Fahrenheit 451

ray bradbury

Fahrenheit 451 is a 1953 dystopian novel by Ray Bradbury. The novel presents a future American society where reading is outlawed and firemen start fires to burn books. Written in the early years of the Cold War, the novel is a critique of what Bradbury saw as issues in American society of the era. In 1947, Bradbury wrote a short story titled ‘Bright Phoenix’ (later revised for publication in a 1963 issue of ‘The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction’). Bradbury expanded the basic premise of “Bright Phoenix” into ‘The Fireman,’ a novella published in a 1951 issue of ‘Galaxy Science Fiction.’ First published in 1953 by Ballantine Books, Fahrenheit 451 is twice as long as ‘The Fireman.’ A few months later, the novel was serialized in the March, April, and May 1954 issues of Playboy. Bradbury wrote the entire novel on a pay typewriter in the basement of UCLA’s Powell Library.

The novel has been the subject of various interpretations, primarily focusing on the historical role of book burning in suppressing dissenting ideas. Bradbury has stated that the novel is not about censorship, but a story about how television destroys interest in reading literature, which leads to a perception of knowledge as being composed of factoids, partial information devoid of context.

On a rainy night while returning from his job, fireman Guy Montag meets his new neighbor Clarisse McClellan, whose free-thinking ideals and liberating spirit force him to question his life, his ideals, and his own perceived happiness. Montag returns home to find that his wife Mildred has overdosed on sleeping pills, and calls for help. Since drug overdoses are commonplace, the hospital sends two technicians to pump her stomach and replace her blood. Mildred remembers nothing of the episode in the morning. A few days later Clarisse disappears from her usual place on Montag’s trip home, leaving Montag acutely aware of his own dissatisfaction.

In the following days, while at work with the other firemen ransacking the book-filled house of an old woman before the inevitable burning, Montag accidentally reads a line in one of her books: ‘Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine.’ This prompts him to steal one of the books. The woman refuses to leave her house and her books, choosing instead to light a match and burn herself alive. This act disturbs Montag, who wonders why someone would die for books, which he considers to be without value. Jarred by the woman’s suicide, Montag becomes physically ill and calls for sick leave. Fire chief Captain Beatty visits him at home to tell him the history of the firemen. He tells Montag that interest in books declined gradually over several decades as the public embraced mass-marketed new media and a quickening pace of life. Books became despised for their controversial content, and the government outlawed them with little resistance. While they are talking, Mildred feels the book hidden under Montag’s pillow and reacts with surprise. Beatty adds casually that all firemen eventually steal a book out of curiosity, but all is well if the book is burned within 24 hours.

After Beatty has left, Montag shows Mildred the books he has hidden in the ventilator of their home. Mildred tries to incinerate the books, however, Montag holds her back and tells her that together they must read the books and decide if they have value. If they do not, he promises the books will be burned and all will return to normal.

Montag argues with his wife, Mildred, over the book he has stolen, showing his growing disgust for her and for his society. It is revealed that he has, over the course of a year, hidden dozens of books in the ventilation shafts of his own house, and tries to memorize them to preserve their contents, but becomes frustrated that the words seem to simply fall away from his memory.

He then remembers a man he had met at one time: Faber, a former English professor. Montag seeks Faber’s help. Faber teaches Montag about the importance of literature in its attempt to explain human existence. He gives Montag a green bullet-shaped ear-piece so that Faber can offer guidance throughout his daily activities. At Montag’s house, Mildred has friends over and Mildred tells them of the foolishness of books. Montag then reads them a poem called Dover Beach and one of Mildred’s friends begins to cry. This infuriates another friend and she calls Montag a sick man.

Montag returns to the firehouse the next day with only one of the books, which he tosses into the incinerator. Beatty tells Montag that he had a dream in which they fought endlessly by quoting books to each other. In describing the dream Beatty shows that, despite his disillusionment, he was once an enthusiastic reader. A fire alarm goes off and Beatty picks up the address from the dispatcher system. He reminds Montag of his duty and theatrically leads the crew to the fire engine, which he drives to Montag’s house.

Beatty orders Montag to destroy his own house, telling him that Mildred and the neighbors betrayed him. Montag sees Mildred leaving and sets to work burning their home, including their televisions, beds, and other emblems of his past life. After Montag destroys the house, Beatty discovers Montag’s earpiece and plans to hunt down Faber. Montag threatens Beatty with the flamethrower and, after Beatty continues taunting, kills him. As he flees the scene the firehouse’s mechanical hound attacks him, numbing one of his legs with a tranquilizer needle. He destroys it with the flamethrower and limps away.

He flees through the city streets, arriving at Faber’s house. Faber urges him to make his way to the countryside and contact the exiled book-lovers who live there. On Faber’s television they watch news reports of another mechanical hound being released, with news helicopters following it to create a public spectacle. Montag leaves Faber’s house and escapes the manhunt by jumping into a river and floating downstream into the countryside.

There, he meets a group of older men led by a man named Granger, who, to Montag’s astonishment, have memorized entire books, preserving them orally until the law against books is overturned. They burn the books they read to prevent discovery, retaining the verbatim content in their minds. Meanwhile, the television network helicopters record the hound killing another innocent man instead of Montag, to maintain the illusion of a successful hunt for the watching audience.

The war begins. Montag watches helplessly as jet bombers fly overhead and attack the city with nuclear weapons. It is implied Mildred dies, though Faber is stated to have left for St. Louis, to ‘see a retired printer there.’ It is implied that more cities across the country have been incinerated as well; a bitter irony in that the world that sought to burn is burned itself.

During breakfast at dawn, Granger discusses the legendary phoenix and its endless cycle of long life, death in flames, and rebirth, adding that the phoenix must have some relation to mankind, which constantly repeats its mistakes. Granger then muses that a large factory of mirrors should be built, so that mankind can take a long look at itself. After the meal is over, the band sets off back toward the city, to help rebuild what is left of it.

The novel is frequently interpreted as being critical of state-sponsored censorship, but Bradbury has disputed this interpretation. He said in a 2007 interview that the book explored the effects of television and mass media on the reading of literature. Bradbury went even further to elaborate his meaning, saying specifically that the culprit in ‘Fahrenheit 451’ is not the state—it is the people. Yet in the paperback edition released in 1979, Bradbury wrote a new coda for the book containing multiple comments on censorship and its relation to the novel.

In the late 1950s, Bradbury observed that the novel touches on the alienation of people by media: ‘In writing the short novel ‘Fahrenheit 451′ I thought I was describing a world that might evolve in four or five decades. But only a few weeks ago, in Beverly Hills one night, a husband and wife passed me, walking their dog. I stood staring after them, absolutely stunned. The woman held in one hand a small cigarette-package-sized radio, its antenna quivering. From this sprang tiny copper wires which ended in a dainty cone plugged into her right ear. There she was, oblivious to man and dog, listening to far winds and whispers and soap-opera cries, sleep-walking, helped up and down curbs by a husband who might just as well not have been there. This was not fiction.’

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