Fahrenheit 451

Essay by PaperNerd ContributorHigh School, 10th grade May 2001

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The word fire strikes fear into the heart of every human. Fires take out more lives than people involved in car accidents and drug overdoses. Now imagine fire being the safe alternative to truth. Fire, the solution to all the problems of society, a society where books are burned and firemen start fires instead of putting out fires. This society can be found in Ray Bradbury's controversial novel about censorship, Fahrenheit 451. In this story a fireman, Guy Montag, attempts to understand what is present in books that at the mere sight of a book is incentive enough to burn it. The plot is simple, yet fiery. Fire is the panacea to everything in this story. Bradbury is attempting to send a message about censorship through his novel by showing that censorship is a natural outcome of a tolerant society.

In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury introduces readers to an assortment of characters and personalities, ranging from extremes of good to bad, enlightened to dumb, and capable to confused, with the most being somewhere in between.

Characters that may seem initially insignificant may ultimately prove to be a pivotal player, or their masquerade may be misinterpreted. Only a few characters mature as time progresses, although some stagnate or even worsen in their behavior and treatment of themselves and others. Some characters may be stereotypical or derivative, but this portrayal is necessary to exaggerate their traits or emphasize a point. Like the novel's setting, characters depict opposing traits with others and even within themselves, often representing an amalgam of good and bad. Guy Montag is the protagonist of the story, who is blessed with a renegade hand, which keeps picking up books of its own accord, even though Montag knows that it is illegal. Readers can relate to Montag because he is human, not attractive or intelligent, nor is he very sure of himself. After years of being under the system, Montag is tentatively testing his curiosity. He endures bad days and torments from his wife and peers. He worries about getting caught and performing so that the system rewards him. Montag represents the quest to know oneself and understand the world around him. But he is also realistic, and readers can believe that Montag has bones, blood, bone marrow, cells, hormones, just as they do. Montag is vulnerable to disease, injuries, physical and emotional discomfort. He is a sort of Charlie Brown that actually kicks the football. The book is rich in details. Although the novel is an entertaining tale of myths, legends, science and society, Bradbury's vivid creations provide much more than a sci-fi adventure. Montag's exploits show that sometimes breaking the rules, within reason, is more beneficial than harmful; that summoning courage despite fear is often necessary; and that making sacrifices is sometimes essential to gain desired goals.

Montag survives challenges, dangers and obstacles, and faces overwhelming enemies. He is like a small, naïve child bravely opposing much larger and more advanced foes. At times, like many heroes, Montag is tempted by evil but refuses to cooperate. His quest may seem doomed and impossible, but the hero prevails. Like most heroes, Montag learns that respect must be earned and that sacrifices are necessary to achieve success. Only through the acquisition of knowledge can the hero complete his trials. His innate goodness empowered by his enlightenment defeats what represents wickedness and evil. Montag is appealing because of his authentic human characteristics. Although he is often bold and brave, Montag also experiences self-doubt and is afraid, asking for help when he is terrified and feels powerless. Despite being surrounded by his friends, he is often isolated. Montag endures emotional abuse from his wife who callously disregards him, not even remembering the time they first met. Montag though is truly human, and Bradbury does not sugarcoat his characterization. He can be irritable or empathetic, tired or energetic, and clueless or proficient. Montag's housewife is a hopeless TV addict whose only family is the family that she knows from TV. She is not a supporting wife and even turns the authorities against him when she finds out that he was hiding books. Then there is Montag's fire chief, Beatty, who despises books and is a product of the system, a minion of the new order. He stereotypes the evil villain who does things knowingly and immorally. Faber, an old English professor, helps Montag discover the real human in him, a human who is curious and vies for knowledge. Bradbury gives each of the characters distinctive qualities, helping the plot to develop.

Bradbury uses flamboyant imagery in Fahrenheit 451 making the readers feel they are viewing the imagery from a bird's eye view. However, he is not being an omniscient author to keep the readers away from predicting the plot and keeping the book interesting. Readers would expect everything to go back to normal at the end of the book, but Bradbury leaves that choice open to the readers, choosing to start and end the book with fire. The story is intertwined and revolving around the protagonist, Guy Montag. We never veer away from him and view the story through Guy's point of view. The book is immaculately detailed, even though we do not discover Montag's history, or how him and his wife met in Chicago.

A group objects to something in a book and the book is modified, starting the censorship. Soon, another group or minority objects to the book, and the books are edited again and again until it is banned completely. In Bradbury's novel there is so much outrage against books that literature is banned altogether to prevent any type of revolutions, political or cultural. Books are not read anymore, not only because people object to them, but also it leads to people asking questions, often leading to revolution and anarchy. The individual and intellectual thinking that often arises from reading books can be dangerous for a government, and that is why books are banned. This type of movement had already happened in Germany in 1937, when Hitler became supreme chancellor and banned books that countered Nazism. Student members of the Nazi party ritualistically burned these books containing the ideas of Karl Marx and books on democracy every day. The philosophy of burning books, according to Bradbury also ignores the benefit of knowledge. Knowledge can cause disharmony, but it also prevents man from making past mistakes and learning from history. Censorship is still practiced today, even in the United States. Bradbury uses indirect characterization in the book to describe his characters. You see the whole story from Montag's own eyes, knowing what he knows, seeing what he sees. You can practically see the fire in the beginning of the novel, when Montag is burning the books. Although Bradbury uses indirect characterization very usefully, he fails to mention how Montag and his wife met, why Beatty hates books, how the refugees managed to escape the government, are there any countermeasures for people trying to escape the city, what is going on in the rest of the world etc. etc.

In the novel each character represents something. The mechanical hound is the fierce hand of dictatorship. Montag is actually the name of a paper making company. Faber is the name of a pencil making company. When Faber teaches Montag, he is metaphorically speaking writing the pencil of Montag's empty paper. The salamander represents society, which has sunk into depravity and decadence. Even though it seems modern, it is more primitive than ever. The seashells, or ear radios promote the propaganda of the government. Using these seashells, the people hearing them drift off to the sea, or lose sight of reality. The parlor or TV sets are used to distract people from their ordinary lives. The characters in the parlor become addictive and eventually are the family of the person watching them. He never wants to leave the family and will defend his every right to keep the relatives alive. Fire is the artificial substitute for the truth, found in books. People who don't find satisfaction in books find satisfaction in fire and burning. Officer Beatty represents the hand behind government censorship. He doesn't burn books blindly; he does it knowingly and evilly. The sieve and sand examples are used to show that Montag is trying to read the book as fast as he can, because he thinks that if he reads fast enough, some pieces of the knowledge will stay behind. Nature is used to illustrate truth or reality. When Montag reaches the forest, for the first time in his life, he gets the sensation of smell. The life of the residents also represents truth. The people, who live away from the city, live in truth all the time.

The government and the burning of books seems a very tyrannical idea to the readers. But as fire chief Beatty explains it, governmental control over the people's lives was not a dictatorial control or a conspiracy by fascists, but the idea stemmed from the people itself. People are weak minded and too lazy to even think and decide for themselves. So they appointed the government to take control over their daily lives and make them addicts of the TV and Seashell radios. Family meant the family that appeared on TV, not the physical family a person had. Water cooler discussions were on what happened in the soaps last night, instead of political talk. For the people, living a fictional and imaginative life filled with non-creative and dull ideas and pictures was far easier than looking towards the real world. TV was their life, they were born with the TV and they would die with the TV. People were afraid of themselves. They wanted nothing to do but to watch TV so as to suppress thoughts that might be dangerous to them. They fear knowledge, even thoughts of knowing. They don't want to think for themselves. That is why they need the government to think for them. That is where the TV and seashell radios come in.

Eventually, the people in Fahrenheit 451 begin to cave-in. their human mind finally begins to assert itself, and therefore they begin to get tired of the family and the radio. They are so depressed that they are having actual thoughts of knowledge and are realizing what they have brought upon themselves from the fear of the government and depression, they begin to commit suicide. People jumping from buildings, Montag's wife consuming sleep tablets, a fireman setting a mechanical hound upon himself. Slowly and slowly, the society in Fahrenheit 451 is slowly crumbling apart. But, we never get to see if the society does fall down or not, because bombers devastate the whole city soon after Montag reaches the forest. In the end, war kills the society. Burning books and not learning from the past led to war, and the war led to destruction, just like before. Those who do not learn from history repeat history itself. People jumping from buildings represents the slow and steady fall of the government. Ironically, a government that was based on fire was eventually destroyed by fire itself. The phoenix emblem on the coats and helmets of the firemen is an ironic representation of the phoenix rising from its own ashes. Bradbury somewhat predicted the future in 1950 when he wrote the novel, describing Montag's wife as a TV addict. Today, if you are unaware of who got kicked out of survivor, or whom Monica or Rachel broke up with last night, you don't have a life.

Fahrenheit 451 refers to the temperature at which book paper burns. The title is very significant to the theme and plot of burning books and censorship of the media. In conclusion, Fahrenheit 451 can be best understood by understanding what censorship is all about and why people want to censor.