Author: Ray Bradbury
Summary: Written in 1951, but set at an unknown time in the future, Fahrenheit 451 tells of a world in which books are banned and critical thinking quenched; a world full of mindless hedonistic citizens who spend much of their lives watching interactive TV or listening to "seashell" radios in their ears. The protagonist is Guy Montag, a firefighter, which in this world means a man who burns books and the homes that contain them.
A wake-up call comes to Guy through encounters with an unorthodox neighbor girl, Clarisse, causing him to question his life and his culture. He befriends an ex-English professor named Faber and eventually becomes a fugitive, escaping into the countryside. There he finds a group of free thinkers, also escapees, who memorize whole books to protect them for posterity, hoping for a day when society learns from its mistakes and the wisdom in the books is again welcomed. The title denotes the temperature at which book paper burns
Simon & Schuster 1951 original copyright. 190pps. ISBN 0-7432-4722-1
Reading Level: Young Adult
Reviewed by: Derri Smith, June 2007
Allow me a moment to digress, before giving my opinion. Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 with the backdrop of Nazi book-burnings, Stalin's censorship of authors in the former Soviet Union and the first detonation of a nuclear bomb. Yet the author himself said his purpose in writing spanned "all kinds of tyrannies anywhere in the world at any time, right, left, or middle." Indeed, a wide range of folks opposed to censorship, including the ACLU and Michael Moore have made reference to Fahrenheit 451. There will be "anything goes" people who think it ironic to have a review of a book about censorship, including listings of curse words and issues of morality, included on a site like BookAngles.
But I am not an advocate of censorship nor, I imagine, are many of my readers. I'm all for freedom of expression. I WANT my children to learn to think and to examine issues from all sides. I do not think truth is fragile and will break with examination; rather, it is strong enough to stand up to scrutiny. I do not, however, wish to have all manner of baseness and immorality forced upon me or my children, regardless of personal values or my children's readiness.
A sanitized version of this book was once made for distribution to schools; a fact Ray Bradbury found ludicrous for a book about censorship. I do not agree. I want my children to read this powerful book and to really think about the points it makes about censorship. I would also welcome an edition that might allow my children access to the themes and thoughts in this book, expressed without the incessant and, in my opinion unnecessary, use of profanity.
Fahrenheit 451 takes a look at a world where people are so busy that they do not stop to think or notice beauty or to really communicate with the people around them. This is a world where the media feeds the minds of numbed masses whose highest goal is happiness; a goal that persistently eludes them. A world where parents abdicate responsibility to the state and schools, not wishing to be inconvenienced in pursuit of their own desires. A world where people try to ignore their inner emptiness in a multitude of ways, including drugs, excitement, possessions and entertainment. A world that looks alarmingly like our own.
There are many quotes here that the most conservative among us would "hurrah!" Take for example the statement of a 17-year-old character, Clarisse: "My uncle says his grandfather remembered when children didn't kill each other. But that was a long time ago... They believed in responsibility, my uncle says. Do you know, I'm responsible. I was spanked when I needed it, years ago. And I do all the shopping and housecleaning by hand." There are here some ideas, or at least possible interpretations, with which I would not agree. But I'd love to discuss them with my teens.
I heartily agree with the central theme that we need quality information (truth), leisure time to digest such information and the right to carry out actions based on what is learned. My agreement on other issues presented would depend on interpretation and, considering the variety of possible interpretations and the reasons for them, openly considering these issues could be a profitable exercise for parents and children.
I sincerely wish the author had not felt the need to punctuate his narrative so heavily with profanity. There are a few blips (like mentions of three dimensional sex machines and gang rapes) that will keep me from handing this to my younger teen, though I would otherwise love to have her consider the concepts. I will, despite the problematic areas, want my older teen to read this important and captivating book. And I'll look forward to a good conversation about it when she is done!
The author demonstrates the emptiness of relationships in which conversations revolve around superficial talk, discussion of entertainment and possessions.
The Bible is one of the first books to unlock Guy's mind. The book ends with Montag recalling verses in Ecclesiastes about there being a time for everything, and then verses in Revelation about the tree of life bearing fruit for the healing of the nations.
A man comments on the modern world: "I often wonder if God recognizes His own son the way we've dressed him up, or is it dressed him down? He's a regular peppermint stick now, all sugar crystal and saccharine, when he isn't making veiled references to certain commercial products that every worshipper absolutely needs."
In a moment of relief from the quest to elude capture, Montag feels he has "left the great séance and all the murmuring ghosts."
The men Montag discovers in the countryside, who have memorized whole books, introduce themselves by the names of authors and books. These include: Tom Paine, Christ, Machiavelli, Darwin, Schopenhauer, Schweitzer, Einstein, Aristophanes, Gandhi, Buddha, Confucius, Thomas Jefferson, Lincoln, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
The nation (implied as the U.S.A.) enjoys great pleasure and wealth while ignoring the poverty of the rest of the world, which regards the wealthy nation with great disdain. Fed only snippets of news and consumed by escapism and entertainment, the nation's citizens are unconcerned.
An implied humanistic worldview is summarized in a statement by a survivor after watching a city destroyed by a bomb. " There was a silly d-mn bird called a Phoenix back before Christ, every few hundred years he built a pyre and burned himself up. He must have been first cousin to Man. But every time he burned himself up, he sprang out of the ashes...And it looks like we're doing the same thing, over and over, but we've got one d-mn thing the Phoenix never had. (the memory and record of their wrongs) ... some day we'll stop making the g-dd-m funeral pyres and jumping in the middle of them. We pick up a few more people that remember, every generation." He goes on to envision a time when war ceases, because enough people "remember."
There is brief mention of rape and gang-rape. The terms are also used figuratively of a book being "gang-raped" by a movie studio and a bad writer raping life.
For sport and gambling, firemen release rats, chickens or cats to a mechanical hound that quickly kills them. Their bodies are thrown into the incinerator.
In a home doused in kerosene, about to be set afire, a woman chooses to stay in her home and die.
A 17-year-old states that kids her age kill each other; six of her friends were shot in the past year, and ten died in car crashes.
Mildred finds it fun to drive fast in the country, hitting rabbits and sometimes dogs.
Montag unthinkingly kills the fire chief with his flame thrower, when the chief threatens to trace a speaker in Montag's ear, endangering Faber, thus carrying out the chief's philosophy of burning problems rather than facing them. Montag beats other firefighters unconscious.
A car full of 12- to 16-year-olds try to run Montag down and kill him just for fun.
A puncture from a futuristic mechanical hound kills an innocent bystander, while many watch the scene on TV.
From the countryside. Montag watches a bomb hit the city and envisions his wife's last moments there, seeing at last how empty her life was — and then dying.
Making the point that concentrating too hard on writing technique is counterproductive, the author states in the introduction that "Any man who takes a sex manual to bed with him invites frigidity."
"Three dimensional sex magazines" are mentioned in a description of this world's history.
When she can't recall the events of the night before, Mildred asks her husband: "Did we have a wild party last night?"
In the introduction, Ray Bradbury speculates that if children spent time in libraries, learning by osmosis, "then our drug, street gang, rape and murder scores will suffer themselves near zero."
It is mentioned (negatively) that a woman has had dozens of abortions.
"God" (multiple), "d-mn" (and variations, extremely frequent), "hell," "Jesus God," God" (frequent), "bast-rds," "asses and fools," "ass," "goddam."
Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: When MIldred can't recall what happened the night before, she comments: "Feels like I have a hangover."
Montag smokes cigarettes, as do other characters.
Mildred, apparently accidentally, takes an overdose of sleeping pills.
Montag uses sleep lozenges.
Faber and Montag drink whiskey.
Brief mention is made of heroin.
Montag realizes he wouldn't have cried or missed his wife if she died, because she is a silly empty woman, and they really don't know each other or have any real conversation or interaction.
Mildred and Guy have no children, because Mildred never wanted any. Other women think no one in their right mind would have children. A woman who has two, says "I plunk the children in school nine days out of ten. I put up with them when they come home three days a month...You heave them into the parlor and turn the switch (on the equivalent of TV)." and "They'd as soon kick as kiss me."
Guy's wife reports her husband's possession of banned books, knowing it will lead to his arrest and the burning of their home. She leaves him, and he realizes she will have forgotten him by tomorrow.
Guy comes home to find that his wife has downed much of a bottle of sleeping pills. Medics clean out her system using a machine that was developed because this is such a common occurrence. The medic comments that he deals with nine or ten such cases a night. Elsewhere, we read of suicides by many in this society; the end result of an empty life.
In the 2003 introduction, the author mentions that Fahrenheit 451 was first published in "Playboy", a then new magazine which "shocked and improved the world."
The fire chief comments: "One of those d-mned do-gooders with their shocked holier-than-thou silences, their one talent making others feel guilty."
There is one reference to "colored people," reflecting the terminology of the time.
It is stated that the home environment is, thankfully, able to negate much of the bad influence of the schools.
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