" of Bradbury's allusions (201), and Donald Watt pursues Bradbury's bipolar "symbolic fire" (197) imagery. In recent articles I discussed Bradbury's use of mirror imagery and nature imagery.
In addition, throughout Fahrenheit 451 Bradbury uses imagery of hands, making them significant reflectors of conscience. The hands of the misguided are deceptively calm, reflecting the complacency of self-righteousness. At the same time, the hands of the character struggling for right seem to do good almost of their own volition, even before the mind has been consciously decided. Finally, once characters are committed to positive action, their hands become an unambiguous force for good.
As the novel opens, "fireman" Guy Montag joyously goes about his job of burning down a house found to contain books, and Bradbury describes Montag's hands with ironic majesty. According to Bradbury, "his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal rains of history" (3). This early in the story Montag does not yet recognize the true destruction of his profession; indeed, he finds it "a pleasure to burn" (3). Montag's conscience is blithely clear - or perhaps pathetically blank - and his self-confident, self-aggrandizing hands are a reflection of this emptiness.
Montag, however, has from time to time been taking books from the forbidden libraries he bums. When we finally witness this, Montag's hands reflect the unacknowledged dictates of conscience:
Montag's hand closed like a mouth, crushed the book with wild devotion, with an insanity of mindlessness to his chest.
Montag had done nothing. His 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. Now it plunged the book back under his arm, pressed it tight to sweating armpit, rushed out empty....
He gazed, shaken, at that white hand. (37-8)
His hand, of course, is not possessed by "an insanity of mindlessness." On the contrary, Montag has "a conscience and a curiosity ..." but, still unwilling to recognize them, he projects them into his hands.
Soon Montag visits Faber, a former literature professor, to try to enlist the old man's help. When Faber initially refuses, Montag holds out a Bible and "lets" his hands shock Faber into action:
Montag stood there and waited for the next thing to happen. His hands, by themselves, like two men working together, began to tip the pages from the book. The hands tore the fly leaf and then the first and then the second page
... Montag ... let his hands continue. (88)
Again Montag's hands express what his consciousness scarcely can recognize. He has no real wish to damage the old Bible, but his conscience apparently understands that Faber's help is even more important.
Once Montag returns to the firehouse, his hands feel restless under the gaze of Fire Captain Beatty, his superior:
In Beatty's sight, Montag felt the guilt of his hands. His fingers were like ferrets that had done some evil.... [T]hese were the hands that had acted on their own, no part of him, here was where the conscience first manifested itself to snatch books.... (105)
Though Montag still has trouble accepting responsibility for breaking away from the thoughtless destruction which had been his way of life, Bradbury significantly uses the word conscience again. Just as his hands first manifested his new conscience, now they reflect his nervousness at possible discovery.
Captain Beatty leads the quivering Montag through a series of literary allusions, yet while Montag's hands reflect his precarious mental position, when the mocking Beatty reaches out to check Montag's guiltily racing pulse, his "graceful fingers" (107) reflect a dogged self-righteousness. Bradbury employs such ironic imagery to show that Beatty is still able to possess the kind of clear (or blank) conscience which the nervous Montag fortunately no longer has. Beatty unwittingly may be the novel's best spokesperson against the stifling anti-intellectualism of his society, but he refuses to let any doubts interfere with his work; unlike Montag's, his hands never waver.
Bare minutes after the tense firehouse scene, Beatty forces Montag to burn down his own house. As Beatty berates him and threatens to track down Faber, Montag finds himself "twitch[ing] the safety catch on the flame thrower" (119). Again, Bradbury has the conscience drive the hands onward even before the conscious mind has reasoned out the situation: "Montag ... himself glanced to his hands to see what new thing they had done. Thinking back later he could never decide whether the hands or Beatty's reaction to the hands gave him the final push toward murder" (119).
Even when Montag finally kills the taunting Beatty, Bradbury displaces him syntactically from the center of the action. Describing Beatty, Bradbury writes, "And then he was a shrieking blaze, a jumping, sprawling, gibbering mannikin, no longer human or known, all writhing flame on the lawn as Montag shot one continuous pulse of liquid fire on him" (119). While Bradbury does identify the actor as Montag rather than as his disembodied hands, the abrupt transformation of Beatty and the placement of Montag toward the end of the sentence emphasize the spontaneity of the action. Should any doubts remain about the correctness of the action of Montag's conscience-driven hands, Bradbury has Montag think moments later in his flight, "Beatty wanted to die" (122). Though Montag would not have killed Beatty willingly, his hands expressed what he consciously understands only later: "[B]urn them or they'll bum you.... Right now it's as simple as that" (123).
When Montag escapes into the wilderness and joins a group of book-memorizing intellectuals, his first glimpse of them shows only "many hands held to [the campfire's] warmth, hands without arms...." (145). After several pages of highly didactic conversation with the group's leader, Montag helps put out the campfire: "The men helped, and Montag helped, and there, in the wilderness, the men all moved their hands, putting out the fire together" (154). Certainly putting out the fire is symbolic of stopping society's book burning, but Bradbury's explicit mention of hands seem equally symbolic, for now hands are revealed as an unambiguous force for good.
Montag shows this again when he realizes that the future will "come out our hands and our mouths" (161). Good thus comes not only from thinking and talking but from actually doing as well. Bradbury reiterates this important point when Montag thinks, "I'll hold onto the world tight someday" (162); just as hands may carry out deeds of conscience before the mind has fully decided, once the decision has been made, the conscience-driven hands must then follow though.
With his imagery of hands, Bradbury seems to suggest that actions may indeed speak louder than words. It is doubtful that our hands will ever simply reflect the conscience as Montag's so conveniently do, but it is equally doubtless that they should. Though blind self-righteousness may be most comfortable, Bradbury shows that the uncertainty of following one's conscience is morally preferable.
RAFEEQ O. McGIVERON, Lansing Community College
Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. 1953. New York: Del Rey, 1991.
McGiveron, Rafeeq O. "'Do You Know the Legend of Hercules and Antaeus?' The Wilderness in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451." Forthcoming in Extrapolation 38 (1997).
——-." 'To Build a Mirror Factory': The Mirror and Self-Examination in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. Forthcoming in Critique.
Mogen, David. Ray Bradbury. Twayne's United States Authors Series 504. Boston: Twayne, 1986.
Reilly, Robert. "The Art of Ray Bradbury." Extrapolation 13 (1971): 64-74.
Sisario, Peter. "A Study of the Allusions in Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451." English Journal Feb. 1970: 210+.
Watt, Donald. "Burning Bright: Fahrenheit 451 as Symbolic Dystopia." Ray Bradbury. Writers of the 21st Century Series. Ed. Martin Harry Greenberg and Joseph D. Olander. New York: Taplinger, 1980. 195-213.