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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Fahrenheit 451 Ray Bradbury

American short story writer, novelist, scriptwriter, poet, dramatist, nonfiction writer, editor, and children's writer.

The following entry presents criticism on Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953). See also Ray Bradbury Short Story Criticism, Ray Bradbury Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 10, 15.

Among Bradbury's most influential and widely read works, Fahrenheit 451 (1953) describes the impact of censorship and forced conformity on a group of people living in a future society where books are forbidden and burned. (The title refers to the temperature at which book paper catches fire.) The novel was written during the era of McCarthyism, a time when many Americans were maliciously—and often falsely—accused of attempting to subvert the United States government. This was also the period of the Cold War and the moment when television emerged as the dominant medium of mass communication. Within this context, Fahrenheit 451 addresses the leveling effect of consumerism and reductionism, focusing on how creativity and human individuality are crushed by the advertising industry and by political ideals. Traditionally classified as a work of science fiction, Fahrenheit 451 showcases Bradbury's distinctive poetic style and preoccupation with human subjects over visionary technology and alien worlds, thereby challenging the boundaries of the science fiction genre itself. The social commentary of Fahrenheit 451, alternately anti-utopian, satirical, and optimistic, transcends simple universal statements about government or world destiny to underscore the value of human imagination and cultural heritage.

Plot and Major Characters

Fahrenheit 451, a revision and expansion of Bradbury's 56-page novella "The Fireman," consists of a series of events and dialogue divided into three parts. Together the story traces the emotional and spiritual development of Guy Montag, a twenty-fourth century "fireman" who, unlike his distant predecessors, is employed to start fires rather than extinguish them. Under government mandate to seek out and eradicate all books—in Montag's world, book ownership is a crime punishable by death—Montag and his colleagues answer emergency calls to burn the homes of people found to be in possession of books. The first and longest part of the novel, "The Hearth and the Salamander," opens with Montag happily fueling a blaze of burning books. This event is followed by a period of gradual disillusionment for Montag and then by Montag's abrupt renunciation of his profession. Montag's surprising reversal is induced by several events, including his chance meeting and interludes with Clarisse McClellan, a teenage girl whose childlike wonderment initiates his own self-awareness; the bizarre attempted suicide of his wife Mildred and Montag's reflections upon their sterile relationship; and Montag's participation in the shocking immolation of a woman who refuses to part with her books. During this last episode, Montag instinctively rescues a book from the flames and takes it home, adding it to his secret accumulation of other pilfered volumes. The strain of his awakening conscience, exacerbated by Mildred's ambivalence and by news of Clarisse's violent death, drives Montag into a state of despair. When he fails to report to work, Captain Beatty, the fire chief, becomes suspicious and unexpectedly visits Montag at home to offer circumspect empathy and an impassioned defense of the book burners' mission. Beatty's monologue establishes that the firemen were founded in 1790 by Benjamin Franklin to destroy Anglophilic texts. Beatty also claims that book censorship reflects public demand and the naturally occurring obsolescence of the printed word, which has been supplanted by the superior entertainment of multimedia technology. The scene closes with Beatty's exit and Montag among his books, professing his intent to become a reader. The second and shortest part of the novel, "The Sieve and the Sand," continues Montag's...

(The entire section is 42,634 words.)