Fantastic Mirrors in Bradbury’s Works

Science-fiction as one of genre in literature generally serves stories about technology development, go to another planet, meeting with aliens, or future sciences. These topics, indeed, becomes the main theme in three Bradbury’s works which are Fahrenheit 451, S is for Space, and R is for Rocket. Fahrenheit 451, for instance, largely contains the development of firemen’s technology in future which changes firemen from firefighters into book burners.

However, we cannot directly judge the definition of science-fiction. We should question whether all of the topics can become parameter to classify a story to be science fiction or not. If it is yes, we are still confronted with another question. There is probably another parameter or quality which exists in the text. The quality is mostly invisible and cannot be seen, but it seems that it has shared an important contribution to construct the text to be classified into science fiction.

When we confuse or probably still doubt whether the quality exists or not, Darko Suvin in his essay, On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre, classifies Science-fiction as fiction estrangement (Suvin in Rose, 1976: 58) which separate the main character or even the reader from his/her own world. Eric S. Rabkin in his essay, Genre Criticism: Science Fiction and the Fantastic, also says the same.

[A] work belongs in the genre of science fiction if its narrative world is at least somewhat different from our own, and if that difference is apparent against the background of an organized body of knowledge. (Rabkin in Rose, 1976: 89)

Because it should be different from our own world, Science-fiction presents something that never be recognized by the reader as Scholes says “to enter [the] book is to live in another places.” (Scholes in Rose, 1976: 47)  In this case, in Fahrenheit 451, the job of firemen is different with our world. Their job are burning books instead of extinguish the fire, “it’s a pleasure to burn [books].” (Bradbury, 1953: 11) Reading books are even forbidden in that world because “[t]hat’s against the law!” (Bradbury, 1953: 8) Therefore, Wood’s, in her journal article, Bradbury and Atwood: Exile as Rational Decision, argues that the text provides “horrifying view” of human future and it make the main character has “the rational decision to go into exile, to leave one’s native land.” (Wood, 1992:43)

However, it will be too fast for us to judge the estrangement as the core or the center of Science-fiction. Even though it is the center, “the center is not the center.” (Derrida, 1978: 352) Fantasy as a genre, called by Jackson as “a literature of unreality”, (Jackson, 2001: 4) also provides another strange world as well as Science-fiction. Science-fiction and Fantasy is different. Science-fiction generally provides sciences progress as “a strange newness” (Darko Suvin calls it novum). (Suvin in Rose, 1976: 59) The progress does not exist in our world or reality, but it can be explained logically as far as we read the novel. Otherwise, Fantasy should cause “a grotesque tension between arbitrary supernatural phenomena and the empirical norms they infiltrate into.”(Suvin in Rose, 1976: 63) In other words, Fantasy provides a strange world that assume supernatural phenomena as something indubitable as Tzvetan Todorov believes that Fantasy should make the character not only believe natural law, but also supernatural activity (Todorov, 1975: 25).

Nevertheless, three works of Bradbury does not tell about supernatural phenomena. The novels does not have any magical stories, fairy tale, or superhuman. We probably at this point can argue that the works are classified into Science-fiction caused by its topic, but we cannot forbear to understand that another quality also exists in Fantasy which makes two of the genres parallel as said by Parrinder in Chamber,

Though backed up by a display of scientific patter, the premise, whether of time-travel, invisibility or (to take more recent examples) teleportation or telepathy, is comparable to the traditional marvels of magic and fairy-tale. (Parrinder in Chamber, 2003: 59)


Therefore, it will be selfish if we categorize and define Bradbury’s works as Science Fiction or Fantasy. The dispute about it would never end. It seems to be wise to classify it into another genre, Fantastic, which “is large, much too large to constitute a single genre [including] whole conventional genres, such as fairy tale, detective story, Fantasy.” (Rabkin in Jackson, 2001: 13) Futhermore, Todorov defines Fantastic specifically and it clearly sums up the definition of Science-fiction and Fantasy as well.

In a world which is indeed our world, the one we know….there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world.  The person who experiences the event must opt for one of two possible solutions:  either he is the victim of an illusion of the senses, of a product of the imagination– and the laws of the world then remain what they are; or else the event has indeed taken place, it is an integral part of reality–but then this reality is controlled by laws unknown to us (Todorov, 1975: 25)

Todorov consequently, states that both Fantasy and Science-fiction are one of the parts in Fantastic and it is clearly shown in this diagram. (Todorov: 1975: 44)

Uncanny Fantastic-uncanny Fantastic-marvelous Marvelous

Todorov separates Fantastic from two other genres, uncanny and marvelous. These types of genre have some of the obscurity of the fantastic. Both of them eventually offer a resolution directed by natural laws (the uncanny) or the supernatural (the marvelous). However, Jackson also creates a similar diagram which seems easier to be understood. (Todorov, 1975: 25)



—–> Fantasy


—-> Uncanny


Jackson argues that the diagram represents the changing form of the fantastic. The arrow moves from the marvelous, in Fahrenheit 451, started from the world when people burns books, toward the purely fantastic when there are no explanation to be found (the main character, Montag, who loses himself deconstructing a new one). In the end, the arrow goes to the uncanny which should explain how all abnormality can be happened (Montag finally recognizes the change of society from Faber and Betty). (Jackson, 2001: 24-25)

However, the problem starts to arise when Rosemary Jackson argues that Science-fiction and Fantasy offers imaginary worlds which have a function as a lens or mirror. The world of text “is directed toward the absent areas of this world, transforming it into something ‘other’ than the familiar, confortable one. “ (Jackson, 1981: 19) In other words, the world of text is “replaced” and “dislocated” to our world. Jackson uses a term to expressing this process which is “paraxis.” Nonetheless, it is too fast to argue that Ray Bradbury’s works offers a function as well as the mirror which Jackson serves. Bradbury’s works, indeed, are science-fiction and even Fantastic. In Fahrenheit 451, many mirrors have been found, but it is not the novel as the mirror. McGiveron in his journal article, “To build a mirror a mirror factory”: The mirror and self-examination in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, argues that Fahrenheit 451 has used some mirrors to “emphasize the need [of Guy Montag, the main character], for self-examination.” (McGiveron, 1998: 64) When we look carefully, both Jackson and Mcgiveron say the same thing, mirrors. However, their mirrors are different. While Jackson is trying used Science-fiction, in this case, Fahrenheit 451, as a mirror, Mcgiveron  even argues that the novel itself which uses mirrors, not as the mirror.

Todorov much discusses about “uncanny” which seems refer to Freud in her essay, The “Uncanny.” Jackson refers the term from both of them, Todorov and Freud. However, Todorov strangely never states about mirrors in his books.  Therefore, it becomes a major blind spot which make Jackson criticizes that “The Fantastic fails to consider the social and political implications of literary forms” (Jackson, 1981: 6) so that it makes the text limited and abandonment with political and ideological problems. Consequently, Jackson clearly states that she refers Jacque Lacan idea’s about mirror and Freud idea’s about uncanny to combine it with Todorov’s Fantastic to expanse Todorov’s ideas into “a more widely based cultural study of the fantastic.” (Jackson, 1981: 7)

Freud’s idea about the Uncanny cannot be separated from the influence of E. Jentsch who writes Zur Psychologie des Unheimlichen. Freud tries to define the uncanny by making it equivalent with the German word “unheimlich.” He opposites “unheimlich” with “heimlich” [homely] and “heimisch” [native]. Therefore, “unheimlich’ means “the opposite of what is familiar” and it should be frightening because “it is not known and familiar.” (220). Todorov argues the uncanny as well as Freud, but he more specifically focus on the ways character and reader perceive the uncanny. Todorov states that event though uncanny “may be readily accounted by the laws of reason… incredible, extraordinary, shocking, singular, disturbing or unexpected,” it can provoke a reaction from character and the reader “similar to that which works of the fantastic have made familiar.” (Todorov, 1973: 46) Afterwards, Lacan seems like defining the uncanny as the other which is a reflection of an unreal image that only seems real. When we see ourselves in the mirror, we will find an image picturing ourselves. Freud argues the image as “the double.”

[T]he “double” has with reflections in mirrors, with shadows, guardian spirits, with the belief in the soul and the fear of death… and probably the “immortal” soul was the first “double” of the body. (Freud: 235)

The double is not the shadow, but it has a relation with the shadow. It is the image that we raised on our head. The theme of double has clearly shown up in Fahreinheit 451, when Montag meets with Clarisse. Montag’s double is reflected in what Clarisse says.

You’re not like the others. I’ve seen a few; I know. When I talk, you look at me. When I said something about the moon, you looked at the moon, last night. The others would never do that. The others would walk off and leave me talking. Or threaten me. No one has time any more for anyone else. You’re one of the few who put up with me. That’s why I think it’s so strange you’re a fireman, it just doesn’t seem right for you, somehow.” (Bradbury, 1953: 23-4)

Clarisse has a function as a mirror. She is not a real mirror, but “a metaphorical mirror.” (McGiveron, 1998: 63) However, what Clarisse says is like a trap. What she reflects is not only Montag as the other (firemen), but also Montag as the other of the other. Therefore, it is not the double reflected by Clarisse. Derrida calls it as redoubling. After finding the two others Montag seems doubt about himself creating two of his others.

“[Montag] felt his body divide itself into a hotness and a coldness, a softness and a hardness, a trembling and a not trembling, the two halves grinding one upon the other.” (Bradbury, 1953: 24)

Both of the others makes Montag confuses about himself. He cannot decide the real of him between two of them. At this point, Montag has got stuck into an ambiguous condition between real and unreal. The reader cannot decide the real Montag as well. Jentsch in Freud says that the condition is the effect of uncanny because it “leave[s] the reader in uncertainty whether a particular figure in the story [Montag] is a [fireman] or [the other]; and to do it in such a way that his attention is not directly focused upon his uncertainty.” (Jentsch in Freud: 227). Todorov simply calls it as Fantastic which is “a hesitation common to reader and character, who must decide whether or not what they perceive derives from ‘reality’ as it exist in common opinion.” (Todorov, 1973: 41)

Jackson therefore, places Fantastic in a paraxial area in which can be found in optic or mirror. It seems that Jackson’s mirror is a plane mirror so that the image reflected by the object is virtual, upright, and left-right reversal.


The mirror seems similar with Lacan’s mirror. The image seems same with imaginary and the object seems same with the real. However, both Lacan and Todorov do not show the place of Fantastic and the other as what Jackson does. Fantastic is located “in which light rays seem to unite at a point after refraction [so that] object and image seem to collide, but in fact neither object nor reconstituted image genuinely reside there: nothing does.” (Jackson, 1981: 19) The paraxial area represents the imaginary world located somewhere indeterminately between the ‘real’ (object) and the ‘unreal’ (image). At this point, Lacan looks this area as a place for cognito, to get to know, learn and form self. (Lacan, 1977: 502) Therefore, when Montag is trapped into Fantastic condition, the paraxial area, he seems to learn a new thing about himself. Mcgiveron states that at this point, Montag is examing himself, for only through the self-examination, it is potential for Montag to identify his own weakness. (McGiveron, 1998: 63-4) Because Clarisse has a role as a mirror placing Montag in paraxical area, Fantastic, I thereby call her as Fantastic mirror.

If we move forward to place novel as the mirror, we will question what is the object and image it is reflected. The object is clearly the narrative, the world where Montag lives. Then, what is the image the world reflected? Is it the reality of America in 1950, the time when the novel is written? The world “reality” also becomes a problem here. We can question whether it is really the reality or the image of reality. Then, the image of reality seems reflect the reality. Therefore, we can see that the process of reflection is happened twice. The process of reflection seems never end because there is another mirror behind the mirror. The process becomes repetitive so that the image, as Derrida reminds us, is redoubling as well. The first mirror is clearly the books, but what is the second mirror? Is it the books become repetitive mirrors? The questions still cannot be answered until now. However, by reading science-fiction in every period, we should know what the society every time. Therefore, Bradbury’s works can be identify in order to learn America as like looking at the mirror, to know what America’s weaknesses are, to form gradually America’s identity and to build America into a better place.

Work Cited:

Chambers, Claire. (2003). “Postcolonial Science Fiction: Amitav Ghosh’s the Calcutta Chromosome” in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature; 38: 58-72. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications.

Bradbury, R. (1953). Fahrenheit 451. New York,: Ballantine Books.

Derrida, J. (1978). Writing and difference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jackson, R. (1981). Fantasy : the literature of subversion. London: Methuen.

Lacan, Jacques. (1977) The Mirror-Stage as Formative of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience, transl. by Alan Sheridan inÉcrits: A Selection, W.W. Norton & Co., New York.


McGiveron, R. O. (1998). “To build a mirror factory”: The mirror and self-examination in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Critique, 39(3), 282-287.

Rose, Mark. (1976). Science Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays. New York: Spectrum Books.


Todorov, T. (1973). The fantastic; a structural approach to a literary genre [by] Tzvetan Todorov. Translated from the French by Richard Howard: Cleveland, Press of Case Western Reserve University.

Wood, D. (1992). Bradbury and Atwood: Exile as Rational Decision,” 131–42

in The Literature of Emigration and Exile (New ed.). Texas: Texas Tech University Press.




Leave a comment

Filed under Critical Theory

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s