Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 was published in 1953, however, the reader can encounter relevant themes and conflicts existing in modern society. The novel accurately describes the twenty-first century as a world of technological advancement, social media, and the power it holds over people. Dictionaries define an anti-intellectual as a person who considers intelligence and reason unimportant and impractical, and the people in Bradbury’s novel match the description (“Anti-intellectual”). The author depicts an imaginary reality where humans are senselessly addicted to media and television, losing interest in books and knowledge. Through metaphors and allegories, the three-part novel reflects on the meaning of life, the price of ignorance, and what it takes to fill the inner void. The protagonist of the story goes through a journey to enlightenment, awakening from the numb reality, and seeking the meaning of life in books. The character of Guy Montag represents a human’s turmoil in a cold and indifferent world where books, as a source of wisdom, are exterminated, and intellectual expansion is condemned.
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Bradbury’s characters are unique, and events are symbolic, each having a determining influence on the main protagonist. The first part of the novel introduces the character of Guy Montage, a fireman whose duties are subverted from the original task of the fire department. Since buildings are fireproof, their main occupation is detecting and burning books. They are dressed in uniform and helmet, armed with fire-igniter and mechanical hounds. Books are prohibited to prevent people from profound reasoning and expressing individual opinions (Ersöz Koç 108). Montag seems to enjoy his job and is mesmerized by the books and houses engulfed in the overconsuming fire.
One day on his way home, he meets Clarisse McClellan, a seventeen-year-old girl from the neighborhood. She strikes a conversation with him and demonstrates unique traits and worldview, which surprises and astonished Guy. Clarisse is childlike and innocent, at the same time brave and unique. For her, knowledge is a natural necessity, and she does not resist her instinctual urges to taste rain or take long walks and observe the surrounding world. Her bold questions, whether he was happy or loved anyone, keep ringing in his ears all night and awaken his inner suppressed emotions. He realizes that he feels miserable and does not love his wife. The news of Clarisse’s death destroys the walls he had built between his inner thoughts and his scripted life, as, at this instant, he seems to have made up his mind. He can finally face the books he had been hiding in the cellar and dare to read them.
His wife, Mildred Montag, is a counterpart character to Clarisse. She is addicted to television and media, oblivious to reality and her deep depressive state. Mille considers entertainment to be her family while refusing to have children or bond with her husband. She wears the seashell earphones all day long, tuning out of the outside world and immersed in the fake entertainment. Her suicide attempt shows how unhappy and empty her life is in reality. The way the emergency workers handle the situation indifferently and casually astounds Guy, indicating that they are too used to such scenarios and consider it normal. Milli’s friends represent modern society, manically watching media all day long and indifferent that their husbands are called to war.
Montag is shaken after an incident during his shift when the fire crew is directed to confiscate and burn books concealed by an old lady. The woman willingly burns her own house with books and herself inside. The guy seems to be the only one who is concerned that a human being will die in the burning house and desperately wants to save her to no avail. He manages to secretly steal and keep a book from her house, the Old and New Testament.
Captain Beatty, with his distinctive hat bearing the sign of Phoenix, is an influential and complicated character. He is a strong and wise leader for his crew, the only one who knows the history of firemen and is highly educated. Beatty is also full of contradictions, his job is exterminating books, however, he is well-read and appears friendly towards Guy, but suspects him, ready to burn his house. During his conversation with Montag, he states that people themselves created their reality and lost interest in books. The Captain further states, “… the word ‘intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon” (Bradbury 73). He condemns books and wisdom but makes use of his knowledge to keep society ignorant.
Professor Faber is an intellectual who considers himself a coward and is stricken with guilt for not standing up to the anti-intellectualism and betraying his core values for survival. Guy once met him in the park and, as with Clarisse, felt drawn to him to find the answers he was seeking so desperately. Faber says: “I don’t talk things, sir, I talk the meaning of things. I sit here and know I’m alive” (Bradbury 88). His character represents the people who live by knowledge, however, do not use that wisdom for their beliefs and further promote ignorance.
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After Guy successfully flees the city, he meets drifters, activist intellectuals with the mission to spread knowledge to the new generations after the downfall of the current world. He encounters a completely different universe among the book-memorizing revolutionists. Granger, their leader, is well-aware of the current world and what has come of it, accurately predicting Montag’s fake capture and death. They are the only survivors after the war erupts and destroys the city.
Themes and Symbols
Ray Bradbury incorporates complex themes in his novel, demonstrating what happens to a society where knowledge is neglected and core values are perverted. The main theme is the denial of intellectual culture and the negative influence of media. Book burning is the censorship and the end of free-thinking and individuality (Hillerbrand 606). The main characters each represent either obedience and acceptance or rebellion and refusal to degrade. Montag demonstrates the evolution from compliance to defiance. Another theme is the negative influence of technology and entertainment, which has been utilized to control and destroy human free will. Knowledge is used and regarded differently by each character, signifying the dual nature of every tool in humans’ hands.
Some of the symbols include the phoenix, representing self-destruction, rebirth from fire, and immortality. The salamander sign that the firemen carry as a badge relates to the cold-blooded and fire-born nature of the animal. A traumatic memory from his childhood symbolizes Montag’s present state of mind; his cousin had promised to give him a dime if he managed to fill the sieve. He felt just as hopeless and desperate to fill the emptiness before him, but no matter what he did, he could not keep the sand inside; it slipped away over and over again. Similar is his stubborn attempt to memorize the words he read in the books, but just like the sand, they never stayed with him.
Fahrenheit 451 ends with a promise and hope for a better and brighter future. The revolt intellectuals observe as the war destroys the city and nearly everyone inside. Montag realizes his new mission as the holder of the Revelation is to spread knowledge and meaningful life. Bradbury depicts the constant cycle humankind goes through, alternating between the ages of dark and light. Granger’s words are symbolic, “…but we’ve got one damn thing the Phoenix never had. We know the damn silly thing we just did” (Bradbury 179). Montag also experiences a rebirth, after being consumed with fire, he emerges as a new person in a new universe.
Ray Bradbury has created a classic dystopian novel, reflecting on the outcome of emerging anti-intellectualism and the omnipotence of mass media. Each character is realistic and unique in their actions and reactions. Fahrenheit 451 covers many important modern themes such as the negative impact of advancing technology, ignorance, knowledge, redemption, and salvation. The novel also demonstrates how people have lost their identity and true self as a result of dehumanization and bodily pleasures. The people of the story are deeply unhappy and through the characters’ questions and thoughts, the author tries to analyze the reasons and find answers. Bradbury created a future scenario for humanity to ponder upon and learn from to create a better tomorrow outside the pages.
Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. Reissue, Simon & Schuster, 2013.
Ersöz Koç, Evrim. “Subject and State: Ideology, State Apparatuses and Interpellation in ‘Fahrenheit 451.’” Belgrade English Language and Literature Studies, vol. 7, 2015, pp. 107–133.
Hillerbrand, Hans J. “On Book Burnings and Book Burners: Reflections on the Power (And Powerlessness) of Ideas.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, vol. 74, no. 3, 2006, pp. 593–614.