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 progressive rebelliousness and ends in his inevitable discovery. After an afternoon of reading with Mildred, who quickly becomes agitated and returns to the diversion of her television "family," Montag contacts Faber, a retired English professor he once encountered in a public park. At Faber's apartment Montag produces a stolen Bible. Faber then equips Montag with an electronic ear transmitter to maintain secret communication between them. Invigorated by Faber's complicity, Montag returns home and rashly attempts to reform Mildred and her two friends, Mrs. Phelps and Mrs. Bowles, as they sit mesmerized by images in the television parlor. His patronizing effort at conversation, along with his recitation of Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach," drive the women out of the house and leave Montag in open defiance of the state. Montag retreats to the firehouse, where he is greeted coolly and goaded by Beatty with literary quotations alluding to Montag's futile interest in books and learning. The scene ends with a minor climax when Beatty, Montag, and the firemen respond to an alarm that leads directly to Montag's own house. The third and final part of the work, "Burning Bright," completes Montag's break from society and begins his existence as a fugitive, enlightened book lover. When the fire squad arrives at his home, Montag obediently incinerates the house and then turns his flamethrower on Beatty to protect Faber, whose identity is jeopardized when Beatty knocks the transmitter from Montag's ear and confiscates it. As he prepares to flee, Montag also destroys the Mechanical Hound, a robotic book detector and assassin whose persistence and infallibility represent the terrifying fusion of bloodhound and computer. Following a dramatic chase witnessed by a live television audience, Montag evades a second Mechanical Hound and floats down a nearby river, safely away from the city. He emerges from the water in an arcadian forest, where he encounters a small band of renegade literati who, having watched Montag's escape on a portable television, welcome him among their ranks. Through conversation with Granger, the apparent spokesperson for the book people, Montag learns of their heroic endeavor to memorize select works of literature for an uncertain posterity. Safe in their wilderness refuge, Montag and the book people then observe the outbreak of war and the subsequent obliteration of the city. The novel concludes with Granger's sanguine meditation on the mythological Phoenix and a quotation from Book of Ecclesiastes.
Fahrenheit 451 reflects Bradbury's lifelong love of books and his defense of the imagination against the menace of technology and government manipulation. Fire is the omnipresent image through which Bradbury frames the dominant themes of degradation, metamorphosis, and rebirth. As a destructive agent, fire is employed by the state to annihilate the written word. Fire is also used as a tool of murder when turned on the book woman and on Beatty, and fire imagery is inherent in the flash of exploding bombs that level civilization in the final holocaust. The healing and regenerative qualities of fire are expressed in the warming fire of the book people, a startling realization for Montag when he approaches their camp, and in Granger's reference to the Phoenix, whose resurrection signifies the cyclical nature of human life and civilization. Through Beatty, Bradbury also posits the unique cleansing property of the flames—"fire is bright and fire is clean"—a paradoxical statement that suggests the simultaneous beauty and horror of fire as an instrument of purification. Montag's irresistible urge to read and his reaction to the desecration of the physical text establish the book as the central symbol of human achievement and perseverance. Thus literature, rather than Montag, can be said to represent the true hero of the novel. However, Bradbury contrasts the sanctity of the printed word with the equal vitality of oral tradition, particularly as cultivated by the book people but also as anticipated by Faber's earlier intent to read to Montag via the ear transmitter. Throughout Fahrenheit 451 Bradbury expresses a pronounced distrust for technology. The various machines in the novel are depicted as chilling, impersonal gadgets of mechanized anti-culture or state control—namely the ubiquitous thimble radios and television walls, the invasive stomach pumper that revives Mildred, roaring warplanes, and the Mechanical Hound. Considered in its historical context, the novel is both a reflection of mainstream American fears in the 1950s—mainly of the Cold War and the threat of communist world domination—and Bradbury's satire of this same society. Taking aim at the negative power of McCarthy-era anti-intellectualism, a superficial consumer culture, and the perceived erosion of democratic ideals, Bradbury assumes cloaked objectivity in the novel to project the fragile future of the American Dream. Written less than a decade after the end of the Second World War, the specter of book burning and thought control also recall the recent reality of Adolf Hitler's fascist regime. At its most dystopian, Fahrenheit 451 evokes an intense atmosphere of entrapment, evidenced in Montag's alienation, Mildred's dependency on drugs and television, Faber's reclusion and impotency, and Clarisse's inability to survive. Bradbury's prophetic vision, however, ultimately evinces confidence in the redemptive capacity of mankind, displayed by the survival of the book people and the miraculous inner transformation of Montag.
While Fahrenheit 451 is considered one of Bradbury's most effective prose works, the novel has been faulted for its sentimental evocation of culture and "highbrow" literary aspirations. Bradbury's justification of intellectual pursuit as a virtuous and humane ideal, with reading portrayed as a heroic act in itself, has been labelled romantic and elitist. Since Bradbury does not refute Captain Beatty's version of the firemen's history or his convoluted rationale for censorship, critics have claimed that the novel has the effect of positioning intellectuals against the masses, rather than the individual against the state. The totalitarian state is thereby implicitly exonerated by blaming the masses for the book's decline, while intellectuals in the form of the book people are entrusted with saving and repopulating the world. Thus it has been suggested that Bradbury's defense of humanity expresses little faith in the masses. In addition, many of the novel's high-culture allusions are considered too esoteric for the general reader, as with a reference to "Master Ridley," an obscure sixteenth-century martyr, or overly simplistic, as exemplified by Granger's involved exposition of the Phoenix myth. The shifting dystopian-utopian structure of Fahrenheit 451, drawing frequent comparison to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), remains the subject of critical attention as the source of both inconsistency and subtlety in the novel. Praised for its engaging narrative, concise presentation, and pounding intensity, Fahrenheit 451 embodies Bradbury's effective blending of popular science fiction and serious literature.