Fahrenheit 451 (1953) is a dystopian fiction novel by Ray Bradbury. It is set in a world where books are banned and critical thought is suppressed; the central character, Guy Montag, is employed as a "fireman" (which, in this case, means "book burner"). 451 degrees Fahrenheit is stated as "the temperature at which book-paper catches fire, and burns ...".
The novel reflects several major concerns of the time of its writing: the censorship and suppression of thought and ideas exercised in the United States in the 1950s as the result of McCarthyism; the burnings of books in Nazi Germany starting in 1933; and the horrible consequences of an explosion of a nuclear weapon.
One particularly ironic circumstance is that unbeknownst to Bradbury his publisher released a censored edition for the school trade that eliminated the "damn"s and "hell"s. Later editions with all words restored include a "coda", an essay from the author describing this event and further thoughts on censorship and "well-meaning" revisionism.
The plot takes place in an unspecified future time, in a country whose society's goal in life is hedonistic pleasure and abandonment of self-control. By this point, books have been made obsolete due to the increasingly frenetic pace of life and the ever-shortening attention span of the common man - nobody has "time" to read anymore, and the ideas in these books are considered heresy to the point that they are burned whenever discovered.
The protagonist, Guy Montag, works with grim pleasure as a fireman, seemingly committed to the concept that books have nothing to say. The stench of kerosene in his nostrils and the spark in his eyes do little, though, to mask the loneliness he feels coming home to his wife, Mildred, a woman who is at all times seeking self-stimulation (whether it be the miniature radio jammed in her ear at night, or the three tv-screens in the parlor). But having met Clarisse McClellan, a girl living in Guy's neighbourhood who is considered abnormal because of her compassion and her simple interest in the world around her, his way of thinking is changed. He no longer wants to burn books - he wants to know if they have something worth listening to. He looks up Faber, a chance contact who was once an English professor before his class was eliminated, and attempts to convince his wife and her friends that books are worth reading, with disasterous results. Things come to a head when he is called to a final house - his own.
There, confronted by his fire chief, Beatty, he scourges the house with flame, destroying his former life before finishing the job with Beatty, killing him and knocking out his fellow firemen. He then flees for his life, pursued by the relentless Mechanical Hound. After convincing his now friend Faber to escape as well, and a harrowing chase from the city, he reaches the river and floats downstream, before coming across an outcast group of men who are "walking libraries", those who have committed entire books to memory to share with those who would listen. The city, and others as well, are soon afterwards struck with the atomic bomb, destroying them - and hopefully the lifestyle that they contained, so that people might once again learn from the books, and learn from the past.
For ten years Guy Montag has been working as a fireman. In these days, a fireman's task is to burn books. In the government's and consequently in the society's opinion, the books containing problems and conflicting theories dispose the people to be anxious, sad or angry. That's what the government wants to avoid because those feelings could threaten the country's stabilty. (see also Nevil Shute: On The Beach) This book could make people demonstrate against nuclear bombs or could turn them violent. With the books being sources of unhappiness, the firemen are to burn and destroy them in favour of fun and pleasure which are the main goals of living in this society. The people achieve their happiness by watching TV all day long or by doing drugs. Also Guy's wife Mildred is caught by her huge TV screen with its silly shows without any sense or meaning. With the spreading of TVs newspapers disappeared and nobody wanted them back and nobody missed them because it's so easy: you don't have to think while sitting on front of the screen.
At the beginning Guy is proud of his work. He thinks it is a fine job and kerosene is nothing but perfume to him, as he says. But then he meets Clarisse McClellan when he is on his way back home from work. Unlike Guy she pays attention to nature. The average people don't care about it anymore. She makes him reflect on life and his work. She poses essential questions to him, like if he is happy. That's why Guy begins to think about his situation. Clarisse dies early in the story so she's just the stumbling-block of Guy's transformation. He makes his development from a loyal servant of the state's ideology to a self-confident human being with its own free will on his own.
Self-confidence and an own free will are things Guy's wife Mildred has lost. All day long she sits in her parlour and watches TV on three TV walls set up around her. She seems to be happy staring at the screens but she attempts to commit suicide once. She took too many pills which actually should make her happy. As consequence of her watching TV in such an excessive way she has lost her sense for reality: She is convinced that in case of an imminent war every man will return back home in a few days. Moreover she's unable to make complete and logical sentences.
But, apart from Clarisse, there is another event that is important for Guy's development. He and his firebrigade are sent to a house whose owner, an old lady, is suspected of owning books. She didn't want to have her treasures destroyed so she decided to be burnt with them. In that situation Guy starts to think about the meaning of books. What in God's name have books got that the woman wants to die for?
This is also a main aspect of "Fahrenheit 451". It mystifies books. After having seen how careful Montag and Faber later touch books and how they speak about them the reader might get a new opinion about books.
Unnoticed by the other firemen Guy takes a Bible with him. And now he secretly starts reading.
After this cruel event he stayed away from work and he pretended he was ill. He wondered, if he could ever do his job again on the one hand because he saw the old lady dying on the other hand because he now esteems books. In preceding actions of the fire-brigade he has already stolen books - he does not know why - but he has never read them. But now he turns into a real bookworm. With him staying away from work, Beatty, the Captain of his fire-station, visits Guy. He tells him about the history of the firebrigade and the senselessness of books. In this speech the reader of the book recognizes that Beatty knows that Guy has got at least one book. That's the first time in the story, that Beatty talks that much. You perceive that he has read a lot and that he knows his "enemy". But he despises books and their readers. In his speech he mentions in passing that once in his career every fireman wants to know what books say and if a fireman takes a book with him he has got 24 hours to bring it to the fire-house and burn it there.
Now Guy is confused. He cannot find it in his heart that he is to burn such a valuable thing. On top of it all his wife Mildred is annoyed that he has got all those books. She is scared of what could happen if the fire-brigade knew about them.
So he must be helped.
He calls Faber, a retired English professor, which he has met a year ago. Although Faber has known that Guy was a fireman, and although he has been scared, he has recited poems to Guy at that time. When he left, Faber has given his address to Guy for his file in case he decided to be angry with him. Montag visits Faber and he tells him his problems. He does not want to turn in the Bible but he also cannot find a substitute. Furthermore, Montag does not know if Beatty knows which book he has stolen so he would recognize that Montag has got a whole library at home if he didn't bring the Bible. And finally Beatty could ask questions and find out Guy's real attitude towards books. Faber gives Guy a bug with which Faber is able to hear what Beatty and Guy talk so he can advise Guy what to say. The graver decision they make is to copy books and, after hiding them in other firemen's houses, to denounce them. By this they want the firebrigade to destroy itself. When Guy arrives at the fire-house, he handed Beatty the book. Then Beatty wanted to test Guy. He quoted from books and wants to know Guy's opinion about it. In the moment he wants to answer the station bell rings and they had to leave. They get on their van and when they arrive Guy recognized that it was his house.
Mildred has denounced him. When the firemen arrive she is leaving the house. She cannot live together with Guy anymore. She goes for good. Beatty forces Guy to burn the books he has. But he does not only burn the books but also all the house. He wants to destroy all that remembers him of his previous life. When he comes out of the house Beatty annoys him badly so Montag pointed the flame-thrower at him and burns him. Then Guy flees to Faber who recommends him to leave the city and to go to a hobo camp at the countryside where some intellectuals hide. Everyone of them has learnt a book by heart and keeps it in his mind until books will be allowed again.Guy arrives at the camp. Afterward, the city in which Guy just escaped from, and other cities as well, are soon afterwards struck with the atomic bomb, destroying them - and hopefully the lifestyle that they contained, so that people might once again learn from the books, and learn from the past.
Then Guy and his newly made friends travel back to the ruins of the city and try to build a new society and life.
Film and radio versions
The book, with some plot changes, was made into a film in 1966 by François Truffaut, with Oskar Werner as Montag. There are plans for a remake in 2005, directed by Frank Darabont.
In addition to the movies, there have been at least two BBC Radio 4 dramatisations, both of which follow the book very closely.
Influence on popular culture
The title of Bradbury's book has become a well-known byword amongst those who oppose censorship, in much the way George Orwell's 1984 has (although not to the same extent). As such, it has been alluded to in dozens of later contexts, amongst them the ACLU's 1997 whitepaper Fahrenheit 451.2: Is Cyberspace Burning? and Michael Moore's 2004 film Fahrenheit 9/11 (Bradbury objected to its allusion of his work ).
The movie Equilibrium, starring Christian Bale and Sean Bean, draws heavily from Fahrenheit 451, as well as 1984 and Brave New World.
Accuracy as a vision of the future
Bradbury correctly predicted the following aspects of the future:
- Live television broadcasts of police pursuits of fugitives, aided by helicopter-mounted cameras and supplemented by voice-over commentary by announcers
- The quality of television content has in some certain ways become more empty (see reality television)
But the following have not happened yet (and Bradbury argues that the purpose of his fiction is to keep such things from happening):
- Routine use of robots for pursuing suspects
- Routine book burnings
ISBN 0606006281 (prebound, 1953)
ISBN 0871293102 (paperback, 1986)
ISBN 0345342968 (mass market paperback, 1987)
ISBN 089968484X (library binding, 1990, reprint)
ISBN 067187229X (hardcover, 1993)
ISBN 1560549599 (audio cassette with hardcover, 1995, unabridged )
ISBN 0345410017 (paperback, 1996)
ISBN 0783883137 (library binding, 1997, Large Type Edition)
ISBN 8401422825 (hardcover, 1998)
ISBN 156137301X (hardcover, 1999)
ISBN 1561373028 (hardcover, 1999)
ISBN 0791059294 (hardcover, 2001)
ISBN 0758776160 (hardcover, 2002)
ISBN 0743247221 (hardcover, 2003)
ISBN 0848801474 (hardcover)
ISBN 8401422345 (hardcover)
ISBN 3257208626 (paperback)
ISBN 7246250102 (paperback)
Last updated: 10-29-2005 02:13:46