Hélène ou le règne végétal

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René Guy Cadou

Symbols are the objects, characters, allusions, or other similar elements that are used to represent a specific concept or abstract idea.

The Television

Bradbury's motive for writing the story was to indicate the threat of television. Commonly interpreted as a warning against censorship, Fahrenheit 451 was, in reality, bespoke Bradbury's growing concern of humanity substituting television viewing for involvement in real life. Television, in fact, plays a prominent role in the story, and the more vapid and less human the character, the larger the screen becomes. In Mildred's case, for example, television occupies three entire walls—soon to be a fourth—perhaps indicative of Mildred's growing loss of humanity. Television, in her case, also assumes all sorts of familiar names (such as the "family," uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces, and nephews), signifying, perhaps, the extent to which it had become an intimate part of her life. The "family," in fact, sometimes gratified Mildred by including her first name. It became more real and central to Mildred's life than even her own husband.

In contrast, the screen shrunk in importance in Faber's case; it was shunted behind a picture frame and was the size of a postcard. As Faber explains:

"I always wanted something very small, something I could walk to, something I could blot out with the palm of my hand, if necessary, and nothing that could shout me down, nothing monstrous big" (132-133).

Likewise, in Granger's case, it was called a TV—a simple television. These latter individuals dominated the machine rather than allowing it to dominate them, and accordingly, the machine became known as such—an instrument for their own exploitation, confined to its particular place.

Beetle

The beetle served a similar purpose to the television. Its use was for entertainment and status, and the more vapid the owner, the faster the car. Beetles could only be driven 95 miles per hour, but some, including Mildred, took pleasure in propelling it beyond its limit and in seeing how many pedestrians and passing creatures they could run over on their route. Apparently, the more painful and irrelevant solitude and reflection were to the individual, the faster he drove his beetle as an attempt to assuage his emptiness. The beetle symbolizes vacuity of life and the urge to rush through it, focusing on hedonistic pleasure to the sacrifice of labor and reflection. Clarissa was run over by a beetle. Montag was almost run over by one. In both cases, they were driven by teenagers. The age, too, may be a part of the author's symbolism, in which adolescence generally denotes giddiness, self-centeredness, immaturity, and lack of reflection.

Burning/Flames

Flames symbolize the destruction of existence, rather than productivity or construction. Throughout the narrative, fire accompanies the eradication of all that is truly human. Civilization, it seems, has lost its potential and promise. It is rotting away and is decadent beyond repair. Destruction of all that is significant of humanity is the norm. Humans who cultivate their intelligence and prefer books to entertainment are either jailed or referred for psychiatric treatment, while their possessions are burnt. Civilization is at its abyss, and the fitting symbol is flames.

Later on, however, flames also appear to represent atonement and cleansing. The Civilization was wiped out by the flames of the atomic bomb. As the City was burned to the ground, the hope emerged of new, healthier, and more viable City that would be erected in its stead.

The narrative does not describe the future, but ends with the promise of a new world, and this promise is further vivified by the analogy of the Phoenix. Interestingly, there are flames here, too: Never taking its lessons to heart, the Phoenix burns itself time and again. Might this not be a lesson of the Book to Civilization to us? "We know all the damn silly things we've done for a thousand years, and as long as we know that and always have it around where we can see it, someday we'll stop making the goddam funeral pyres and jumping into the middle of them" (59). The flames razed our stupidity time and again.

Flames are for burning. They serve to provide us with opportunity, too. Perhaps a final indication of this is the faces that surround the fire. The fire, once a symbol of the destruction of books, is now surrounded by the faces of the professors and book lovers. They are the promise of the new generation.

Robots

Machines—the epitome and symbol of this Civilization—fill the story. They resuscitate Mildred after she overdoses and proceed to instill more of their zombie-ness into her. The fire department is run by machines that sniff out books and transport the firemen to the station. The City communicates to itself and each other via a machine (the Seashell). The door announces its guests. The house contains wall-length moving entertainment. Humans themselves have turned into zombies by eliminating feelings and reflection, essentially having their brains eradicated. A fitting symbol for their zombie-like state is the machines that cater to their needs.

The River and the Forest

The retired professors and academicians who were fugitives of society—the hobos—found refuge in the most primitive and untouched part of human society: the wild forest. Montag was urged to cross the river and follow the old railroad tracks in order to penetrate that desolate part of society. He let the river carry him. In contrast to decadent civilization, the river and the forest were untouched by human foibles. It was there that Montag had to flee in order for Civilization to be born and start anew.

This spirit of freshness and simplicity can also be found in Clarissa, an innocent, trusting, and intensely alive girl who is radically different from the peers of her generation. She has the childlike simplicity and appearance of an angel: "She had a very thin face… with a white silence and a glowing…" (10). Furthermore, “her face was slender and milk-white and it was a gentle hunger… her dress was white and it whispered… the white stir of her face turning…" (5) She inspires Montag and leaves him a better, more contemplative human being.

Clarissa's cherubic goodness serves as contrast to the sickly selfishness and decadence all around her. Montag's encounters with Clarissa started his journey to self-revitalization. He had to complete it by running along the river and into the forest to meet people like Clarissa who also hungered for truth.

Themes are the key ideas that over and again appear and are explored in an author's work.

Importance of Reflecting and Actively Engaging in Life

Although the theme of the book seems to be about the importance of education and books, Bradbury uses Faber to tell us that books are only valuable inasmuch as they lead us to critical thinking and to living life in a productive manner. This capacity can inform all aspects of life, such as through authentic and shared conversation, shared activities, discussion, reflective walks (whether solitary or not), self-reflection, and so forth. In fact, these were all activities that Civilization prohibited. Engaging in these experiences make all the difference between the vapid, apathetic Mildred and the vital, energetic Clarissa.

Granger gives the thought-provoking analogy of his grandfather who imparted the enduring impact of his experiences on him: "Grandfather's been dead for all these years, but if you lifted my skull, by God, in the convolutions of my brain you'd find the big ridges of his thumbprints" (157). Montag compares that to his own performance: What did he contribute? Only destruction, he believes. What of his wife? Mildred dies with an empty, starved face staring into her equally vapid "family." Her fingers, as far as he recalls, had either hung loosely by her side or had clutched cigarette butts. Neither he nor Mildred had achieved anything meaningful with their lives.

Montag had given ashes to the city. The citizens had contributed nothing meaningful. Everyone, Granger said, must give something. Some destroy, and others contribute. Those who destroy—they might as well have not existed at all. As for those who contribute, however, their achievements will be there for a lifetime.

Importance of Education

It is ignorant countries that have historically burnt books and oppressed their citizens. Those nations that censored education ultimately turned out to be dystopias with an inclination toward brutality, war, and tyranny. Examples range from Nazi Germany to Mao's China, from theocracies that censor education to socialist regimes. All have demonstrated oppression and, promising utopia and happiness, have been notorious for delivering the reverse.

Education in Fahrenheit 451 is associated with reflection and contemplation. As seen in Bradbury's life, it is not so much formal education that seems to matter to the author, but rather the ability and habit of closely reading books and studying nature, analyzing them, and using them productively as aids to intellectual self-betterment.

Technology as Durkheim's Rationalism

A love of technology is correlated with the social alienation of individuals, disinterest in life and people, increased discontent, religious disenchantment, and apathy toward the wonder and mystery of the world. This is a sociological idea that has been propounded by sociologists as famous as Marx, Durkheim, and Weber, each of whom has blamed modernity (in the form of technology) for man's growing alienation and disenfranchisement.

This disenfranchisement seems to be the theme of the novel. In fact, it is those characters who are most attached to technology who also seem to be the most humdrum. Mildred, for example, has three of her four walls furnished with mechanical figures that act as her sole source of interaction. She takes her beetle for joy rides and communicates via her Seashell. Communication with others, including her husband, is minimal; when it is performed, it is superficial, routine, and trite.

Faber, on the other hand, has his small television hidden tucked behind his picture frame, and Granger also has a small, scarcely watched television. It is striking that as Montag's reflective capacities mature, he relies more and more on his brain—for example, attempting to memorize the Bible—and uses his Seashell all the less. Technology diminishes in importance as the man's intellectual capacities mature.

While sociologists such as Durkheim considered technology in general to have a detrimental effect, Bradbury's condemnation was primarily aimed at television, though he expanded his criticism to other instruments, as well: "We have too many cell phones. We've got too many internets. We have got to get rid of those machines. We have too many machines now" (BBC News Online, November 30, 2011). Bradbury predicted a time when television would become increasingly calamitous and harmful, and believed that he was living through those times.

Robots, especially as portrayed in the novel, eliminate the need for human service and cheapen the existence of human beings. The more pivotal the part that technology plays in human existence, the less important humans become as they play an increasingly insignificant role. What you have, consequently, is a situation wherein:

There are too many [humans]… There are billions of us, and that's too many. Nobody knows anyone. Strangers come and violate you. Strangers come and cut your heart out. Strangers come and take your blood (p.16).

This is a frightening world. War ensues as the increasing emphasis on technology trivializes humans. In a world where robots become more important than human beings, the value of human life becomes cheap. People become easy prey for sport (as happens in this tale, with teenagers zestfully killing living beings), and life loses it significance.

War

It is the senselessness and meaninglessness of war that destroys civilizations. The atomic bomb—the result of a civilization that has ceased to care for its inhabitants—crushes everyone like ants. Bradbury understood the direct connection between ignorance, decadence, technological modernization of society, and war. Intolerance toward different kinds of knowledge leads to narrow-mindedness and superficiality. In Bradbury's novel we see technology stifle human creativity and intellectual vivacity. Emphasis on shallowness exaggerates superficiality and meaninglessness. Life, ipso facto, loses its importance, and war ensues as a result. War, in fact, becomes entertainment and fun. It is fun to triumph and see others suffer, and even more fun to cause this suffering. All is but a game, as long as the suffering occurs to others. Fahrenheit 451 serves as warning of the dangers of war that can result from the worship of technology and entertainment. The Civilization absorbed itself with two obsessions: entertainment and war. The one resulted in the other.

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