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Spelunking with Ray Bradbury: the Allegory of the Cave in Fahrenheit 451.

According to Holtsmark, "for reasons of plot, character, and allusion, among others, myth is a central feature of ancient Greek literature, [and] it has appeared tacitly axiomatic from the time of antiquity that myth informs most narrative literature" (2001, 24). Greek authors turned to myth "at those crucial points at which pure reason seem[ed] unable to advance further" (Kirk 1970, 259). Foremost among the mythic themes in Greek literature is the word katabasis, which "literally means 'a going down, a descent,' capturing the imagined physical orientation of the other world relative to this one" (Holtsmark 25). Obvious manifestations of this theme can be found in the Homeric journeys of the Odyssey (1996) and the Iliad (1991). In both books, Homer utilizes physical caves to accent the literary descent. Although he rejected certain literary applications of myth, especially among the poets, Plato "reasserted the role of myth in his own practice" (Kirk 1970, 250). In particular, Plato asserted the role of myth in the dialogue of the Republic when "reason seemed unable to advance further."

The katabasis tradition is introduced into the Republic at the beginning of Book VII when Socrates asks Glaucon to "make an image of our nature in its education and want of education, likening it to a condition of the following kind. See human beings as though they were in an underground cave-like dwelling" (1968, 514a). This passage is the opening line of Plato's Allegory of the Cave. With little question, scholars agree that the Allegory "is the keystone of the dialogue" (Sandoz 1971, 62). The textual relevance of the Allegory for Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is obvious in Montag's hope that "[m]aybe the books can get us half out of the cave" (1953, 74). Perhaps less obvious, the following analysis demonstrates that Plato's Allegory is the central metaphor for the novel. More specifically, the Allegory provides a template by which Bradbury's characters can be analyzed and distinguished.

Initially, this analysis rests upon the explicit linkage between literature and political philosophy. With respect to literature, Zuckert insists that novels can be "forms of political thought" (1990, ix). Reflecting her subtitle, Political Philosophy in Novel Form, Zuckert examines the perspective of the author and suggests, "novelists' often differing theoretical reflections have led them nevertheless to agree on the need for literary political teaching" (ix). With respect to the audience, she suggests that "aware of readers' antipathy to arguments by authority, novelists appeal to readers' own experience by enlisting their sympathies through empathetic identification with the protagonists of the stories" (247). Complementing Zuckert's view, Strauss maintains that "[t]he study of the literary question is an important part of the study of what philosophy is" (1964, 52). Using Fahrenheit 451 as an example, science fiction author Frederik Pohl similarly argues "there is very little science fiction, perhaps no good science fiction at all, that is not to some degree political" (1997, 7). The linkage between the two fields rests upon the fact that "[p]olitical theorists and science fiction writers alike are continually aware of the role of language" (Hassler and Wilcox 1997, 1).

With respect to language, the significance of metaphor is probably the single most analyzed aspect of Bradbury's fiction: Mogen (1986), Watt (1980, 2000), McNelly (1980), Mengeling (1980), Wolfe (1980) McGiveron (1996), and Sisario (1970). Scholarly attraction to the concept is best explained by McNelly: "For Bradbury, a metaphor is not merely a figure of speech, it is a vital concept, a method he uses for comprehending one reality and expressing it in terms of another; it permits the reader to perceive what the author is saying" (1982). Nevertheless, for all the attraction to the concept, whether scholars use the term metaphor, imagery, symbol, or, like Mogen, allegory, they do not discuss the Allegory. Only Pell (1980), who links Bradbury's imagery to Aristotle, and Spencer (1999), who discusses Bradbury in the context of Plato's Phaedrus, address Bradbury's relationship to his ancient Greek predecessors. However, neither Pell nor Spencer link Bradbury or Fahrenheit 451 to Plato's Allegory.

Finally, the present application of the Allegory is rooted in Morson's (1981) discussion of "combined genres" and his delineation of the utopian "masterplot." Like Zuckert, Morson argues that writers "exploit an audience's favorable disposition" (95) and exploit the "readers' willingness to think in unfamiliar or nonhabitual ways" (94). However, unlike Zuckert's broader discussion of novels, Morson narrows his application to a discussion of a more particular genre. Although he admits that he is not concerned with "defining" (ix), Morson initially labels Fahrenheit 451 as "anti-utopia" (117). Later, he settles on dystopia: "Whereas utopias invite their readers to contemplate a world in which they would at last be at home, dystopias invite their readers to contemplate one in which they would have 'no place' at all" (141-142). Morson concludes that "combined genres are not in principle incompatible" and "it is quite possible to read Fahrenheit 451 as both science fiction and anti-utopia" (117). Broadening the idea of "combined genres" a bit further, Sargent proposes a more inclusive definition that encompasses both "anti-utopia," or dystopian, literature and utopian literature: "Whatever we label these works--be it utopias, social science fiction, or tales of the future--they are part of the utopian tradition since they do present fairly detailed descriptions of nonexistent social systems" (1975, 144). This approach allows scholars to avoid the tangle of definition and classification so evident in the literature on Fahrenheit 451 (Reid 2000, 7-13).

Definitional questions aside, it is Morson's application of the Allegory that undergirds his analysis. Although earlier scholarship linked Dostoevsky to the Allegory (Sandoz 1971, xiv), Morson broadened this linkage to suggest that Plato's Allegory, as well as the counterplots of "the madman" and "escape," provide the "masterplot" for the entire genre of utopian fiction (38). He maintains "most utopias describe a similar journey from darkness to light, followed by a real or imagined return" (89). With specific reference to dystopias, Morson notes that because "[a]n anti-generic work must parody a target genre," the Republic serves as a "negative model" for Fahrenheit 451. However, Morson's reference to Fahrenheit 451 is related to Plato's "suspicion of poetry" and not specifically to the Allegory. Whereas Morson could not, in a single volume, address the myriad applications of his theory, this analysis reexamines and expands Morson's theory in a character-driven discussion of Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.

In short, Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 provides a venue for an interdisciplinary examination of the linkage between literature and philosophy, the concept of metaphor, and the application of a unifying theory that places the book into a broader context.

The Allegory

Morson's delineation of the Allegory is limited to the "masterplot" and the counterplots of "the madman" and "escape." While this three-part discussion was adequate for Morson's purpose and consistent with what is defined as "the thematic simplicity, almost shallowness, of most Greek myths (Kirk 1970, 187), the discussion below is based upon a six-part division that focuses specifically on the cave's inhabitants: Those who are bound in the cave; the cave's puppeteers; the madman; those who escape from the cave; those who help the escapees; and those who would return to the cave.

The Allegory begins with those who are bound in the cave. "They are in it from childhood with their legs and necks in bonds so that they are fixed, seeing only in front of them," seeing nothing "other than the shadows cast by the fire on the side of the cave facing them" (514a,b, 515a). Socrates concludes that "[s]uch men would hold that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of artificial things" (515c). Behind those who are bound are the cave's puppeteers. "Human beings carrying all sorts of artifacts, which project above the wall, and statues of men and other animals wrought from stone, wood and every kind of material; as is to be expected, some of the carriers utter sounds while others are silent" (514c, 515a). Third, is the component that Morson identifies as the "madman" subplot: "[i]f they were somehow able to get their hands on and kill the man who attempts to release and lead up, wouldn't they kill him?" (517a).

The next distinction is the one Morson labels as the "escape." "[I]f someone dragged him away from there by force along the rough, steep, upward way and didn't let him go before he had dragged him out into the light of the sun" (515e). The discussion below divides this escape into two parts. Morson focuses on the reaction of the person being dragged up. If they were "release[d] from bonds and folly" and "compelled to stand up, to turn his neck around, to walk and look up toward the light." Socrates argued that he would be "distressed" and this would all be done "in pain because he is dazzled," and he would "be unable to see even one of the things now said to be true" (515c, 515e, 516a). While the reaction is important, a character-driven analysis should also consider the "someone" who does the dragging. This "someone" is described by Bloom as a "guide" (1968, 403). The final aspect of the Allegory consists of the return to the cave. Here again, this analysis departs from Morson by subdividing the "madman" subplot. When faced with the choice of returning to the shadows of the cave, Glaucon concludes that the former inhabitant of the cave "would prefer to undergo everything rather than live that way" (516d).

Morson argues, "works of this highly determined genre repeat that plot, either in part or in its entirety." The discussion below examines how Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 repeats the six parts of the Allegory in their entirety. Touponce noted "the complaint that utopian novels are more concerned with ideas than characters, and present characters who are simply one-dimensional spokesmen the author's social hypothesis, is often voiced." He concluded that, "this charge [cannot] be brought successfully against Fahrenheit 451" (1984, 110). For example, scholars have explored the multi-dimensionality of Montag. Hoskinson discusses "Montag's liberation from Captain Beatty" (1995, 345). Similarly, but perhaps a bit more philosophical, Zipes maintains that Montag "begins to assume command of his own destiny" (2000, 131). Nevertheless, a narrow focus on Montag's evolution from cave dweller/puppeteer to guide, although reasonably within the metaphor of the cave, diminishes the literary value of Bradbury's other characters. While the number of named and un-named characters is not large, each one finds his or her own place in the Allegory.

Allogorical Application

Amis maintains, "Bradbury's is the most skillfully drawn of all science fiction's conformist hells" (2000, 96). Montag's conformist colleagues find themselves bound in the cave and testifying to shadows in response to Montag's question about the history of firemen. "Stoneman and Black drew forth their rule books, which also contained brief histories of the Fireman of America." "Established, 1790, to burn English-influenced books in the Colonies. First Fireman: Benjamin Franklin" (34). While Stoneman and Black acknowledge the shadows they have been shown, Montag's wife, Mildred, epitomizes Socrates' conclusion that the inhabitants of the cave "would hold that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of artificial things." Mildred has her sleeping tablets (13), electric bees (18), seashell (42), and thimble (48). Most importantly, Mildred has her "walls" (44). Here she has her own "part" (20) in a fictional "family" (77). Here, "Three White Cartoon Clowns chopped off each other's limbs to the accompaniment of immense incoming tides of laughter" (94). Mildred has become so engrossed in her shadow "family" that she cannot remember when she and Montag met and concludes, "it doesn't matter" (43).

Captain Beatty is the best single character to represent the "human beings carrying all sorts of artifacts." Unlike those bound in the cave, these puppeteers know that the figures on the wall are mere "shadows of artificial things." In short, the puppeteers know the truth about the cave and Beatty knows the truth about the world around him. He is both a representative of the "exploiters" (McGiveron 1996, 249) and a defender of "a consumer culture completely divorced from political awareness" (Seed 1994, 228). Unlike Stoneman and Black, the Captain knows the secret history of their profession and he tells Montag. "I'll let you in on it" (54). Quoting Dr. Johnson, he tells Montag, both in a dream and in person, "He is no wise man that will quit a certainty for an uncertainty" (106). And Beatty knows the certainties. They are defined in people like Mildred. The certainties of this world are 3-D sex magazines, sex, heroin, and noncombustible data (57-58, 61).

A casual reading of the text might suggest that Guy Montag fulfills the role of Morson's "madman." The real and televised pursuit of Montag is illustrative of the inhabitants of the cave rising up against one "who attempts to release and lead up." "Police alert. Wanted: Fugitive in city. Has committed murder and crimes against the State. Name: Guy Montag.... watch for a man alone, on foot" (124). However, Montag lives. A more intriguing illustrator of the madman subplot would be Clarisse McClellan. Unlike the drivers racing down the highways, Clarisse knew what grass, flowers, and dew were (9). She let raindrops fall on her face (21) and she "smelled old leaves" (29). Montag exclaims, "She saw everything. She didn't do anything to anyone" (114). This statement is, of course, untrue because Clarisse's "madness" was to go down into the cave and lead Montag up. Her eventual fate, however, is something that Bradbury only gradually reveals. At first, Montag simply notices that "Clarisse was gone" (32). Later, Mildred suggests that she was "[r]un over by a car." "I don't know. But I think she's dead" (47).

With Montag unable to remember her face, Captain Beatty intones that the "poor girl's better off dead" (60). It is not until the final confrontation between Beatty and Montag, that a more sinister end is suggested. Catching Montag's wistful glance "Beatty snorted." "Oh, no! You weren't fooled by that little idiot's routine, were you?" (113). "She chewed you around, didn't she? One of those damn do-gooders with their shocked, holier-than-thou silences, their talent making others feel guilty" (114). Although Bradbury does not make it explicit, the text suggests that, unlike the "madman" Montag, who lives, the "madman" Clarisse is killed by the inhabitants of the cave (Sisario 1970, 203; Hoskinson 1995, 348).

Although the death of the "madman" is a significant component of the Allegory, Plato's text does allow for the successful release of the cave's inhabitants. Here this analysis turns to the "someone" who drags the inhabitant "into the light of the sun." The choice of illustrative characters, Faber and Granger, is fairly simple. Faber admits that "we do need knowledge" (86) but he is initially reluctant to join Montag. Later, he continues the work of Clarisse by helping Montag escape. In the novel, Faber helps Montag escape from the police. In the metaphor, he helps Montag escape from the cave. "I feel like I'm doing what I should've done a lifetime ago. For a little while I'm not afraid. Maybe it's because I'm doing the right thing at last" (131). Continuing the work of Faber, and helping Montag on his journey out of the city and out of the cave is Granger. Their world, their cave, had been destroyed in an instant. In the aftermath, there would be "a lot of lonely people" (164). These survivors would be trying to find their own path "along the rough steep, upward way." Granger and his companions "can be of some use in the world" (152) by leading them into the light. Strauss argues, "the Republic never abandons the fiction that the just city as a society of human beings is possible" (1964, 129). While Granger thinks they "will win out in the long run," the text also suggests that he has his doubts about the future of humanity: "But even when we had the books on hand, a long time ago, we didn't use what we got out of them. We went right on insulting the dead. We went right on spitting in the graves of all the poor ones who died before us" (164). Bloom maintains that the one who drags people out of the cave and into the light "can only lead a few" (1968, 403). Similarly Granger argues that "[w]e pick up a few more people every generation" (163).

Socrates maintains that the person dragged into the light of the sun would be "distressed" (515e). Jowett (Plato 1948) translates this passage as "suffer sharp pains." The conflict between truth and shadow in Fahrenheit 451 is equally painful. When confronted by Montag, Faber exclaims, "I care so much I'm sick." This same physical distress is revealed when Montag's reading of Dover Beach struck a long-buried nerve in Mrs. Phelps. "She sobbed uncontrollably" and "her faced squeezed itself out of shape" (100). These examples notwithstanding, it is Montag himself who best illustrates the physical dimensions of facing the truth. After burning the unnamed neighbor of Mrs. Blake, Montag "had chills and fever in the morning" (48) and "suddenly the odor of kerosene made him vomit" (49). Thrust into moderating a debate between Faber and Beatty, his "head whirled sickeningly" (107). Just before the death of Beatty, Montag feels an earthquake "shaking and falling and shivering inside him and he stood there, his knees half bent under the great load of tiredness and outrage" (118). After Beatty's death, "Montag kept his sickness down long enough" (120).

The choice of characters representing those "would prefer to undergo everything rather than live that way" is, in one case, textually obvious. The unnamed neighbor of Mrs. Blake didn't simply die in the firemen's inferno; she committed suicide. She would not be forced to live in a world that contained only shadows. "The woman on the porch reached out with contempt to them all and struck the kitchen match against the railing" (40). Montag himself suggests the second example of refusing to go back into the cave: "Beatty wanted to die" (122). In the climatic scene between Beatty and Montag, Beatty's can no longer bear the role of puppeteer. In fact, Beatty dares Montag to kill him: "There is no terror, Cassius, in your threats, for I am arm'd so strong in honesty that they pass me as an idle wind which I respect not." "Go ahead now, you second-hand litterateur, pull the trigger" (119). In the end, Faber's thought that Beatty "could be one of us" (91) was closer to the truth than either he or Montag ever imagined.

Kirk Suggests

Kirk suggests that Greek myths "can hardly be understood in isolation" (v). As the discussion above demonstrates, the same should be said about Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. While Plato's Allegory of the Cave is the defining metaphor for Fahrenheit 451, it must be recognized that the Allegory itself is part of the larger katabasis tradition and that that tradition is itself part of an even larger tradition in Greek literature. Kirk maintains "the detailed study of mythical themes in the literature of the classical period in Greece is essential for the understanding of the whole culture" (1). This analysis suggests that a detailed study of the mythical themes in Fahrenheit 451 is essential for the understanding of Bradbury. Moreover, by examining the linkage between literature and philosophy, the role of metaphor, and the application of Morson's theory, this analysis transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries.

Khanna's asserts that the "disjunction between theory and praxis, literature and politics, art and life, or text and body is exactly what the utopian enterprise denies" (39). Keeping in mind Sargent's inclusive approach to the "utopian enterprise," this analysis suggests that Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 provides ample evidence for Khanna's assertion on all counts. While one could analyze the relationship between theory and praxis, art and life, and text and body within the novel, Fahrenheit 451 best exemplifies the conjunction of literature and politics as defined by the literary theories of Zuckert and Strauss. Moreover, Fahrenheit 451 illustrates the centrality of the role of language in the science fiction genre.

Bradbury's use of metaphor is, as was demonstrated above, central to the role of language in Fahrenheit 451. In the same way that Plato inserted myth into the Republic, Bradbury borrowed the "masterplot" of the Allegory of the Cave. In substituting metaphor for reason, like Plato, Bradbury may have sought to "replace opinion about the nature of political things by the knowledge of the nature of political things" (Strauss 1959, 11-12). There is, however, one key difference between Bradbury's cave and Plato's cave. In assessing the Platonic model, Strauss insists, "the Republic never abandons the fiction that the just city as a society of human beings is possible" [emphasis added]. Strauss argues that "[t]he just city is impossible. It is impossible because it is against nature. It is against nature that there should ever be a 'cessation of evils.'" (1964, 129;127). Unlike Strauss, Bradbury has hope for a "cessation of evils" and, unlike Plato's Republic, Fahrenheit 451 was not constructed solely for contemplation.

According to Bloom's analysis of the Republic, "[t]he philosopher does not bring light to the cave, he escapes into the light and can lead a few to it; he is a guide, not a torchbearer" (1968, 403). Consistent with Bloom's analysis, Faber, Granger and Montag serve as Platonic guides in the text and, in fact, only lead a few to the light. Regardless of the role of these characters in the text, it can be demonstrated that through the text Bradbury himself relished the role of torchbearer in his quest to lead the cave dwellers to enlightenment. Here, again, Morson's theory helps to define the voice of the author in utopian fiction.

If, as was argued above, neither Montag nor any other single character is a spokesman for the author, how is the author's voice revealed? Morson inquires, "[i]nasmuch as literary utopias are either entirely or mostly fictional, and the 'fictional contract' suspends authorial responsibility for statements represented rather than made, it may be asked how is it possible to say what the author advocates." His query is answered in that "[t]he conventions of utopia provide that if the work contains a nonfictional section, its statements are to be taken as authoritative" (Morson 76). Of course, many editions of Fahrenheit 451 contain nonfictional sections such as Bradbury's "Afterword" or "Coda." Here, like Bellamy's "Postscript" to Looking Backward (1986), Bradbury speaks for himself: "For it is a mad world and it will get madder if we allow the minorities, be they dwarf or giant, orangutan or dolphin, nuclear-head or water-conservationalist, pro-computerologist or Neo Luddite, simpleton or sage, to interfere with aesthetics" (178). Obviously, Bradbury's message is not in Montag or, as Touponce indicated, any single one-dimensional character. Bradbury's message is in the entire text and in the reader's response to it. In answer to the question "can books convert dystopia into utopia," Bradbury said "I feel that what I had to say in Fahrenheit 451 is valid today and will continue to be valid here and in other countries in other years" (Spencer 2000, 104). He was right.

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Author:Connor, George E.
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Date:Dec 22, 2004
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