Fahrenheit 451—named for the temperature at which paper ignites and burns—is Bradbury’s best-known novel and is probably also his best. Based on an earlier story, “The Fireman” (1950), and developing the censorship theme that appears in several other Bradbury works, this novel presents the dystopia that Bradbury may fear most.
In a future United States, the lowest common denominator of culture has imposed its ideas of happiness upon the whole culture. The universal idea of happiness has become an extrapolation of sitting in front of a television with a six-pack of beer, free of hard work, of complex human relationships, and of the disturbing stimulation of the ideas and images of the great artists and thinkers. In the future, television screens can be all four walls of a room. There, the viewer participates in the families and adventures that appear on “the walls” by subscribing to and then acting out a viewer script. When the walls fail to interest, one places receivers in the ears and blankets the mind with pleasant sound that blocks out awareness of self and world.
Montag, the protagonist, is a “fireman.” His team’s job is to burn books and arrest their possessors. Not all books are outlawed—only those that stimulate the imagination with their complex ideas or vivid images of human possibility, those books that encourage people to aspire toward thought and experience beyond the ordinary.
Though this story is often compared with George Orwell’s dystopia Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), the two books differ significantly. An especially important difference is the role of government. The tyranny of an oligarchy in 1984 is matched by the tyranny of the anti-intellectual majority in Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury’s novel partakes of the atmosphere of anticommunism following World War II. The government seems distant, unconcerned with life in Montag’s city, involved instead in the threat of atomic war that hangs over the nation. Beatty, Montag’s boss, in a series of lectures on the history and theory of the firefighters’ work, makes clear that the firemen act on behalf of ordinary people who know what happiness is, who want to be sure that everyone is happy, and who want to extirpate any who fail to conform to this idea of happiness. Book collectors are discovered and exposed by their neighbors, acting from a sense of civic duty; no secret police are required.
Montag’s story develops rapidly and inexorably in three stages. Part 1, “The Hearth and the Salamander,” presents a series of discoveries that lead Montag to steal and read from the books he is supposed to burn. He meets an imaginative young girl, Clarisse, who opens him to ways of seeing that he finds attractive. He discovers that his wife, Mildred, is not happy, despite her self-deluding assertions to the contrary, and that he is not happy either. Their lives are empty and teeter on the edge of self-destruction, held back only by the constant vacuous stimulation of electronic media and drugs. Montag is the salamander, the dragon of dangerous fire, but he discovers that his hearth is cold, that his home lacks spirit and love; it has no central animating principle. When he sees a woman who prefers to be burned with her books rather than to give them up, he realizes that they must contain something of great importance. He begins to read the books that he has almost unconsciously been hiding away in his home.
In part 2, “The Sieve and the Sand,” Montag tries to understand the wisdom he believes is in his books, which include the Bible and poems such as Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” (1867). He finds that, in several ways, his mind is like a sieve; he does not know how to make sense of what he reads without any intellectual training or context. Frustrated at the futility of his efforts, he takes dangerous risks. He contacts Faber, an unemployed professor in whom he once confided, and becomes aware of the possibility of rebellion. He finds himself bursting to talk about what he has read and tries communicating with his wife. These activities bring him increasingly to the attention of Beatty, who has long suspected that Montag does not fit the fireman mold. Part 2 ends when Montag’s team answers an alarm that brings them to his own house.
Part 3, “Burning Bright,” tells of Montag’s escape from his job and the imprisoning city. He becomes a fugitive when he kills Beatty rather than betray Faber. Montag concludes that Beatty wanted to be killed, that he manipulated the crisis before Montag’s burning home in order to bring about his own death. This observation highlights one of the more puzzling aspects of the novel, which is how to read Beatty’s character. Beatty is the spokesman for the majority point of view, yet the arguments he offers for keeping literature out of people’s hands and destroying those who insist upon reading are filled with references to and quotations from the very works he opposes. Montag’s final realization seems to suggest that Beatty, like Mildred, deludes himself into believing he is happy. Beatty, however, unlike Mildred, may come to understand his duplicity, leading him actively to seek death.
Montag’s harrowing flight brings him finally to a hearth, where vagrants gathered around a fire warm themselves and form a community. He soon learns that they have met there to receive him into their fragile underground—a group of rebels who survive relatively unmolested in the countryside and whose rebellion consists essentially of memorizing great books in preparation for the day when they can be written down again. These people can help him understand the books they remember, and he himself can become a “book” by sharing what he has managed to remember from Ecclesiastes and the Book of Revelation. As he joins this community, atomic war comes to the nation, and the city he has left behind is consumed in flames. They believe that all the other cities are also being destroyed and therefore that their rebel group represents the phoenix, the new civilization to arise from the ruins of the old.
Bleak as this novel may appear, emphasizing as it does some of the worst things people can do, it nevertheless ends with an expression of hope that goes beyond the idea of the biblical saving remnant suggested by the phoenix image. One of the rebels speaks for them all, and probably for Bradbury, when he says, “We know all the damn silly things we’ve done for a thousand years and as long as we know that and always have it around where we can see it, some day we’ll stop making the goddam funeral pyres and jumping in the middle of them.” In order to know what those silly things are and where they lead, one must have the books that tell about them. One of the reasons the society of Fahrenheit 451 fails is that it made a happiness machine that erased the past and prevented people from imagining the future. With their minds locked in the present, they could do nothing to stop the fiery holocaust from falling upon them.