We have all read the stories of fictional characters that have captured our imaginations or inspired us. Who would not wish for the resilience of Frodo Baggins, the courage of Beowulf, or to be a friend as loyal as Horatio? We hold these characters in our souls and think of them when the circumstances of our lives warrant seeking their counsel. During the holiday season, when life accelerates under the pressures of shopping, exotic food preparation, and the other requisite rituals the culture has fastened to this time of year, we need to reflect on characters that can help us find our sanity again and teach us to slow down and appreciate the more subtle pleasures this reverent season has to offer. Beneath the glitz and usual red and green trappings, there is a beauty too often overlooked. Who better than to help us rediscover it than Clarisse McClellan of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451; the slender, violet-eyed teenager whose face exuded the “strangely comfortable and rare and gently flattering light of the candle” (5) and who looked upon the world with “a kind of gentle hunger that touched over everything with tireless curiosity” (3)? Let’s take a look at some of the lessons of life and spirituality that Clarisse has to share, so that we remember to stop and pay attention to the things that matter most.
In the dystopian future of Bradbury’s novel, the book itself has been banned, seen as the primary obstacle to the achievement of happiness. Books have the capacity to induce introspection and trouble the mind by raising issues of controversy. They can offend specific populations. They also contradict one another, leading readers in search of the truth to become lost. So go the claims of the “firemen,” the government agents tasked with destroying any and all books they discover by burning them, as well as the houses in which they are found. The novel’s main character, Guy Montag, is a fireman. He goes about his book and house burning tasks with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction—at least until the novel’s seventh page, after he has encountered Clarisse McClellan for the first time.
When Montag first encounters her, he is walking home from his work shift and sees Clarisse coming down the street, using her foot to stir leaves that are blowing about on the sidewalk. She doesn’t see him at first, too caught up in the details of her activity. “Her head was half bent to watch her shoes stir the circling leaves…the dark eyes were so fixed to the world that no move escaped them” (Bradbury 3). This passage reminds me of someone engaged in a walking meditation. Clarisse lives in the moment, paying close attention to the world around her, soaking in every sensation of her surrounding environment. This describes a capacity that many of us have allowed to be swallowed up by the relentless pace at which our society moves. Jon Kabat Zinn, in Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, puts it this way:
…in any moment we may be only partially aware of what is actually occurring in the present. We can miss many of our moments because we are not fully here for them…Unawareness can dominate the mind in any moment; consequently, it can affect everything we do. We may find that much of the time we are really on automatic pilot, functioning mechanically without being fully aware of what we are doing or experiencing. It’s as if we are not really at home a lot of the time or, put another way, only half awake” (Kabat-Zinn 8).
Ray Bradbury saw the way the wind was blowing in 1951. He feared that the advent of devices such as the television would significantly impact our capacity to think slowly and deeply, leading to a society permeated by fast moving sensory impressions. The mindfulness we see practiced by Clarisse McClellan is the exception, not the rule, in the novel’s broken society.
When Guy Montag asks Clarisse what she’s doing walking the streets at such a late hour, she responds, “Isn’t this a nice time of night to walk? I like to smell things and look at things, and sometimes stay up all night, walking, and watch the sun rise” (Bradbury 5). Once again, here is a young lady who lives in the moment, reveling in the quiet, contemplative atmosphere found on the deserted streets late at night, as well as in all of the sensory impressions that come with it. I too enjoyed this as a child. I would wait until my parents were asleep, and then quietly exit the house and walk through the neighborhoods of my hometown. I loved being alone with my thoughts, breathing in the coolness of the evening air, and listening to the silence. Admittedly, I never stayed out walking until dawn, but I have seen my share of sunrises, too. The world has changed since then. In many places, the mere thought of walking the streets late at night would not occur to most, for safety reasons alone. I am glad I never had to fear my own streets—or that I was naïve enough not to. There are still places one can find where it is safe to “smell things and look at things” without interruption. You just have to value such experiences enough to seek them out.
As Montag and Clarisse continue their conversation, the topic of high speed traffic comes up:
I sometimes think drivers don’t know what grass is, or flowers, because they never see them slowly. If you showed a driver a green blur, Oh yes! he’d say, that’s grass! A pink blur? That’s a rose garden! White blurs are houses. Brown blurs are cows. My uncle drove slowly on a freeway once. He drove forty miles an hour and they jailed him for two days. Isn’t that funny, and sad too?…Have you seen the two-hundred-foot-long billboards in the country beyond town? Did you know that once billboards were only twenty feet long? But cars started rushing by so quickly they had to stretch the advertising out so it would last (Bradbury 6-7).
Okay, so things haven’t quite gotten that out of control as of yet, but the passage speaks metaphorically of the frenetic pace demanded of life in today’s hyper-connected world. People are always moving, going from one destination to another, passing the time between destinations by employing distractions (such as texting while driving) in order that the mind need not be left idle enough to reflect on its own thoughts. It is as though unoccupied time, time where genuine thinking and reflection might occur, is anathema to the modern life experience. In Clarisse’s world, this accelerated pace is by design. Front porches, gardens, any place or set up that might lead to enough relaxed, leisure time to think has been eliminated. Keep people moving, distract them, and exhaust them. Thinking leads to unhappiness, because if you truly take the time to contemplate the world, you’ll see its injustices and flaws, which will bother you. In the novel’s “perfect” world, we can’t have that.
When Montag and Clarisse reach her house, all of the lights are on, where all other houses on the street sit in darkness. Intrigued, Montag asks her about it:
“What’s going on?” Montag had rarely seen that many house lights.
“Oh, just my mother and father and uncle sitting around, talking. It’s like being a pedestrian, only rarer…”
“But what do you talk about?” (Bradbury 7).
Imagine—a family just sitting around, late and night, actually talking to each other. In this dystopian world, such behavior is peculiar, if not downright seditious. Montag himself can’t believe it, as there would just be nothing to discuss. A week or so later, when Montag runs into Clarisse out in the street once again, she once again brings up the topic of conversation in their accelerated world:
“Sometimes I sneak around and listen in subways. Or I listen at soda-fountains, and do you know what?”
“People don’t talk about anything.”
“Oh, they must!”
“No, not anything. They name a lot of cars or clothes or swimming pools mostly and say how swell! But they all say the same things, and nobody says anything different from anyone else” (Bradbury 28).
Simple conversation, discussions of actual substance, barely exist in the world Bradbury crafted—and they are becoming less common in our own. Sherry Turkle, in her recent book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, reflects on this emerging reality:
Recent research shows that people are uncomfortable if left alone with their thoughts, even for a few minutes…These days, we see that when people are alone at a stop sign or in the checkout line at the supermarket, they seem almost panicked and they reach for their phones. We are so accustomed to being always connected that being alone seems like a problem technology should solve…Afraid of being alone, we struggle to pay attention to ourselves. And what suffers is our ability to pay attention to each other (Turkle 10).
I have seen this phenomenon firsthand, as I am sure have you. What conversations most do have are about the trending tweet rather than the new releases at the indie bookstore; a favorite pop-culture icon as opposed to, say, a favorite literary character. We need to rediscover what really matters to us, and work to engage in substantive, thoughtful conversations about all of it.
Clarisse’s final gift to us is a question she poses to Guy Montag at the end of their very first meeting. She asks him, “Are you happy?” He responds incredulously with, “Am I what?” However, as he actually contemplates the question, he comes to realize that no, he really isn’t; this is likely the case for many people today. We are able to put up a pretty impressive façade from day to day, convincing those around us that things couldn’t be better. At the same time, beneath smiles that never touch the eyes, we are fighting battles of which no other person is aware.
This time of year, we make lists of the things we hope will make us happy, and unwrap them on Christmas morning with that hope in high gear. Months, weeks, sometimes only days later, the facades go back up, the battles begin anew, and those items we were so counting on to deliver to us our lost happiness carry their false hopes under the bed, to the back of the closet, or into the trash. We need ask Clarisse’s question of ourselves on a regular basis, and if the answer is genuinely in the negative, we need to seek that which will truly turn things around, no matter how risky doing what it will take to make us happy seems to be. The clock is ticking on all of our lives—we can’t spend them behind the facades.
So, this holiday season, take these lessons from Clarisse McClellan to heart:
- Take some time during the hustle and bustle of shopping and feast-prepping to just sit with a hot cup of tea and be present in the moment. Some of my fondest memories of Christmas Eve when I was a child were not in the hectic present opening frenzy (yes, we opened them on Christmas Eve), but in the soothing, silent moments spent sitting on the porch well after everyone had gone home or gone to bed, watching the snow drift down to coat the world. Find a moment like that for yourself, and revel in it.
- Slow down. It seems impossible with a to do list as long as they tend to get this time of year, but there are so many slow sights and sounds to catch that will bring you snippets of joy. Take the time to watch for them.
- Engage your friends and loved ones in deep, meaningful conversations. Put away the phone, or ipad, or whatever it is you may be tethered to (if you are, that is; if not, I salute you), look one another in the eye, smile, and tell some stories, reliving memories while making new ones.
- Most of all, do what makes you happy. If you aren’t happy and know that to be the true state of affairs, resolve to do something about that. Even if it is just a baby step toward what you feel would bring genuine happiness to your life, you need to take it. Sure, it’s risky sometimes—but it’s worth it.
No one (except Ray Bradbury that is) knows exactly what happened to Clarisse McClellan. Supposedly she was “run over by a car” (Bradbury 44). No known witnesses. No body. Nothing. Just the words of Guy Montag’s sleeping-pill addicted wife Mildred to go on. I don’t think she’s dead. In fact, I know she isn’t—because she lives in me. May her legacy be with you during the holidays—and beyond.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. Simon and Schuster, 2013.
Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and
Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. Bantam Books, 2013.
Turkle, Sherry. Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. Penguin Books, 2015.