- Rav Bradbury
- Author Biography
- Plot Summary
- Historical Context
- Critical Overview
- For Further Sturty
Of the hundreds of stories Ray Bradbury has written, none are better known than Fahrenheit 451. Published in 1953 during the Cold War and McCarthy Eras, the novel reflects Bradbury's concerns about censorship and conformity during a period when free expression of ideas could lead to social and economic ostracization. The book expands the concept of a short story that Bradbury wrote in 1947 under the title "Bright Phoenix," which was published in a revised form in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1963. Galaxy published an expanded version of the premise under the title of "The Fireman" in 1951. Fahrenheit 451 is twice as long as "The Fireman." Book burning and the memorization of texts for preservation are the central actions of all three versions of the story.
While viewed as a science fiction work, Fahrenheit 451 has led to mainstream critical acclaim for Bradbury's ability as a prose stylist and as a writer of ideas. The novel is often compared to other dystopias—works which create societies where people lead dehumanized and often dangerous lives—such as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984. Bradbury has been praised for the richness of his imagery in Fahrenheit 451. The thematic elements of the novel have gained it the reputation as a book of social criticism which focuses particularly on American consumerism and cultural decline.
Born on the 22nd of August, 1920, in Waukegan, Illinois, Raymond Douglas Bradbury spent his childhood in this small town located north of Chicago. Many of his stories are set in towns similar to Waukegan. As a young child he was exposed to the horror movies of the period, such as The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Like Montag in Fahrenheit 451, the heroes of these stories are social outcasts. Many of the themes found in Fahrenheit 451 are related to Bradbury's early exposure to books by an aunt and his regular trips to the Waukegan Public Library with his brother. His family moved to Los Angeles in 1934 and Bradbury completed his education at Los Angeles High School, graduating in 1938. He began writing stories at the age of fifteen and in 1937 he joined the Los Angeles Science Fiction League. In 1938 he published his first short story, "Hollerbochen's Dilemma." During the 1940s, Bradbury wrote for pulp magazines such as Weird Tales and Amazing Stories. His first collection of short stories, Dark Carnival, was published in 1947. Even these early fantasy stories reveal elements of Bradbury's concern for the value of human imagination.
When The Martian Chronicles was published in 1950, Bradbury was hailed as a sophisticated science fiction writer. While it is a collection of related stories set on Mars, critics often discuss the book as a novel. Bradbury uses the framework of the settling of Mars to present issues like censorship, technology, racism, and nuclear war. The book has been praised for its allegorical treatment of important social issues. Other collections of stories by Bradbury that have received critical attention are The Illustrated Man, published in 1951, and I Sing the Body Electric!, published in 1969. His other novels include Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962) and Dandelion Wine (1957). Many of his stories have been televised on shows like The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and the Ray Bradbury Theater. The sheer volume of Bradbury's science fiction writing guarantees his importance in that genre. Fahrenheit 451 remains one of his best known works. The human values he explores in that work and his many other writings also assures his place among the other noted writers of dystopias, or works that suggest negative futures where humanity is oppressed.
Bradbury married Marguerite Susan McClure in 1947 and they had four daughters. Among his numerous literary awards are the 0. Henry Prize in
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1947 and 1948 and a PEN Body of Work Award in 1985. Many of his stories have also been adapted to the theater and received drama awards. Besides short stories and novels, Bradbury has written for the theater, television, and film—including a noted adaptation of Herman Melville's Moby Dick for director John Huston—and has written more than a dozen volumes of poetry and many nonfiction essays, and has edited several collected stories by other writers.
Part I: The Hearth and the Salamander
Guy Montag is a thirty-year-old fireman experiencing an intellectual awakening. For ten years now he has protected the sanity and comfort of the community by setting fire to books. He and his wife Mildred live comfortably in the suburbs of a large city. All Mildred needs to make her life complete is a fourth TV wall, so she can be surrounded by the characters she watches and interacts with everyday in her living room. True, an international war has been brewing, but nobody much cares as long as they're comfortable.
One evening, after having taken great pleasure in burning a house full of dangerous books, Montag meets Clarisse McClellan. Clarisse, a seventeen-year-old "oddball" neighbor, likes to talk about the world around her. She challenges Montag's authority as a guardian of their way of life. She questions his purpose, practically tells him that he cannot think, and asks him, "Are you happy?" These questions bring to his mind the dissatisfactions which up to now he has only vaguely felt. Going into the house, he finds Mildred lying in bed, practically dead from an overdose of sleeping pills, and he realizes that Mildred's happiness is only a mask, too. The "technicians" who come to fix her up are so casual about it that Montag realizes that something has happened to everybody, that under the "mask of happiness" lies a great emptiness.
Montag's doubt about his way of life begins to show at work. At the fire station they have a Mechanical Hound, which is usually employed to track people with illegal book collections. Now, however, the Hound seems to get suspicious and begins striking at Montag when he comes to work. Captain Beatty promises to fix the Hound, but it continues to sniff around Montag and strike its needle-nose full of poison at him.
One night the station's fire alarm sounds, and the firemen are called out to burn an attic full of books. The firemen chop down the unlocked doors, slap the helpless old woman down, and douse the piled-up books with kerosene. Before they can set the blaze, however, the woman kneels in her piled books, strikes the match, and burns herself with her books. The scene strikes Montag numb—so numb, in fact, that his hands, as if with a mind of their own, steal and hide a book under his arm, which he carries home.
The incident with the unnamed woman only aggravates Montag's doubt and alienation. He is so upset that he lays awake all night, so upset that by morning he feels too sick to go to work. Alerted by Montag's absence, Captain Beatty comes to call on him. Beatty understands his curiosity about the fireman's job and tells him the history of firemen. He tells him that the masses of people wanted the books burned because the differing ideas and information in books confused them and caused conflict. Anytime there was conflict, there was discomfort. All the people wanted was pleasure, so they made the firemen the guardians of their comfort.
"Yes, but what about the firemen, then?" asked Montag.
"Ah." Beatty leaned forward in the faint mist of smoke from his pipe. "What more easily explained and natural? With school turning out more rumnners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word 'intellectual,' of course, became the swear word it deserved to be. You always dread the unfamiliar. Surely you remember the boy in your own school class who was exceptionally 'bright,' did most of the reciting and answering while the others sat like so many leaden idols, hating him. And wasn't it this bright boy you selected for beatings, and tortures after hours? Of course it was. We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it."
After Beatty leaves, Montag reveals to Millie that he has secretly been hoarding books taken from his fires. He begins reading to her to see what might be in them that would cause such love and fear, but she can find no meaning in them.
2. The Sieve and the Sand
Montag continues to read from the books all during the afternoon while something, maybe the Mechanical Hound, scratches at the door, and war jets scream across the sky. Millie argues that the books have no meaning—they aren't "people," as the characters in her television programs are.
Having such a late start in his life, Montag cannot understand much of what he reads, so he decides that he needs a teacher. He remembers an old man, Faber, whom he had met months ago in the city park, a man who had suspiciously hidden something from him as he approached and seemed to be able to quote poetry. On his way to see Faber, he tries to memorize the Book of Ecclesiastes from the Bible, but the constant blaring of a Denham's Dentifrice commercial on the train's sound system interferes.
At first suspicious, Faber listens to Montag sympathetically and helps Montag to understand what books can and cannot do for humans. Faber tells Montag he is wasting his time, he can only "nibble the edges," for the coming war will destroy society and people will rebuild as they always do, but books cannot prevent the cycle from repeating. Montag suggests sabotaging firemen by planting copies of books in their houses and turning them in as traitors, and finally shames Faber into helping him. They make a plan in an effort to save Montag and save the books. First, they will try to make copies of the Page 141 | Top of Article Bible which Montag had stolen from the fire the previous night. Second, Montag will return to the fire station as a spy with Faber monitoring and analyzing the situation through the use of a two-way listening device placed in both their ears.
Under threatening sounds of jets in the skies overhead, Montag returns home and is impatient with Millie's bland, soulless friends, Mrs. Bowles and Mrs. Phelps. He forces them to listen to a reading of Matthew Arnold's poem "Dover Beach," against Faber's advice. He throws them out of the house and returns to the fire station and a knowing Captain Beatty. When Montag gets back to the fire station, there is an alarm, but this time they go to Montag's house.
3. Burning Bright
They arTive just as Mildred is leaving home for good. Captain Beatty baits and teases Montag until Montag bums his own house down. All this time, Faber has been trying to help Montag by whispering in his ear, but now Beatty discovers the earradio and takes it away. In his confusion, Montag's hands again move on their own and turn the flamethrower on Beatty, killing him. Suddenly, the Mechanical Hound appears, and Montag turns the flame onto it even though the Hound manages to get a partial injection of anesthetic into Montag before its circuitry is burned.
Now, Montag limps through the back alleys, stopping only to rescue a few unburned books. Despite the manhunt, he stops to plant some of them in the house of Black, a fellow fireman, in order to cast suspicion on firemen in general. He then moves on to Faber's house, where from Faber's tiny TV they learn that Montag has become the subject of a massive manhunt and a media event using helicopters and a sophisticated new Mechanical Hound. They also learn that war has been declared.
They decide on a new course of action. Faber will go to St. Louis to visit a printer he knows, and Montag will head for the countryside. In a desperate attempt to prevent the Hound from following his scent into Faber's house, they take measures to try to confuse the Hound's sense of smell. Montag manages to stay ahead of the manhunt and makes it to the river. He plunges into the river, listening to the confusion of the hunt approach the bank and watching the helicopter sweep the river. His tactics for throwing the Hound off the scent have worked, and the hunt turns back into the city while Montag floats on downstream.
He drifts until nearly dawn. When he climbs out onto the bank, he stumbles up to the old railroad tracks and begins to follow them away from the city. Montag doesn't go very far before he hears voices, and he sneaks up to listen to a conversation. They know he is there, however, and they know who he is, having watched the chase on a small portable TV. One of them, the leader Granger, calls him out and offers him coffee and a bottle of chemical which will change his body's chemical signature so the Hound won't be able to find him. They all sit and watch the end of the manhunt, which is now focused on an innocent scapegoat. The authorities can't disappoint the viewing public.
It turns out that these wanderers are "book covers," each having a book memorized and ready for recitation. They plan to pass this knowledge onto their children and wait until society needs that knowledge again. They don't have long to wait, because several bombs hit the city while they are hiking that day. After weathering the shock waves from the blast, they turn back; civilization needs them. On the way, Montag begins to remember Ecclesiastes.
The captain of the firefighters and Montag's superior. Beatty's character, who represents those who rationalize the bookburnings of the firemen, contrasts with Montag's. It is Beatty who explains the history of firefighting in the story and who fully embraces its justification, ironically quoting from literature to support his arguments. Beatty leads Montag and other firefighters to bookburnings. When Montag fails to show up for work, Beatty visits him in his home and tries to talk him back to "health." When Beatty leads Montag to his own house for a book burning, he goads Montag into doing the job; Montag then kills Beatty.
A fellow fireman who works with Montag. When Montag asks about the time when firemen put out fires instead of starting them, Black and Stoneman pull out their rule books and read to Montag from a section on the history of firemen in America. They show Montag the section where Benjamin Franklin had burned English-influenced books in 1790, making Franklin the first American fireman. (Franklin actually founded the first volunteer fire-fighting company in the United States in 1736.) After killing Captain Beatty, Montag plants several books in Black's house and then reports him to the firemen.
One of Mildred Montag's friends who talks about her Caesarian births during her social visits at the Montag home. She denounces Montag when he makes a scene in her presence by reading a poem, Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach," after he begins to doubt his role as a fireman.
One of the book people that Montag meets after his escape from the city. Clement was a former English professor at Cambridge University. He was a specialist in the works of English poet and novelist Thomas Hardy.
Montag met Faber, who is a retired English professor, in the park a few months prior to the events in the novel. After Montag begins doubting his role as a fireman, he turns to Faber for guidance. Although Faber tells Montag that he will not find the answers he needs in books, he agrees to help the fireman. Faber places an electronic transmitter into Montag's ear so that they can have continuous communication. Montag begins behaving recklessly, reading poetry to his wife and her friends, despite Faber's warnings. After Montag snaps at his house, he bums the transmitter along with Captain Beatty. It is Faber Montag turns to when he must flee; "he just wanted to know that there was a man like Faber in the world," he rationalizes. However, it is Montag who ends up inspiring Faber to fight back against the firemen—to "do the right thing at last."
Granger is the man Montag meets after his escape from the city. Granger offers him a drink to change the chemistry of his perspiration so that the Mechanical Hound will not be able to find him. Granger is able to show Montag on a portable viewer how the chase for him is progressing, but assures him they will not find him. They witness his supposed capture on the viewer. Granger then introduces Montag to a number of the book people and explains to him how they keep the books alive by memorizing books or parts of them in order to preserve and hand them on to others. By using this oral tradition, the book people feel the content will not be lost, even if all the books are burned. While Montag is in the wilderness with Granger and the book people, war breaks out and the city is annihilated. Granger meditates at the end of the novel about the mythical creature known as the Phoenix that rises from its own funeral ashes to be reborn.
A teenage girl who is a neighbor of Montag's. Clarisse represents innocence. She questions the rationale of the ideas that govern Montag's life and is the stimulus that makes Montag begin to doubt what he is doing. Clarisse is shown in contrast to Montag's wife, who totally accepts the values of the society, even when it is harmful to her health. Clarisse does not like the social activities that most people in the society like. She describes her family to Montag as liking to sit around and talk. Clarisse's family disappears later in the novel, and she is said to have been killed by a car.
A robotic dog that can detect the location of illegal books and is also able to destroy people. With the representation of the Mechanical Hound, Page 143 | Top of Article Bradbury is able to convey how technological advances can be used for destructive purposes. The Hound is central to several scenes involving the locating and burning of books. It also plays a role in the search for Montag after he kills Beatty and escapes the city. When Montag is rescued in the forest, he is given a drink that will confuse the Hound and make the former fireman safe from capture. The Mechanical Hound is described in almost lifelike terms when it is first introduced in the book. Early in the novel, for instance, Montag passes the Hound and it snarls at him. It is a creature Montag comes to fear even more when he begins breaking away from his society.
The central character of the novel and its hero. Fahrenheit 451 is about the transformation of Montag from an obedient servant of the state to a questioning human being. As a fireman, Montag's job is not to put out fires but to start them, in order to burn books that are illegally harbored by wayward citizens. Montag is at first unquestioning. He takes pride in his work, which is carefully described in the opening scenes of the novel. He becomes curious, however, after meeting and talking to his young neighbor, Clarisse McClellan. Montag begins to question the values of his society, particularly in relation to his wife, who spends most of her time watching the large screen television in their living room and gossiping with her friends. After his meeting with Clarisse McClellan and after his wife takes an overdose of pills, Montag begins to question his role as a book burner. He has already taken a few books illegally from the fires he has started and he begins to read them. Montag' s fire chief, Captain Beatty, becomes suspicious of Montag. Beatty defends book burning to Montag, but Montag is determined to read the books he has hidden in his home. Through his contact with a former English professor, Faber, whom he met earlier in the park, Montag is further exposed to the content of books. Faber equips him with a monitoring device in his ear that enables the two to remain in constant contact. When Montag is on a call to start a fire that leads to his own house, he finally makes his break. He bums his own house and then turns his flamethrower on Captain Beatty, killing him. Montag then makes his escape from the city and finds the book people, who give him refuge from the firemen and Mechanical Hound that is searching for him. He is then invited to join their society, where he may become the Book ofEcclesiastes, which resides in his memory.
See Mildred Montag
Montag's wife, Mildred, represents those who completely accept the basic beliefs of the society. She is presumably content with her life, a good bit of it spent watching inane programs on the big screen television in her home. She considers the characters of her various programs that absorb her as her "family." She feels threatened by her husband's growing interest in illegal books, or any idea that suggests going beyond the narrow restrictions of society. After Mildred takes an overdose of sleeping pills and her life is threatened, Montag becomes aware that she may not be as happy with her life as he had assumed. Mildred's relationship with Montag is only viable as long as he is content with his job of fireman. When he begins to question what he is doing, Mildred becomes upset, particularly when he argues and recites poetry openly in front of her friends. His relationship with Millie in the Page 144 | Top of Article novel is a contentious one. It is apparent that it is not safe to express his ideas even in his own home to his wife. To do so shakes the foundation of the beliefs they have been compelled to embrace.
One of the book people that Montag meets after his escape from the city. Padover was a practicing minister until he lost his congregation because of his views.
Mrs. Clara Phelps
A friend of Mildred's. She keeps Mildred company along with Mrs. Bowles as they watch the programs in the television room of Montag's house. As Montag's views are transformed, he becomes increasingly impatient with the attitudes of his wife and her friends. When Montag insists on reading from Matthew Arnold's poem "Dover Beach" to Mildred and her friends, Mrs. Phelps breaks into tears and a scene follows where Montag practically kicks the women out of the house.
One of the book people that Montag meets after his escape from the city. Simmons is introduced as a former specialist in the works of Ortega y Gasset, a Spanish philosopher, writer, and statesman. The professor taught at UCLA. He has committed to memory the works of Marcus Aurelius, the stoic philosopher who was also a Roman emperor.
A fellow fireman who works with Montag. When Montag asks about the time when firemen put out fires instead of starting them, Stoneman and Black pull out the rule book and read to Montag from a section on the history of firemen in America. They show Montag the section where Benjamin Franklin had burned English-influenced books in 1790, making Franklin the first American fireman. (In reality, Franklin founded America's first volunteer fire-fighting force.)
Although she is never named, this woman holds great significance for Montag. A bookburning takes place at her house. After the firemen pour kerosene over her books, the woman ignores Montag's pleas to come away, and ignites the fire herself. She dies with her books. This event helps raise Montag's consciousness about his work.
Montag meets the professor after he kills Beatty and escapes to the hideout of the book people. Professor West was teaching ethics at Columbia University before becoming one of the book people.
Alienation and Loneliness
An atmosphere of alienation is established by Bradbury in the opening scenes of Fahrenheit 451, which details a "fireman's" growing dissatisfaction with his conformist society. Montag's pleasure in his work of burning books is quickly challenged in his conversation with his neighbor, Clarisse McClellan. As they walk home together, she asks Montag if he is happy. His first reaction is to tell himself that, of course, he is happy. After leaving her and wandering around inside his house looking for his wife, Montag answers Clarisse's question in the negative. When he discovers that his wife Mildred has taken an overdose of sleeping pills, his alienation is intensified. Bradbury uses the roar of jets overhead as a counterpoint to Montag's scream, thus pitting his character's human sounds and feelings against the roaring sounds of technology. With the introduction of other mechanical devices, such as the equipment used on Mildred by the medics, the television parlors, and the Mechanical Hound, Montag's alienation from a society that has embraced mass culture and thoroughly discouraged individual thinking intensifies. In scene after scene, Montag becomes emotionally alienated from his work, his wife, and the people he works with. As this alienation increases, he reaches out to books and to the people who value them. His escape from the city to the refuge of the book people offers hope. He has escaped the alienation of the mechanical society he left behind. Perhaps he will help establish a better one by remembering the words in the book he will commit to memory. The suggestion Bradbury makes is that by staying connected to books, which are a reflection of other people's thinking, we stay connected as human beings one to the other. Books, then, are an antidote to alienation.
Apathy and Passivity
By portraying many characters as passive figures who never even wonder about their lot in life, Fahrenheit 451 seems to imply that apathy is a very important element in the decline of Montag's society. Page 145 | Top of Article Millie is content to receive whatever "entertainment" that comes from her television, unable to distinguish between programs that are numbing in their sameness. She has no real concept of what the coming war might mean to her—she only worries it might interrupt her precious television programs—and her friends are similarly unconcerned. Montag's colleagues laugh at him when he wonders aloud about the history of the firemen, and are satisfied with the reasons provided in their handbooks. The only action these characters take is to maintain the status quo—the way things are. In contrast, Clarisse, Montag, and Faber are individuals who wonder about their world and, in the case of Montag and Faber, are able to make attempts to change things. Even the book people who live outside of society are eventually able to take action, for after the destruction of the city it is implied they are the ones who will help rebuild the world.
Change and Transformation
The transformation of Montag's character from obedient fireman to outcast creates the central tension of the novel. Since the smallest act of deviation is the same as an act of civil disobedience, the reader worries from the beginning of the novel to its final pages about Montag's safety and survival. In the beginning of the story, the only action Montag can take is in his work as fireman. He follows the rules of the fireman's code until he begins to doubt his work. Throughout the story there is little will to action taken by the characters. It is as if they have all become paralyzed from conformity. Mildred and her friends are mesmerized by the programs they watch in the television parlor. The relationship between Montag and Beatty is a passive one. Beatty talks to Montag to rationalize the work of the firemen when he begins to suspect Montag's discontent with his work. The main scenes of action involve the book burnings and Montag's pursuit by the Mechanical Hound. Other than these action scenes, Montag's transformation is one of thought. In one sense he is thinking mechanically in the beginning of the story. In the end, he has opened his mind to the ideas he finds in books. It is the beginning of his transformation. The reader cannot help wondering what action his new thinking might lead to. Bradbury leaves us with the hope that through these books, society will bury some of its destructive force. By ending the book in a fire storm of bombs, there is the sense that this old society of conformity will die and a new one will be born out of the ashes, like the mythical phoenix to which Granger refers. "A time to break down, and a time to build up. Yes. A time to keep silence, and a time to speak," Montag thinks as the book people move up the river at the end of the story.
Bradbury has structured Fahrenheit 451 into three parts which parallel the stages of Montag's transformation. Part One is called "The Hearth and the Salamander." Montag enjoys his work as a fireman in this section, but he also begins to find his inner voice as doubts set in. While Clarisse and Mildred are introduced in this section, the other main character is Captain Beatty. Montag's conflict with the captain begins in Part One. Part Two Page 146 | Top of Article is called "The Sieve and the Sand." In this section Montag has taken steps away from social conformity. He is reading books. He has established an alliance with Faber, who has equipped him with a two-way communication device. Montag's dialogues become angry and incoherent as he is torn between listening to people around him and to the voice of Faber in his ear. This section of the book ends with Montag in front of his own house, where he has come to bum books. His illegal activities have been exposed. In Part Three, "Burning Bright," Montag commits his final acts of transformation. He kills Beatty after burning down his own house and is chased by the Mechanical Hound as he makes his escape down the river. The other important character in Part Three is Granger, who introduces the work of the book people. The book ends with his meeting the book people, the bombing of the city, and a note of hope for the future.
Point of View
The book is written in the third person ("he") with its central focus on the thoughts and actions of Montag. Much of the excitement in the story, though, comes from the descriptive passages of the setting, action, and characters. Through his poetic descriptions, Bradbury makes the unreal world he describes seem real. He is able to make the fantastic seem real and reality seem fantastic, which establishes a tension that moves the story along. The narrative is interspersed with dialogue between characters. Some of the dialogue is didactic—that is, somewhat preachy—and tends to delay the action. These instructive passages, however, do reveal Bradbury's basic point of view, which passionately embraces the importance of books for human beings. Clearly, he has written Fahrenheit 451 in order to express this opinion. His purpose is not merely entertainment, although readers do find the novel an enjoyable work of fiction.
Fire, the salamander, the Mechanical Hound, and the number of the title are important symbols that Bradbury exploits in the novel. At 451 degrees Fahrenheit, paper will bum. Fire is a primary image in the book. In the work of the fireman it is seen as a destructive force. It stamps out books and the freedom of thought that books represent. In the beginning, Montag enjoys its qualities. He even likes the soot that it leaves behind. Later, when he is with the book people, fire is used constructively to warm people. When the Phoenix myth is used in the book, fire becomes a symbol of renewal. Out of the ashes, the mythical bird will be renewed. The suggestion is that a new society will be born from the ashes of the old one. The symbol of the Phoenix is used in contrast to the earlier use of the salamander. The dangerous fire lizard of myth, a symbol of the firemen's society from which Montag escapes, the salamander represents the destructive uses of fire. The most frightening symbol Bradbury uses is that of the Mechanical Hound, which represents the dehumanizing side of technology. This fierce creature seems to have powers greater than human ones; it has inescapable tracking capabilities, and can capture its victims with just one sting of anesthetic. Bradbury has made the creature seem so real that it exists in the novel as an important character. When the Mechanical Hound pursuing Montag is destroyed, another one is sent in its place, suggesting that technology used destructively cannot be easily demolished.
Bradbury had a number of recent historical events on which to base Fahrenheit 451 when he wrote the book in the early 1950s. The book burnings of the Nazi regime in Germany during the 1930s had been widely shown after World War II. These book burnings became a major symbol of the repression that followed in Nazi Germany. The importance of books and the freedom to read them was a central concern of liberal-minded people during the 1950s. As the Senate hearings of Joseph McCarthy began to focus on writers and film makers, the question of artistic freedom troubled many people and became the subject of debate. It was within this context of artistic repression that Bradbury expanded his story "The Fireman" into a full length novel. The fact that the book was reprinted forty-eight times over a twenty-five year period after its publication is indicative of the fact that Bradbury hit a vital nerve center of public consciousness. Unlike many of the characters in Fahrenheit 451, the American reading public ultimately rejected the idea of thought control that was present during the McCarthy hearings.
While Americans are guaranteed free speech and a free press in the Bill of Rights to the Constitution,
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a history of censorship has nevertheless existed in this country. Censorship was at times allowed and even enforced by the United States government. In the early years of film making, censorship was allowed on the grounds that movies were entertaimnent and not an expression of free speech. Senator Joseph McCarthy's hearings into the political background of artists led to the "blackballing" of several prominent Hollywood writers during the 1950s. While the Supreme Court decision allowing censorship of films was overturned in 1952, strict regulation of film content persisted into the 1960s. Today, the attempt to censor artistic products comes mainly from organized pressure groups. Ironically, Bradbury's publishers, unknown to him, bowdlerized Fahrenheit 451—that is, "cleaned up" or deleted some of the language that Bradbury used—in order to make the book saleable to the high school market. Since the advent of films, television, and the internet, efforts to limit access by children to certain types of material in these media has persisted to this day. The general method has been to have producers of these media rate the programs and place the burden of responsibility on parents to censor what children see in the movies, watch on television, or have access to on computers.
Political Repression and Conformity
Besides the repression that took place during the Nazi regime in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s, similar political repression and dictatorship had been taking place in the Soviet Union. After World War II, Western Europe and the United States entered into what has been called the Cold War—a struggle pitting the ideals of democracy and communism against each other—with the Soviet Union. Frequent reports of Soviet repression of writers and censorship of books were in the news. In his dystopian novel 1984, George Orwell had satirized what he called "big brother," a government figure who was always watching the public. Orwell also used two-way television to illustrate how the new technology could be used against the public. Bradbury presents television in Fahrenheit 451 as a drug that stupefies its viewers. Much of the pressure to conform in the United States during the Cold War was derived from the holdover of a wartime psychology that was strong during World War II. The mobilization during the war spilled over into the postwar era. As the United States and Europe went through a period of rebuilding domestic markets, the Cold War also stimulated a military economy. Opportunities for advancement abounded. Jobs were plentiful and Page 148 | Top of Article people were encouraged to "work hard and get ahead." The image of the "organization man" was prevalent. If you "followed orders, you would succeed" was the conventional wisdom of the day. This attitude is reflected in Bradbury's portrayal of Montag in the opening scenes of Fahrenheit 451.
From the early days of television in the 1950s, when every American scrambled to have one in the home, to this day, watching television has competed with reading books. In the 1950s, schools began to use television in the classroom, because it was becoming apparent that children's reading levels were dropping. Bradbury, who had been nurtured as a child on books, used this in his novel to show how literature was begin reduced to the simplest, most general terms. "Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there's your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more," Captain Beatty tells Montag and his wife when he tries to rationalize the work of the firemen.
More than any other aspect of the technological revolution that has taken place since World War II, none has had a greater impact than the development of the atomic bomb and atomic energy. During the 1950s and up until the fall of the Soviet Union, the fear of nuclear war was a real threat in the minds of people. The fear of damage from nuclear waste remains an environmental threat. The fear that destructive atomic power might fall into the hands of terrorists is also an issue that compels political discourse and action. It is within an atmosphere of fear that repression can flourish. In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury recreates the atmosphere of fear and repression that prevailed when he was writing the book.
Another technological advance that Bradbury deals with in his book is the development of robots. In the Mechanical Hound he presents a robot Page 149 | Top of Article that is more powerful than a human being in its ability to "sniff out' its prey. This representation reflects a commonly held view that the nature of robots is to be feared because they do not possess human qualities and might even be able to take control over human beings. Many science-fiction "mad scientist" movies of the 1950s capitalized on this fear by portraying monstrous creatures created by misused technology as well as technology itself revolting against its creators. This fear of technology was pervasive during the 1950s.
Reception to Fahrenheit 451 has been mixed. While praising the book for its effective prose style and handling of important social issues, several aspects of the work have been criticized. Obscure references, such as those to the Phoenix myth and the sixteenth-century martyr Master Ridley, have been faulted for being inappropriate for general readers. References such as these and the novel's emphasis on the value of literature over that of mass culture have also led to attacks on Bradbury for being an elitist. Another area of criticism is that the author pits intellectuals against ordinary people. The book people, represented mostly by scholars, will save humanity, while ordinary people like Mildred contribute to the degradation of society by falling victim to social conformity.
In spite of these criticisms, many analysts find a great deal to praise in the book. John Colmer, in an essay in Coleridge to Catch-22, is struck by Bradbury's ability to convey horror. Bradbury is successful "in creating the horror of mechanized anti-culture," Colmer believes. "The burning scenes have intense power and the pursuit of Montag by the Mechanical Hound … is in the best tradition of Gothic pursuit; mysterious, but relentless," the critic adds. Colmer, though, is one of the critics who finds Bradbury's allusions to culture forced and sentimental. "Bradbury cannot rely on his readers picking up his allusions. He … explain[s] laboriously." He continues: "A writer who has to explain all his allusions and symbols for the benefit of lowbrow readers is at a considerable disadvantage." Colmer does find the message of Fahrenheit 451 important, that "books create diversity and harmony," he explains. As a result the novel "is an intensely serious work of popular Science Fiction."
A major area of praise for Bradbury's work is his style. In his essay in Ray Bradbury, David Mogen claims that Fahrenheit 451 and the collection The Martian Chronicles are "destined to survive as Bradbury's best-known and most influential creations, the most sustained expressions of his essentially lyrical treatment of science-fiction conventions." While Mogen acknowledges the criticism of sentimentality and vagueness in Fahrenheit 451, he maintains that the work "remains one of the most eloquent science-fiction satires, a vivid warning about mistaking" mindless happiness for progress. Mogen also praises Bradbury for his ability to use the fireman as a central metaphor in the story.
In discussing the development of Montag in his essay Ray Bradbury, Wayne Johnson finds that the premise of a fireman starting rather than putting out fires is "farfetched." Johnson adds, however, that Bradbury "keeps such a tight focus on the developing awareness of fireman Guy Montag that we can successfully overlook the improbability of his occupation." Johnson praises Bradbury for maintaining "a certain detachment in the book, so that basic themes … can be developed and explored without becoming either too realistic or too allegorical."
The thematic elements in Fahrenheit 451 have received much praise. "Bradbury's rage against censorship and book burning reached its fullest and most eloquent expression … when he expanded 'The Fireman' to novel length," says George Guffey in an essay in Coordinates: Placing Science Fiction and Fantasy. Gary K. Wolfe, in his essay on Bradbury in the Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, praises Fahrenheit 451 as a "passionate attack on censorship … equally an attack on the growing power of mass culture, particularly television … which consistently falls prey to the demands of special interest groups." Wolfe observes that the "new culture" of the book people "seems to care as little for the individual as the mass culture from which Montag has escaped," but "the new society allows for a multiplicity of viewpoints and hence holds out some hope for the eventual revival of the human imagination." It is the glimmer of hope that Bradbury presents which has earned him the label of optimist. "Bradbury's novel does risk lapsing at the very close into a vague optimism," writes Donald Watt in his discussion of Fahrenheit 451 as a dystopia (a work presenting a dehumanized society) in Ray Bradbury.
Among the highest praise Bradbury has achieved for his work is the recognition of his stylistic excellence. "On the whole, Fahrenheit 451 comes out as a distinctive contribution to the speculative Page 150 | Top of Article literature of our times, because in its multiple variations … it demonstrates that dystopian fiction need not exclude the subtlety of poetry," comments Donald Watt. "Bradbury is above all a humanist… ," says Wolfe. "Whatever the final assessment of Bradbury's later work, his historical importance both in popularizing science fiction and making it respectable cannot be denied," Wolfe writes in Twentieth Century Science-Fiction Writers.
Edward E. Eller
Eller is an assistant professor at Northeast Louisiana University. In the following essay, he explores the historical climate that helped create Fahrenheit 451 and its protests against mindless confornity and censorship.
Bradbury developed Fahrenheit 451 during the late 1940s and published it in 1950 just after World War II and during America's growing fear of communism. During World War II, Hitler and the Nazis had banned and burned hundreds of thousands of books. However, the Nazis went further; using new technologies, they attempted one of the largest mind control experiments in history by setting up state controlled schools and a propaganda machine which censored all ideas and information in the public media. To make matters worse, after the war the Soviet Union developed its own propaganda machine, created an atomic bomb, and invaded Eastern Europe. All this time, new technological innovations allowed these fascist states to more effectively destroy the books they didn't find agreeable and produce new forms of communication implanted with state-sanctioned ideas.
Finally, and most significantly for Bradbury, the U.S. government responded to its fear of growing communist influence with attempts to censor the media and its productions, including literature. In other words, it responded with the same tactics of tyranny implemented by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The McCarthy hearings in the early fifties attempted to rein in what it saw as communist sympathies among authors and Hollywood producers. The FBI investigated the potential disloyalty of U.S. citizens. The federal government began attempts to restrict the free speech of judges and university professors by requiring loyalty oaths.
Fahrenheit 451 appeared in this political climate of technologically supported suspicion and censorship, a climate which seemed to promise the possibility of the mass conformity in our citizenry. It is no surprise, then, that these concerns are central to the book's themes.
Montag and his wife, Mildred, live in what Bradbury imagines as the culture which might be produced if such trends continued. They live in a futuristic community that uses technology to control what they think and feel by controlling what they see and hear. They are encouraged to use sedatives to keep themselves docile and their senses dull. They have all the latest entertainment technology—three walls of their "living room" display soap operas, "seashell thimble" radios pump high fidelity sound directly into their ears, and two-hundred-foot billboards line the freeway, blocking out the natural landscape and replacing it with advertisements. There is one telling scene in which Montag attempts to read and remember the Book ofEcclesiastes while riding on the train to see Faber, his newfound teacher. He cannot, however, manage it because the train's sound system plays an advertisement for Denham's Dentifrice over and over: "Denham's does it" with a bouncy jingle that interferes with his ability to think and remember. Everywhere he goes in these controlled spaces the system is there to limit and shape what he thinks by feeding him sights and sounds.
Mildred is the end product of this system. Mildred, as does most of the community, immerses herself in the media provided for her to consume. Whenever she is not at the TV, she plugs in her earphones, always soaking up the artificial stimulus and messages someone else feeds to her. The result is that she is literally incapable of thought and remembering. When Montag questions her about an argument that the characters are having on the wall TV, she can't remember what it was about even though it happened only one minute past. When he is sick and asks Mildred to get him some aspirin, she leaves the room and then wanders back a few minutes later, not a thought in her head.
The situation is so serious for Mildred that she might as well be an empty shell, a corpse, or a machine herself. As it turns out, Mildred is literally on the verge of being a corpse, having almost over-dosed on sedatives. Montag comes home after a satisfying book-burning, only to find that his house feels like a "mausoleum" and his wife "cold" and himself "with the feeling of a man who will die in the next hour for lack of air." The oppressive atmosphere of death and emptiness is aggravated by the visit of the hospital "technicians" who come to Page 151 | Top of Article the house to service Mildred. They treat her like an extension of the snakelike machine they use to "take out the old and put in the new." He finds out that they act as causally as "handymen" doing a fix-it-up job because they clean out nine to ten stomachs a night. In other words, people are no more than extensions of machines; they are machines themselves. The "technicians" treat them appropriately, as either broken, like Mildred, or in good repair. Technology violates their humanity.
The most complete violation of humanity would be the replacement of the human with a machine Page 152 | Top of Article in perfect conformity with the system which created it. This may not be possible with humans, but it makes the Mechanical Hound the perfect creature of the system. It makes the Hound a failsafe against the possibility that a human member of the mass society will be tainted by individuality and independent thought. The Hound cannot be so tainted. It lacks the two key ingredients which might allow it individuality and independence—its own thoughts and true sensations. As Beatty says, "It doesn't think anything we don't want it to think … a fine bit of craftsmanship." Later, Montag describes it as a thing in the world which "cannot touch the world." It lacks the mind of its own and body that feels. This makes the Hound the best guardian of their way of life. As a result, when Montag grows more aware of how the system has deprived him of sensation and thought, the Hound grows more aware of Montag. The Hound may not be able to touch the world, but it recognizes the smell of thought, it recognizes that Montag does not belong to the same system it does.
All is not lost, though. Montag's teachers lead him out of this controlled and sterile world. Clarisse, the young seventeen-year-old "oddball," is his first teacher. Clarisse prods him back into experiencing the outside world's sensations, especially smells as simple as "apricots" and "strawberries," "old leaves" and "cinnamon," smells which up to now have always been dominated by the odor of kerosene. She entices him out of the insulated "walls" of their house and into the rain, away from the rule books and 3-D comics whose content is strictly controlled so as to ensure that everything is agreeable—that is, all packaged to promote conformity and consumerism. She ignores his authority by openly questioning whether he can even think and challenges his smug superiority by seeing through his "mask" of happiness and into his deeper discontent. She tells him how she eavesdrops on others and finds that young "people don't talk about anything" except to trade the brand names of clothes and cars. She points out that the two-hundred-foot billboards hide the real world. She teaches him that he and everyone else are subject to the dictates of others, that their thoughts and experiences are controlled.
When Clarisse "disappears," Captain Beatty, Montag's superior, ironically becomes his "teacher." Even though Beatty's purpose is to bring Montag back into conformity with the system, he drives Montag farther away during his "history lesson" on the origins and purpose of the firemen book-burners. Beatty tells him that the condition of the world and the rejection of "books" and their ideas was a "mass" phenomenon. Not only did the population find it easier to read condensed versions of literature and digests rather than whole works, but it was also more "agreeable." Books are notorious for their slippery and contradictory ideas. It becomes easier and safer to do away with them altogether; this is the job of the fireman. Over time, substitutions displaced books altogether: photography and film, rule books, sports, and trivial information. Fill them up with "non-combustible" stuff so they feel "absolutely brilliant" but lack any thought which may have "two sides … no philosophy or sociology," says Beatty. Then we can have a perfect tyranny of technology over the comfortable and thoughtless. The problem, however, is that if books are the way to "melancholy" and unhappiness, then why is Mildred so deeply depressed and Montag so angry?
Montag's third "teacher" explains the source of their unhappiness. Faber, the old college English teacher, argues that the "telivisor" is irresistible. Furthermore, if you "drop a seed" (take a sedative) and turn on the televisor, "[It] grows you any shape it wishes. It becomes and is the truth." It makes a people into what it wants them to be, a conforming mass all acting in unison. Perhaps the most frightening image in the book makes this idea of thoughtless masses under the direction of technology concrete for us. At the end of the chase scene when the Mechanical Hound closes in and Montag approaches the river, the broadcaster asks the whole population to rise and go to the door and everybody look out at the street at the same time. Montag has a vision of the population acting in near perfect unison under the direction of a technological device—a truly frightening vision of humans turned into conforming automatons.
Faber argues, however, that books have a "quality" or "texture of information." Books have a depth of imaginative experience and completeness of information which the media soaps lack. This "texture of information," along with the leisure time to absorb it and the freedom to act on what it allows us to discover, is what Montag needs to make him, if not happy, then at least satisfied. In a sense, Montag's awakening sensations, his growing awareness of smells other than kerosene, his new appreciation for rain and the light of the moon, symbolize the "quality" found in books. Throughout the book, we get hints about this. After his wife's mishap with the sedatives, he feels suffocated and empty, and in a fit of desire for something more, he throws the sealed windows of Page 153 | Top of Article the bedroom to let the moon's light fill the room. When he is trying to memorize the Book ofEcclesiastes and the Denham's Dentifrice advertisement interferes, he has this urge to run out of the train and experience anything, any sensation, even if its the pain of a pounding heart and lungs gasping for air. When he lay in his bed the night of the old woman's burning, he feels that he "never … quite … touched … anything." Parallel to his yearning for the "texture of information" in books, he has a yearning for deeper and richer bodily experiences and sensations.
All in all, the idea is that if Montag is to escape the technological cocoon which the culture has built for him, he must do it in mind and body, in books and sensations. This is no new idea, that the mind and body are one. If this is true, then it is also true that if you control the experiences of the body so, too, will the mind be controlled. And viseversa, if you control the depth of ideas and smooth out the "texture of information" in the media, the body will lose its ability to absorb a wide range of sensation. We see this effect on Montag when he finally climbs up out of the river. Having been deprived of deep and textured sensations most of his life, he was "crushed" by the "tidal wave of smell and sound." He experiences an onslaught of odor: musk, cardamom, ragweed, moss, blood, cloves, and warm dust. The narrator tells us, "enough to feed on for a lifetime"; there are "lakes of smelling and feeling and touching."
It is both the mind and the body of the population which the prevailing union of politics and technology has repressed in Montag's culture. The book people Montag discovers at the end of the novel show that you must abandon the system and get "outside" the technological cocoon. You must internalize the conflicting, richly textured information and ideas of books before you can be an individual not subject to the repressive conformity of the masses. The book people are literally outside in nature as well as figuratively outsiders alienated from the culture. They have literally internalized books as well as figuratively become "book covers." They have brought the book and the body, thought and sensation together. Maybe this is why Bradbury was so outraged by the book bumings in Nazis Germany. Maybe this is why he says "that when Hitler burned a book I felt it as keenly, please forgive me, as his killing a human, for in the long sum of history they are one and the same flesh."
Source: Edward E. Eller, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale 1997.
Diane S. Wood
In the following essay, Wood compares Fahrenheit 451 with Margaret Atwood 's The Handmaid' s Tale, focusing on their historical context and respective treatment of conformity and institutionalized repression.
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Source: Diane S. Wood, "Bradbury and Atwood: Exile as Rational Decision," in The Literature of Emigration and Exile, Page 156 | Top of Article edited by James Whitlark and Wendall Aycock, Texas Tech University Press, 1992, pp. 131-42.
Wayne L Johnson
In the following except, Johnson provides concise analysis of plot, theme and elements of fantasy and social criticism in Fahrenheit 451.
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Source: Wayne L. Johnson, "Machineries of Joy and Sorrow," in Ray Bradbury, Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, 1980, pp. 85-8.
John Colmer. "Science Fiction" in Coleridge to Catch-22, St. Martin's Press, 1978, pp. 197-209.
George R. Guffey, in Coordinates: Placing Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by George E. Slusser, et al, Southern Illinois University Press, 1983, pp. 99-106.
Wayne L. Johnson, in "Machineries of Joy and Sorrow," in Ray Bradbury, Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, 1980, pp. 85-8.
David Mogen, "Fahrenheit 451," Ray Bradbury, Twayne Publishers, 1986, pp. 105-112.
Donald Watt, in "Buming Bright: 'Fahrenheit 451' as Symbolic Dystopia" in Ray Bradbury, edited by Martin Harry Greenberg and Joseph D. Olander, Taplinger Publishing Company, 1980, pp. 195-213.
Gary K. Wolfe, "Ray Bradbury," in Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Vol. 5, Gale Research, 1989, pp. 16-32.
Gary K. Wolfe, "Ray Bradbury," in Twentieth Century Science-Fiction Writers, 2nd edition, St. James Press, 1986, pp. 72-5.
For Further Sturty
Bradbury, Ray. "Introduction" to Fahrenheit 451, Simon and Schuster, 1967, pp. 9-15.
Bradbury narrates the history of his book's writing.
Hoskinson, Kevin. "The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451: Ray Bradbury's Cold War Novels," Extrapolation, vol. 36, No. 4, Winter 1995, pp. 345-359.
One of Fahrenheit 451's preoccupations is with "majority rule" which to him is the same as censorship. This essay puts that theme from the book into the historical context of the 1950s, when it was written.
Moore, Everett T. A review in the ALA Bulletin, vol. 55, no. 5, May 1961, pp. 403-4.
Moore explores the themes of censorship and confonnity in Fahrenheit 451. The article includes material from an interview with Ray Bradbury in which the author ridicules the trend of watering down the classics to make them easily accessible to everyone.
Seed, David. "The Flight from the Good Life: Fahrenheit 451 in the contest of Postwar American Dystopias," Journal of American Studies, Vol. 28, No. 2, August 1994, pp. 225-240.
The characters in Fahrenheit 451 live in a consumer culture which can only work if it keeps them in a controlled environment, inside the house, the car, and the fire station. Once outdoors and away from the media which defines their secure world, the society loses control of them.
Spencer, Susan. "The Post-Apocalyptic Library: Oral and Literate Culture in Fahrenheit 451 and A Canticle for Leibowitz," Extrapolation, vol. 32, No. 4, Winter 1991, pp. 331-342.
This critic explores the idea in Ray Bradbury's novel that written books replace the ability to remember. Those like Captain Beatty with access to literature, as opposed to rule books and comics, have power over the lives of others.
Zipes, Jack. "Mass Degradation of Humanity and Massive Contradictions in Bradbury's Vision of America in Fahrenheit 451," in No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, edited by Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander, Southern Illinois University Press, 1983, pp. 182-199.
This essay attempts to justify apparent ironies and contradictions in the novel by describing how it fits into the time in which it was written.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2591400017