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...
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