(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 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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dark Carnival (short stories) 1947
The Martian Chronicles (short stories) 1950
The Illustrated Man (short stories) 1951
Fahrenheit 451 (novel) 1953
The Golden Apples of the Sun (short stories) 1953
The October Country (short stories) 1955
Moby-Dick (screenplay) 1956
Dandelion Wine (novel) 1957
A Medicine for Melancholy (short stories) 1959
The Day It Rained Forever (short stories) 1959
R is for Rocket (juvenilia) 1962
Something Wicked This Way Comes (novel) 1962
The Machineries of Joy (short stories) 1964
The Wonderful Ice-Cream Suit (drama) 1965
S is for...

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Everett T. Moore (review date May 1961)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Rationale for Bookburners: A Further Word From Ray Bradbury," in ALA Bulletin, Vol. 55, No. 5, May, 1961, pp. 403-4.

[In the following review, Moore presents commentary on the themes of conformity and censorship in Fahrenheit 451.]

"'The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that!'"

It is Captain Beatty speaking, explaining meticulously how it got started—this job of the firemen of the future, in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. It is the story of the firemen who answer alarms not to put out fires, but to start them.

"Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the...

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Peter Sisario (essay date February 1970)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Study of the Allusions in Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451," in English Journal, Vol. 59, No. 2, February, 1970, pp. 201-5, 212.

[In the following essay, Sisario examines the source and significance of literary allusions in Fahrenheit 451 and considers their didactic potential for the beginning student of literature.]

Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is more than just a readable and teachable short novel that generates much classroom discussion about the dangers of a mass culture, as Charles Hamblen points out in his article "Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 in the Classroom." It is an excellent source for showing students the value of studying an...

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George Edgar Slusser (essay date 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fahrenheit 451," in The Bradbury Chronicles, The Borgo Press, 1977, pp. 52-4.

[In the following excerpt, Slusser explores the development of Fahrenheit 451, focusing on how it differs from its source, Bradbury's novella "The Fireman."]

Fahrenheit 451 is an expansion of the 56-page novella "The Fireman." The latter is not a good story: it is the kind of Bradbury most readers never see. How did the author rework this material into a classic? Fahrenheit is two and a half times longer. Yet it has essentially the same number of episodes. "The Fireman" consists almost entirely of events and discussion; these are strung out in tedious...

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John Colmer (essay date 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Science Fiction," in Coleridge to Catch-22, St. Martin's Press, 1978, pp. 197-209.

[In the following excerpt, Colmer assesses Fahrenheit 451 as a work of social criticism, citing shortcomings in the novel's sentimentality and high-culture allusions.]

Fahrenheit 451 takes its place in a long line of works concerned with the survival of language and the written word, since it not only presents a future in which there is constant war or threat of war but one where there is no legitimate place for books. The infamous burning of the books in Nazi Germany provides the historical model for Bradbury's fictional projection. On this model, he imagines a...

(The entire section is 1437 words.)

Wayne L. Johnson (essay date 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Machineries of Joy and Sorrow," in Ray Bradbury, Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, 1980, pp. 85-8.

[In the following excerpt, Johnson provides concise analysis of plot, theme and elements of fantasy and social criticism in Fahrenheit 451.]

Fahrenheit 451 is one of only two novels Bradbury has written. The other is Something Wicked This Way Comes. (Dandelion Wine and The Martian Chronicles are often referred to as novels, but they are really collections of separate stories unified by theme and specially written bridge passages.) Fahrenheit 451 is a short novel, an expansion of a story, "The Fireman," originally published in...

(The entire section is 1076 words.)

John Huntington (essay date July 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Utopian and Anti-Utopian Logic: H. G. Wells and His Successors," in Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 9, No. 2, July 1982, pp. 122-46.

[In the following excerpt, Huntington considers the dystopianutopian structure of Fahrenheit 451 and comments on the paradoxical symbolism of the book as both cultural and technological achievement.]

Montag, the protagonist of [Fahrenheit 451], like Graham [of H. G. Wells's When the Sleeper Wakes], D-503 [of Yevgeny Zamyatin's We], and Winston Smith [of George Orwell's 1984], is a man coming toconsciousness and attempting the overthrow or reformation of the closed, totalitarian, futuristic world...

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George R. Guffey (essay date 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fahrenheit 451 and the 'Cubby-Hole Editors' of Ballantine Books," in Coordinates: Placing Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by George E. Slusser, Eric S. Rabkin, and Robert Scholes, Southern Illinois University Press, 1983, pp. 99-106.

[In the following essay, Guffey explores Bradbury's indictment of censorship in some of his early short stories and comments on the bowdlerization of Fahrenheit 451 for high school readers.]

In April 1975 on the campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara, Ray Bradbury delighted an assembled audience with an uninhibited speech entitled "How Not to Burn a Book; or, 1984 Will Not Arrive." At one point...

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Jack Zipes (essay date 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mass Degradation of Humanity and Massive Contradictions in Bradbury's Vision of American in Fahrenheit 451," in No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, edited by Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander, Southern Illinois University Press, 1983, pp. 182-98.

[In the following essay, Zipes examines inconsistencies in Bradbury's sociopolitical criticism of post-World War II America in Fahrenheit 451.]

Perhaps it is endemic to academic criticism of science fiction to talk in abstractions and haggle over definitions of utopia, dystopia, fantasy, science, and technology. Questions of rhetoric, semiotic codes, structure,...

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William F. Touponce (essay date 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Reverie and the Utopian Novel," in Ray Bradbury and the Poetics of Reverie: Fantasy, Science Fiction, and the Reader, UMI Research Press, 1984, pp. 79-110.

[In the following essay, Touponce examines the utopian construct and social criticism of Fahrenheit 451 through extensive analysis of dialectic; historical and psychological effect; and reader response.]

Although the utopian novel addresses itself to a reader, literary criticism has been primarily concerned with the author's point of view, paying little attention to how the reader might be affected. One notable exception to this rule is Richard Gerber's Utopian Fantasy, which brings out the...

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David Mogen (essay date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fahrenheit 451," in Ray Bradbury, Twayne Publishers, 1986, pp. 105-11.

[In the following excerpt, Mogen provides favorable analysis of Fahrenheit 451, citing Bradbury's use of satire, metaphor, and stylistic excellence to deliver social commentary.]

If The Martian Chronicles (1950) established Bradbury's mainstream reputation as America's foremost science-fiction writer, publication of Fahrenheit 451 three years later (1953) confirmed the promise of the earlier book. Indeed, these two science-fiction novels from the early fifties seem destined to survive as Bradbury's best-known and most influential creations, the most sustained...

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Susan Spencer (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Post-Apocalyptic Library: Oral and Literate Culture in Fahrenheit 451 and A Canticle for Leibowitz," in Extrapolation, Vol. 32, No. 4, Winter, 1991, pp. 331-42.

[In the following excerpt, Spencer examines oral tradition, textual knowledge, and their respective implications for memory and power as demonstrated in Fahrenheit 451.]

At the dawn of widespread literacy in fourth-century Athens, Plato appended to the end of his Phaedrus a story that has often been perceived as, as Jacques Derrida puts it, "an extraneous mythological fantasy." Derrida argues in Dissemination that there is nothing extraneous about the myth at all, but...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Jacobs, Robert. "The Writer's Digest Interview: Bradbury." Writer's Digest 56, No. 2 (February 1976): 18-25.

Interview in which Bradbury discusses the writing profession and comments on his own work.

(The entire section is 108 words.)