Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451
Fahrenheit 451, probably the most famous of Ray Bradbury’s works, is also the most famous novel about books and their role in the life and development of humankind. Any time at outbreak of obscurantism the educated people would mention Fahrenheit 451, a dystopian grim tale of firemen burning books, because reading is mostly banned in their society. A compelling story revolves around Guy Montag, a fireman, who undergoes a personal evolution from a lawful citizen and a family man into a hunted criminal and exile, just because he dares to read forbidden books and doubts the perfectness of the existing order of things. Themes of relations between a reader and a book, the right to be different and censorship thread many works of Bradbury, such as Bright Phoenix (1941-1942), The Pedestrian (1951), The Smile (1952), Usher II (1950), to mention a few, but in Fahrenheit 451 they gain a full bloom and, being written in 1953, this novel still enchants contemporary readers in the whole lettered world.
Fahrenheit 451 can be boiled down to a story of a man in course of soul searching, but, as it usually happens with Ray Bradbury’s works, the reader is completely immersed into his fictitious world outlined with creepy detalization. The timeline is XXIV century, and life in this period is fast and depreciated.
In Part 1, “The Hearth and the Salamander”, we meet the protagonist, Guy Montag, in course of his work, while he enjoys the feeling the books burning brings to him. He is a fireman, his job is to burn and he really loves doing it, each sense involved. He ends his working hours and heads home. On his way he meets Clarisse McClellan, a girl who characterizes herself as being “seventeen and mad”. Bradbury (and Montag) pictures her as nearly unearthly being, made of light and precious stones. She and her family are Montag’s new neighbors. Clarisse speaks of strange things, strange for Montag, but not for reader, and asks strange questions. The last question that became a straw breaking the back of a proverbial camel, is “Are you happy?”
Montag doesn’t want to acknowledge that he is not, but the reality has a nasty surprise for him: at home he finds his wife Mildred nearly dead due to overdose of sleeping pills. No wonder that he’s horrified, and bomber aircrafts flying over his house with a thunderous noise are not just merely hinting that the country is on the verge of war, but also serve as acoustic counterpoint to Montag’s despair. He calls medical attention, but instead of physicians, technicians arrive. They are completely uncaring, doing their job almost mechanically. They are pumping Mildred’s stomach with a specially designed machine and perform a complete blood transfusion, so not a single drop of abused substance will be left in her, as one of them explains to Montag.
There is no need of a physician: overdoses became frequent in recent time. EMT’s receive a call for another overdose and leave Montag to observe as new blood returns some color on Mildred’s face and reflect somberly on the possibility to purify not only her stomach and blood vessels, but her flesh, brain and memory, even her soul. After some time he goes outside to get some fresh air and overhears Clarisse and her family talking about the value of human life in modern world, comparing it to a paper napkin. Grim subject, but Montag listens longingly, because such talk is a rarity, it’s unusual, like everything related to Clarisse; he is eager to join their conversation, or at least listen to it. He returns home, checks on his wife, tries to sleep, but is too overwhelmed by thoughts and events of this day, so he takes his sleeping pill.
Next morning he finds Mildred well and awake. She does not remember taking thirty or forty pills instead of two, so she assumes that they had a party last night, and this is just a hangover and hunger. When Montag tries to remind her about it, she just waves him away, being busy reading the scenario of a day-time interactive soap opera. At the same time she cannot tell what the teleplay is about and just nags her husband about getting the forth TV-wall (i.e., a wall-size TV screen), forgetting that they’ve got a third one only two months ago and had to shorten their spends in many ways.
Montag heads to work and meets Clarisse again. She’s visiting a psychiatrist, because her habits of walking, watching birds and butterflies, tasting the rain etc. are considered weird in the depicted society. A childish “dandelion test” shows that she is in love with somebody, while Montag is not. This leads to further splitting on Montag’s personality, a loyal citizen and employee on one level, a curious dreamer on the other.
At firehouse Montag confronts the Mechanical Hound, and it’s not the first time. This mechanism, intended for finding criminals by chemical composition of their blood and sweat, fascinates him in a way, particularly because, in spite of its adjustment, the hound actually snarls at Montag and demonstrates irritation by his presence. This is technically impossible, the hound’s memory contains chemical characteristics of each fireman, but what if somebody tampered with its settings, so it partially perceives Montag as a threat? Montag is practically sure that this is the case, for he has a little secret of his own, hidden behind the ventilation grate. When he mentions this possibility to his chief fireman, Captain Beatty, the answer is only taunting.
Seven days pass. Every day Montag meets Clarisse, he sees her shaking the tree and knitting, she leaves him small presents – a bouquet of autumn flowers, a packet of chestnuts and so on. They speak after his work and he is stunned by her words each time. Clarisse points at common details of life and muses on them like seeing something like that for the first time. She mentions her being an outcast at school, because she is quite different from other kids. She does not like car races and amusement parks, she does not like conversations about nothing, she does not like contemporary art.
At the same time the work goes its course, and every day brings more teasing on Montag’s relations with the Mechanical Hound.
After a week Clarisse disappears. Montag is anxious but has no ability to find out what happened. He continues to doubt his work, for Clarisse told him that in the past firemen were fighting fires instead of starting them, but when he mentions it to colleagues, they just laugh and remind him the Statute of a Fireman, stating that the fire service was founded in 1790 for burning the pro-English literature, and Benjamin Franklin was the first fireman. This is when they receive a call.
This call involves the sacking and further burning of old lady’s house. Its attic is stuffed with books, so when firemen start to take them down, it looks like a waterfall. Montag uses this vast quantity of books to steal one. The old lady refuses to leave the house and her library, so she waits for firemen to spread kerosene and lights the match.
On their way back to the station, Montag tries to remember the old lady’s words, and, shockingly, Captain Beatty is not only quoting them correctly, but also states the author, date and circumstances at which these words were said.
Montag arrives home feeling guilty and ill. Mildred chatters about something but he’s too lost in thoughts about old lady’s suicide and stolen book to pay any attention to her words. Later at night he watches Mildred suffering from insomnia: she uses “Seashells”, radio-ear-plugs and barely hears anything else. Suddenly Montag asks her if she remembers when and where they’ve met for the first time. She does not, she merely laughs and heads to the bathroom to take more pills.
This sets Montag thinking about her addiction to pills, interactive TV and speed driving. She is not interested in anything else, her “relatives” from TV walls and “Seashells” are the essence of her life. These thoughts return him to Clarisse, being a complete contrast to Mildred, with her vivacity and curiosity. He asks Mildred, if she didn’t seen Clarisse in last four days, and Mildred, distracted from radio-translation, nonchalantly says that Clarisse is dead. Hit and run accident. Her family left the city. She just forgot to tell. Then, while Mildred returns to her “Seashells” and starts humming along, Montag hears a strange sound outside and suspects that the Mechanical Hound is watching him.
Next morning he feels ill and feverish. Mildred is not too helpful, she is constantly distracted by “relatives” and keeps forgetting to bring him aspirin or lower the volume of TV-walls. Guy tries to explain the reason of his condition, to tell her about the old lady’s suicide, about books and everything else, but Mildred remains unimpressed, she just does not listen. She reacts only when Montag suggests quitting his job – she is horrified.
Captain Beatty arrives. He’s well experienced in problems that each firemen faces from time to time and gives Montag and Mildred a profound lecture on history and attitude to books, a strangely emotional review of contemporary culture development. During his almost uninterrupted monologue Mildred tries to comfort her husband and eventually finds the book hidden under his pillow. Luckily, she seems not to understand the meaning of her finding and soon is distracted by something again. Beatty goes on, mentioning Clarisse McClellan and her family; they were suspicious, clever, so nothing was found. At the end of this “enlightenment” Montag finds out that any fireman can take any book for 24 hours and after that he has to burn it, or his colleagues would do that, with the well-known consequences. Beatty leaves and Montag is lost in thoughts again.
He decides to show Mildred his books, collected within the last year. This was his secret kept behind the ventilation grate. Mildred is shocked, almost hysterical. It takes serious efforts to make her not to burn books immediately and listen to what her husband says. While they are discussing this issue, somebody is at the door, but they do not open it. Montag proposes at least to try to read something.
Part 2, “The Sieve and the Sand” starts with a day dedicated to reading. Mildred is anxious and bored: all devices in the house are turned off, including her precious TV walls. While Montag painstakingly tries to understand what he is reading, his wife complains about not being able to understand a thing. Something is scratching at the door and Mildred think that this is a common dog, but Montag suspects the Mechanical Hound.
Mildred’s day is saved when a friend calls her. Montag thinks that he lacks knowledge and guidance, so he has to find himself a tutor. He remembers an accidental encounter a year ago, in a park, when he met an old man, Faber, a former English professor. A trained fireman’s eye recognized that the man hid a book under his coat, but Montag had no intention to inform on him, he just wanted to take a seat and have some rest. They’ve spoken for an hour, and now Montag thinks that Faber can help him.
He calls Faber and asks how many copies of the Bible remain in their country. Faber is scared, knowing who Montag is, and interrupts their conversation. Mildred is chattering joyfully, she expects to have guests for the evening program. Montag takes the Bible and heads to Faber. He tries to read in the subway, but an aggressive advertisement of Denham’s Dentifrice leaves him no chances to concentrate on the text. Montag raves and scares other passengers.
Upon his arrival Faber is actually excited at the sight of a book, all senses involved. They speak about books and their significance for humankind, ways of perception, lack of time to think. Montag is eager to take some action, to change the order of things, he makes some offers, but Faber calms him down, pointing out that the war will soon take place and their civilization is racing to its end. Seeing that Faber is old and scared, Montag uses Faber’s love to books as a tool of blackmail: he starts to tear pages from the Bible, one by one. Bewildered, Faber agrees to help him. Maybe there will be even a possibility to make another copy of the book. Montag mentions Captain Beatty who has obviously read and memorized a lot and is quite a speechmaker, able to persuade our protagonist to come back to his lifework. Faber is interested in Montag’s support and gives him a modified radio ear-plug with two-directional operation, so he is able not only to speak, offering Montag his hints, but to listen too. Now Faber and Montag are able to support an endless dialogue.
While Montag goes home, he overhears news about mobilization. Faber offers him several suggestions and proposes to read aloud from the Book of Job. After the supper Mildred’s guests arrive, two bubble-headed women with several bottles of martini. Their pointless conversations, voices and general behavior annoy Montag and he proposes to read them a poem. Mildred is shocked, Faber tells him to stop, but Montag is determined. The desperate attempt ends in one woman’s hysterical fit, the second one just leaves the house, not willing to deal with a mad fireman.
Montag puts his books into another hiding place and heads to the firehouse. Faber continues to talk to him, trying to explain the reactions of the women, and to prepare him to confrontation with Captain Beatty.
Beatty makes yet another speech, welcoming Montag’s comeback. He scoffs at his deeds and attitude, spicing his insults by quotes of classical literature, showing his familiarity with the subject. Two other crew members, Stoneman and Black, keep playing cards, as usual. Beatty finishes his speech by describing his dream, where he and Montag were fighting, shouting classic quotes at each other, but eventually came to an agreement and got in the fire track, “Salamander”, to drive back to firehouse.
They receive a new call. A special case, as Beatty put it. After a drive thought the night city Montag finds “Salamander” parked in front of his own house.
At the beginning of Part 3, “Burning Bright”, Montag is completely confused. He sees Mildred, departing, unaware of his presence. Her call was the third one; two friends of hers had already called about books in a fireman’s house. Beatty insists that Montag should do the burning himself. Surprisingly, the burning still gives Montag a pleasure. Captain Beatty cannot stand temptation to insult Montag more, telling that it was him who tampered with settings of the Mechanical Hound, that he knew about each eccentricity of Clarisse McClellan; he is passionate in his anger. Being confused, Montag unwillingly reveals the presence of radio ear-plug, so Beatty takes it out and boasts that they will eventually find a man who made it. Threating Faber makes Montag point a flamethrower at his boss. Beatty continues his taunts, so Montag burns him alive. Stoneman and Black watch this, stunned. Montag knocks his colleagues off, prepares to run, but here comes the Mechanical Hound. It attacks the fireman and even bites him, injecting an incomplete dose of procaine. Montag destroys the Hound by flamethrower, picks the remaining books from the garden and leaves.
The manhunt has begun. Without Faber’s aid Montag is nearly helpless. He wanders through the city, trying to look like one of those strange men who prefer walking. Montag is only thirty years old, he’s a strong and healthy man, but procaine injected by the Hound is acting, making the walking difficult. At some point he even falls, stricken down by the drug and sudden understanding that Beatty actually wanted to die, being torn inside by his knowledge and thoughts.
He is chased by police helicopters and another Mechanical Hound now, and sooner or later they would track him down. He is almost hit by a car packed with teenagers. On his way to Faber’s Montag leaves the remaining books in the house of his colleague, Black, and gives a call to the firehouse. Meanwhile, the war begins.
He arrives to Faber, gets some rest and together they develop a plan of escaping. Faber directs Montag to countryside, to find other exile book-lovers. He mentions that he will take an early bus to St. Louis, so they can meet there later. Faber also gives Montag his old clothes, hoping that his odor would divert and confuse the Hound.
After a long chase, Montag manages to escape and floats down the river. He finds a group of exiles led by a man called Granger, and joins them. They watch the end of the manhunt, a real spectacle, where an innocent pedestrian unwillingly plays a role of Montag and is killed by the Mechanical Hound. Granger tells Montag about their way of living: each group member had memorized a book, so they turned themselves into a walking library. They are not alone, there are thousands of drifting people, and every one of them is a book. Granger also muses about building of a large mirror factory, so each man can see his own face and reflect on his life.
Meanwhile the city is annihilated with nuclear weapons. Every city dweller, including Mildred, dies, but Faber is on his way to St. Louse, so he has some chance to survive. Exiles and Montag manage to survive the shock-wave.
In the morning, while they prepare to return to the city, Granger tells the legend of the Phoenix, a bird, who burns itself and then is reborn from ashes. He points out that the man is smarter than Phoenix, so he can be reborn and remember his mistakes and probably would not repeat them.
Exiles are on their way to ruined city, hoping to help possible survivors and eventually to rebuild the whole society. Now they are the memory of mankind.
Guy Montag is a protagonist, a loyal citizen who doubts the way of his life and ends up as a criminal and exile. He is thirty years old, a fireman in third generation and perfectly fit for his job, actually enjoying it for ten years – it’s somehow balances his unhappy marriage with Mildred. A year or two ago he started to doubt the existing order of things and became curious about reading forbidden books, which means all non-contemporary literature. His doubts and his inability to share them with anybody else start a controversy in his mind that eventually leads to the complete ruination of his marriage, house and life.
Malicious chief fireman, always surrounded by thunderclouds of smoke, is Montag’s nemesis. He uses his profound knowledge and intuition for manipulating his subordinates and reaching his goals. Once an enthusiastic reader, he hates books for diversity of opinions and thoughts represented here and is passionate in maintaining the existing way of life. He is a clever speechmaker, so it’s easy for him to confuse the opponent and persuade him to follow the proper line of life, thoughts and behavior. His only mistake was overestimating of his power and the degree of Montag’s despair, and as the result the powerful captain Beatty is burned alive by his stubborn subordinate.
Protagonist’s wife is an embodiment of shallowness, materialism and addictiveness. She is addicted to her sleeping pills, kitchen gadgets, TV-walls and endless soap operas, speed driving and radio ear-plugs. She has learned lip-reading and speaks to her husband in short sentences, never actually hearing him. Even her appearance is the essence of the artificial chemical beauty: slim due to endless diets, unnaturally white, always restless. Her hair looks like straw, burned by chemicals. Mildred forgets everything, starting from aspirin and the number of taken pills and to more significant things, such as the place and time of her first meeting with her husband. When she realizes it, she only laughs, but her fear and restlessness are obvious. Bubble-headed as she is shown, deep inside she realizes that something is very wrong – and goes to take more pills.
Mrs. Ann Bowels and Mrs. Clara Phelps
Mildred’s friends are shown in order to empathize the emptiness and anti-intellectualism of the depicted hedonistic society. They find their pleasure in shallow small talks and martini, and are negligent to their family relations. Montag’s recital of Dower Beach seems to strike a chord in Mrs. Phelps, but she bursts into hysteric and Mrs. Bowels declares that she would never come to his house again. These friends were the first to call a firehouse about books that Montag kept.
She is seventeen and visits psychiatrist, because everybody except for her family perceives her as unsociable. The point is that she is not interested in accepted forms of socializing. She is curious, observant and loves to find out how and why things are working. Delightfully human, a perfect example of idealistic characters, she turns the Montag’s world inside out, merely by showing him that happy families still exist, a thoughtful conversation is possible, and rain drops are delicious. They see each other for seven days and this is enough to start Montag’s soul-searching and life questioning. After a week of these meetings Clarisse, who enjoys walking, is hit by car and dies. Montag learns about it only four days later, when Mildred casually mentions this fact.
Old English professor, scared by his own rebelliousness. Montag met him a year ago and remembers about his existence while facing the problem of book texts understanding. Faber is a classic example of protagonist’s tutor, being experienced in hiding his intentions and informed about exiles. After Montag’s plea for help he is determined to do everything possible, but still is cautious enough. This cautiousness can be confused with cowardice, but it was Faber’s cold mind that helped Montag to escape and find exiles in countryside. His voice in radio ear-plug serve as Montag’s consciousness and helps him to confront Captain Beatty for the last time.
Calm and intelligent, Granger is a completely opposite to malicious Captain Beatty. He is a leader of bunch of exiles, a man well aware of contemporary life, technology, inventions and organization of “memory of humankind”. Benevolent, he brings a kind of peace of mind to Montag. Giving the protagonist the hope for future restoration of healthy literate society, he is often associated with Moses, leading his people to unknown promised land and protecting them to possible degree.
The Hound represents government control and manipulation of technology, thus being inevitably associated with Furies from Greek mythology. An eight-legged robotic dog with a needle-tooth for procaine or morphine injection, it’s a perfect hunting and killing machine. This mechanical enforcer also serves as an omen of doom for Montag when, programmed by Beatty, it’s stalking his house at night, revealing its presence by strange noises and smell of blue electricity.
The main theme of Fahrenheit 451 is censorship and the declining level of mass culture against the background of increasing government control over citizens. The novel was published in 1953, with its nuclear hysteria, Cold War, book burning by Nazis and Stalin’s “Great Purge” that horrified Bradbury. For him love for books means intellectualism and spirituality, education and enlightenment. Lack of these makes the world of Fahrenheit 451 so terrible and doomed, for hedonistic illiterate society had opposed itself to the whole world and lost the “quick war”.
This novel is also dedicated to self-reflection, evaluation of ones deeds from different points of view and natural human strive to knowledge. The image of phoenix that appears in different circumstances and thus have several interpretations the symbol of rebirth and, respectively, becomes a symbol of hope for humankind, a hope that man can learn on his mistakes.
“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. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man’s mind. Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man? Me? I won’t stomach them for a minute.”
This quote is from one of endless Beatty’s monologues. He states the core reason for burning the books: it’s jealousy and fear, imagining intellectualism as a weapon.
“Hell!” the operator’s cigarette moved on his lips. “We get these cases nine or ten a night. Got so many, starting a few years ago, we had the special machines built.”
This quote is the first hint that something is wrong with the whole world, not only with Mildred.
“I don’t know what it is. I’m so damned unhappy, I’m so mad, and I don’t know why I feel like I’m putting on weight. I feel fat. I feel like I’ve been saving up a lot of things, and don’t know what. I might even start reading books. […] Before I hurt someone. Did you hear Beatty? Did you listen to [Beatty]? He knows all the answers. He’s right. Happiness is important. Fun is everything. And yet I kept sitting there saying to myself, I’m not happy, I’m not happy.”
“I am.” Mildred’s mouth beamed. “And proud of it.”
False, forced happiness is another important theme of Fahrenheit 451, and Mildred, who recovered from overdose just a week ago, is its perfect example.
“Ten million men mobilized,” Faber’s voice whispered in his other ear. “But say one million. It’s happier.”
Another sign of false happiness and censorship, not to mention the level of violence: if one million mobilized soldiers is “happy” news for a “quick war”, than happiness is a really strange thing in this world.
“He touched it, just to be sure it was real. He waded in and stripped in darkness to the skin, splashed his body, arms, legs, and head with raw liquor; drank it and snuffed some up his nose. Then he dressed in Faber’s old clothes and shoes. He tossed his own clothing into the river and watched it swept away. Then, holding the suitcase, he walked out in the river until there was no bottom and he was swept away in the dark.”
Nicely written scene, associated with ritual of baptizing. The river takes away old smell, old clothes and, supposedly, old soul of Montag. He is cleansed and reborn while floating to his salvation.
Bradbury’s prose is overflowing with symbols and Fahrenheit 415 is not an exception.
Fire – a destructive force at the beginning, a tool of reinforcement and punishment, accompanied by night, black uniforms of firemen and smell of kerosene. At the end of the novel Bradbury gives another interpretation of fire, as a source of warmth, comfort and light.
Phoenix – the symbol of rebirth from ashes, used as emblem of firemen and later mentioned by Granger when he states his view of a man capable to learn from his mistakes.
Mechanical Hound – a combined symbol. This robotic device is a perfect killing machine, but it is made in a shape of a dog, the best friend of a man. Dogs are good at protection and finding victims of natural and anthropogenic disasters, so the Mechanical Hound serves as a symbol of distorted dystopian world of Fahrenheit 451.
Books – the symbol of knowledge, wisdom and intellectualism. The list of forbidden books that should be destroyed along with all their owner’s property includes all classic and high-quality literature, thus dooming the depicted society for ignorance and lack of spirituality.
Black color – represents the darkness in general, the darkness of souls, minds and intentions. It is the color of night, when most calls are received by firemen, it is the color of their uniform, even their hair is black and skin has a tint of this color, giving the reader a grim image of the whole world of Fahrenheit 451.
The title is derived from Bradbury’s opinion that book paper catches fire and burns at temperature of Fahrenheit 451. Depending on paper type the temperature of burning can vary from 440 to 740 ºF.
Fahrenheit 451 was written and published in 1953. It took nine days for Bradbury to finish the first draft called The Fireman and later, when he was urged to extend it by his publisher (the first version was only 25,000 words long), he doubled the amount in exactly nine days more.
Fahrenheit 451 won a 1954 “Retro” Hugo Award, one of only four Best Novel Retro Hugos ever given, in 2004.
In 1966 Fahrenheit 451 was adapted into a movie by François Truffaut. The most prominent fact about this film that Montag’s wife (renamed into Linda in the film version) and Clarisse McClellan are played by the same actress, Julie Cristie; this creates an additional tension and underlines controversial nature of Montag’s spiritual torments.
A new film version is anticipated in 2018.
Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) was born in Waukegan, Illinois, and spent his childhood in a large and loving family. He grew to be an avid reader and writer. His hometown is immortalized in his prose as “Green Town”, where events of one of his most famous novels, Dandelion Wine, and many short stories take place.
His first short story was published in 1938 and this was a start of his long, prolific and really meteorical career of author and screenwriter.
He sold his first story at age of 22 and at 24 became a full-time writer. His first collection of short stories, Dark Carnival, later developed into a novel called Something Wicked This Way Comes, was published in 1947 by a small publishing house Arkham House, owned by H.P. Lovecraft’s co-author, August Derlett. Critics predicted that Bradbury would become a great writer like John Collier; this compliment was an award itself.
In 1950, the book The Martian Chronicles was published, receiving glowing reviews, and soon, in 1953, Fahrenheit 451 followed.
Since then, Ray Bradbury wrote numerous short stories and novels, was involved in production of numerous films based on his works and the TV series called “The Ray Bradbury Theater” (1985-1992) and did a lot of advisory work, not to mention his interviews, essays, articles and other activity.
On his death in 2012, The New York Times called Bradbury “the writer most responsible for bringing modern science fiction into the literary mainstream”.
His tombstone reads “Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451”.
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