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Fahrenheit 451 is a classic science fiction novel written by Ray Bradbury and first published in 1953. It is the tale of a dystopian society that outlaws books and a man who becomes their preserver. The story is rich with themes and symbolism, as well as other literary devices that make it one of the most well-known works by Bradbury. This paper will provide a literary analysis of the themes, symbolism, realism, allegory, and other aspects of this acclaimed novel.
Fahrenheit 451 tells the story of Guy Montag, a fireman whose job is to burn books. Books are illegal in this society and have to be destroyed regardless of their content. Montag has worked as a fireman for years, but one day his world is changed by an encounter with an inquisitive young girl. Her words and nature make Montag question the world in which he lives. During one of his shifts, an elderly woman decides to burn herself with her books instead of handing them over to the firemen. This event inspires Montag to start reading the books that he had been hiding in his house, including a copy of the Bible that he had taken from the old woman’s house.
He meets an old professor and conspires with him to start working against the firemen. However, his plans are interrupted when his wife and her friends report his stash of books to the firemen. The captain makes Montag burn his books along with his house. When the act is done, the captain finds the device that the professor used to communicate with Montag.
This prompts Montag to burn the captain to death. Montag eventually escapes to the house of the professor and finds out that there are other people who are trying to preserve books. After leaving town, he finds these people and discovers that they have found a way to make people remember the contents of any book they’ve read. Therefore, people serve as living libraries of books. Subsequently, the city and all of its inhabitants are destroyed by a nuclear attack. At the end of the book, Montag and his newfound partners make their way to the city to hopefully restore society.
Fahrenheit 451 is rich with symbolism in its use of names and imagery. The fire imagery is the most overt. Firemen use salamanders (Crump, and Fenolio 144) and phoenixes (Nigg 15) in their iconography, both of which are creatures with mythological connections to fire. The fire itself also holds different meanings depending on its context in the book.
The kerosene fire that the firemen use is associated with the chaotic nature of fire and the firemen’s desire to destroy. When the firemen work, entire buildings are burned, even though they only come to burn books. This symbolism culminates in the nuclear attack on the city that causes the largest fire, which burns it completely to the ground—an event perhaps inspired by the real-world destruction caused by the nuclear bombs in World War II. These images of fire are designed to take away from people.
On the other hand, the image of fire in the wilderness is completely different. Its nature is in the giving, rather than the taking away, of life; indeed, fire preserves life. This imagery signifies a shift in Montag’s perception of the world and his own role in it. During his life in the city, his job was to use fire as a tool of destruction, so fire could only signify negative things.
However, now he sees fire as a tool that can nurture humanity. His new role is not to burn with kerosene but rather with the knowledge of the books he has read. Moreover, the imagery of the phoenix is brought up again but in a new context; at the end of the book, the phoenix represents humanity rising from the ashes of its own making. Even the name Montag plays a role in this imagery. It means “Monday” in German, which could be seen as a sign that Montag’s true role is in helping humanity start over, just as if it were the beginning of a new week (“Montag”).
The novel has three major themes that drive its plot: censorship, the danger of mass media, and the inability of technology to bring people closer to each other on an emotional level. The theme of censorship is the most overt. Censorship permeates the dystopian society presented in the novel and is also the main responsibility of Montag, the protagonist of the novel. The choice of Montag’s occupation helps present the issue of book burning from a first person perspective.
An outside look at the firemen could present them as dispassionate monsters, but by exploring the thought process of a person whose job it is to burn books, greater insight is gained into the workings of this society. It is also important to note that censorship is not just carried out by the government in the novel. Indeed, laws prohibit the reading and storing of books, but maximum effort is made not to harm the people who do so. Even during the scene that leads to the elderly woman burning herself to death, the firemen initially try to save her (Bradbury 33).
Instead of a totalitarian government, the culture of this society is the real censor. People see books as stupid, useless, and filled with overly complex ideas. The author suggests in an expository monologue by the captain of the firemen that the true reasons for book burning were the development of visual media and the actions of minority groups (Bradbury 55). As a result of technological advancement, the perceived world became smaller, giving people from minority groups more voice. Therefore, to gain the largest audience, stories began to be written in a simpler fashion, and the offending books started to be burned.
There are several issues with this explanation that slightly muddle the theme of the novel. For example, a lot of religious groups are mentioned in the list of minorities, despite it being established that no religion exists in the present society. If the government was trying to appease these groups, then how did they disappear? Aside from the narrative issues, this explanation explores the idea of self-censorship and its dangers when it comes to art. It is also possible that the role of the government is downplayed by Montag, who works for it, since books are actually banned in the country and people are spied upon and sometimes taken away to mental institutions. Nevertheless, Fahrenheit 451 explores an unusual side of censorship.
Despite being literate, the vast majority of people in this society choose not to read. Instead, mass media has a strong influence. Massive screens provide entertainment and trivial but overwhelming information to the masses, while also controlling public opinion. The danger of mass media is accentuated throughout the book because it is able to create a unified belief among its viewers. The content of the programs is often simple and without meaning. In one scene of the book, Montag’s wife Mildred reads the script of a play that despite having characters and dialogue, tells no story and has no established relationships (Bradbury 18).
This scene reflects the general state of storytelling in the world of the book. A play that has nothing to do with real human emotion and presents a vague, unrealistic situation is the antithesis of the books that the professor describes to Montag when they meet (Bradbury 79). Such stories do not elicit true emotions and do not make their readers think about life.
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This danger of mass media is precisely what Bradbury explores throughout the book. People are shown to be not just uninterested in books but almost afraid of them. When Montag reveals his hidden stash of books to Mildred, they both experience difficulty understanding them. Though Montag is determined to understand the meaning of the words he is reading, Mildred starts criticizing the book as if to protect herself from its effects. A similar reaction is experienced by her friends. When Montag decides to read a poem out loud, the room falls silent, and one of the women begins crying because the poem has such a strong emotional effect on her. People in this society have trained themselves to ignore anything upsetting, so even when nuclear war is declared, they are more preoccupied with a police chase on TV than the fear of nuclear bombs destroying their city.
The culture portrayed in the book is based around appearing happy, so any negative emotion is seen as undesirable. The mass media presents everyone with a single idea to believe in, and everyone is expected to consume it, almost at all times of the day. The simple act of taking a walk is seen as suspicious because everyone has fast cars, and as long as insurance is paid, they are allowed to drive at ludicrous speeds with no regard for human life. Even while driving, however, people are subjected to advertisements designed to be seen while driving fast. Because the mass media is everywhere, everyone must have the same opinion about it and follow what it preaches. During Montag’s escape, the police ask everyone to open their doors and windows to find him. Every person in the city becomes a lookout, just by one command of the mass media. Once again, everyone does so voluntarily, further accentuating the danger of mass media.
The third theme of the book lies in the way technology affects human interaction. The author describes a wide range of futuristic devices in the book. Some are used to easily transfuse blood; others tell a homeowner that someone is at the door. Most people have giant screens that cover multiple walls of the house. Small earbuds exist so people can have a constant feed of mass media information and entertainment, with the option of hearing the other people around them or not. People can easily contact each other, and often do, but the nature of this interaction is false. The author proposes that despite the development of technology allowing people to be closer, it does precisely the opposite.
People of this society barely know each other because their conversations are often filled with clichés and meaningless small talk. Characters mostly behave in ways that are predetermined by social norms and informed by the mass media. People rarely think about the past and have abnormally casual attitudes toward death. Even the death of loved ones does not create an emotional response, and any mention of it is quickly brushed away by a new topic or aphorism.
Most of the discourse between the citizens of the city consists of trivial information being shared with no further thought and reiteration of the opinions created by the mass media. When one of Mildred’s friends brings up politics, the whole conversation becomes focused on the looks of the candidates. Their height, manner of speech, and attractiveness become the deciding factors in the election, while their political platforms are irrelevant.
Whether such vapid interactions are the fault of new technology or the culture itself is left unclear. However, it is possible to say that the emotional distance and shallow relationships of this society are enabled by technology. The earbuds that Mildred uses are perhaps the most overt sign that technology is preventing people from traditional communication. Even during important events, she does not turn them off and often prioritizes them over real life.
Despite the unrealistic setting of the book, it holds enough elements of realism to keep the reader from losing the suspension of disbelief. The world of Fahrenheit 451 is filled with bizarre elements such as murderous children driving cars to run over anyone they see, firemen whose sole purpose is to burn books, the existence of two previous nuclear wars that were won by the United States, and casual violence toward pets. To make such things believable, Bradbury incorporates scenes that ground this bizarre world in reality, a device that can be seen in the manner of social discourse that Montag, Mildred, and their acquaintances use on a daily basis. Post-war America was concentrated on keeping up appearances and commercial opulence.
This attitude extended to a desire to appear perfectly happy with any real issues being hidden under the surface. This same desire is shown by the characters of the book. Before the events of the book take place, Montag developed a set of actions that would prevent any unwanted conversation from happening through simple answers and fake laughter. Even more than 60 years after the writing of the book, this shallow type of conversation exists. People often try to avoid meaningful exchanges out of fear of burdening others with their problems or being burdened themselves (Mccarthy 235).
The way people in Fahrenheit 451 are willing to make statements about things they have not experienced is also highly realistic. Characters often tell misremembered trivia as fact and refuse to consider the opposite. This experience is common in real life. At some time in their lives, most people find themselves talking about books they have not read based on information they have learned at school or heard on TV. It is a human thing to do, and its inclusion in the book not only makes the characters more believable but also accentuates their desire to appear knowledgeable.
In addition to these realistic touches, some aspects of the book have become retroactively realistic. For example, today the global market often affects the content of large studio films. This phenomenon can be seen in movies that have been altered for release in China. Large corporations are always seeking new forms of revenue, and in this case, the revenue comes from the international market. Due to its large audience and financial resources, China has become a more common setting for movies, and additional footage is sometimes shot for the Chinese version of the film. Ironically, this does not lead to greater inclusion of Chinese actors in the American media (Sun et al. 294).
Another retroactively realistic aspect comes from the way the police chase is covered by the mass media in the book. Everything from the presence of police helicopters to the narration and style of shots represents the modern coverage of real-life police chases. At the time the book was written, police chases had not yet become a standard of news coverage, but the level of detail that the author describes is highly evocative of real life (Lipschultz and Hilt 7).
Fahrenheit 451 has two distinct settings: the city and the wilderness. The majority of the story takes place in the city. Its streets are almost sterile due to people rarely walking. Highways and futuristic trains are in abundance, and its cars move incredibly fast. One curious aspect of the city is its lack of smells when Montag is preoccupied with various events.
The only distinct smell comes from kerosene and the fire that it makes. However, when Montag gets a moment of leisure, smells gain a new importance. The smell of books, certain grasses, and flowers are focused on, and positive connections to other things such as cinnamon are created by the characters. Otherwise, the city is too sterile to have a smell of its own, almost as if its character had been washed away with all the dirt and grit. Just like the lives of its citizens, the city is highly controlled and has no sign of wilderness within it. The city lights are too bright for Montag to see many stars, but no one even looks up at the sky anymore.
On the other hand, the wilderness is full of smells and stars. As soon as Montag escapes into the wilderness, he begins to smell new and previously unfamiliar scents. During the relatively short portion of the book that takes place in the wilderness, Montag senses more smells than he does during his entire time in the city. The sky is also much clearer, allowing him to see a dazzling display of stars. Even the smell of fire is different in the wilderness and therefore elicits a different emotion from Montag.
This change of setting has a strong effect on the tone of the story. From a dramatic chase, the plot turns to exposition and almost an epilogue to the story. Characters discuss their plans calmly, even joking about their current predicament. Bradbury also abruptly ends all possible story threads concerning the city through its complete destruction. Narratively, this choice creates a parallel to the life of Montag; his life before the wilderness did not matter, and therefore everybody and everything he knew of his past life have been erased.
Fahrenheit 451 is a book about books and their effect on people. It touches upon the ideas of censorship, mass media, technology, and human interaction. It is filled with symbolism and realistic aspects that give a distinct character to its world. Some parts of the book can be perplexing, but an understanding of 1950s American culture can shine a light on its inspirations.
Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. Simon & Schuster, 2013.
Crump, Martha L, and Danté B Fenolio. Eye of Newt and Toe of Frog, Adder’s Fork and Lizard’s Leg: The Lore and Mythology of Amphibians and Reptiles. University of Chicago Press, 2015.
Lipschultz, Jeremy, and Michael Hilt. Crime and Local Television News: Dramatic, Breaking, and Live From the Scene. Routledge, 2014.
Mccarthy, Anna. The Citizen Machine: Governing by Television in 1950s America. New York University Press, 2013.
“Montag.” Duolingo. 2017.
Nigg, Joe. The Phoenix: An Unnatural Biography of a Mythical Beast. University of Chicago Press, 2016.
Sun, Chyng et al. “Shifting Receptions: Asian American Stereotypes and the Exploration of Comprehensive Media Literacy.” The Communication Review, vol. 18, no. 4, 2015, pp. 294-314.