In The Life of the Mind, James V. Schall asserts that we must wake up to knowledge. Along with becoming aware, Schall also insists that we can grasp the very realization of not knowing [which] can exhilarate us too. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, protagonist Guy Montag experiences such an understanding through the exposure of his job and through his exposure to different people, for he began to see what he did not have.
Having pilfered books for some time now, Guy Montag must have unconsciously perceived a need for change. As if disembodied, Montag describes his thefts--So it was the hand that started it all. At his last fire, Montag sees his hand that 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. Montag’s conscience has awakened. He aptly depicts the burning books as living things now in his hands.
For the decade he spent as a firefighter, unquestioningly battling books and the independence they stood for, Montag fully sees what was denied him. Schall, too, describes this--We become luminous to ourselves only when we know what is not ourselves. It is the idea that as we are exposed to things outside of our daily life, the things we are not, that we do become more aware of who we truly are.
During the summer I was 10, I clearly remember having a similar experience at the library. My mother would drop my sister and me off at the city library for two hours, and we would hungrily range through shelf after shelf. That summer, I discovered the world of Cherry Ames, R.N. I had one time hoped to become a nurse when I grew up, but Cherry’s life was even more appealing—a life of danger and mystery, alongside the healing arts. In book after book of her series, my impressionable mind saw a world outside of myself that seemed very possible. I had the curiosity Schall speaks of--We need to surround ourselves with books because we are and ought to be curious about reality, about what is. Though embracing the life of Cherry Ames may not have been realistic, I was able to see outside of myself. But it was not only books that occupied Montag because he also became more aware of his need to change through the people he encountered.
One possibility is that Montag knew he was unhappy, for it was immediately after Clarisse asked him, Are you happy? that he was drawn to look at the air grate where he had unconsciously hidden his books. This realization connects to his memory of meeting the old man in the park and whatever was shared there, again a possibility of becoming more aware as encounters with different people overlapped with the life of books.
Clarisse, however, awakened a full awareness within him, boldly telling him, You never stop to think what I’ve asked you. And she knew he was different from the other firemen. Her presence and interactions with him brought his unconscious actions to the forefront. It’s like having a friend who is so engaged with the world about them that they enable you to see more as well. Much like Schall, Clarisse would agree to know is also to be.
Now, it’s as if Montag’s senses have become alive and contrast starkly to his surroundings and home life. His awareness gouges a rift in daily routine that is unmistakable as his sleep, relationships, and work are all affected. Even in her stupor, his wife Mildred notices him thinking. In his last fire, Montag knew he could not hurt people anymore because he was aware of the meaninglessness within the people and society about him, the control measures Captain Beatty mentioned that kept people happy.
Ironically, the Captain’s own comments to Montag revealed the government’s place of control and confirmed the life change within Montag—he determines to never come in again and to uncover his hidden books—choices that are irreversible. Montag may not know what his future holds at this point, but he now has come to an awareness just as Schall details that everything is new.