Ray Bradbury was a self-educated writer, who relied on the books available at the Los Angeles Public Library for his literary education because his family could not afford college. Bradbury went on to become one of the best science fiction writers of the 20th century. One of the reasons for his success is that Bradbury was able to focus on dystopian fiction in a way that was new and fresh for his original audience. Bradbury considered himself a lifelong fan of science fiction, but was disappointed to find that many libraries did not stock science fiction books because they were not considered literature. Combined with what he learned about Nazi book burnings, this led Bradbury to contemplate what happens when any group of people becomes the gateway to reading and literature.
Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopian novel, which means that the setting is a society that is undesirable and/or dangerous. The society in the novel is America, at some unspecified time in the future. The descriptions are actually much like large swaths of modern America; people in the society avoid nature, do not read books, do not spend time alone, do not engage in critical thinking, only have superficial conversations, focus their attention on television and radio (which they listen to with headphones), and drive very fast.
The main character is Guy Montag, a fireman. However, firemen are no longer responsible for extinguishing fires, but are responsible for starting fires. Montag has accepted the status quo as normal, but begins to question that when he encounters a young girl named Clarisse McClellan. This 17-year old is full of questions about their society, which lead Montag to begin questioning whether this society is healthy for him and his role in the society. His questioning is reinforced when his “happy” wife, Mildred, attempts to kill herself by swallowing a bottle of pills. Mildred lives the life that is idealized by their society and does not consider herself unhappy, but was suicidal.
Montag experiences another challenge to his worldview when he responds to an alarm. An elderly woman has been keeping a secret stash of literature. However, she does not leave the books, choosing to be burned alive with them rather than abandoning them. Montag then finds out that Clarisse has been killed. Montag begins to have some type of crisis, and he decides to see if he can find answers in books that he has secretly stolen from fires and hidden until this time.
Montag skips work and Beatty, the fire chief, goes to visit him at his home. He knows that Montag is looking through books, and says that it is normal for firemen to go through that type of phase. Beatty explains how books came to be banned, starting with people banning books that were offensive to minorities and other special-interest groups. Soon, all books were burned to avoid conflict between works of literature. Beatty seems to understand what Montag is experiencing, and tells him to take 24 hours to figure things out, then turn in the books to be burned.
Montag spends the night reading, and he turns to Mildred for help. Mildred wants no part of Montag’s task, does not understand why he is taking the risk of reading books, and continues to watch TV. Montag thinks he needs someone’s help to understand what he is reading and process his feelings. He decides to go to Faber, an English professor that he was met in a park. Montag visits Faber, who tells him that the books alone are not what is valuable; Montag also needs the time to digest them and act on the information and ideas that they contain. Not only does Faber agree to help Montag read his stolen books, but becomes his coconspirator in a plan to challenge the status quo. They decide that Faber will arrange to have books reproduced. Montag will then plant these books in the homes of other firemen, where they will be discovered, and discredit the whole idea of censorship. The two men begin communicating via a two-way radio that they call the green bullet.
Once Montag arrives back home, he finds his wife watching TV. She is soon joined by two of her friends and Montag finds their normal conversation frivolous. He responds by pulling out a book and reading poetry to them. Mildred tells her friends that firemen read poetry to show how useless books are, and Faber uses the green bullet to tell him to stop. However, Mildred’s friends are bothered by what he has done and file a complaint against him.
The book’s protagonist, Montag begins as a third-generation fireman who does not question why they burn books. He has a realization that the life he is living is mostly meaningless, and begins to read the books he is meant to burn. He quickly realizes that the censorship has been a form of oppression, and wants to end that oppression, not just for himself, but for society. In addition to looking to books for knowledge, Montag also spends the novel seeking out human connections and seems to regret not being able to have a meaningful connection with Mildred.
Guy’s wife Mildred is a symbol of the society they live in. Physically frail looking, she keeps all of her interactions with Guy and her friends on a superficial level and is obsessed with television. She pretends that things are fine, even though they are clearly not, and she refuses to talk about her suicide attempt. She is the one who calls in Guy for owning books.
Guy is an interesting protagonist because, at times, he can be very unlikeable and hard to understand. In addition, some of Bradbury’s choices, like the fact that Guy is named after a paper-manufacturing company, seem a little too conveniently symbolic. Guy is a third-generation fireman who has presumably been responsible for a massive amount of destruction, and, prior to the beginning of the novel, does not seem to have questioned his role in society or been concerned about censorship.
Once Guy does begin to question whether censorship is positive and whether books have value, he quickly becomes very obsessive about the issue. The lack of role models and his quickly-fixed goals can make some of his actions seems counterproductive. He seems to rely on other people to help him decide what to think and what to do, but the major influences in his life seem arbitrary. He is more influenced by Clarisse than he is by his wife, Mildred. This can make him appear wishy-washy and disloyal. For example, his plan to expose the wrongs of censorship rely on him setting up other firemen to have their houses burned, showing a disregard for those he worked with for years.
While Guy is working towards greater self-awareness in the novel, he is also characterized by a lack of self-awareness. Many times, he is engaged in actions or behaviors for reasons that he does not even understand until after he completes them. He even suggests that he does some things subconsciously. While some of his actions are horrific and may seem extreme, like his murder of Beatty, Guy’s desire to end censorship is a positive one. He wants humanity to have more opportunities and to do better, and he wants to play a role in that, even if he struggles with figuring out how to accomplish those goals.
It is important to keep in mind that mental illness was not diagnosed, discussed, or treated in the same way when Bradbury wrote this novel. Mildred’s character seems to have substantial elements of some type of affective disorder, such as depression. Her resolve to live life on a surface level, while drowning in her own despair, and trying to find temporary escape TV or superficial interactions with her friends and acquaintances can be seen as both a symptom of a sick society and the symptoms of a woman struggling with deep sadness.
A theme is an idea that recurs in a work of art or literature. Most works of literature have multiple themes, and understanding those themes is critical to understanding the work.
The most pervasive theme in the book, and the subject of Bradbury’s fascination, the books are burned because they are banned. It is an extreme form of censorship; the society does not ban some books, but all books. In addition to discussing the impact of censorship on society, the book also discusses some of the causes of censorship. Bradbury seemed to think that the innovations of modern time, at the time he was writing, threatened people wanting to read and that a decline in wanting to read was one of the first steps towards censorship. Furthermore, Bradbury suggests that trying to protect special interest groups by censoring objectionable material could also lead to censorship because anyone could claim a special interest and that they were offended. Bradbury was vehemently opposed to any restrictions on free speech.
Censorship and a lack of knowledge go hand-in-hand, so it should come as no surprise that knowledge is another theme that recurs throughout Fahrenheit 451. Books are obviously a source of knowledge, but they are not the only source of knowledge in the novel. The society seems to actively be avoiding knowledge, by avoiding not only books, but also meaningful conversations and interactions. Guy gains knowledge from the books, but it could be argued that he gains as much knowledge from his interactions with Clarisse, Faber, and Beatty. In addition, while Guy wants knowledge, not just for himself, but for society, there are other characters in the novel, most notably Beatty, who have knowledge but do not want the general public to be able to access the same type of knowledge.
Because it was written in the past, it may be difficult to see that much of the novel focuses on threats of modernization and technology. Many of things that Bradbury wrote about, which seemed fantastical and far-fetched at the time, like mass television consumption and extremely fast vehicles, are staples of modern life. However, when written, they were simply additional elements of a dystopian society. Bradbury was very concerned that as people embrace technology more and more, they abandon part of their humanity. While the technological threats in the novel may be outdated because they are now a part of daily life, the theme remains relevant.
Rather than being divided into chapters, Fahrenheit 451 is divided into three larger parts or sections.
This section introduces Guy Montag and establishes the setting for the novel, which is the 24th century. The social system is a dystopia, where people watch what are essentially wall-sized flat screen TVs for news and entertainment, race cars for stress relief, and engage with one another on a very superficial level. The most remarkable thing about the society described in the book is the very high level of conformity.
Guy is a 34-year old fireman. However, because buildings are now built to be mostly fireproof, firemen are no longer responsible for putting out fires. Instead, firemen are in charge of burning books. However, the burning is not limited to books; the firemen also burn the homes where the books are found. Guy enjoys his job as a fireman and seems to enjoy his life. However, when he meets a new neighbor, Clarisse McClellan, he is fascinated by how she embraces life and begins to question whether or not he is really happy. Clarisse not only encourages Montag to question his own happiness, but also about censorship and his own occupation as a fireman.
After meeting Clarisse, Guy goes home to find that his wife Mildred has overdosed on medications. Two medical personnel come and save her life, but whether Mildred intentionally attempted suicide or simply overdosed seems unimportant to her; she does not address what happened. They have a special machine that is designed to deal with up to 10 overdoses in a night, which gives some insight into the general depressed climate of the society. Guy tries to get her to discuss it, but she will not. This helps Guy realize that he really does not know his wife. Mildred does not seem interested in Guy’s life at all, but is fascinated by a fictional family portrayed on her TV screen.
When Guy returns to work, he seems uneasy. The reader finds out that Guy has taken some books that he was supposed to burn. The Mechanical Hound growls at him, making him paranoid that the Mechanical Hound somehow knows about his hidden books. Beatty notices the Hound’s interest and becomes suspicious of Guy. He asks some questions to find out how Guy is doing and whether he is feeling guilty.
Guy responds to what should be a routine call. However, when he gets there, the homeowner refuses to abandon her books. Instead, she wants to burn with them. That same day, Clarisse is killed by a car. It is unclear whether Clarisse’s death was the result of a careless accident, or intentional, because Beatty later makes a comment about knowing how to get rid of people like Clarisse early. These two events spur Montag to make the changes he has been considering. He tries to talk to Mildred about his job and books, but she is scared of breaking the law and wants nothing to do with Guy’s plans. Guy calls in sick to work, and Beatty comes by the house to check on him. Beatty knows that Guy has stolen a book, and says that type of curiosity is something all firemen experience. Beatty tells Guy there is nothing worthwhile in books and gives some background that books are banned because all books contain something someone could find controversial. He instructs Guy to return to work that night. After Beatty leaves, Guy reveals to Mildred that he as actually stolen a number of books and hidden then in the air conditioning system.
One of the most important elements of this part of the novel is how it highlights