In Ray Bradbury’s classic cautionary tale “Fahrenheit 451,” the wife of the protagonist serves as a catalyst to rebellion. By embodying the loathsome aspects of the dystopian society in which they live, Mildred drives her husband Montag not only to question the structures of that society, but to turn his torch against them in open rebellion.
Permeating the culture of the new world order is unspoken unhappiness. The new society is based on entertainment and instant gratification. No one is willing or able to acknowledge a deeper, human discontent. Montag realizes this in the beginning of the novel when Mildred tries to kill herself by ingesting a bottle of sleeping pills. The “operators” soon fix her with their snake-like instruments, but she ignores the incident and pretends not to know what happened. She returns to her TV parlor programs and to their bedroom, wired for constant audio stimulus, which Montag describes as a “mausoleum.”
Because books are banned and burned, no one can read, think or question society. Everybody conforms to the rules no matter how arbitrary or cruel. Mildred embodies this conformity to a pathological level. When Montag tells her about a horrific incident in which an old woman set herself on fire with her books, Mildred callously dismisses it: “She’s nothing to me; she shouldn’t have had books. It was her responsibility, she should’ve thought of that. I hate her.” The exchange causes Montag to question the value of books, of human life, and his blind obedience in destroying both.
Above all, Mildred represents the alienation of daily life in the new society: the inhuman distance between coworkers, friends, even husbands and wives. At one point, Montag asks Mildred to remember when they first met. She can’t answer. She doesn’t remember. She dismisses the question as trivial. “And he remembered thinking then that if she died, he was certain he wouldn’t cry. For it would be the dying of an unknown, a street face, a newspaper image.” This estrangement leads Montag to his quest for knowledge, to the refuge of books and what they can tell him.
Toward the end of the novel, Mildred finally betrays her husband by reporting his cache of stolen books. In a terrible twist of fate, Montag is ordered to burn down his own house. As Mildred flees in a taxi, suitcase in hand, Montag calls her name. But all she mutters is “poor family,” referring not to Montag, but to the virtual cast of characters that had entertained her in the couple’s TV parlor. Her betrayal severs the last link Montag had to the old way of life. Now free in desolation, with nothing to lose, he commits murder, becomes a fugitive and unleashes fire on the state.