It’s probably remants from his hardcore science fiction days, but Bradbury shows a clear flair for intensity here. Characters are extreme rather than realistic (Clarisse is the kooky yet wise outsider, Beatty the secretly intellectual, moustache-donning-villain, Mildred the vacant wife, Faber the reluctantly rebellious ex-professor, etc.). Events are apocalyptic (big fires, lots of bombs), and confrontations exist only on the grandest of scales (cars swerving to hit pedestrians, the occasional flame-thrower murder).
Does the world of Fahrenheit 451 seem like a place you want to live? Exactly. It’s a dystopia. It’s the opposite of a utopia. It’s a future society defined by excessive authoritative control and limited personal freedom. As for science fiction, well, you’re dealing with Bradbury – he’s the science fiction master. Technology like the Mechanical Hound and advancements like the many-walled TV parlour define the futuristic setting and clearly mark the genre.
The 1991 Ballentine edition of this book made the meaning of the title pretty obvious with an addendum to the title: "Fahrenheit 451…the temperature at which books burn." This is followed shortly by: "The novel of firemen who are paid to set books ablaze." That pretty much covers it. Our only question is what they call the book in countries that don't use the Fahrenheit temperature scale. Celsius 232.778?
Cycles come up a lot in Fahrenheit 451—cycles of construction and destruction. Until he breaks free from his life as a fireman, all Montag knows is the latter. His job, his world, his entire life is about violence, death, and elimination. Fire is a great example; it’s used only to destroy books, people, and houses.
So it’s a big deal when, towards the end of the novel, Montag finds a fire that isn't destroying something. Instead, he is awestruck to realize that it's being used for warmth. It’s giving life, not taking it away. Shocking, right?
Montag has stumbled onto a big idea here—the constructive/destructive duality—but it’s Granger who fleshes it out in the last few pages. Like all of life, he explains, mankind’s presence on this planet is cyclical. We’ll do this all repeatedly, he says—go through another Dark Age and have to rebuild and flourish all over again. When the city is bombed to the ground, it is with hope that Montag reaches towards it, finally aware of this big cycle and finally accepting it.
Which brings us to the final paragraph of the novel: the tree of life. Montag has been trying for at least fifty pages to remember some passage of the Bible, but it’s not until his world is destroyed that the words come back to him. Makes sense, right? Something is destroyed, but something is created at the same time. More cycles, more duality. It’s appropriate that the passage in question is about the tree of life. As Montag remembers from the text, “To everything there is a season. A time to break down, and a time to build up.” And we see both in the final pages of the novel.
We get a sense of the world in which this story takes place from a variety of details. From Clarisse’s comments we know that violence is prevalent. From the plumbers who come to the Mildred’s rescue, we know that everyone is unhappy and death isn’t taken seriously. We know wars are casual – there have been two atomic wars since 1990, and Mildred’s friends' husbands are off at war…again. Family has gone by the wayside to be replaced by television, and the same goes for religion. We even get a monetary scale – 6,000 dollars is Montag’s yearly salary. Bradbury skillfully creates an entire world for his story and characters.
If they give you ruled paper, write the other way.
– Juan Ramón Jiménez
Fahrenheit 451 is all about rebellion against seemingly overwhelming opposition. Extending the metaphor to the detailed portions of the novel reveals a clear parallel: the lines on the paper reflect the rigidity of Guy Montag's world—the rules of behavior, the mental oppression, the intellectual subjugation. Writing "the other way" is representative of insurrection—the same kind of insurrection in which Montag indulges through books and the seeking of knowledge.
As a book that celebrates reading, literacy, and the importance of the written word, Fahrenheit 451 is an accessible read. It would be pretty ironic if Bradbury went all postmodern and difficult on us, seeing as how this story is a kind of call to arms—or better, a call to books. Sure, it's got drugs, war, and a whole heapin' helpin' of arson, but this is ultimately a story about the pleasures and necessity, of reading. So dive in and enjoy! (Just be careful not to read too close to any candles.)
As critic after critic has pointed out, the prose of Fahrenheit 451 is less than literary fiction: “Her face was slender and milk-white, and it was a kind of gentle hunger that touched over everything with a tireless curiosity. It was a look of almost pale surprise; the dark eyes [our italics]” were probably full of several more noun-adjective pairs. While this novel isn’t praised for its sentence construction, it’s famous today for its story, its message, its important questions and incredibly relevant concerns.
As you might expect from a novel about burning books, there’s a whole lot of fire in Fahrenheit 451. We’re not just talking about the burning houses, either. When people are angry, they’re burning with rage inside. When Montag senses Clarisse’s presence, it’s because he feels body heat. When Granger and Co. pick themselves up after the bombing, we get the image of a phoenix rising up from the ashes. This imagery is all over the place.
Fire seems to mean a lot of different things at different moments in Fahrenheit 451. Beatty and his fireman minions use it to destroy. But the woman whose house they burn interprets it another way: "Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out." For her, it represents strength. Montag himself discovers an alternative use for fire at the end of the novel, when he realizes that it can warm instead of destroy. Like that whole cycle of life thing, fire has a constructive and destructive half. And like the books that are burned, each character in the novel is forced to interpret for themselves and confront contradictory perspectives – just like Beatty said about the books.
There are several references throughout Fahrenheit 451 to essentially yucky animals an insects (that’s the technical term). When Mildred gets her stomach pumped, the machine is like a snake. The earpiece she wears at night is like a praying mantis. The helicopters in the chase scene are described as insects. Even the Mechanical Hound has eight legs, like a spider. Notice a pattern here? These references all have to do with technology – destructive technology that the government uses to control its citizens. It’s basically a perversion of nature and of the natural order, which fits into the larger themes of Fahrenheit 451 (because in this world of destruction without construction, the natural order is off).
We thought that would get your attention. When the chase draws to a close, Montag ditches his clothes, bathes in the river, and dons Faber’s attire instead. For a man who’s been through three or more identity crises, this is significant. He’s leaving the old Montag behind, cleansing himself of his old identity, and assimilating a new one for the time being (Faber’s). The fact that another man is captured and killed in Montag’s place is a great ancillary to this moment.
While the narrative is third person, it’s limited to Guy Montag. We spend a good amount of time in his brain hearing his thoughts, learning who he is, and understanding his many, many personal crises. This keeps us on his side and allows us insights into the world of Fahrenheit 451 we would otherwise have been denied.
Through Montag’s scenes in the firehouse, we meet the many, many monsters of Fahrenheit 451: the firemen, the government, the Mechanical Hound, the TV parlours, and Captain Beatty. But it’s Clarisse that blows the summoning horn for our hero, Montag, to take a stand against these villains…
Montag and Faber’s dreams fit the bill for this stage. They discuss everything from insidiously bringing down the institution of firemen to re-printing their own libraries and educating the masses. Faber is the realistic one here, so it’s really Montag who’s responsible for the big dreams.
This all goes down at the firehouse, fittingly. It becomes clear that, on top of all the antagonizing forces we met in the first stage, there’s another monster – people’s ignorance. And this one’s even tougher to slay.
This is about as bad as it gets. Mildred has betrayed her husband and Montag’s boss is putting him under arrest. At the same time, Montag has to face his own betrayal and guilt – you can get a good idea of what that’s like reading the passage in which he torches his bedroom. Faber is exposed, and the Mechanical Hound shows up, fashionably late to the nightmare party.
Granted, Montag smoked a good deal of monster in that climactic fire scene. (Beatty and the Mechanical Hound bit the dust at that point.) But remember that another Mechanical Hound was brought in, that more firemen were there to take Beatty’s place. Montag may have chopped the head off this sucker, but at least two grew back. Now that we’ve used every monster metaphor known to man…
Montag is a fireman. He enjoys being a fireman. Everything is hunky dory. We hope something happens soon – like a conflict.
As soon as Clarisse starts asking the tough questions (“Why did you become a fireman?” “Are you happy?”), Montag starts to doubt himself. We see the beginnings of his identity crisis (he feels himself divided in two) and it’s clear that this girl awoke some latent dissatisfaction in our hero. Mildred’s near-death and the nonchalance of the rescue team indicate that he is not the only Guy (Get it? “Guy”?) with problems; this is a deeply flawed society.
As Montag becomes more and more the renegade figure, he seeks out accomplices. Mildred, being vapid and television-obsessed, doesn’t work out. That’s where Faber comes in. When Montag puts the two-way radio in his ear, he adds another layer to the identity crisis introduced in the Conflict stage. When he reads the poem out loud, his private rebellion becomes public, which can only spell trouble in this rigidly policed society.
This is the climax of so many different threads: Mildred’s growing fear of her husband’s renegade activities boils over and she turns him in. Beatty’s suspicions of his underling surface. Montag faces his own guilt and his nemesis (Beatty). The Mechanical Hound finally shows up (and ends up in cinders). It’s a big flaming climax. Literally.
Yep, this is classic suspense, complete with almost getting run over by a car – twice. There’s also pursuit by a maniacal Mechanical Hound, a televised helicopter search, and, of course, whiskey.
In all fairness, this is probably a climax for the poor schmuck who gets killed. Or maybe even his conclusion. But for Montag, it’s the “Relax, everything’s over” moment. When Granger tells Montag how it is, it’s that classic explanatory piece that always indicates the denouement stage.
The conclusion to Fahrenheit 451 is surprisingly optimistic, considering the city was just bombed and mostly everyone is dead. Montag thinks not of the past, but only of the future, of the people he can help and of the new life he can build with the knowledge he has gained.
Gosh, when a book is divided into three parts, this just seems too easy. Still, we can identify the elements of each act in each part of Fahrenheit. At the end of Part One, Montag has awakened to new possibilities and rejected his role as a fireman (for the most part). There’s no turning back now.
Act II ends when things at their worst – Montag’s house is about to be torched and our hero is getting arrested.
After a dramatic chase scene through the city, the novel wraps itself up. Montag gains new knowledge, abandons his old life, and begins an entirely different, more aware existence.