A foil is defined as a character that shows qualities that are in contrast with the qualities of another character. Foils are used to highlight the opposing traits in each character. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Clarisse McClellan and Mildred Montag are presented as foils. Their individual traits are so opposite of each other that they make it obvious that one is what is good and right and the other represents what is wrong in the world.
Clarisse McClellan is Guy and Mildred Montag’s teenage neighbor. Guy Montag meets Clarisse one night as he exits the subway after a long night of setting fires. When he first meets Clarisse, she is described as having a slender “milk-white” face and dark hair. The reader gets the impression that she is thin and beautiful. She is walking in the middle of the night and states, “I’m seventeen and I’m crazy.” (Bradbury 5). She also tells Montag that she often walks around all night and then watches the sunrise. In their very first meeting, Clarisse tells Montag how important it is to look at the grass, the rose gardens and the moon. When Montag asks Clarisse why she isn’t in school, she tells him that she thinks an hour of TV class, sports and transcription isn’t social. She goes on to explain that talking to him about the weather and chestnuts is social.
In other words, Clarisse feels that real human interaction and interaction with nature are more important. (Bradbury 27). Clarisse engages in the world around her and is very curious as is evidenced by the many questions she asks Montag. She professes that she has time to see the world around her because she doesn’t engage in time wasting activities. Clarisse does things like catch rain drops in her mouth, rub dandelions on her chin and shake trees for nuts. Upon their first meeting, Clarisse asks Montag if he is happy. At the time, Montag thinks it is a really invasive question but it makes him think and actually ask himself if he is, in fact, happy. She seems to really care about the conversations she has with Montag.
Mildred is Montag’s thirty year old wife. She is described as having “hair burnt by chemicals to a brittle straw, her eyes with a kind of cataract unseen but suspect far behind the pupils, the reddened pouting lips, the body as thin as a praying mantis from dieting, and her flesh like white bacon.” (Bradbury 46). She is dependent on the television and complains that they need a fourth television. Mildred spends much of her day interacting with the televisions in her home. She actually saved enough box tops to receive a script that allows her to stand in the middle of the room and read the lines of a character in the show she watches. She refers to the characters in the programs she watches as her family and speaks of them as if she knows them and they are flesh and blood people that are actually in her home. Mildred does not engage with the world around her. In fact, when Montag asks Mildred about the TV program, she is not even really sure what is going on or who is fighting with who. Her lack of interest is further demonstrated by the fact that she does not really talk to her husband and the superficial way she talks to her friends. When two of her friends visit their home, the three women discuss the coming war as if it is nothing. They are much more interested in what is happening in the lives of the characters on television. Mildred is even plugged into electronics when she is in bed as she constantly has her Seashell in her ear.
According to the description, the Seashell is like headphone that allows Mildred to hear radio broadcasts. She listens every night and Montag even contemplates buying an audio-Seashell broadcasting station just so he can talk to his wife. (Bradbury 39). Mildred presents as very unhappy. Her unhappiness is demonstrated best by the fact that she tried to kill herself with a bottle of sleeping pills. Mildred does not even remember her suicide attempt the next morning and will not discuss it with her husband. There is never any mention of Mildred enjoying the outdoors. In fact, she seems perfectly content to stand in the middle of her living room with the three TV walls.
Clearly, Clarisse and Mildred are foils. Their age and physical descriptions sharply contrast one another. Clarisse is very young while Mildred acts older than her thirty years. The physical descriptions of the two women leave the reader with the distinct impression that Clarisse is very beautiful while Mildred looks haggard. The most contrasting quality of the two women is how they chose to spend their time. Clarisse chose to see the beauty in the real world. She enjoyed nature and having actual conversations with Montag. Mildred enjoyed quite the opposite. She chose to immerse herself in the make believe offered by the television walls. Mildred would rather engage with the television show or a radio broadcast through her Seashell rather than talk to her own husband.
Further, Clarisse made Montag question whether he was happy and whether what he was doing as a fireman was the right thing to do. In short, she made him think. On the other hand, Mildred did not seem to want Montag to think. She did not want him to question his job or whether books were actually bad. The two women are also opposite in the level of sensitivity they display. Clarisse seems worried that the people speeding by in cars are not enjoying the beauty of the grass or flowers while Mildred could not understand why Montag was so upset when an old woman chose to burn with her books and kept forgetting to bring him an aspirin when he needed it.
From their physical traits to how they interact with the world around them, Clarisse and Mildred stand in stark contrast to one another. Their differences show the reader what is good and right (Clarisse) and what is so wrong (Mildred) with the world as presented in Fahrenheit 451. Without the differences between these two characters, Guy Montag would not have seen what was wrong with his world and would not have questioned his own happiness, career and lifestyle.