11 min read ⌚
Quick: what’s the temperature at which book paper catches fire and burns?
Thank Ray Bradbury you know the answer to that question:
Who Should Read “Fahrenheit 451”? And Why?
Fahrenheit 451 is not merely the best book in Ray Bradbury’s oeuvre, but one of the greatest works of the human imagination in English or any other language.
In other words, consider yourself a poor person if you have never read this book – and mend that mistake as quickly as possible.
Ray Bradbury Biography
Ray Bradbury was an American writer, most famous for his SF, horror, and mystery novels and short stories.
One of the most celebrated American authors of the 20th century, Bradbury is considered “the writer most responsible for bringing modern science fiction into the literary mainstream.”
In addition to Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury is also the author of The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Illustrated Man, and Dandelion Wine – all of them adapted in one way or another.
Find out more at http://www.raybradbury.com/.
“Where books are burned,” wrote German poet Heinrich Heine back in 1823,” “in the end, people will also be burned.”
More than a century later, his prediction eerily came true in his very own country.
And a few years after the Second World War, in the McCarthy era, American writer Ray Bradbury was deeply concerned that history might repeat itself in his very own country, the land of the free.
So as to find an esthetic outlet for this concern, Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451, quite possibly the best book ever written on the subject of books and book burning.
Set in an unspecified city – probably somewhere in the American Midwest – at the end of the second millennium (but written as if set in a fairly distant future), the book presents a future American society in which most books are outlawed and burned by specially trained “firemen.”
Hence the title and the famous tagline of the book: “Fahrenheit 451 – the temperature at which book paper catches fire, and burns…”
The novel is divided into three parts: “The Hearth and the Salamander,” “The Sieve and the Sand,” and “Burning Bright.”
Let’s summarize them!
Part I: The Hearth and the Salamander
Guy Montag and Clarisse McClellan
Guy Montag, the main protagonist of Fahrenheit 451, is one of the “firemen” mentioned above. However, unlike real firemen, he and his coworkers are tasked with starting, rather than putting out fires.
Employed by the state to burn the possessions of those who own and read outlawed books, Guy Montag is married to Mildred “Millie” Montag, a woman “thin as a praying mantis from dieting, her hair burnt by chemicals to a brittle straw, and her flesh like white bacon.”
One night, while returning from work, Guy meets his neighbor, Clarisse McClellan, who is, in her own and her uncle’s words, “seventeen and insane.”
She is also not that popular among her peers, because she’s asking their teachers “why” instead of “how” and because she’s just too open-minded and free-spirited for everyone’s sake.
After having a brief discussion with her, Montag returns to his house and finds Millie overdosed on sleeping pills.
He calls for medical help and, soon, two pretty insensitive and hard-hearted EMTs arrive at the house of the Montag’s.
They pump Millie’s stomach and drain her poisoned blood; it is the future, so they can replace it with new one; hence, in a way, they resurrect her.
After the EMTs leave, the now somewhat calmed Montag goes outside and overhears a discussion between Clarisse and her family about the point of living in an illiterate, hedonistic society.
For the first time in his life, Montag starts to wonder about things, overwhelmed by Clarisse’s whys and his wife’s near-death experience.
Unsurprisingly, Montag starts welcoming the conversations with Clarisse who faithfully meets him every night as he comes home from work.
However, just as he starts enjoying them, Clarisse suddenly disappears.
Play the Man, Master Montag
Soon after Clarisse’s disappearance, Guy Montag and his colleagues are tasked with burning the books in possession of an old woman.
Though they ransack the house, the old woman seems unbothered:
They crashed the front door and grabbed at a woman, though she was not running, she was not trying to escape. She was only standing, weaving from side to side, her eyes fixed upon a nothingness in the wall as if they had struck her a terrible blow upon the head. Her tongue was moving in her mouth, and her eyes seemed to be trying to remember something, and then they remembered and her tongue moved again ‘Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.’
The woman chooses to burn herself together with her books to the utter amazement of Guy Montag, who steals one book at the last moment and manages to hide it under his pillow at home.
Struggling to fall asleep, Montag asks Millie whether she has heard anything about Clarisse; she tells him that she has died four days ago, hit by a speeding car and that her family has subsequently moved away.
Guy awakens the next morning, ill and confused.
However, Millie seems more interested in the “parlor wall” entertainment in her living room (TV shows on flat-panel TVs) than in taking care of him.
Montag suggests taking a break from his job, but Millie is not a great fan of the idea, because that might mean losing the house and her parlor walls.
The History of Books and Book Burning
After some time, sensing that something’s seriously wrong with Guy, his fire chief Captain Beatty arrives at his house to see how he’s doing.
Obviously trained for occasions such as this, Captain Beatty gives Guy a famous speech covering the history of the world up to that point.
And for the first time we understand how books lost their value and what is actually going on in Guy Montag’s head:
With the advent of radio and television, Captain Beatty explains, “things began to have mass. . . and because they had mass, they became simpler . . . Once, books appealed to a few people, here, there, everywhere. They could afford to be different. The world was roomy. But then the world got full of eyes and elbows and mouths. Double, triple, quadruple population. Films and radios, magazines, books leveled down to a sort of paste pudding norm.”
Over the course of the following few decades, to accommodate short attention spans and due to many protests by minority groups over controversial and outdated content in the books, classics were “cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten-or twelve-line dictionary resume.”
At the same time, the advancements of technology made firemen redundant: all buildings were now built of fireproof materials, so firemen could now start, rather than put out fires.
In other words, the government tasked them with destroying books for society’s sake, especially “the slippery stuff” like literature, philosophy, sociology, you know, things which ask “why” instead of “how.”
Beatty leaves the house of the Montags with a threat, and the first part ends with Guy forcing Millie to read with him so that the two can see if books have values or not.
The Sieve and the Sand
Millie, the Lost Cause
The second part begins where the first one ends: with Montag and Millie discussing books stolen by Guy during his book-burning missions.
However, unlike Guy who is curious, Millie is completely uninterested in discussions such as these, questioning the very reason why should anyone ever care about books.
In a rant, Guy gives her quite a few: the world is empty and shallow, an old woman decided that it is not worth living without books, and, let us not forget, she has recently survived a suicide attempt.
Perhaps, Guy thinks, perhaps these old books have some answers which can soothe us, and even pacify the threat of war which is both constant and ignored by just about everybody.
The conversation between Guy and Millie is interrupted by a call: it’s Mrs. Ann Bowles, a friend of Millie, who wants to set up a date with her and their other friend, Mrs. Clara Phelps, to watch the “parlor walls” that night at the house of the Montags.
Guy realizes that there’s nothing he can do to arouse Millie’s interest, so he tries to remember someone who could help him with his new-discovered dilemmas and thoughts.
And, suddenly, he has a revelation: Mr. Faber, an English professor from the time before books were banned, whom Guy has met once previously in a park.
If he can’t help me, he thinks, nobody can.
So Guy takes an old and rare copy of the Bible with himself and heads to Faber’s house.
Of course, Faber is not that interested into talking with a fireman, but Guy has his way with him in the end: he forces Faber to start speaking after threatening to rip every single page of the Bible if he doesn’t.
However, during the discussion, Faber realizes that Montag is changed and he gives him an ear-piece communicator through which he promises to guide him on his journey.
“Confused Alarms of Struggle and Flight…”
Back at his house, Guy Montag finds Millie with her friends immersed in their “parlor wall” shows.
Frustrated and angry with their ignorance and indifference to the real world around them, Montag turns off the walls and tries starting a discussion with the three women on important and meaningful matters.
The discussion goes nowhere and the enraged and, thus, careless Montag (to the dismay of Mr. Faber who overhears everything through the earpiece) storms into his room and comes back with a book of poetry in his hands.
Guy starts reciting Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” to the women, and Mrs. Phelps starts to cry.
Millie tries to dismiss everything describing it as a firemen’s tradition, but her friends eventually leave in disgust, despite the fact that (at the behest of the voice of Faber), Guy burns the poetry book.
Aware of the fact that Captain Beatty knows more than he tells him – and suspicious that he has already seen a book at his place – Guy takes the stolen Bible and heads to the firehouse where Beatty is playing cards with other firemen.
As the book is thrown into the trash, Beatty reveals to Guy that he had dreamt him engaging in a quoting-war with him; apparently, the disillusioned antagonist Captain Beatty did read books in his time – and enjoyed them.
Suddenly, a fire alarm sounds.
Beatty hears through the dispatcher: the location of the fire is Montag’s house.
The Death of Beatty
After revealing to Guy that his wife and her friends had reported the events of the previous night to the government, Beatty orders Montag to destroy his own house.
Montag, seeing no way out, obliges, abolishing his house with a flamethrower provided by Beatty.
Millie goes mad: not because of what’s happening to her actual husband or her house, but because of the fact that she’s losing her “parlor wall” family, i.e., the characters in the TV shows she enjoys watching.
While all of this is happening, Beatty notices the ear-piece in Montag’s ears and reveals to him that he plans to hunt down Faber. Montag threatens his Captain with the flamethrower and, after Beatty smilingly asks Guy to hand his weapon over, burns his boss alive:
And then he was a shrieking blaze, a jumping, sprawling, gibbering mannikin, no longer human or known, all writhing flame on the lawn as Montag shot one continuous pulse of liquid fire on him. There was a hiss like a great mouthful of spittle banging a redhot stove, a bubbling and frothing as if salt had been poured over a monstrous black snail to cause a terrible liquefaction and a boiling over of yellow foam. Montag shut his eyes, shouted, shouted, and fought to get his hands at his ears to clamp and to cut away the sound. Beatty flopped over and over and over, and at last twisted in on himself like a charred wax doll and lay silent.
Afterward, Montag flees the scene; but not before he has an encounter with the Mechanical Hound, “an eight-legged glass and metal contraption that serves as a surveillance tool and programmable killing machine for the firemen, who use it to track down suspected book hoarders and readers.”
Fortunately, Montag manages to destroy the Mechanical Hound and somehow reaches the house of Faber.
The old man tells him to proceed to the countryside where he should find a bunch of exiled book-lovers. (Now there’s a phrase which sounds strange no matter how many times we read it out loud.)
Montag manages to escape another Mechanical Hound and a nationwide manhunt by swimming through a river; he comes ashore in the countryside, where he eventually happens upon the book-lovers.
There, a man named Granger shows Guy the ongoing manhunt on a portable TV and tells him that he will be caught in a few minutes.
And he is!
Well, sort of.
It’s actually another Montag, aka, an innocent man caught and killed by the government forces so as to cover up Guy’s escape and demonstrate to the rest of the population what happens to traitors.
Fahrenheit 451 Epilogue
Guy learns that the exiled book-lovers are all former intellectuals and that each of them has memorized at least a few books in an attempt to contribute to the rebuilding of society if such a day comes when this one is annihilated by the imminent nuclear war.
Coincidentally, the war happens that very night: bombers fly over the heads of the drifters and shatter the city into smithereens; it’s a devastating one-day nuclear war, and the people in the countryside are practically the only ones who survive.
While looking at a fire, Granger turns to his friends and tells them a story:
There was a silly damn 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 burnt himself up he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again. And it looks like we’re doing the same thing, over and over, but we’ve got one damn thing the Phoenix never had. We know the damn silly thing we just did. We know all the damn silly things we’ve done for a thousand years, and as long as we know that and always have it around where we can see it, some day we’ll stop making the goddam funeral pyres and jumping into the middle of them. We pick up a few more people that remember, every generation.
After having a meal, the exiles head to the city, in an attempt to rebuild society a new with their knowledge.
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“Fahrenheit 451 PDF Summary Quotes”Stuff your eyes with wonder, he said, live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Click To Tweet We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real? Click To Tweet If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you'll never learn. Click To Tweet We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindnesses there is at last one which makes the heart run over. Click To Tweet The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
Winner of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature in 1954 Fahrenheit 451 was hailed as a masterpiece as soon as it was published.
Seventy years later, it reads as if written for our day and age: unfortunately, many aspects of our societies seem to resemble the dystopian world of Bradbury’s novel.
In case you ever have the urge to memorize books, start with Bradbury’s.