Here we go everybody. At long last, we’re up and running, and we’re starting with some content regarding Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi classic, Fahrenheit 451. Enjoy the episode and transcript for your resources.
I don’t want to get into any spoilers right away which is why today we’re only looking at the first page of the novel, but in case you know nothing at all about Fahrenheit, here are the basics for what you need to know:
Guy Montag is a fireman, but in the world of Fahrenheit 451, firemen don’t put out fires, they start them. So at the beginning of the book, Montag is happy in his job and takes delight in torching people’s contraband.
So let’s look at how Bradbury is setting up his character and the world in this first scene
“IT WAS A PLEASURE TO BURN.
IT was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning. “
Let’s start with connotation. Connotation is all of the connections and associations we have with a word. These associations are built up over time within a given culture until people hear one word and immediately think of the association instead of the actual definition. Connotation brings up new ideas and emotions that add to a scene or argument.
For example: we are told, “With the brass nozzle in his fists,” which seems like a very simple line, but when we remember to ask ourselves why a writer would choose his or her words, we have to ask ourselves what would be different if the line said “in his hands.” “In his hands sound too gentle because when I think of hands, I think of them open, passive, maybe even gentle, but this is a guy who is burning up somebody’s house! So Bradbury uses the word “fists” because it is more forceful, intense, possibly violent. There’s a hostility that’s showing up here that hands just wouldn’t have accomplished.
This is in contrast to the next reference to Montag’s hands, those of a conductor in front of a symphony. This is the gentleness I’m talking about. Now, his hands couple with the power of metaphor give us a sense of beauty and art.
Connotation is a constant in Fahrenheit, and I would argue pretty much everywhere that words are written and spoken. Because many things come thousands of years’ worth of meaning and significance, which is why the snake metaphor here tells us almost everything we need to know about Montag and the world in which he lives.
In case you missed the memo: snakes are always bad. Like, always. If a snake shows up in a book, just assume something bad or evil is about to go down because from the Garden of Eden to Slytherin, snakes always represent something kind of evil. Bradbury plants a snake image in the first page, and it creates a pretty clear sign that Montag’s job, system, or government is no good. This is pushed even further when that python is spraying venom. Venom only works once it’s inside something, coursing through the veins and what not, so it is usually used to signal some kind of corruption.
Bradbury is metaphor crazy, and it’s important to know that going into this book requires you to always rethink what you just read, because this metaphor, and others like it, is doing double duty. Montag is holding a hose, so calling is a python gives us a sense of its literal shape, weight, maybe even texture. In short, this metaphor is used to build the imagery of the scene. And the connotations of a python is something that crushes and robs you of breath. Python’s aren’t venomous, so I’ll mark that against Bradbury, but he maybe gets a pass because the snake image is probably more important than getting his snake trivia.
Venom is important to our understanding of this world we’re about to enter. Venom only works once it’s inside something, coursing through the veins and what not, so it is usually used to signal some kind of corruption.
But there is something weird about this opening of this novel: a lot of the imagery kind of clashes together. One one side you have pleasure, the symphony, marshmallows, and fireflies, and on the other side you have fists, snakes, dead pigeons, and the literal burning of somebody’s house.
If that all seems to conflict with each other, then you have an understanding of what Montag is about to go through. Because this juxtaposition is shows the inner workings of Montag’s mind and soul as he questions his reality. This page presents a paradox that Montag will need to try and resolve, and it’s that paradox that makes this a great opening.
Photo Credit: “Book Burning” by Flickr user pcorreia.