Born: August 22, 1920; Waukegan, Illinois
Died: June 5, 2012; Los Angeles
National Identity: United States
Source: Masterplots, Fourth Edition; November 2010, p1-3
Article Author: Dietz, Frank; Includes bibliography
Literary Genres/Subgenres: Dystopian fiction; Long fiction; Novel; Science fiction
First published: 1953 (expanded version of “The Fireman,” 1951)
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Science fiction
Time of plot: The future
Locale: North America
Education or educators
North America or North Americans
United States or Americans
Guy Montag, a fireman
Clarisse McClellan, his young neighbor
Mildred Montag, Guy’s wife
Captain Beatty, the fire chief
Faber, a retired English teacher
Granger, leader of the “book people”
Like all firemen in the future society of the novel, Montag burns books, which are entirely prohibited. One day, while returning home from work, Montag meets Clarisse, his mysterious young neighbor. Her probing questions cause him to reflect critically on the purpose of his job. When he enters his house, he finds that his wife has taken an overdose of sleeping pills. Montag calls the emergency hospital to have her stomach pumped.
The next day, however, Mildred fails to recollect the event and returns to her usual life of watching mindless television shows. After talking again to Clarisse, Montag returns to the firehouse. There the Mechanical Hound, a dangerous robotic creature used to track suspects, starts acting aggressively toward him. During the following weeks Montag meets Clarisse every day, and they discuss the moral and spiritual emptiness of their society, caused by its obsession with frantic consumption and shallow entertainment. One day, however, Clarisse is suddenly gone. Montag now begins to ask his colleagues questions concerning the historical origins of book-burning. During the next book-burning raid on an old woman’s home, he secretly takes a book. The old woman, rather than submitting to be arrested, sets fire to herself and her books.
At home, Montag feels increasingly alienated from Mildred. While Mildred is watching her favorite shows on the television screens that cover three entire walls, she casually mentions that Clarisse was run over by a car. Montag goes to bed imagining he can hear the Mechanical Hound outside his house.
The next day, Montag feels sick and stays home from work. Shortly afterward, Montag’s boss, Captain Beatty, the fire chief, arrives at his house and starts to explain to him how firemen became book-burners. According to Beatty, the increasing population pressure caused all entertainment to be leveled down to the lowest common denominator. Furthermore, books were censored in order to avoid offending any particular group in society. In the end, the majority of people preferred happiness to critical awareness, and books were entirely banned.
After Beatty leaves the house, Montag confesses his doubts to Mildred and brings out several books he hid in the house. He begins to read to her, but Mildred simply cannot understand his fascination with the printed word. Montag therefore visits Faber, a retired English teacher whom he once caught reading a book. Faber explains to Montag that books offer a rich texture of life, leisurely enjoyment, and freedom to act on one’s ideas — all values despised by the materialistic society around them. Faber believes that the imminent atomic war will soon destroy society. He gives Montag a pair of earphone-transmitters, so that they can stay in permanent radio contact. That night, Mildred’s friends arrive to watch television. Montag shatters their complacency by reading a Matthew Arnold poem, “Dover Beach,” to them and eventually drives them out of the house.
Montag then returns to the firehouse, where Beatty tries to prove the insignificance of books by citing contradictory passages from world literature. The alarm bell rings, and Montag sets off with the team, only to find that Mildred denounced him and the firemen are going to his own house. After Montag uses the flamethrower to burn the hidden books, he accidentally loses the miniature transmitters Faber gave him. When Beatty threatens to trace the owner, Montag kills him with a blast of the flamethrower. He also manages to incinerate the Mechanical Hound, but not before he is injured by it.
While Montag is running for his life, he hears that war is declared. He is almost killed by teenagers in a speeding car but manages to escape and even hide a book in another fireman’s house and call in an alarm in order to distract his pursuers. Finally, he reaches Faber’s apartment. Faber tells him to flee toward the open country, where teachers and writers are living as tramps. After changing his clothes to distract the new Mechanical Hound brought in by the police, Montag makes a final dash for the river.
After floating down the river, Montag meets a group of social outcasts who keep books alive by memorizing them word for word. The book ends with the destruction of the cities by atomic bombs and the hope that civilization, like the mythical Phoenix, will rise again from its ashes. In the meantime, Montag and his newfound friends will remain “living books.”
Fahrenheit 451 was Ray Bradbury’s first major novel. His earlier book-length work, The Martian Chronicles (1950), was a loosely connected cycle of short stories. In the opinion of many critics, Fahrenheit 451 remains his only really impressive novel. Appropriately enough for a writer who has generally been considered a master of short fiction, this novel grew out of a story, titled “The Fireman,” which Bradbury had published in 1951. Fahrenheit 451 reached a wide audience through François Truffaut’s film adaptation of 1966, which starred Julie Christie as both Mildred and Clarisse and Oscar Werner as Guy Montag.
Bradbury’s novel is a classic example of dystopian fiction, a subgenre of utopian literature. Literary utopias, such as Thomas More’s De Optimo Reipublicae Statu, deque Nova Insula Utopia (1516; Utopia, 1551), after which the entire genre was named, present fictional depictions of societies that are clearly superior to the one in which the author lives. The societies described in such seventeenth century works as Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627) and Tommaso Campanella’s Civitas Solis (1623; The City of the Sun, 1885) are highly structured and static. Utopian novels of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (most notably Edward Bellamy’s immensely popular Looking Backward: 2000-1887, 1888) added the concept of progress, situating their utopian communities in the future rather than in a remote place. Utopian books of that time exhibit a strong belief in the social benefits of advancing technology.
After World War I, however, there was a vehement backlash against the very idea of utopianism, which took the form of dystopian novels. Dystopian novels show that any attempt at establishing utopia will only make matters much worse. The great works of this tradition, such as Yevgeny Zamyatin’s My (1920-1921; We, 1924), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), establish a pattern that is clearly reflected in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
The set of characters in Bradbury’s novel closely follows established genre traditions. Like the protagonists of many other dystopian novels, Montag starts out as a loyal member of the future society and only gradually shows signs of disaffection. His progress toward rebellion is aided by a female companion (Clarisse) and an older mentor figure (Faber, and to some extent Beatty) who provide alternate sets of values.
The most crucial element in the dystopian hero’s process of initiation, however, is the discovery of books that help explain the existence of the dystopian society and offer means to overcome it. This is a stock scene in dystopian literature, and it is found in such diverse works as Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day (1970). Bradbury developed this standard motif into a spirited defense of literature itself. In Montag’s world of state-sponsored book-burning, books are not simply carriers of potentially subversive messages — their very physical existence evokes a rich cultural tradition antithetical to the leveling tendencies of the mass media. Furthermore, Montag, as a lone reader engrossed in a book, symbolizes the ideal of individualism in a society intent on standardizing every aspect of people’s lives. Thus, Fahrenheit 451 takes the genre of dystopia to its logical conclusion by enthusiastically proclaiming the power of the written word against any kind of oppression.
Bradbury’s imagery is both vivid and highly ambiguous. The very first paragraph depicts Montag’s flamethrower as a “great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world.” This sets the pattern for a complex juxtaposition of natural and mechanical images that dominates the novel and reflects its central tensions between the country and the city, or culture and technology. Many elements of this future society are portrayed as perverted versions of natural objects: the “beetle” cars used for joy riding, the “seashell” radios that keep people awash in sound, the “cobra-like” stomach pump used on Mildred after her suicide attempt, and, most significantly, the merciless killer robot called the Mechanical Hound. This contrast between the natural and the artificial is also employed in relation to Clarisse and Mildred (both of whom were played by Christie in Truffaut’s film version of Fahrenheit 451). While Clarisse is associated with trees and the change of the seasons, Mildred is depicted as cold and mechanical.
As the novel progresses, however, Bradbury transcends the static opposition of the natural and the technological and focuses on the ambiguity of his central symbol, fire. Montag is initially fascinated by fire, and this fascination persists, even as his repulsion against the act of book-burning grows. He once compares Clarisse’s luminous face to the light of a candle, an image that brings up a nostalgic childhood memory. The first of the many literary quotes that draw Montag inexorably toward forbidden books describes a martyr’s death as the lighting of a candle.
The destructive aspect of fire is embodied by Beatty, a true pyromaniac who is constantly playing with fire. For Beatty, fire is the ultimate weapon that allows him to cleanse and to purify society by literally incinerating any dissenting voices. When Montag turns the flamethrower on Beatty after having torched his own house, Montag momentarily switches roles with this devil’s advocate, and he briefly muses afterward whether Beatty might not have wanted him to do this.
The ambiguity of fire reaches its climax at the end of the novel, when the cities are destroyed in a nuclear war. Strangely, this scene employs no fire imagery at all and lyrically describes the destroyed cities as briefly floating in the air before they disintegrate. Out of the ashes of the cities, as Granger hopes, the Phoenix of a new civilization will arise, yet the bird Phoenix is also the emblem of the book-burning firemen. Thus, Fahrenheit 451 at least partially disassociates the reader from the optimism of its protagonists and remains poised between dystopian despair and a utopian belief in the inevitability of the triumph of reason.
Essay by: Frank Dietz
Bloom, Harold, ed. Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.” New York: Chelsea House, 2007. Collection of essays providing various interpretations of the novel, including an introductory essay by Bloom. Includes bibliography.
Bradbury, Ray. Match to Flame: The Fictional Paths to “Fahrenheit 451.” Edited by Donn Albright and Jon Eller. Colorado Springs, Colo.: Gauntlet, 2006. Between 1944 and the publication of Fahrenheit 451 in 1953, Bradbury wrote nine short stories and novellas about book-burning that he later described as antecedents to his novel. This book contains those stories, including “The Fireman” (1951), the novella he later expanded into Fahrenheit 451, tracing the development of Bradbury’s writing and the genesis of the novel.
Greenberg, Martin Henry, and Joseph D. Olander, eds. Ray Bradbury. New York: Taplinger, 1980. This collection contains several essays discussing various aspects of Fahrenheit 451. Extensive bibliography.
Johnson, Wayne L. Ray Bradbury. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980. Deals with central themes related to science fiction and fantasy in Bradbury’s works.
Mogen, David. Ray Bradbury. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Provides biographical background as well as analyses of major works. Sees Fahrenheit 451 as a satire of 1950’s McCarthyism, as well as a general attack on totalitarianism.
Reid, Robin Anne. Ray Bradbury: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000. Designed for high school and college students. Provides a brief biography, discusses Bradbury’s place in the science-fiction genre, and devotes separate chapters to analyses of Fahrenheit 451 and other novels. The analyses include discussions of plot, themes, character development, and setting.
Touponce, William F. Ray Bradbury and the Poetics of Reverie: Fantasy, Science Fiction, and the Reader. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984. Applies reader-response theories to Bradbury’s works. Focuses on Fahrenheit 451 as a critique of technological rationalism and the contemporary culture industry.
Weller, Sam. The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury. New York: William Morrow, 2005. Biography focusing on Bradbury’s private life and the successes and difficulties of his professional career.