National Endowment for the Arts - The Big Read
Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451

by Ray Bradbury

You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.


Introduction to the Book

The three main sections of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 all end in fire. The novel focuses on Guy Montag, a fireman. In the first section, we discover that Montag is a professional book burner, expected to start fires instead of putting them out. For years he has done his job obediently and well. Then one day, he is called upon to burn the books of a Mrs. Hudson, who prefers to die rather than leave her library. Furtively, Montag pockets some of her books, haunted by the idea that a life without books might not be worth living after all.

As Montag begins to read deeply for the first time in his life, Fahrenheit 451's second section traces his growing dissatisfaction with the society he is paid to defend. He seeks out the counsel of an old man named Faber, whom he once let off easy on a reading charge. Together they agree to copy a salvaged Bible, in case anything should happen to the original.

Montag's boss at the firehouse, Beatty, senses his disenchantment and interrogates him until their confrontation is interrupted by a fire call. Responding to the address, Montag is expected to start a conflagration considerably closer to home.

Fahrenheit 451's final section finds Montag seizing his own fate for the first time. He avenges himself on Beatty and strikes out for the countryside. There he finds a resistance force of readers, each one responsible for memorizing—and thereby preserving—the entire contents of a different book. As they bide their time in hope of a better future, a flash appears on the horizon: While society was staring at full-wall television screens and medicating itself into a coma, the largest fire yet has broken out.

The book's three holocausts expand concentrically. The death of a stranger by fire in the first third becomes the destruction of Montag's own house in the second. The implication is that, had Montag paid greater attention to his neighbor's plight, he might not have found himself in the same predicament soon afterward. Trouble down the street leads to trouble at home, and trouble at home to trouble abroad. For a book once pigeonholed as science fiction, this structural savvy is one more proof that Bradbury started out writing for the pulps and wound up writing for the ages.

Literary Allusions in Fahrenheit 451

Walden by Henry David Thoreau
A precursor to Granger's philosophy in Fahrenheit 451, Thoreau's classic account of the time he spent in a cabin on Walden Pond has inspired generations of iconoclasts to spurn society and take to the wilderness.

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift
Swift's satirical 1726 novel follows the journey of Lemuel Gulliver to a series of fanciful islands, none more improbable than the England he left behind. The Bradburian idea of using a distant world as a mirror to reflect the flaws of one's own society doesn't originate here, but this is one early expression of it.

"Dover Beach" by Matthew Arnold
Arnold's enduring poem about a seascape where "ignorant armies clash by night" has also lent lines to Ian McEwan's novel Saturday, and provided the title for Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night.

The Republic by Plato
The deathless allegory of the cave, where men living in darkness perceive shadows as truth, is unmistakably echoed in the world of Fahrenheit 451.

"It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed."
—from Fahrenheit 451

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