Study Guide

Fahrenheit 451 Themes

By Ray Bradbury

  • Literature and Writing

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    You can bet a pretty penny that nobody in Fahrenheit 451 has read Fifty Shades of Grey. Or Twilight. Or Why Cats Paint. That’s because in this world, books are banned. 

    Not only are they banned—if you’re caught with any books in your possession, the fire department will come and set house on fire, because that’s not an overreaction or anything.

    Even though we don’t see too many of them, books are a huge deal in this story—it’s full of debates on the advantages and disadvantages of literature. The novel's characters present a variety of points of view.

    One believes that books are problematic in how they present so many varying and often contradictory viewpoints. This leaves the reader confused. Another believes that books themselves are not important, rather what matters is the information that the best of them contain: reflections of life and the world at large. A third character insists that those who study literature stay off the metaphorical pedestal—they are merely receptacles for the knowledge they carry. Either way, the novel reminds us that without literature, we’d be stuck between a rock and a hard, bookless place.

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. At the end of the novel, Granger tells Montag that they all need to remember not to feel superior; that it is the books, not the people who read them, which are important. Earlier in the novel, Faber claimed that books themselves didn’t matter, only the way that life was reflected in them. Are these contradictory or complementary statements?
    2. If books and TV both have the capacity to convey information at a mass scale, then why are books so superior to television in this novel?
    3. Why does Mrs. Bowles start crying when Montag reads Dover Beach? Why does Montag choose to read poetry and not prose? And why that particular poem? What is Dover Beach about, anyway?
    4. What do you make of those lines about the eggs from Gulliver’s Travels? What does that have to do with anything that’s going on in Fahrenheit 451?

    Chew on This

    In Fahrenheit 451, the content of books does not matter; the process of reading and thinking does.

  • Technology and Modernization

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    TV is the enemy in Fahrenheit 451. It’s responsible for replacing literature, intellectualism, and curiosity. On top of that, it’s become a substitute for family, friendship, and any sort of real conversation. Relationships? Pshhht, who needs those?  

    We learn that the TV reigns supreme in the future because of the "happiness" it offers. People are happier when they don’t have to think, or so the story goes. TV aside, technology is the government’s means of oppression, but also provides the renegade’s opportunity to subvert. 

    We wonder what Bradbury would have to say about smartphones

    Questions About Technology and Modernization

    1. Faber says that books can be beaten down with reason, but that TV overwhelms the senses and can not. Is he right? Does TV really deserve so much credit here?
    2. In the digitized, mechanical world of Fahrenheit 451, what makes something real? What’s more "real" – books or TV? Are either really substantive?
    3. What does Mildred mean when she calls the TV her "family"?

    Chew on This

    The restrictions on literature in Fahrenheit 451 represent the novel’s main concern : the perversion of the natural world by man’s use of technology.

  • Rules and Order

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    Fahrenheit 451 takes place in a world of strict rules and order. Books are illegal, free thought is essentially prohibited, and activities are tightly organized. No, this isn't WWE: Smackdown—this is the future.

    The weird part is that much of the restrictions on the general populous are self-enforced. The government has taken away the citizens’ ability to dissent and veiled all dissatisfaction with a cheap version of "happiness," a.k.a. TV. This means that little external regulation is required, as the citizens conform contentedly to the status quo. Sound familiar? We thought so. 

    Questions About Rules and Order

    1. Given the way that the book people fight the law, are they "rebels"? Is it enough to fight on a small scale, without concern for the state of others?
    2. Would Montag have started down his rebellious path of self-doubt, guilt, and illegalities if it hadn’t been for Clarisse? What did she do for him, exactly? Wasn’t he already "different," before she came along?
    3. What is it about Clarisse that allows her to be different? How did she escape the system of homogeneity?

    Chew on This

    Beatty is a villain not for his book burning, but for his philosophy. He is the only character to understand the ramifications of his work and revel in it anyway.

  • Wisdom and Knowledge

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    In Fahrenheit 451, wisdom and knowledge are gained through both experience and scholarship—just like here at Shmoop. Most important is critical thinking—challenging ideas rather than accepting them as absolutely correct. 

    Mentors and teachers are integral to this process, not only for passing on knowledge but for opening the door to independent thought, so it's really convenient that Montag runs into a group of wild professors in the forest. We like to imagine they look something like this

    Along with Faber, these guys do a great job of passing on their wisdom and knowledge of books to Montag. Once the city is conveniently destroyed, these guys are tasked with reestablishing society. We couldn't think of a better—and more knowledgeable—crew to take it on. 

    Questions About Wisdom and Knowledge

    1. Of Montag’s three mentors – Clarisse, Faber, and Granger – who is the most knowledgeable? What are the differences between their philosophies? Who’s got it "right"?
    2. If Clarisse went and got herself killed, does that mean she wasn't very wise?
    3. Does Montag really need books to find the wisdom he’s looking for? Or is he misguided?

    Chew on This

    Fahrenheit 451 proves that wisdom comes only from experience, not from words or books.

    Fahrenheit 451 proves that books are integral to learning and knowledge.

  • Violence

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    Excessive violence in the futuristic world of Fahrenheit 451 betrays a problematic underbelly to the status quo. Teenagers go around killing each other, TV is filled to the brim with violence, and even driving a car brings on the crazed thirst for speed and destruction.

    Is it just us, or is this starting to sound like an episode of Nancy Grace? 

    In this book, violence is an outlet, and the cravings for such behavior mark the dissatisfaction of the general populous. Because, you know, violent outbursts are a totally reasonable reaction to feeling unfilled. This may be the future, but things certainly aren't as nice as The Jetsons wanted us to think they'd be.

    Questions About Violence

    1. What types of violence do we find in Fahrenheit 451? Which is the most destructive?
    2. What is it about this world that renders everyone completely fascinated by violence?
    3. If life really is cyclic, as Montag believes at the end (a time for living, a time for dying, etc.), then isn’t destruction necessary? Does this justify the violence we see earlier in the novel? After all, if people were just writing books and no one was burning them, wouldn’t that throw off the scale, at least according to Montag’s final mantra?
    4. Did you notice that fire is repeatedly described as "beautiful" in Fahrenheit? What’s up with that?

    Chew on This

    Violence is a mask for fear in Fahrenheit 451.

  • Identity

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    The crisis of identity is at the core of Fahrenheit 451—just like middle school. As Montag learns from a series of mentors and teachers, he sees his own identity melding with that of his instructors. This is also a means of scapegoating—if your identity is not entirely your own, then you are not entirely responsible for your actions. 

    It's a tad ironic that this occurs as Montag is learning to think for himself, but that's kind of the point. Bradbury explores the question of how to define the self throughout the story, and seems to find an answer: actions.

    Questions About Identity

    1. How is identity crafted in Fahrenheit 451? Does the answer to this question change as the novel progresses? How does Montag come to understand it?
    2. When Montag recalls Mildred’s suicide attempt, he claims that that was a different Mildred, one completely remote from the woman he knows on a daily basis. Is this a legitimate way to understand his wife’s unhappiness? Or does he misconstrue the scenario?
    3. Montag often splits his identity – he hears Clarisse talking through him, or he’s got Faber in his ear, or he imagines his hands acting of their own accord – but which is the "real" Montag?
    4. Montag speaks of becoming a new person, a "Guy-plus-Faber." Does this mean he’s not thinking for himself, as he originally desired?

    Chew on This

    Montag assimilates first Clarisse’s and later Faber’s identity to avoid thinking for himself. It is not until he washes in the river that he assumes his own new identity.

  • Dissatisfaction

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    In the world of Fahrenheit 451, everybody seems to be happy. Sort of. They watch TV all day, they’re never forced to face anything unpleasant, and they’re never truly bothered by anything. Sound like paradise? We hate to break it to you, but it's not. 

    Most everyone in the story is horribly dissatisfied—it’s just that no one is willing to admit it. Why else would Mildred try to overdose on all those pills? The deep ennui that runs through the population is subdued by mindless activity and an insistence on happiness, both on the part of the government and the citizens themselves.

    Questions About Dissatisfaction

    1. Are characters like Mildred are her girlfriends content? Are they happy? What’s the difference?
    2. Montag yells at Mildred for having never been really bothered by anything. Is that a bad thing? Why or why not?
    3. After Montag talks with Clarisse, he claims that his mask of happiness has been lifted. Does this mean he was never really happy in the first place, or that Clarisse took his happiness away?

    Chew on This

    Beatty is the only character who is both aware and satisfied in Fahrenheit 451.

  • Man and the Natural World

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    In Fahrenheit 451, readers get a front row seat to an epic battle between technology and nature. In one corner of the ring we have technology, which is cold and destructive. In the other corner we've got nature in all its engaging and inspiring glory.

    We don't want to give too much away, but nature comes out pretty strong in the end. Remember—it is only in nature that Montag is able to think clearly and draw conclusions from his experiences.

    The novel argues that nature—and all of life, for that matter—is a cycle of construction and destruction. This is the natural way of things, but technology has focused only on destruction and violence, leaving man in a devastated, unnatural state.

    Technology might be a pretty strong contender in this fight, but its tendency toward self-destruction becomes its downfall. In the end, nature reigns supreme.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. We argue that Fahrenheit 451 establishes a dichotomy between technology/control/ignorance and nature/rebellion/wisdom. What is it about trees and rivers that’s so conducive to learning?
    2. Is fire an element of nature or a weapon of man in this novel? Can it be both? Doesn’t that mess up the dichotomy we were just talking about?
    3. What does the Mechanical Hound have to do with this question of nature vs. technology?

    Chew on This

    Fahrenheit 451 is structurally cyclic to mirror the cyclical quality of the natural world.