In Fahrenheit 451, owning and reading books is illegal. Members of society focus only on entertainment, immediate gratification and speeding through life. If books are found, they are burned and their owner is arrested. If the owner refuses to abandon the books, as is the case with the Old Woman, he or she often dies, burning along with them. People with interests outside of technology and entertainment are viewed as strange, and possible threats.
In the book, Bradbury doesn't give a clear explanation of why censorship has become so great in this futuristic society. Rather, the author alludes to a variety of causes. Fast cars, loud music, and massive advertisements create an over stimulated society without room for literature, self-reflection, or appreciation of nature. Bradbury gives the reader a brief description of how society slowly lost interest in books, first condensing them, then relying simply on titles, and finally forgetting about them all together.
Bradbury also alludes to the idea that different "minority" groups were offended by certain types of literature. In his discussion with Montag, Beatty mentions dog lovers offended by books about cats, and cat lovers offended by books about dogs. The reader can only assume which minority groups Bradbury was truly referring to. Finally, in the Afterword to Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury clearly expresses his own sensitivity to attempts to restrict his writing. For example, he feels censored by letters suggesting he should give stronger roles to women or black men. Bradbury sees such suggestions and interventions as the first step towards censorship and book burning.
Throughout the novel, the reader is presented with a conflict between knowledge and ignorance. What does true happiness consist of? Is ignorance bliss, or do knowledge and learning provide true happiness? Montag, in his belief that knowledge reigns, fights against a society that embraces and celebrates ignorance.
The fireman's responsibility is to burn books, and therefore destroy knowledge. Through these actions, the firemen promote ignorance to maintain the sameness of society. After befriending Clarisse, Montag finds himself unable to accept the status quo, believing life is more complete, true and satisfying when knowledge is welcomed into it. After making this discovery, Montag fights against ignorance, trying to help others welcome knowledge into their lives. For example, when his wife's friends come over, he forces them to listen to poetry. Although they become extremely upset after listening to what he reads, they are able to experience true emotion. In Montag's view, this emotion will give these women a fuller and more satisfying life.
Throughout the novel, Bradbury presents paradoxes between life and death. For example, Montag's wife Millie attempts suicide by swallowing sleeping pills. Montag discovers her, calls for emergency medical assistance and saves her life. During the time while the medical team is reviving Millie, it is unclear whether she will live or die. Montag learns through the medics that reviving suicide attempts is a very common act. The commonality of suicide attempts and saves blurs the line between life and death in this futuristic society. Upon realizing this, Montag begins to wonder what life truly is and why it feels so empty and dead.
Furthermore, the tool the medics use to pump Millie's stomach is referred to as the Electric-Eyed Snake, and the tool the firmen use to hunt down book owners is the Mechanical Hound, both inanimate objects that appear to have lives of their own. Montag finds himself wondering, are they alive or dead? In truth, in Montag's search for truth and knowledge, he is trying to give true life to his own existence and to prevent the cultural death of society.
Many people die in the novel. The old woman burns herself to death, Clarisse is killed by a speeding car, Montag kills Beatty with the flamethrower, and the Mechanical Hound kills an innocent man. Among all this destruction, Montag survives and is given new life, reborn after his trip down the river and after meeting Granger and taking the concoction to change his chemical balance. While Montag survives, the city and everyone he knew there are destroyed. Montag's interest in knowledge and dedication to a new and better society saved him. Thus, Bradbury seems to suggest that life is dependent on knowledge and awareness. If we become idle and complacent, we might as well be dead.
In the opening paragraph, the burning book pages are compared to birds trying to fly away. When Millie attempts suicide, Montag compares the tool used to save her to a snake. The Mechanical Hound is a dominant presence throughout the novel. The image of the salamander is dominant as well, as a symbol of the fireman. In addition, the story of the Pheonix plays a prominent role.
This animal imagery expresses the importance of nature in life. The lack of nature, or the manipulation of nature (i.e. the development of the Mechanical Hound), causes death and destruction. The only time animal imagery is positive in the entire novel is when Montag gets out of the river and encounters a deer. At first he thinks it is a Hound, but then realizes his mistake. The deer is peaceful, beautiful, and an expression of nature. This image welcomes Montag into his new life.
Technology in Bradbury's 24th century is highly advanced. Television screens take up entire parlor room walls and characters can speak directly to the listener, addressing him or her by name. Small seashell radios broadcast into people's ears throughout the day. People rely on inventions such as the Mechanical Hound and the snake-like tool used to save Millie's life after her suicide attempt. People drive cars at speeds of 150mph and above. Faber invents a small radio to be inserted in the ear through which he can communicate with Montag. Technology dominates society. Montag discusses this issue briefly with Clarisse and reflects on it as he opens up to the world of books. When he finally escapes his old life, the city is destroyed by atomic bombs (yet another example of negative technology), and Montag begins a simple life with very little technological tools as he sets out to rebuild society with Granger and the other intellectuals. Clearly, Bradbury is commenting on the negative influence of technological development in this world and the destructive potential of technology in our society.
At the opening of Part I, when Montag goes home, his bedroom is described at first as "not empty" and then as "indeed empty". Mildred is there, but her mind is floating away with the music of her seashell radio and she is almost lost to a sleeping pill overdose. This concept of paradoxes continues throughout the book, expressed in the conflicts between life and death mentioned earlier. Examples include the "electric-eyed snake" tool that the technicians use to revive Mildred, and the Mechanical Hound, which appears to be both machine and animal. Furthermore, this paradox exists in the concept of "truth" portrayed in the novel. Beatty's "truth" is a fabrication and manipulation of history. Actual truth is hidden from society, or more accurately, burned. Many people in Montag's life, including Millie and her friends, believe they live in reality when in fact they live in a superficial world dominated by television, government oppression and the media. Society is blind to the truth. Montag's discovery of the truth and his dedication to living a life of truth save him from the ultimate destruction bombs bring to the city.
Although it appears no character in Fahrenheit 451 holds any religious beliefs, Bradbury includes many religious references in this novel. The book Montag saves from the old woman's house is The Bible. Throughout his tribulations, Montag holds on to this book, reading it on the subway, showing it to Faber, and finally, with Granger and the other intellectuals, Montag agrees that The Bible is the book he will memorize in order to one day, in a new society, reprint. Furthermore, Montag compares Millie's friends to icons he saw in a church once but did not understand. Later on in the novel, Faber compares himself to water and Montag to fire, saying the cooperation of the two will produce wine. This is an allusion to the biblical story of the miracle at Cana where Christ transforms water into wine.
At the conclusion of the novel, Montag, Granger and the rest of the intellectuals walk up the river to find survivors of the ultimate atomic destruction of the city. In his walk, Montag remembers passages he read in his Bible from Ecclesiastes 3:1, "To everything there is a season," and Revelations 22:2, "And on either side of the river was there a tree of life...and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations." The apocalypse Montag has witnessed has clear connections to the apocalypse foreseen in the Bible.
Fahrenheit 451 Questions and Answers
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Fahrenheit 451 is based on a short story called "The Fireman" written by Bradbury in 1951 and later expanded into a full novel in 1953. The Fahrenheit 451 study guide contains a biography of Ray Bradbury, literature essays, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.