Fahrenheit 451—named for the temperature at which paper ignites and burns—is Bradbury’s best-known novel and is probably also his best. Based on an earlier story, “The Fireman” (1950), and developing the censorship theme that appears in several other Bradbury works, this novel presents the dystopia that Bradbury may fear most.
In a future United States, the lowest common denominator of culture has imposed its ideas of happiness upon the whole culture. The universal idea of happiness has become an extrapolation of sitting in front of a television with a six-pack of beer, free of hard work, of complex human relationships, and of the disturbing stimulation of the ideas and images of the great artists and thinkers. In the future, television screens can be all four walls of a room. There, the viewer participates in the families and adventures that appear on “the walls” by subscribing to and then acting out a viewer script. When the walls fail to interest, one places receivers in the ears and blankets the mind with pleasant sound that blocks out awareness of self and world.
Montag, the protagonist, is a “fireman.” His team’s job is to burn books and arrest their possessors. Not all books are outlawed—only those that stimulate the imagination with their complex ideas or vivid images of human possibility, those books that encourage people to aspire toward thought and experience beyond the ordinary.
Though this story is often compared with George Orwell’s dystopia Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), the two books differ significantly. An especially important difference is the role of government. The tyranny of an oligarchy in 1984 is matched by the tyranny of the anti-intellectual majority in Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury’s novel partakes of the atmosphere of anticommunism following World War II. The government seems distant, unconcerned with life in Montag’s city, involved instead in the threat of atomic war that hangs over the nation. Beatty, Montag’s boss, in a series of lectures on the history and theory of the firefighters’ work, makes clear that the firemen act on behalf of ordinary people who know what happiness is, who want to be sure that everyone is happy, and who want to extirpate any who fail to conform to this idea of happiness. Book collectors are discovered and exposed by their neighbors, acting from a sense of civic duty; no secret police are required.
Montag’s story develops rapidly and inexorably in three stages. Part 1, “The Hearth and the Salamander,” presents a series of discoveries that lead Montag to steal and read from the books he is supposed to burn. He meets an imaginative young girl, Clarisse, who opens him to ways of seeing that he finds attractive. He discovers that his wife, Mildred, is not happy, despite her self-deluding assertions to the contrary, and that he is not happy either. Their lives are...
(The entire section is 1195 words.)