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.