FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury (60th Anniversary Edition)
Year of publication: 1953
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks; June 2013
Strong Point: The book is full of many and interesting references which make it quite complex and multi-layered. After every word, every sentence, one could find a double meaning which makes you think and reflect constantly about what the characters are trying to say to the reader.
Weak Point: I have not found any!!
Fahrenheit 451, Book Review - Contents
Fahrenheit 451: WHAT IT SAYS IN THE BLURB
Guy Montag is a fireman. His job is to destroy the most illegal of commodities, the printed book, along with the houses in which they are hidden. Montag never questions the destruction and ruin his actions produce, returning each day to his bland life and wife, Mildred, who spends all day with her television “family”. But when he meets an eccentric young neighbour, Clarisse, who introduces him to a past where people didn’t live in fear and to a present where one sees the world through the ideas in books instead of the mindless chatter of television, Montag begins to question everything he has ever known.
Fahrenheit 451: ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ray Douglas Bradbury was born in Waukegan (Illinois) on August, 22nd 1920. His parents were Esther Marie Moberg and Leonard Spaulding Bradbury. They gave him the name “Douglas” because of the actor Douglas Fairbanks. Due to his father’s job, the family had to move several times to Tucson (Arizona) until they settled down definitively in Los Angeles (California) in 1934.
Bradbury graduated in Los Angeles High School in 1938. After that, he abandoned his studies and became an autodidact, dedicating his time to reading and writing, and spending most of the day at the public library. At the same time, he worked as a newspaper salesman and continued writing, publishing his first story called “Hollerbocher’s Dilemma” in the magazine “Imagination”. He quitted his job in 1943 and became a full-time writer issuing numerous short stories in various media, sometimes under diverse pseudonyms.
In 1946 he met Maggie McClure, a shop assistant in a bookshop and only one year later they married. This same year, a collection of his short stories under the name Dark Carnival saw the light making him well-known to the public. 1950 saw the appearance of The Martian Chronicles (considered nowadays a science fiction classic) which started Bradbury’s rising literary fame and was a huge success. The Illustrated Man (composed of various science fiction stories) appeared in 1951.
Fahrenheit 451, (considered a classic of the 20th century dystopian literature), appeared in the year 1953 as well as The Golden Apples of the Sun, an anthology of 22 short stories. 1963 saw the publication of his plays under the name “The Anthem Sprinters and Other Antics”.
Ray Bradbury died in Los Angeles on June, 5th 2012 at 91 years old after a long illness. He was buried in the Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles.
Some critics do not consider him a science fiction writer in the traditional way. He himself said on a TV interview that Fahrenheit 451 was the only science fiction novel he had written. Bradbury also wrote film scripts (like the adaptation for the cinema of Moby Dick directed by John Huston) and scripts for TV series (as “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” or “Twilight Zone”). As if all this were not enough, he also wrote essays and poetry.
Apart from writing about the fear of a possible atomic war and its consequences, about censorship and the evils of a society heavily based on technology, Ray Bradbury also wrote about topics as varied as love, childhood, fear of death, racism and totalitarianism, and offered a dark view of the future of our society. He reached worldwide recognition with his novels as well as his short stories, offering a dark and critical point of view about the evolution of humankind. Furthermore, he talked about the contradictory and ambivalent nature of technology which can be positive and negative at the same time, beneficial as well as manipulative, and all this with a rich and poetic prose style and using frequently paradoxical phrases.
Bradbury was awarded numerous literary prizes, being among them the Prometheus Award (for his book Fahrenheit 451), an Emmy Award (for his screenplay of “The Halloween Tree”) and the National Medal of Arts which he received from the President of the United States of America, George W. Bush.
Fahrenheit 451: MAIN CHARACTERS
Guy Montag – He is the main character of the book. He works as a fireman (already the third-generation) but instead of saving people and objects from getting burned, he (and his colleagues) burns books and the houses where these books are found. He is married to Mildred Montag with whom he does not have a good relationship (his biggest sorrow). Almost from the beginning of the book, he realizes that he is dissatisfied with his life, which he finds absolutely empty. He thinks he can find a solution to this discontent in the books he is burning, so he starts “saving” them from the fire.
We see a duality in the way he acts: he can be sometimes quite sympathetic and tender (for example when he talks to Clarisse, his neighbour) but at the same time, he can be rather bizarre and reckless (as when he murders his boss, Captain Beatty, who he hates). He has two very different opposing sides inside his head (almost in a similar manner as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde).
Montag´s deepest desire is to turn against the status quo in which he is living. He does not like neither the way the government acts nor the peculiarities of the society in which he lives (people do not talk to each other, they are entirely controlled by technology, they are all ignorant, etc.) and he wants to do something about it, he wants to change the tyranny which he lives in.
Regarding his name and surname, there are some theories which suggest that “Guy” comes from “Guy Fawkes” and “Montag” comes from the name of a paper company which sold stationary.
Mildred Montag – She is the wife of Guy Montag. She seems to have no job and only stays at home watching TV and listening to the radio through headphones, the Seashells. At the beginning of the book, we witness her attempt to commit suicide by swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills. However, it is not utterly clear if she intended to kill herself or if she was just not paying attention to her acts, due to the fact that her attention is always on something else like TV, radio, or another sort of technology.
She prefers the company of the “family” (as she herself calls them, who are the people which appear in the soap operas she watches) to the “real” people. This could be seen as a way of avoiding the problems in her life, like the fact that she does not have a healthy relationship with her husband (they both don´t even remember where they met!)
Mildred seems to be rather light-minded and superficial and doesn´t have any meaningful nor straightforward conversation with neither her husband nor her friends. She does not understand Montag, his seeking for meaning and purpose in books, to the point of denouncing him to the authorities because he keeps books hidden in their house.
We don’t really know Mildred at all; we don’t know her true self or what she feels. She is presented to us like a distant and emotionless woman, who lives in complete ignorance of everything that surrounds her and that only believes to be true the things she hears on TV.
Captain Beatty – He is the Captain in Montag’s fire department and a quite complex character full of contradictions. On the one hand, he loves to burn books but on the other, he appears to be extremely literate and to have been quite devoted to books in the past. He hates books deeply as much as the people who read them. He is rather skillful with words and seems to be rather perceptive, at least with Montag, whose thoughts he seems to read quite effortlessly.
We are not sure if Captain Beatty truly feels what he proclaims because, although he says he is happy with his life as it is (full of instant pleasure, heavily based on technology, etc.) he is kind of passive at the moment of his death; he does not do anything to prevent Montag from killing him; he behaves as if he were “happy” to leave that world, happy to die.
As a consequence of this last hypothesis, Beatty doesn’t appear in front of us like a real evil man, and we can indeed feel a little bit of sympathy for him because he seems to be a man just caught up in this new world, unable to revolt against it (like Montag is trying to do) so that he decides he will be better dead.
Professor Faber – He is a retired English professor who Montag found sitting in the park on a bench reading poetry, one year before the starting of the book. Montag goes to visit him at his house asking for help to make him understand what he reads in books. We could then see Faber as a type of mentor for Montag.
Faber calls himself (as well as society) a coward because he does not act against the system as Montag is trying to do. But because of Montag’s influence, he forgets about this cowardice and starts to fight against the actual situation.
In the last part of the book, we could see Faber acting as a kind of “brain” for Montag, when Faber talks to him through a two-way seashell radio, making Montag do the things he does not dare to do due to his pusillanimity. Here we could see another example of duality in one of the characters of the book, as Faber tries on one hand that Montag acts autonomously but on the other hand he directs his acts through the seashell.
Clarisse McClellan – She is a 17-years-old girl who has recently moved to Montag’s neighbourhood. In the short time she appears in the novel, she has an “unusual” behaviour according to the “norms” dictated by the society in which she and Montag live: she loves to make questions to Montag (which he finds very annoying), to have walks in the street (forbidden by the law), play with flowers, watch the birds and taste the rain.
She is responsible for opening Montag’s eyes to the void and unhappiness of his life. She calls herself “crazy” and is forced by the authorities to go to a psychiatrist where she has to explain her “odd” behaviour (which she seems to share with her family too). She is killed by a speeding car although we do not know in which circumstances this happened or if it was an accident or intentional.
Fahrenheit 451: REVIEW
Books. What else, right? In my first review on Books on Tour, I was clear that I had to analyse a novel whose main topic is books, the passion for them, what they make you feel, how they can change your life and your perspective of it. It sounds just perfect. So let’s try to do it, and do it right because Fahrenheit 451 contains a lot of topics to talk about.
Fahrenheit 451 was published in 1953 after Ray Bradbury had written a short story called “The Pedestrian” where he narrated an incident which happened to him one night as he was having a walk at night with a friend and he was stopped by a policeman who asked him what he was doing walking in the street at night. He answered that he was just “walking”, and the policeman told him that he should not do this because this was very “suspicious”.
The original title of the book was “The Fireman” but later on, Bradbury asked a fireman at which temperature the paper starts burning, and the man, after consulting it, told him that the temperature was Fahrenheit 451, so Bradbury decided to change the title to the one it has now. The story started with 50.000 words but developed with time until the length it has today. Its first edition contained 5000 copies.
In Fahrenheit 451, we read about a world quite different (is it?) from ours. It is set in an unnamed city in North America (we assume it is close to St. Louis or in that area) in an unknown year (but according to the text, the present year is set later than 2022).
This society which we are presented with has some singularities. One of them and the most obvious one is that the job of the firemen is not to save houses and people from getting burned but to burn books and the houses where they are kept (and even burn people too!). That is so because with the time different minorities or groups of people felt attacked or discriminated by what was written there, so the authorities decided to stop writing books in order not to offend these people as well as burning the books which were already printed. Furthermore, houses were all fire-proofed so firemen did not have anything to do anymore. The topic of the fire can also be linked to the Catholic idea of purification through burning as for example with the burning of witches.
Moreover, people do not have meaningful conversations to any degree. They spend their whole day watching superficial end empty television programmes and listening to the radio through headphones sets attached to their ears called Seashells, both of which give them instant satisfaction. Their day-to-day is firmly based on technology and the author takes advantage of this fact by introducing us to the evils that technology as opposed to books.
Another fact of this community is that it is about to start a war. At the beginning of the story, this fact is just hinted (by the powerful and noisy appearance of jets flying in the sky unexpectedly) but as the story develops, the war is developing too until at the end of the book it finally happens, wiping off the entire city. However, we are not explained which is the cause of this war, making it clear that the reason does not really matter as all wars are just meaningless and silly. War is in itself another character of the novel, silent at times, and quite noisy at others, but a character after all.
One - The Hearth and the Salamander
Fahrenheit 451 is divided into three sections. The first of these sections is called “The Hearth and the Salamander” in which we are presented with the story of one of these firemen, Guy Montag, and we learn about his job (“Salamander”) and family life (“Hearth”). Montag himself at the beginning of the book tells us that for him “it was a pleasure to burn”. He seems as if he were a kind of “hero” or as if the society saw firemen as heroes and gave them a prominent place in their society, although his job was basically destroying things instead of saving them; but this civilization worships fire and the cleanness of its devastation. In this first encounter with him, his job controls and defines him completely: “Kerosene is nothing but perfume to me”.
Through Montag, we learn that his uniform has a salamander sewn on his arm, hence the title of this first section of the book. The Salamander can be linked to the idea that in the past they were thought to be mythological characters able to even survive fires; it is also the name the firemen use to refer to their firetrucks. And the Hearth can suggest the fireplace which heats and makes a house a home.
Furthermore, on his helmet the number 451 can be seen, whose significance has been previously explained. And in addition to all this, the chest of the uniform is decorated with a “phoenix disc”, clearly related to the Greek phoenix myth in which a magnificent bird dies cyclically every several hundred years and is reborn from its ashes (in itself, a symbol of resurrection and rebirth).
In this first section, Montag meets his neighbour, a 17-years-old girl named Clarisse McClellan for the first time. She has a tremendous impact on Montag throughout the novel. In this first encounter, Clarisse took Montag by surprise by asking him if he was happy, which Montag finds completely absurd. He thinks about it and later answers himself that “He was not happy” and that “He wore his happiness like a mask”, and Clarisse seems to be the one who has taken this mask away from Montag’s face.
Montag feels attracted to Clarisse but at the same time, he feels also annoyed by her. In his eyes, she (and by extension, her family as well, especially her uncle) is quite “peculiar” because she asks too many (and impertinent) questions, and has a lifestyle which clashes with what is considered by their society and Government as “normal”. Those questions stir the insides of Montag and make him wonder about thoughts and feelings which he had taken before for granted. She opens his eyes to the outside and natural world but the way she sees this world, full of light, as opposed to the way Montag sees it, dark and full of shadows.
After this encounter, Montag goes home to find that his wife apparently has committed suicide by swallowing a complete bottle of sleeping pills. He is still pondering about his encounter with Clarisse and how she has made him realize that his life is void of any meaning and a total lie, when he forces himself to take care of his wife Mildred and try to bring her back to life by pumping her stomach and replacing her blood, actions performed by a quite bizarre couple of “operators”.
Much later, we learn that Mildred suffers from a type of melancholia which may be one of the reasons for her to commit suicide. However, by the description that Bradley makes of her, of her behaviour as well as the conduct of her friends, there is a hint that as a cause of all this relying on technology, and the constant bombarding of information and stories coming from the TV and the radio, people are not really conscious of what they are doing at anytime. They spend their time behaving like puppets or sleepwalkers so that it could be possible (as later it is also insinuated by Montag) that Mildred just forgot how many pills she took and then decided to take some more and some more, and some more until she had an overdose.
Next Bradbury makes a small presentation of Mildred to his audience. She appears to be (especially in comparison to Clarisse) quite childish and full of superficial thoughts, most of them gathered from the people who appear in the TV programmes she watches constantly, whom she calls (in one of Bradbury’s superb moments of irony) “family”.
After Mildred’s introduction, there is another change of scenario and we come to learn about the firemen and Montag’s place of work. There, we also make the acquaintance of a terrifying device, the Mechanical Hound which helps the firemen (and the authorities, of course) to deal with people who do not want to submit to the rules imposed by the Government and are thus considered to be dangerous. This “machine” has a syringe which injects the person with a narcotic so that he or she can be easily subdued.
The character of Captain Beatty (Montag’s boss) is here shortly introduced. He has a quite complex personality and is full of contradictions as we will see throughout the novel. Montag starts to feel somehow guilty around Beatty, although he does not know the reason why. We could assume that it was Clarisse’ “fault” as she has opened his eyes to the absurdity and emptiness of his life and work. Montag sees now his boss and his colleagues under a new light so he feels an uneasiness that he has never felt before as he has always been operating under the “rules”. He realizes that all his colleagues look and behave exactly the same but now he feels somehow different and alienated from them although he still does not know why.
Later on, we witness an extremely important event. The firemen are called to the house of a woman to burn it down, as a result of her hiding books there. The woman decides then to burn herself; she prefers to die there with her books to a life alone without them. This incident alters Montag drastically to the point that we see him hiding one book he finds in the woman’s house under his uniform (although he thinks that the stealing was done by his hands not by himself so that he doesn’t have to feel guilty about it; he still does not recognize his real motives for doing so). Moreover, we see that Montag feels sorry for the woman and pities her which are sentiments not found anymore in his society.
As an antagonist to Montag, Beatty behaves radically different with the woman. We see an example of his complex personality when he converses with her about his reasons for burning books. He even declares “None of those books agree with each other…The people in those books never lived”. However, at the same time, Beatty shows how well-read he is and how much he knows about literature, by citing by heart passages from different books. One could even think that Beatty really misses books and reading. You can almost perceive how sorry he is that he cannot read anymore.
Following this episode, Montag goes back home to his wife just to realize that more and more he feels totally disconnected from her. He (as well as Mildred) doesn’t even remember when they first met. The realization of this leaves him very sad and leads him to believe that he is completely empty inside and void of any feeling. He blames technology for his lack of love for her due to the fact that Mildred has changed a great deal since they both met that he does not recognize her anymore as the woman he married.
Mildred is so separated from reality that she forgets to tell Montag that Clarisse is dead. Her head is full of information and gossip from the TV and the radio that she does not have space for anything else other than that. Equally important is that we notice that in this society death is treated quite lightly; people do not really pay much attention nor have much respect for it (As Mildred herself states when talking with Montag about Clarisse, “She’s dead. Let’s talk about someone alive, for goodness’ sake”.); and one can even sense a slight comic tone when talking about this subject.
The change in Montag’s behaviour is so intense that kerosene is not a perfume anymore (like he himself said in the first lines of the book) but “the odor of kerosene made him vomit”. In addition, he realizes for the first time, that behind books there are real people, (the writers, the printers, etc.) who put a lot of effort, time and knowledge so that we could read that book. And then, in a second, all this effort could be extinguished by the fire that people like Beatty, his firemen colleagues and himself start. This sense of guiltiness of Montag is now more intense than in the previous pages, which can be seen as a consequence of Montag’s “awakening” to this new reality which he is experiencing in which books are not seen anymore as something evil but good.
As a result of Montag’s feeling ill, Beatty decides to visit him at home. He is more and more suspicious of Montag because he can see a repetition of other firemen’s behaviours in Montag: the uneasiness, the sickness, the sadness, etc. (“Every fireman, sooner or later, hits this”). He, therefore, continues giving Montag more explanations about the reasons for burning books. He claims that people were demanding more and more uncomplicated and quick-to-access means of recreation, so books started developing also as quick and simple literature, which made them appear all alike and in the end they were all “a sort of paste pudding norm” indistinguishable from one another.
In his speech, we can see that Beatty wants to manipulate Montag but he uses for this his enormous literary knowledge, which makes his speech quite sarcastic and ironic apart from exhibiting the ambivalence that he showed in his previous speeches. Furthermore, he blames people not the Government for the censorship of books, in an attempt to put off his shoulders the weight of his own guilt and unhappiness every time he has to burn books.
With Beatty finally gone, Montag shows Mildred his secret collection of books. We learn now that it is not only one book but several the ones he has hidden in the air-conditioning. She tries to burn them but Montag stops her. This section ends with them reading Gulliver’s Travels and Montag telling Mildred that “We’ll start over again, at the beginning”.
Montag is now a wholly transformed man and he is sure of what he has to do in order to change his reality and his sad, empty life. We see now in him the determination and the right attitude to revolt and fight against the status quo of the world he lives in, in contrast with the beginning of the book where he was not even aware of his present situation and the idiosyncrasies of his community.
Two - The Sieve and the Sand
The second section of Fahrenheit 451 is named “The Sieve and the Sand” and begins with Montag and Mildred still reading, this time a copy of James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, talking about Clarisse and receiving the visit of the Electric Hound (although they don’t open the door to let it in).
The title of the chapter is in itself full of symbolism for Montag. He narrated an old memory he has of when he was a small child and was trying to fill a sieve with sand in order to get a dime which was hidden under it. He realizes now how useless this task was and compares this to the futility of the task he has imposed on himself: he tries to remember as much as possible of what he reads in order to pass this over to the rest of the people.
The more Montag reads, the least he understands, so he seeks help with a retired English Professor, named Faber whom he met one year before sitting on a bench in a park reading poetry. He telephones him to ask how many copies of the Bible, of Shakespeare and Plato there are left in the country. However, Faber is totally scared of Montag since he knows he is a fireman so he hangs the phone. Nonetheless, and as he has to handle Beatty the book he guesses Montag stole, he decides to visit Faber at his home to show him the copy of the Bible that he stole from the old woman’s house because Montag senses that his copy is the last one remaining in the entire country.
Both Montag and Faber start a conversation about all the good things that literature and books contain. They go so far as to describe books as having “pores” and that if you look at them under a microscope “You’d find life under the glass”, thus comparing books to a living thing. Equally important is the discussion that follows about their society and Bradbury comes back to the idea of the superficiality and emptiness of present times and the evils of technology.
This discussion with the Professor can be considered as the last “push” that Montag needed to start fighting the system. In addition to this, one could even think that his first encounter with Faber one year before could have already been the beginning, the origin of Montag’s change due to the fact that the Professor left a profound impression on Montag as to even remember this meeting with him one year later.
Similarly, as it happens with other characters in the book, Faber has a dual personality. While he pushes Montag to act and rebel against the constraints imposed by the authorities, he declares himself a coward, unable and terrified to act. Notwithstanding, he tries to help Montag without being in the “front line” but hidden behind a two-way artefact he has created and that Montag uses as one of the Seashell Radios. Through this object, Faber is able to dictate Montag what to do, acting like Montag’s “brain” independent of his body (as it has been described previously in the book, for example when Montag steals the book from the old woman’s house, but he wants to believe that were his hands, not himself which did the robbing).
So as to be able to print more copies of the Bible, Faber accepts to visit a printer he knows and Montag agrees to withdraw some money from his bank account for Faber to pay the printer. While he does that, Faber is reading Montag through the Seashell passages of The Book of Job.
Later on, Montag comes back home to Mildred where they receive the visit of two of Mildred’s friends, Mrs Phelps and Mrs Bowles, both as superficial and as empty as Mildred. Montag confirms that it is impossible to have a meaningful conversation with any of the three women so he gets really irritated by them. They talk about topics like war, suicide (another example where death is treated with indifference), children, family, etc. but all of it in a shallow mode.
Montag starts reading to them the fourth and fifth stanzas of the poem, “Dover Beach” from a book of poetry, in which the poet writes about the lack of faith which leads to pessimism and sadness, a topic which can remind us of the present situation in Montag’s world. This poem makes Mrs Phelps cry because of its force and beauty although Mrs Bowles starts accusing poetry of acts like suicide and sickness “poetry and tears, poetry and suicide and crying and awful feelings, poetry and sickness”. In the end, as if Montag were moving like a puppet directed by Faber through the Seashell radio, he throws the book in the incinerator.
At the end of this section, Montag discovers that Mildred has been taking his books and burning them although she has still left some, which Montag picks up and hides in the bushes outside the house in the backyard. Afterwards, he goes to the fire station where he handles Beatty one of the books which Beatty immediately throws in the trashcan but he does not burn it (maybe he wants to read it later?).
On his way there, he compares Faber with water and himself with fire. Out of the two, he says there will come out wine, which could be a reference to the Bible, to the “Wedding in Cana” where Jesus Christ transforms water into wine.
Beatty starts again indoctrinating the others with the many reasons there are for burning books but, like in the other instances when he has done so, he uses literary references and literature analysis, which seems to be rather ironic and sarcastic. Beatty fervently believes these are the most powerful arguments he has to convince Montag of his error in seeking for books and literature. All this chatter makes Montag feel again guilty which he exemplifies by washing repeatedly his hands still feeling them as separated from the rest of his self and which are “gloved with blood”, again a literary reference to Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth.
The section ends with the alarm ringing at the fire station and all the firemen rushing out of it to start a fire at someone’s house. Beatty forces Montag to go with them because “this is a special case”. Sadly, Montag realizes too late that it is his house they are going to burn down.
Three - Burning Bright
The third and last section of Fahrenheit 451 is called “Burning Bright” and starts with Beatty obliging Montag to burn his own house with the flamethrower while he compares Montag with the Phoenix “Old Montag wanted to fly near the sun and now that he’s burnt his damn wings, he wonders why”. He calls this fire a “clean-up” pointing out to the Catholic imagery of the purification through the fire (after having sinned with books) in order to be able to have a new and “clean” beginning.
There are later on some more Catholic references made by Beatty in which he talks about the “Lord of all Creation” applying it to Montag, as if he were the New Messiah sent to Earth to help people out of their wretched state and create a new order, one in which books are again worshipped. He equally points out that Montag thinks he can “walk on water with your books”, clearly identifying again Montag with a type of Jesus Christ.
Before he starts the fire, Montag sees Mildred getting out of the house with a suitcase and entering a taxi. He then realizes (and later Beatty confirms it) that it must have been she who denounced him to Beatty. Nevertheless, he does not feel angry about this treachery. After the fire is started, Beatty arrests him and discovers that Montag has had the help of Faber after he hits him in the head and the Seashell device falls to the floor.
The escalating tension of the scene together with Montag’ sadness because of the burning of his house and the discovery of Faber by Beatty, make him on the spur of the moment burn Beatty alive with his flamethrower, making this scene the final confrontation between these two characters. Montag once more feels that his hands have committed this crime but not himself, as a sort of coping mechanism to put away his own guilt for everything wrong he has done.
Beatty, of course, dies quoting lines from a book, this time Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, in which he sees himself as Brutus and Montag as Cassius. Here Beatty is telling Montag that he does not care for his threats or bad behaviour towards him because he knows he is right in his way of thinking and behaving towards books and that Montag is absolutely wrong in embracing literature.
Right after Beatty’s death, the Mechanical Hound appears and injects Montag in his leg with an anaesthetic after which he burnt it as well with the flamethrower. He then remembers the books he hid in the bushes and picks them up. He notices that Mildred had just left there four of them.
Before starting his journey away from his burning house, Montag reflects on the duality that can also be found in fire. He then quotes Beatty when he used to say “don’t face a problem burn it”. For Montag, fire is a sign of destruction, abuse and tyranny imposed by the authorities but at the same time, it is also the representation of freedom as when he finally burns Beatty. He declares that he has “done both”, meaning face the problem and burn it (=Beatty) in which we can recognize a sense of pride in having taken the first step to actively change the established status quo.
Montag decides to go to a gas station on his way to Faber’s house. Prior to this, he learns that the authorities are looking for him by means of a regular Seashell radio, asking the population to be on alert and denounce him in case they see him. At the gas station, he washes “his hands and his face” with water as an act of purification against the dirtiness of the fire and against the sin he as committed, that is killing Beatty.
He then is almost hit by a speeding car which he mistakes for the police which may have been looking for him. However, he understands that it is just a group of teenagers trying to do something risky to fight their boredom. This incident makes him remember Clarisse as this was the way she was killed, by a speeding car. “His eyes watered” which is another example of how big an impact Clarisse has on Montag, of how tender his feelings for her are and how full of gratitude he is for her help in opening his eyes to a new and different world. In contrast, when he learns that the war has been declared, he seems uninterested.
Montag is acting at this time like a sleepwalker, insensible to everything as if the narcotic the Mechanical Hound has injected into him were also numbing his mind. He does deeds like going to the house of one his firemen colleagues and hiding the books there after having called in the alarm, not even caring that the wife is still inside the house and that she could possibly die there burnt alive. We witness now how Montag turns into a vengeful man, as he “tells” his colleague’s wife that he has called the alarm in “for all the houses your husband burned and the people he hurt without thinking”.
At Faber’s house, Montag gives him the money for the retired printer that Faber is going to try to find in St. Louis, and together they watch on TV his hunting by the government. Montag is somehow “fascinated” by his appearance on the screen and by how much interest he is creating at the moment. With this, we feel Montag is slightly succumbing to Mildred and her friends’ superficial and hollow behaviour that has so much annoyed him through the previous sections of the book, while at the same time he is trying to escape from that society he so much despises.
Faber introduces at this moment “The Book People” urging Montag to look for them following the abandoned “railroad lines” and to join them. These are a group of intellectuals which live and hide in the forest as hobos all over the country in “walking camps”. They agree to meet in one week in St. Louis “if we’re both in good health”.
At this point, Faber experiences a change in his inner self as he does not feel like a coward anymore: “I feel alive for the first time in years (…) for a little while I’m not afraid”. Faber feels ready to take action and this is because of the influence Montag is having on him. The same way Clarisse opened Montag’s eyes, Montag has opened Faber’s.
After leaving Faber’s house, Montag heads for the river and wades in while floating on its waters helped by the current. This episode could be seen as a sort of “baptism” in which Montag is renewed and purified from his past sins and is ready to embrace his new life as a redeemed person. As well as by the river, Montag feels overwhelmed by nature, in comparison with the city where he is coming from. However, he realizes that Nature calms him down, it is “comforting” and makes him feel at peace with himself and with the rest of the world.
A sense of melancholia hangs over Montag as he thinks about Mildred and later on about Clarisse. He feels sad when he thinks about his wife and reflects that perhaps she would not have liked to be there with him surrounded by nature because there was so much silence by the river that she could not have taken it. With Clarisse, he fantasizes about the idea that she had also taken in the past the same path he is taking now, and that she walked alongside the same railroad lines as he is. This “path” could also be taken both literally as well as metaphorically, meaning, on one hand, the actual train tracks and on the other hand, the path of revolt against the government and the system imposed by it.
When Montag reaches the hobo camp, he sees that the men there (a total of five individuals) are gathered around an open fire to warm themselves from the cold. He is shocked by this sight because for the first time in his life he sees that fire could actually help people by “warming” them and not only destroy them by “burning” them.
The leader of these people introduces himself as Granger and welcomes him with some coffee and a type of “potion” which will mask his smell so that the Mechanical Hound could not find him again. Montag and the men watch together on a portable viewer how his chase continues but without him since the Hound has lost his track in the river. However, the authorities would not concede to the population that they have lost Montag, so they use an innocent man as a scapegoat and they killed him in front of the TV screens while the whole country is watching making the nation believe that this unfortunate man was Montag. The way Bradbury describes this scene makes the reader feel that we are watching an action scene from a movie, or reading a movie script (“Blackout. Silence. Darkness”).
Granger, using an ironic tone, addresses Montag by saying to him “Welcome back from the dead”, in reference to his fake death that they have just watched on TV. This remark could be identified as a hint to another of Montag’s cases of awakening and revival after having been “dead” in his previous life in the city working as a fireman. After Granger’s teasing, he introduces the rest of the men who are part of the group, all of them Professors and intellectuals, even including a Reverend.
Montag feels he does not belong with them for he thinks of himself poorly “I don’t belong with you (…) I’ve been an idiot all the way”. Notwithstanding, Granger explains to him that he is truly important for the whole nation as Montag carries on his mind “the Book of Ecclesiastes and maybe a little of Revelation” from the time when he read them since we all “have photographic memories”.
Granger goes on to explain that they all distinguish themselves by the name of the author whose book they “carry” on their minds, so one of the hobos is called Jonathan Swift, the other Charles Darwin, a third one Schopenhauer, the fourth one Einstein and the last one Albert Schweitzer. Granger describes how they represent the voice of the dead writers they carry on their minds but he advises Montag no to be “pedant” by thinking that they are important for the humankind as they are just the “dust jackets for books, of no significance otherwise”. The important thing is the extracts of literature they carry with them.
He continues his speech by stating that the Book People hope to be of some help to humankind once the war is finished, by bringing back books to the cities. He also states that there will for sure be another “Dark Age” in which books will be banished again, introducing the idea that History is cyclical.
Meanwhile, “the war began and ended in that instant” and Montag thinks about the people he has left behind to start this nomad life: Clarisse, Faber, and his wife. As far as Mildred is concerned, he ponders how scared she must be in the city with the war going on. However, he realizes he does not miss her, he does not care if she dies or not and this scares him considerably because he recognizes he does not feel anything and that to have these feelings for his wife is quite wrong. Granger explains that “Everyone must leave something behind when he dies” linking this idea again with the “resurrection” that Montag is experiencing after having “died” and being “reborn” in this new era where he is a mere “dust jacket” for books.
However, as they see the bombs falling down from the sky in the city, Montag continuously remembers Mildred, so that it is not totally true that he does not have feelings for her. He just thinks so because perhaps he does not want to feel guilty for her being alone in the city and possibly dying there because of the war, as we have been witnessing throughout the book, that Montag regularly tries to avoid feeling guilty and taking full responsibility for his deeds.
After “the city rolled over and fell down dead”, and while lying on the earth as a result of the blast wave caused by the bombs, Montag starts remembering parts of the Book of Ecclesiastes and Revelation that he has read in the city and tries to memorize them again and again so that he does not forget them and he could be able to pass them to other people in the future. He also remembers where he and Mildred first met which makes him fully reconnect with his wife, as a way of mourning for her.
Later on, Granger compares humankind to the Phoenix bird (which Bradley has used on several occasions throughout the novel) while the men in the camp prepare something to eat by the fire. Granger believes that as the bird did, humans commit mistake after mistake and in one way or another we are always able to be reborn from the ashes. However, one big difference between the Phoenix and us is that “we know the damn silly thing we just did”. So he hopes that one day we will stop doing these mistakes and that we will be able to learn from them and not repeat them again and again.
Granger comes back again to the idea of them being only the carriers of knowledge (“You’re not important. You’re not anything”). The relevant thing is the content they carry, not the “container” in itself. What really matters for the survival of humanity is collective memory (represented here by books), passed from one person to another by oral tradition in this case as books have all been burnt down.
Bradbury continues now with another of his symbolic images when Granger talks about mirrors. He suggests that they should “build a mirror factory (…) and take a long look in them”. This concept is connected to the perception (at the beginning of the book) that Montag had of Clarisse as he said of her “How like a mirror, too, her face”, when she helps him see his own true self reflected on her face. As we have previously said, Clarisse has been the one to open Montag’s eyes to the real world and to Nature, and to show him that another world is possible, another world full of walks in the street, of flowers that you can smell, or raindrops you can taste (as he himself experiences at the end of the novel when he leaves the city and wanders around in the forest and in the river).
In Fahrenheit 451, mirrors are a symbol of self-understanding, of the means to truly see one’s inner and outer self, without any disguise, as seems to be the intention of Granger’s sentence about building the mirror factory. He is implying that human beings must take a look at themselves (figuratively in mirrors). They have to be able to recognize their flaws and weaknesses in order to correct them and make a better version of themselves. In addition, men must also identify the mistakes they had made in the past in order to avoid them in the future.
If we want to split hairs with the mirror symbology, we could even think of Montag and the Book People as mirrors in themselves where the society can see the reflection of the books they carry on their minds and learn from them so that they do not commit again in the future the mistakes made in the past.
Fahrenheit 451 ends up with Montag and all the men in the group walking together direction North towards a city to try to help the survivors of the war. In the meantime, Montag is trying to remember more and more passages of the Book of Ecclesiastes and Revelations so that he could pass them on. The last extract he remembers belongs to Revelations 22:2 in which we can read “and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” where an analogy can be implied as we could identify the “leaves of the tree” as the pages of the books (as Bradbury has repeatedly done throughout the novel, identifying books as living entities even having “pores”) which can be the “healing of the nations”.
The last sentence that Montag shares with us “When we reach the city” could also have biblical connotations as the city they are walking to can be seen as the promised land mentioned in the Bible, where humanity can have a new and clean start and where there is hope for a better future after having learned from the mistakes made in the past.
Fahrenheit 451: Further reading & Sources
- Primary Source: Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. 60th Anniversary Edition. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. 2013
- SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on Fahrenheit 451.” SparkNotes LLC. 2007. http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/451/ (accessed May 5, 2019). A detailed and comprehensive study guide on Fahrenheit 451.
- E-notes: https://www.enotes.com/topics/fahrenheit-451. Another complete study guide on Fahrenheit 451.
- Quora: https://www.quora.com/Fahrenheit-451-1953-book-What-is-Guy-Montags-namesake. On Montag’s namesake. There you can also watch an interview with Ray Bradbury.
- https://io9.gizmodo.com/in-1963-ray-bradbury-sent-this-letter-to-explain-symbo-5865363. On Symbolism in Bradbury’s works.
- E-notes: https://www.enotes.com/topics/dover-beach/text/dover-beach#root-2. On a study of the poem “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold.
- www.raybradbury.com. Official author’s website
- Biografía y Vidas: https://www.biografiasyvidas.com/biografia/b/bradbury.htm. On a biography of Ray Bradbury (in Spanish).
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