When did science fiction first cross over from genre writing to the mainstream of American literature? Almost certainly it happened on October 19, 1953, when a young Californian named Ray Bradbury published a novel with the odd title of Fahrenheit 451. In a gripping story at once disturbing and poetic, Bradbury takes the materials of pulp fiction and transforms them into a visionary parable of a society gone awry, in which firemen burn books and the state suppresses learning. More relevant than ever a half-century later, Fahrenheit 451 has achieved the rare distinction of being both a literary classic and a perennial bestseller.
“Our civilization is flinging itself to pieces. Stand back from the centrifuge.” – from Fahrenheit 451
“There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house.” – from Fahrenheit 451
The three main sections of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 all end in fire. The novel focuses on Guy Montag, a fireman who, in the first section, we discover is a professional book burner, expected to start fires instead of putting them out. For years he has done his job obediently and well, and finds a “special pleasure” in burning books (p.1). Then one day, he is called upon to burn the books of a Mrs. Hudson, who prefers to die rather than leave her library. Furtively, Montag pockets some of her books, haunted by the idea that a life without books might not be worth living after all.
As Montag begins to read deeply for the first time in his life, Fahrenheit 451's second section traces his growing dissatisfaction with the society without books he is paid to defend. He seeks out the counsel of an old man named Faber, whom he once let off easy on a reading charge. Together they agree to copy a salvaged Bible, in case anything should happen to the original.
Montag's boss at the firehouse, Beatty, senses his disenchantment and interrogates him until their confrontation is interrupted by a fire call. Responding to the address, Montag is expected to start a conflagration considerably closer to home.
Fahrenheit 451's final section finds Montag seizing his own fate for the first time. He avenges himself on Beatty and strikes out for the countryside. There he finds a resistance force of readers, each one responsible for memorizing—and thereby preserving—the entire contents of a different book. As they bide their time in hope of a better future, a flash appears on the horizon: While society was staring at full-wall television screens and medicating itself into a coma, the largest fire yet has broken out.
The book's three holocausts expand concentrically. The death of a stranger by fire in the first third becomes the destruction of Montag's own house in the second. The implication is that, had Montag paid greater attention to his neighbor's plight, he might not have found himself in the same predicament soon afterward. Trouble down the street leads to trouble at home, and trouble at home to trouble abroad.
Literary Allusions in Fahrenheit 451
Walden by Henry David Thoreau
A precursor to Granger's philosophy in Fahrenheit 451, Thoreau's classic account of the time he spent in a cabin on Walden Pond has inspired generations of iconoclasts to spurn society and take to the wilderness.
Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift
Swift's satirical 1726 novel follows the journey of Lemuel Gulliver to a series of fanciful islands, none more improbable than the England he left behind. The Bradburian idea of using a distant world as a mirror to reflect the flaws of one's own society doesn't originate here, but this is one early expression of it.
"Dover Beach" by Matthew Arnold
Arnold's enduring poem about a seascape where "ignorant armies clash by night" has also lent lines to Ian McEwan's novel Saturday, and provided the title for Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night.
The Republic by Plato
The deathless allegory of the cave, where men living in darkness perceive shadows as truth, is unmistakably echoed in the world of Fahrenheit 451.
Ramin Bahrami on Adapting and Directing Fahrenheit 451 (Art Works Blog, 6/8/18)
Montag comes to learn that "firemen are rarely necessary" because "the public itself stopped reading of its own accord." Bradbury wrote his novel in 1953: Do you think his prophecy—in any way—came true? How so?
Clarisse describes a past that Montag has never known: one with front porches, gardens, and rocking chairs. What do you think these items evoke? How might their absence have encouraged Montag's repressive society?
"Don't look to be saved in any one thing, person, machine, or library," Faber tells Montag. "Do your own bit of saving, and if you drown, at least die knowing you were headed for shore." What do you think Faber means by this? Do you agree with his advice?
One of the most significant of the many literary allusions in Fahrenheit 451 occurs when Montag reads Matthew Arnold's poem "Dover Beach." Why do you think Bradbury chose this poem? How do Mildred’s friends respond to the poem, and why does Montag kick them out of his house?
Were you surprised to learn that Beatty is quite well read? What do you think lead Beatty to despise books? How do you think his knowledge of and hatred for books can be reconciled? What do you think he means when he says “a book is a loaded gun in the house next door”?
Unlike Mrs. Hudson, Montag chooses not to die in his house with his books. Instead, he burns them, asserting even that "it was good to burn" and that "fire was best for everything!" Are these choices and sentiments consistent with his character? Were you surprised that he failed to follow in her footsteps? Why do you think he chose not to?
Beatty justifies the new role of firemen by claiming to be "custodians of [society's] peace of mind, the focus of [the] understandable and rightful dread of being inferior." What do you think he means by this?
How does the destruction of books lead to more happiness and equality, according to Beatty? Does his lecture to Montag on the rights of man sound like any rhetoric still employed today?
Why does Montag memorize the Old Testament's Ecclesiastes and the New Testament's Revelation? How do the final two paragraphs of the novel allude to both biblical books?
Are there any circumstances in which censorship might play a beneficial role in society? Can you think of any books that you might argue should be banned? Why or why not?
If you had to memorize a single book or risk its extinction, which book would you choose?