Fahrenheit 451 and Allegory of the Cave
Imagine a world where books are banned from society, and firemen start fires, instead of put them out. Families are devoid of love, violence is rampant on the streets of the city, planes from warring countries constantly drone overhead, and suicide is a regular occurrence. This is the picture that Ray Bradbury paints in his dystopian novel “Fahrenheit 451.” The story itself is a depiction of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, highlighting the effect of education and the lack of it on human nature. Throughout the story, Bradbury uses his characters as metaphorical mirrors in order to emphasize the importance of self-examination as a way to escape the cave.
The allegory begins with those who are trapped in the cave. Beginning from childhood, these people have lived their entire lives chained to the cave facing forward, “seeing nothing other than the shadows cast by the fire behind them” (Plato 515a). These shadows become the closest thing to reality that these prisoners will ever know. In Bradbury’s society, all of the city’s citizens are trapped in the cave. They are so steeped within the culture that they know nothing apart from “thimble radios tamped tight” to their ears and televisions that span entire walls. (Bradbury 12). Montag’s wife, Millie, is one of the most dominant prisoners within Fahrenheit 451. She functions as a mirror to the state of society. However, she is “such a part of Guy’s routine that he cannot seem to see what she reflects” (McGiveron 2). Millie is so obsessed with the fictional “family” that appears on her three-wall television that they become her reality, much like the shadows on the cave wall (Bradbury 77). To her, the family on the television is real; they are “immediate” and have “dimension” (Bradbury 79). Millie embodies the superficiality and emptiness of the novel’s society and cannot escape it. Her frivolous activities, such as driving out in the country “feel[ing] wonderful” and drowning out the world with her audio-seashells, have become her chains, imprisoning her in the cave forever (Bradbury 64). She reflects the entire culture in her lack of self-examination. She is so devoid of introspection that she can’t even remember how she met her husband, concluding that it “doesn’t matter” (Bradbury 43).
The second part of the allegory features a departure from the cave. The philosopher is like a prisoner who escapes, suddenly compelled to turn and walk towards the fire. He comes to understand that the shadows on the wall don’t make up reality at all. In his escape, he is able to perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners. It is clear at the beginning of the novel that Montag is a prisoner like many others in the story, even saying that “it was a pleasure to burn” (Bradbury 1). The need for self-examination as an escape is emphasized in the novel’s first use of a physical mirror. After returning from a book burning, Montag “might wink at himself, a minstrel man, burnt-corked, in the mirror” (Bradbury 4). This action is not “reflective but reflexive,” an indication of a nature that is more superficial than searching (McGiveron 1). However, Guy’s world shifts when he meets his new seventeen-year-old neighbor, Clarisse McClellan, the force that compels him to walk towards the fire in Plato’s allegory. She functions as the predominant metaphorical mirror for both Montag and society, revealing many “previously unseen truths” (McGiveron 2). The imagery of mirrors surrounding Clarisse is apparent in Montag’s physical description of her. “He saw himself in her eyes, suspended in two shining drops of bright water, himself dark and tiny, in fine detail…as if her eyes were two miraculous bits of violet amber that might capture and hold him intact (Bradbury 7). Montag is only able to realize that he wears his happiness like a mask after seeing himself in the mirror of Clarisse (Mcgiveron 2). In the allegory, she is the guide that drags him “out into the light of the sun” by “run[ning] off across the lawn with the mask” (Plato 515e; Bradbury 12). Her curiosity about Montag’s lack of kids is yet another example of her mirror function. She possesses the ability to show him “an aspect of his emptiness” that he otherwise could not see (McGiveron 2). Without her push to self-examination, Montag could never have escaped the chains that held him to the cave wall. He denies the bees, the seashells, the pills, and the television in order to gain a more complete understanding of reality. After being revealed as a felon for hoarding books and later becoming a murderer, Montag is able to escape the oppressive censorship of society, the cave of Fahrenheit 451. However, he is “distressed” and “in pain because he is dazzled” (Plato 515c, 516a). As he begins to turn away from the cave wall, he experiences “chills and fever in the morning” after he burns an unknown neighbor (Bradbury 48). He also feels “shaking and falling and shivering inside him” just before the death of Beatty (Bradbury 118). His journey is physically and emotionally demanding, but he is able to depart from the city both literally and figuratively, walking away with a new understanding of reality. Montag “would prefer to undergo everything rather than live that way” (Plato 516d).
Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” ends, surprisingly, with a return to the cave. In considering the condition of the man who escapes, Socrates asks “wouldn’t he remember his first home, what passed for wisdom there, and his fellow prisoners, and consider himself happy and them pitiable?” (Plato 517a). As Montag watches one of the faceless enemies of America, level the city with atomic bombs, this image of Millie comes to his mind:
He saw the [television] walls go dark in Millie’s face, heard her screaming, because in the millionth part of time left, she saw her own face reflected there, in a mirror instead of a crystal ball, and it was such a wildly empty face, all by itself in the room, touching nothing, starved and eating of itself that at least she recognized it as her own (Bradbury 152).
Millie’s reality has been destroyed before his very eyes. The existence of this event, whether it actually occurs or not, demonstrates the “crucial importance of the mirror” within the story (McGiveron 5). The novel finishes with Montag and his gang of book-memorizing intellectuals heading towards the city with intentions of rebuilding it. Granter, the leader of these ex-professors, personifies the significance of the mirror imagery throughout the novel by saying, “come on now, we’re going to build a mirror factory first and turn out nothing but mirrors for the next year and take a long look in them” (Bradbury 156). This suggestion “reaffirms the necessity of using mirrors for self-examination,” even as a tool to escape the cave (McGiveron 5). In both Fahrenheit 451 and Plato’s Allegorical Cave, reality is distorted due to a lack of education, leading to a life in chains for the people. However, Bradbury’s symbolic use of mirrors in order to emphasize introspection offers a method of escape from the cave. The integration of Plato’s Allegorical Cave into a modern dystopian novel like Fahrenheit 451 takes the writing of the past and brings it far into the future.