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Fahrenheit 451

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Fahrenheit 451

By Ray Bradbury (1953)

"It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed." —from Fahrenheit 451

Overview

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.

Introduction to the Book

The three main sections of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 all end in fire. The novel focuses on Guy Montag, a fireman. In the first section, we discover that Montag is a professional book burner, expected to start fires instead of putting them out. For years he has done his job obediently and well. 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 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. For a book once pigeonholed as science fiction, this structural savvy is one more proof that Bradbury started out writing for the pulps and wound up writing for the ages.

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.

SellingPapers- Author image.png

Man selling newspapers on the street corner.

Ray Bradbury selling newspapers on the corner of Olympic and Norton, Los Angeles, c. 1938. Photo courtesy of the author

Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)

Ray Douglas Bradbury was born on August 22, 1920, in Waukegan, Illinois into a family that once included a seventeenth-century Salem woman tried for witchcraft. The Bradbury family drove across the country to Los Angeles in 1934, with young Ray piling out of their jalopy at every stop to plunder the local library in search of L. Frank Baum's Oz books.

In 1936, Bradbury experienced a rite of passage familiar to most science-fiction readers: the realization that he was not alone. At a secondhand bookstore in Hollywood, he discovered a handbill promoting meetings of the "Los Angeles Science Fiction Society." Thrilled, he joined a weekly Thursday-night conclave that would grow to attract such science-fiction legends as Robert A. Heinlein, Leigh Brackett, and future Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

After a rejection notice from the pulp magazine Weird Tales, he sent his short story "Homecoming" to Mademoiselle. There it was spotted by a young editorial assistant named Truman Capote, who rescued the manuscript from the slush pile and helped get it published in the magazine. "Homecoming" won a place in The O. Henry Prize Stories of 1947.

But the most significant event for Bradbury in 1947 was surely the beginning of his long marriage to Marguerite McClure. They had met the previous April in Fowler Brothers Bookstore, where she worked—and where at first she had him pegged for a shoplifter: "Once I figured out that he wasn't stealing books, that was it. I fell for him."

In 1950, Bradbury's second book, The Martian Chronicles, took the form of linked stories about the colonization of the red planet. As always in his writing, technology took a back seat to the human stories.

Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 on a rental typewriter in the basement of UCLA's Lawrence Clark Powell Library, where he had taken refuge from a small house filled with the distractions of two young children. Ballantine editor Stanley Kauffman, later the longtime film critic for The New  Republic magazine, flew out to Los Angeles to go over the manuscript with Bradbury, plying the sweet-toothed perfectionist author with copious doses of ice cream.

The book came out to rapturous reviews. To this day it sells at least 50,000 copies a year and has become a touchstone around the world for readers and writers living under repressive regimes.

Continuing to write during his final years, Bradbury also made public appearances that inspired all ages across the country. At many of those celebrated appearances, he exhorted his fans to "Do what you love and love what you do!" He did just that, until his death at age 91.

An Interview with Ray Bradbury

On January 5, 2005, Dana Gioia, former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, interviewed Ray Bradbury in Los Angeles. An excerpt from their conversation follows.

Dana Gioia: How did you come to write Fahrenheit 451?

Ray Bradbury: In 1950, our first baby was born, and in 1951, our second, so our house was getting full of children. It was very loud, it was very wonderful, but I had no money to rent an office. I was wandering around the UCLA library and discovered there was a typing room where you could rent a typewriter for ten cents a half-hour. So I went and got a bag of dimes. The novel began that day, and nine days later it was finished. But my God, what a place to write that book! I ran up and down stairs and grabbed books off the shelf to find any kind of quote and ran back down and put it in the novel. The book wrote itself in nine days, because the library told me to do it.

DG: What was the origin of the idea of books being burned in the novel?

RB: Well, Hitler of course. When I was fifteen, he burnt the books in the streets of Berlin. Then along the way I learned about the libraries in Alexandria burning five thousand years ago. That grieved my soul. Since I'm self-educated, that means my educators—the libraries—are in danger. And if it could happen in Alexandria, if it could happen in Berlin, maybe it could happen somewhere up ahead, and my heroes would be killed.

DG: Decades after Fahrenheit 451, do you feel that you predicted the world, in that sense, fairly accurately?

RB: Oh, God. I've never believed in prediction. That's other people's business, someone like H.G. Wells with The Shape of Things to Come. I've said it often: I've tried not to predict, but to protect and to prevent. If I can convince people to stop doing what they're doing and go to the library and be sensible, without pontificating and without being self-conscious, that's fine. I can teach people to really know they're alive.

DG: Did you think of this book from the beginning being about the growth, the transformation of Montag's character?

RB: Never for a moment. No. Everything just has to happen because it has to happen. The wonderful irony of the book is that Montag is educated by a teenager. She doesn't know what she is doing. She is a bit of a romantic sap, and she wanders through the world. She's really alive though, you see. That is what is attractive about her. And Montag is attracted to her romantic sappiness.

DG: What do you think the turning point is in this novel, in terms of making Montag come into his new life?

RB: Well, when Mrs. Hudson is willing to burn with her books. That's the turning point, when it's all over and she's willing to die with her loved ones, with her dogs, with her cats, with her books. She gives up her life. She'd rather die than be without them.

DG: If you joined the community that appears at the end of Fahrenheit 451 and had to commit one book to memory, what book would that be?

RB: It would be A Christmas Carol. I think that book has influenced my life more than almost any other book, because it's a book about life, it's a book about death. It's a book about triumph.

DG: Why should people read novels?

RB: Because we are trying to solve the mystery of our loves, no matter what kind you have. Quite often there's an end to it and you have to find a new love. We move from novel to novel.

  1. 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: To what extent has his prophecy come true today?
  2. Clarisse describes a past that Montag has never known: one with front porches, gardens, and rocking chairs. What do these items have in common, and how might their removal have encouraged Montag's repressive society?
  3. "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." How good is this advice?
  4. One of the most significant of the many literary allusions in Fahrenheit 451 occurs when Montag reads Matthew Arnold's poem "Dover Beach." What is the response of Mildred's friends, and why does Montag kick them out of his house?
  5. It may surprise the reader to learn that Beatty is quite well read. How can Beatty's knowledge of and hatred for books be reconciled?
  6. 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? Are you surprised that he fails to follow in her footsteps?
  7. 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 does he mean by this, and is there any sense that he might be right?
  8. 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?
  9. 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?
  10. Are there any circumstances where censorship might play a beneficial role in society? Are there some books that should be banned?
  11. If you had to memorize a single book or risk its extinction, which book would you choose?

Audio

Fahrenheit 451 Audio Guide

Ray Bradbury

This audio guide about the classic science fction novel Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury is narrated by Dana Gioia and features Ray Bradbury, Orson Scott Card, John Crowley, Paquito D'Rivera, Hector Elizondo, Nat Hentoff, Ursula K. Le Guin, Azar Nafisi, Luis Alberto Urrea, and Sam Weller.

Video

NEA Big Read: Meet Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 remains one of the most iconic works in American Literature. At home with his cats and collectables, Mr. Bradbury talks about how the book came into being and what has sustained his extraordinary career.