Fahrenheit 451 and the Good Woman/Bad Woman Dichotomy

I just started teaching Fahrenheit 451 with my honors English classes, and I’m so excited to be rereading talking about it. There are so many themes that are incredibly pertinent to our time. It never ceases to amaze me that this book, written in 1953, predicted so many of the shortcomings of our society. People relying on television for their relationships, earbuds to tune out the world, and burning books that make them uncomfortable.

Fahrenheit 451 is the reason I became an English teacher. I first read it in seventh grade because my English teacher at the time thought I would like it; he was right. It quickly became my favorite book, and I soon after devoured every story and novel by Ray Bradbury I could get my hands on. I cheered Guy Montag on as he fought for the right to read, to be sure, but I was more interested in the novel’s catalyst, Clarisse McClellan. Clarisse enters and leaves the story within the first quarter of the book, but it is because of her that Montag starts to question the society in which he lives.

I was much more than interested in Clarisse, though. I wanted to be her. Montag, upon first meeting her, is obsessed with her peculiar qualities, particularly the way she makes him think about himself. He associates her with beauty and glowing perfection, comparing her to snow, the moon, a glowing white clock you look at in the middle of the night, and, finally, a mirror: “…for how many people did you know who refracted your own light to you? People were more often – he searched for a simile, found one in his work – torches, blazing away until they whiffed out” (11).

Clarisse is positioned in stark contrast to Montag’s wife, Mildred. Where Clarisse is bright, curious, and engaging, Mildred is essentially dumb, blank, and generally associated with the night. While Clarisse gets Montag thinking about how the world could be, Mildred shows Montag how the world is, and it isn’t a pretty sight. Her hair is burned by so many chemicals, she’s stick-thin, and – the horror! – she doesn’t even want children, positioning her as cold-hearted and empty. When I first read the book at age 13, I looked around me, and many of my peers were turning into Mildred: frying their hair with bleach and straightening irons, dieting and exercising to the extreme, and refusing to read or think deeper than absolutely necessary.

In many ways, I have succeeded in becoming Clarisse. My job is one that asks me to reflect students’ “light” back to them, as Clarisse does for Montag. I try to get them to think about themselves in new ways, and I try to remain thoughtful and curious. However, I have some Mildred in me, too. I love fashion and I will burn my hair to get the right look. Furthermore, I’m not entirely opposed to turning on the TV or putting in my headphones and tuning out the world for hours at a time. The truth of it is, though, that, as a human being, I cannot be Clarisse and not Mildred. I am multi-faceted. I am a little bit of both.

This is the classic feminist’s dilemma: the female dichotomy. Written in 1953, this trope made a lot of sense, and it still does. Women are expected to be either Clarisse or Mildred, Taylor Swift or Kesha, Christina Aguilera or Britney Spears. You are supposed to fit into a little box: good or evil, light or dark, pure or tainted. The problem is, though, that women don’t fit into boxes; they can be both good and evil, light and dark, Clarisse and Mildred.

Fahrenheit 451 is a classic piece of literature, and it is still one of my favorites, even after I’ve combed through it with my feminist lens. It still holds important themes we need to talk about in our society, especially while people are still beholden to their televisions and iPods, and while people are still burning books and championing an unthinking society. Just because it is important, though, doesn’t mean it isn’t flawed. Bradbury’s use of women as foils and catalysts but nothing more doesn’t get a passing grade from this feminist but, even so, I won’t stop teaching it or, for that matter, loving it.

Photo Credit: PjotrP

3 thoughts on “Fahrenheit 451 and the Good Woman/Bad Woman Dichotomy

  1. I’m guessing that while you teach the book, you make note of its flaws. Writing female characters as foils rather than real people is a classic. Bet you’re familiar with that series of videos about movie tropes, like the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.”

  2. Sorry but you could never become Clarisse, because she is an ideal concept, not a human being, created by a writer who was completely clueless as to what real women are.

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