Fahrenheit 451: What’s In a Tale?


Ray Bradbury is famous for his short stories and novels in which their themes include the future, higher level technology, and usually a dystopian setting. Fahrenheit 451 is perhaps his greatest legacy; the paradoxical book about burning books. Mr. Bradbury had a deep fear of what our future beheld if we continued down our technologically driven path; whether it be televisions, robotics, or the atom bomb, Mr. Bradbury was fearful.

Where’s the Fire?

The novel begins with the introduction of what it means to be a fireman in this dystopian future – to set fire to every ounce of knowledge in the world. Guy Montag leads a fairly normal life as one of these fireman, and deals with normal everyday things like setting women on fire in their homes and calling for a stomach pump in the middle of the night for his suicidal wife. Maybe not so normal. What leads Montag to these conditions? Bradbury’s greatest fears of course. Technology is the very center of everyone’s lives in this world, and people need their information to be safe and fast-paced with bright colors and entertainment. Teenagers spend their spare time racing at above one-hundred-fifty miles an hour down the highways, not sparing any time to make sure they didn’t just kill a pedestrian.

So what exactly is the problem with Montag at the beginning? Why is he the main character, and what’s his purpose? Well, for starters it’s his job to destroy books, yet he’s secretly been hoarding them inside his air vents, stealing them from houses he burns when nobody is looking. What does a devoted fireman want with a book? This is a theme deeply explored by Bradbury through the novel. This paradox is used to explain the virus that is knowledge and how it spreads like, well, a wildfire.

Captain Beatty, the captain of Montag’s unit, explains the beginning of firemen back when Benjamin Franklin first created the position; however, as one might figure out, without history books to accurately detail the happenings of the past, it is long since skewed and forgotten. In a series of quick-dab-here-there-where-this-that fast-paced sentences Beatty explains the quickening and cutting of classics such as Hamlet down into a two-minute version stuffed into a reference book and long forgotten. Beatty calls books loaded guns, and firemen unload and destroy the weapons that would harm their current society where people don’t want philosophy or the ability to think. The quote below highlights the greatest warning of the novel: putting a cap on what literature is allowed to talk about is a dangerous road to travel.

“Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Bum the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. Take your fight outside. Better yet, into the incinerator. Funerals are unhappy and pagan? Eliminate them, too. Five minutes after a person is dead he’s on his way to the Big Flue, the Incinerators serviced by helicopters all over the country. Ten minutes after death a man’s a speck of black dust. Let’s not quibble over individuals with memoriams. Forget them. Burn them all, burn everything. Fire is bright and fire is clean.” – Captain Beatty

These future people want now, they want comfortable, they want unity and mind-numbing entertainment that makes them forget all their problems to the point that the major populace doesn’t know what’s happening at the governmental level. Bradbury experienced the dropping of the atom bomb during World War II, and this idea that people have completely been numbed to the goings on of the government were most likely influenced by this. By the end of the novel, the city in which Montag lives is under bombardment by a military that normal citizens were not even aware existed, and were completely unaware of the fact that tensions had even been growing. The reader of course could infer this event somewhere halfway through the novel, but Montag’s America never saw it coming.

Clarisse McClellen – Strange Fiction

“Why is that I feel I’ve known you so many years?” – Guy Montag

“Because I like you, and I don’t want anything from you.” – Clarisse McClellen

Visual of Clarisse McClellen.

Montag’s desire for knowledge is not all that drives him to pursue the collection of books. A strange event occurs in Montag’s life early in the novel: he meets a young woman by the name of Clarisse. Clarisse is unlike other girls her age; she doesn’t go out speeding around in cars, or listen to shell phones (cordless headphones that receive radio transmissions) all day, nor does she seek entertainment the same way others do. Clarisse is slow, calculating, and asks strange questions. For anyone else in the novel, her taking life at a slow pace would be enough for them to completely avoid her. However, this is one of the characteristics that draws Montag to her.

In short, Clarisse represents every aspect of a world with literature, and in many ways she is the epitome of a novel herself. It’s easy to understand her importance of her representations within the novel, but there are several parts of the story to which she contributes outside of being a representation of anything. Clarisse is Montag’s first friend and gives him courage to think for himself outside his normal thoughts of kerosene and flames. Clarisse also asks Montag important questions and gives important answers to lead him to the point where he needs to be to begin questioning the world around him for himself. Her most important question is whether he is happy with life; after deep contemplation on her question he comes to the realization that he is not happy. He is not happy with watching his wife slowly deteriorate into her subconscious suicidal tendencies, nor is he content with the fast-paced, mind-numbing society around him.

Though Clarisse disappears in the middle of the story and is implied to have died, possibly by one of the speeding cars, she has perhaps the largest impact on Montag’s life and truly acts as the stepping stone upon which he makes his decision to learn from books.

The Final Fire

“Why don’t you belch Shakespeare at me, you fumbling snob? ‘There is no terror, Cassius, in your threats, for I am arm’d so strong in honesty that they pass me as an idle wind, which I respect not!’ How’s that? Go ahead now, you second-hand litterateur, pull the trigger.” – Captain Beatty

All the main characters in the novel have a great importance, however, Captain Beatty proves to be perhaps the most complex, even more so than Clarisse who holds such an air of mystery. The Captain was once an avid reader back before the time when firemen burned books, and knows all the classics inside and out. He, more than any character we see in the novel, has the greatest knowledge of what literature holds for the reader, and this is the exact reason he became a fireman. He became disgusted with the seeming contradictions and paradoxes that flooded the pages of novels and eventually gave them up entirely.

Captain Beatty from the 1966 film.

Though not known to many readers of the novel, Bradbury wrote a scene in which Beatty invited Montag to his house where Montag gazed upon a vast collection of books owned by the Captain. The books we see in this scene are merely a decoration he no longer used. Instead, they remind him why he continues to do his job, and they serve as a type of temptation to test himself daily. This scene reveals Beatty to be quite the masochist on the surface, however there is a much different man that faces Montag when his subordinate points a canon of kerosene and a lit flame towards him near the end of the novel.

The reader sees a different Captain Beatty at this turning point. The two men stare each other down with Montag having the upper hand, Beatty is defenseless, and Montag is a nervous wreck. The audience is left wondering whether Beatty wanted Montag to set him ablaze or whether Beatty truly thought Montag didn’t have it in him to kill his old boss. Beatty does what antagonists do best and antagonizes Montag by quoting Shakespeare and calls him a second-hand litterateur. There’s irony in calling a man Cassius when he has a kerosene torch pointed at you.

Whether Beatty meant for Montag to take his life and end his despair of living in a world where his vast knowledge of literature was useless, or if he simply taunted him with the idea of his former subordinate’s weakness in mind is beyond our knowledge; however, we are left to contemplate the complexity of this man written into life more than sixty years ago. Another aspect to consider is the fact that Beatty believed he had read all he could and came to the conclusion that all the philosophical ideas, theologies, and thoughts he’d come across were in contradiction with one another. The question we as the audience must ask at this junction is who’s point is correct? Do we, as readers, believe in the heart of what literature stands for as Montag does even though he has such little knowledge, or do we choose to allow ourselves to become bogged down by literature’s conflagration of ideas that don’t necessarily correspond to our own as Beatty chooses?

The Salamander’s End

“But now there was a long morning’s walk until noon, and if the men were silent it was because there was everything to think about and much to remember.” – Fahrenheit 451

Guy Montag meeting the outcasts in the woods in the 1966 film.

The end of the novel shows the city being bombed, Montag has made his way into the outskirts of the forest, and he and his new band of companions set themselves down the railroad tracks. Bradbury leaves us with this final scene as the culmination to all the building tension being released and subsiding.

With his new family, of sorts, Montag takes his place among these men of literature who have been outcast by the society from which Montag fought so hard to release himself. Each man in this group is responsible for remembering a different book or story, and Montag is given the task of holding on to Ecclesiastes; essentially, Montag is no longer Guy Montag at this point, but instead is the actual book of Ecclesiastes. The end of the novel is a new start for the life of literature, a new beginning for humanity, as the city of decadence and technology is razed to the ground by the bombs in the background. Montag’s new life begins as he loses his identity, in a way, to be replaced with something much more important: a story.

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  1. This book isn’t really about burning books, it’s not even about censorship. It does however reflect everything we lovers of bound paper fear in works as a warning against reality television and the dumbing down of our society.

    • bshoalz

      Isn’t it explicitly about all of those things?

      • Bradbury stated back in 2007 that F451 was never about censorship or Senator Joseph McCarthy. He claims the book is all about the people and how we will devalue Truth and Important Things in search of easily digestible “factoids”. This argument is made very clearly in another part of Captain Beatty’s speech in regards to people filling their minds with trivia(l) and junk so that the really important stuff doesn’t have room.

        I think the book is an excellent cautionary tale about censorship but Bradbury’s point is also thought provoking.

  2. cowless

    I really disliked the rushed ending and its anti-nuclear message.

    • Well to be fair, he did write the novel on a typewriter that he had to pay to use. He also never meant for his book to be anti-nuclear, or anti-censorship. It was about how television would destroy our world.

    • bshoalz

      Isn’t it explicitly about all of those things?

      • We infer that symbolism from the novel, but Bradbury never meant for those things to take precedence. He meant for his novel to address television ruining our nation.

        • bshoalz

          Yeah I can see an argument about precedence of warnings around image culture and our obsession with images over perhaps more complex mediums. But I think the novel’s also very much about how people consume information, and censorship is a vital part of understanding that message because it is the confluence of the individual and society in regards to information.

          Furthermore, Bradbury shows that just because something is a book doesn’t mean it’s inherently better than an image, and this point comes through Captain Beatty. Like for the extremely well read Nazi’s, literature alone was unable to make people better people. So I think there can still be failures in the way books are consumed. There could be and has been really good television that makes people grow and enhance;s their understanding of themselves, and there are plenty of books that do the opposite.

  3. Numbers Bruns

    I love dystopies. Maybe because they make you hit rock bottom but most of them later get you to a better world, a happy ending. I’m not sure the same thing can be said for this book.

  4. This book was like eating vegetables. Half the time it was slow torture, the other half I licked it up.

  5. EllerLeroy

    We could put George Orwell and Ray Bradbury in a room together and asked them to design our future we could all rest easy knowing what that future would be.

  6. The messages of censorship, critical thinking, and knowledge is powerful.

  7. In this day and age, when groups actively try to ban books like this one (talk about the height of irony!) from school reading lists or libraries, the message rings loud and clear. I’m not saying I believe all censorship is necessarily bad; I do believe that 12 year olds shouldn’t be reading books like “Fifty Shades of Grey” nor do I think that 7 year olds should be watching rated R films. And people who don’t want to listen to music with explicit lyrics or movies with violence and sex can by all means censor themselves – that is their prerogative and I would never want to force a person to do something they didn’t feel comfortable with. But whenever you start censoring, you have got to wonder: where is the line? Who gets to draw it? What should be censored and what shouldn’t be and who owns the knowledge?

  8. Some books are so profound and powerful that they leave an imprint. This is one of them. I am chasing after great articles like this one that analyze it this well.

  9. I read Fahrenheit 451 for the second time about a year ago. Excellent article, by the way. As a senior citizen, it made me rethink my attitude toward pop culture. Much as the books feared and hated by Montag’s society, today’s popular films, television shows, comics, video games, and music is often reviled by us baby-boomers. I do not want to be a modern-day fireman, burning, however metaphorically, copies of Call of Duty and Drake’s latest CD release. Just as Montag had to question his society’s reasons to destroy all literature, so my generation must question our own attempts at censorship and repression of creative expression.

  10. I want to fall in love with books just like him.

  11. The new HTTP code for legally restricted pages (eg. censorship or government-mandated blocked access) is 451 in honour of the book. Watching mindless TV. The dumbing down of the news. Even the mechanical hound is something not too far off current technology.

    • Thank you for linking this.

      There is an inbuilt irony in the 451 code in this definition: “use of the 451 status code implies neither the existence nor non-existence of the resource”. If we lose all books, we lose information and evidence. Plausible deniability would be the default position in any argument.

  12. Terica Troy

    Fahrenheit 451 has one of the most glorious opening lines I’ve ever had the honour of reading.

  13. I’m yet to read this, but all hail to Stephen King’s The Running Man!

  14. I enjoy dystopian fiction in general, and Fahrenheit 451 was one of my favorite books we had to read for school. I always marveled at the air of mystery around Clarisse and always wondered what happened to her after she disappeared in the book. I really like your point at the end where you argue that the literary outcasts essentially take on a new name: the name of the book they are in charge of remembering.

  15. Ray Bradbury was a master storyteller. Complex and deep arguments make this story great.

  16. Not only a masterpiece but an important book that decries censorship.

  17. I’m beginning to suspect Mr Bradbury had a time machine after all. How portentous Fahrenheit 451 is of many of the aspects of our modern society.

  18. This book blew my senses into smithereens.

  19. Wendy Stiles-Tardieu

    Wonderful articulation of the overarching themes and warnings in the story. This is my favorite novel, and I’ve recently begun to see this future come to fruition, especially in education. Literature is taking a back seat to expository and informational texts; these are what society deems as most practical. Production, not individual thought or reflection, is what we are training our students to believe is most important. I’ve always considered Bradbury a prophet, and I think you’ve captured his relationship with technology as represented by this work beautifully. I also never came to a resolution about why Beatty hates books but knows the classics. This makes so much sense – how I felt as an undergrad having to dissect these works to arrive at one person’s interpretation and how it nearly made me hate studying them. Great job!

  20. kyle ludwig

    If in some parallel universe this wondrous piece of fiction becomes a reality, send your firemen.

  21. Tristan

    I enjoyed the world that Bradbury created, even though I felt that some aspects of it could have been explained a bit more.

  22. There’s nothing like the touch of the pages and the satisfaction of turning a page rather than clicking your finger on a screen.

  23. Even though print is an endangered medium, I feel like many of the book’s messages ring true to this day.

  24. I loved this story as a kid and in light of recent events , this story still has meaning. We have seen the dumning down down of America as so-called Reality tv shows still spawn more and more. Whe have had some good writing in many recent shows on television,(Braking Bad,and Mad Men but we also now live in world where those in Power talk of alternative facts.

    It may not be a brave new world, but it is a different would.

  25. I listened to Fahrenheit 451 on a road trip and in all honesty, I didn’t love it. It reminded me too much of listening to my grandfather rant about “kids these days.” (That and an interview included at the end where Bradbury basically complained about people asking him to include women in his stories. There’s nothing like hearing an author say that women are pointless as characters to make you immediately associate that man with misogyny entrenched so deeply that he honestly can’t see it or care about it when confronted with it in himself. That made me fear for the future worse than anything in the novel.) That being said, I think Beatty is one of the greatest villains of all time and LOVE his character. Beatty is a contradiction in himself: not only has he read the books, but he can quote them, too. He has them memorized and yet, he’s still burning them. I love the fact that he and Montag can be so similar and yet so at odds.

  26. I read this book as a sophomore in high school, and even though I can’t remember every plot detail or symbol, I can remember the profound impact it had on me. Now that I am older the book’s messages about censorship, literature, knowledge, and human empathy seem even more relevant. My mother is an English teacher and she still faces people who try to censor the books she wants to teach–AMAZING books such as The Outsiders and To Kill a Mockingbird, and it reminds me why books like F451 are so important and will always be relevant. Literature is powerful.

  27. This book is so relevant for our times; the topics of technology, alternate history, and how Guy, as a lone individual feels the effects of these broader concepts and struggles how to deal with his world. Additionally, Chief Beatty gives insight into our life today, as in the excerpt provided shows that humans need to feel instant gratification while simultaneously feeling no pain/sorrow (e.g. no funerals). this is so true of today and our reliance on technology for instant gratification, as well as our need for pain killers (no pain). Bradbury was very observant in terms of human emotions, or lack there of.

  28. I believe this book is incredibly important in our present age, and, having read this book twice, it is quite shocking to see how eerily accurate Ray Bradbury was regarding the progression of our obsession with technology, especially his “seashells”, or headphones, and the numbing effect of television. In particular, the way that television was created to provide sensation and how the programs were meaningless. The shows Mildred watches reminded me of reality television in which people would create drama about essentially nothing.

    “Do we, as readers, believe in the heart of what literature stands for as Montag does even though he has such little knowledge, or do we choose to allow ourselves to become bogged down by literature’s conflagration of ideas that don’t necessarily correspond to our own as Beatty chooses?”

    Beatty’s speech twisted my mind the first time I read it! His arguments are convincing. Our society has entered a new age of being politically correct(as it should), but that age becomes complicated as sometimes it can be difficult to say or write something with your bias without offending someone. Therefore, Bradbury explores a world where the most extreme measure of political correctness is observed; a world that has burned all ways of seeing except for one.

    But I believe that these conflicting ideas are important for several reasons: freedom of speech, conversation, and diversity. Different ideas allow people’s individual identities to grow. Without the stimulation of different ideas to support or evolve, we will have a society entirely like Montag’s. It would be mind-numbing, uniform, and, under the surface, constrictive, as it can be assumed the people in power will advertise their opinions as the only and correct one. So books are important, even if you don’t agree with their views!

  29. Fahrenheit is one of my favorite books of all time, as well as being a very important social commentary on the world we are living in now even though it was written 80 years ago

  30. bbartonshaw

    There are days when I can’t believe how a book written nearly eighty years ago predicted how dependent we would be upon technology. Though the book wasn’t anti-nuclear, anyone reading Fahrenheit 451 could see how ashamed Bradbury was of his fellow man for never listening to the signs they heard all around. The over-head rockets, the fear, the hopelessness that naturally drew the sheep to their television shows hoping to ignore for the next hour that their world could end. I love that book, every time I reread it, there’s something new and exciting to understand.

  31. ReidaBookman

    Fahrenheit 451 is an incredibly powerful book and one that should definitely be kept in school. I remember doing projects on it and subsequent projects about the Nazi book burning in Germany. Censorship is a huge theme in the book and the ability to limit the voice of the people by declaring their literature useless or wrong. I think that is something to keep in mind as censorship is still heavily used in North America and all around the world.

  32. birdienumnum17

    I loved this book. I remember reading it in high school. It shows the very real nature of human flaws. It shows its readers the power of brain washing. Although not as obvious and dramatic as shown in the book, brain washing is a very real thing in our world today. I agree that it should be kept in school.

  33. Ness

    Ray Bradbury foresaw many things. They may not have been completely accurate, but Fahrenheit 451 describe many things that occur today i.e., shell phones (mobile phones), the death of traditional literature, the obscurity of the government and the media, and the tendency for people to see everything in an offensive light (as described by Captain Beatty. I think everyone should read this book at least once!

  34. I found the ending very interesting: it’s reminiscent of T.S. Eliot’s insistence on the ‘impersonality’ of the poet–that this poet is merely a receptacle to facilitate a fusion of thoughts and feelings to distill into poetry.

  35. Shell phones that dose mind-numbing muzak, bombardment by a military most didn’t know existed, not just the physical extinction of books, but of interest in reading them; this article is an excellent summary of the major points in a book with an important dystopian message in the age of Trump. Ironic if articles like this are read more than the actual book these days.

  36. As time ticks on, books like these start becoming more and more relevant… which is quite scary.

  37. Great article.

  38. Bradbury says so himself; ‘it’s not about scensorship’. I did see the movie, so long ago, now. It was about the author’s fear of a not so distant future of the ruling elites controlling everything in/about peoples’ lives. Welcome to the ‘Orwellian World’. The New World Order, have you not noticed, they are all in it together. To maintain control of it’s citizen’s, the masses across the globe. Montag realised he was being monitored, he could feel it, and discovered the crude transmitter inside his television set. Now the tyrants broadcast the facts, with signs along motorways, ‘these cameras are in place to monitor traffic for safety’, and then have the audacity to send you a ‘warning letter’, they cannot guarantee other government agencies may not fine you ‘for whatever’ that meant, ‘I do not know.’ The generations I feel for, are the younger ones, who like ‘blind lemmings’ give over their private information to all and any ‘social media’ platforms, without thinking first.

  39. Stephanie M.

    I’ve never read this book (shock, I know, but didn’t encounter it in school and I don’t normally read sci-fi). But now I really want to. Guy Montag seems like a guy I could potentially get a book crush on.

  40. Such a great novel, really loved it.

  41. Joseph Cernik

    A good essay. I remember the novel well from high school and college then deciding to enjoy it after my school years ended. Somehow reading a specific novel because I decided to, made it different than doing so when I had to.

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