Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 presents a variation of a dystopian novel. A dystopian novel is a novel which portrays an oppressive rather than ideal society. In the novel, Bradbury conceives a futuristic human society wherein thirst for knowledge and intellectual enlightenment are avoided and a homogenous, non-reflecting citizenship pursues empty happiness and conformity.
Rather than portray an overtly bleak, impoverished or war-torn society in his dystopia, Bradbury chooses to portray the tyranny of the “normal” or the or the oppressiveness of uniform vision, no matter how outwardly facile or harmless. Banality, in effect, becomes humanity’s greatest enemy, though human society moves fully to embrace it. Culture or expression which encourages free ideas is outlawed. Books are burned for the avowed purpose of decreasing threats to human happiness.
Guy Montag, the novel’s protagonist is a rebel in that he ultimately comes to reject the common vision of life and happiness and the accepted social norms. His search is for individuality which is the antithesis of contentment or social acceptance in Montag’s society.
When the book begins, Montag is fully acclimated to his society and takes great pride in his job as a “fireman,” which is another name for a book-burner. But his life is changed by a simple encounter with a young girl named Clarisse who seems innately bound against the society’s precepts; after-which, Montag begins to suspect something is not perfect after-all in his seemingly perfect world.
In contrast to Clarisse, Mildred, Montag’s wife is a perfect social-drone. She keeps radio-receptors plugged into her ears and eschews any thought or idea out of the expected norm. When
Montag finds his wife overdosed on sleeping pills he is amazed when the emergency technicians show no interest in his wife’s tragedy but proceed with their work undaunted by feelings. He himself begins to wonder whether or not he even cares if his own wife lives or dies.
Soon Montag doubts more than his marriage; he begins to see the irony of his world where books are being burned, but images are beamed directly into people’s brains; where a fireman lights fires instead of putting them out. Nevertheless he feels powerless to change circumstances.
The key to Montag’s eventual shirking off of social norms is: books. Literature. He begins to wonder why he burns books for a living and what could be in books that his society so fears that they are illegal. When he experiences an elderly woman who chooses to burn with her books rather than surrender them to be burned; eventually, Montag himself (or rather his hand “out of control”) steals a book from a book burning. After reading, he begins to amass books and read them, realizing that his mind is being freed through his contact with literature.
When his wife, Mildred, reports him to the fire station, Montag is forced to burn down his house. In a rage, Montag winds up killing the fire Captain, Beatty, and Montag is forced to flee from his world and attempt to cross the river into unknown lands. Once across the river, Montag finds an entire society of “rebels” who read books, memorize them, and the burn them.
They plan in this way to preserve the knowledge of mankind even against the dystopian society in which they are imprisoned.
So, evolving from a conformist who burns books to a man dedicated to preserving and rebuilding humanity, Montag’s journey represents development of personal individuation. Bradbury’s theme is that individuality is the keystone of human happiness and fulfillment and
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury Page -3-
that knowledge, free expression, and exchange of ideas are vital elements to the meaningful existence of humanity.
Fahrenheit 451 is a triptych, meaning it is composed of three titled sections. Part one is entitled “The Hearth and the Salamander.” The obvious symbolism of the salamander is meant to convey the sense of human integrity and thirst for knowledge enduring beyond the fire of oppression. Clarisse asks a key thematic question in this section: she asks Montag if he is happy. In fact, the ensuing story illuminates Montag’s delusional ‘happiness” and leads through a journey to true awareness.
Section two has the title: “The Sieve and the Sand.” The symbol of this section is a reference to Montag’s childhood when he tried to fill a sieve with sand. Too young to know that such an operation was impossible, he keeps trying until he breaks down in frustration. This is meant to suggest how earnestly and “blind” humanity is capable of following a wrong path or method. In the story, Montag feels like he is trying to fill a sieve with sand when he begins to recognize the society in which he lives and the shallowness of his life and marriage.
Part three is called “Burning Bright,” and this title is an allusion to a poem by William Blake called “The Tyger.” Blake’s “Tyger” represents human evil in the poem. Likewise, Montag’s society is “burning bright” in that they burn books, burn knowledge and freedom, and self-discovery on the pyre of ignorance and oppression. The fire also dually symbolizes the fire of inspiration and the great conflagration at the novels’ denouement: when Montag and his fellow rebels move toward the burning city of the oppressors: one is left to wonder whether or not humanity can successfully retrieve itself from the ashes of the fallen dystopia.