Summary (Censorship (Ready Reference series))
The first science fiction novel by Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 is an early example of a dystopian tale about a future world that is nightmarish rather than hopeful. In its imaginary world, police state “firemen” burn homes containing books, as all books are forbidden by law. The protagonist, Guy Montag, is a fireman who becomes drawn into the world of clandestine book-readers by a woman he meets. Eventually, he joins a group of outcasts trying to preserve literature by committing entire books to memory. While printed matter can be burned, memories cannot be erased.
The novel’s point of view is clearly against censorship. It depicts the general population as living in darkness, with huge television screens dominating their homes and radios constantly blaring in their ears. The authoritarian government has decreed that all writing is subversive, as it is inevitably contradictory and it allows people to become aware of unpleasant aspects of society. Montag’s conversion to reading is significant in that he suddenly finds himself in light rather than darkness. The book’s none-too-subtle message is that reading makes people aware of ideas that may be dangerous to a totalitarian state, but are absolutely necessary for clear thinking.
Although Fahrenheit 451 is intended as a warning, not a prophecy, its anticensorship message has often been cited by opponents of book bannings in the United States.
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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....
(The entire section is 734 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1195 words.)