Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury Matthew Hart Nov. 12, 12 Fahrenheit 451 doesn’t provide a single, clear explanation of why books are banned in the future. Instead, it suggests that many different factors could combine to create this result. These factors can be broken into two groups: factors that lead to a general lack of interest in reading and factors that make people actively hostile toward books. The novel doesn’t clearly distinguish these two developments. Apparently, they simply support one another.
The first group of factors includes the popularity of competing forms of entertainment such as television and radio. More broadly, Bradbury thinks that the presence of fast cars, loud music, and advertisements creates a lifestyle with too much stimulation in which no one has the time to concentrate. Also, the huge mass of published material is too overwhelming to think about, leading to a society that reads condensed books rather than the real thing. Guy Montag is a fireman in charge of burning books in a grim, futuristic United States.
The book opens with a brief description of the pleasure he experiences while on the job one evening. He wears a helmet emblazoned with the numeral 451, the temperature at which paper burn, a black uniform with a salamander on the arm, and a phoenix disc on his chest. On his way home from the fire station, he feels a sense of nervous anticipation. After suspecting a lingering nearby presence, he meets his new neighbor, an inquisitive and unusual seventeen-year-old named Clarisse McClellan. She immediately recognizes him as a fireman and seems fascinated by him and his uniform.
She explains that she is crazy and proceeds to suggest that the original duty of firemen was to extinguish fires rather than to light them. She asks him about his job and tells him that she comes from a strange family that does such peculiar things as talk to each other and walk places. Clarisse’s strangeness makes Guy nervous, and he laughs repeatedly and involuntarily. She reminds him in different ways of candlelight, a clock, and a mirror. He cannot help feeling somehow attracted to her. She fascinates him with her outrageous questions, unorthodox lifestyle, perceptive observations, and incredible power of identification.
She asks him if he is happy and then disappears into her house. Pondering the absurd question, he enters his house and thinks about this stranger and her comprehension of his innermost trembling thought. Montag and Mildred spend the afternoon reading. The Mechanical Hound comes and sniffs at the door. Montag speculates about what it was that made Clarisse so unique. Mildred refuses to talk about someone who is dead and complains that she prefers the people and the pretty colors on her TV walls to books.
Montag feels that books must somehow be able to help him out of his ignorance, but he does not understand what he is reading and decides that he must find a teacher. He thinks back to an afternoon a year before when he met an old English professor named Faber in the park. It was apparent that Faber had been reading a book of poetry before Montag arrived. The professor had tried to hide the book and run away, but after Montag reassured him that he was safe, they talked, and Faber gave him his address and phone number. Now Montag calls the professor.
He asks him how many copies of the Bible, Shakespeare, or Plato are left in the country. Faber, who thinks Montag is trying to trap him, says none are left and hangs up the phone. Montag goes back to his pile of books and realizes that he took from the old woman what may be the last copy of the Bible in existence. He considers turning in a substitute to Beatty (who knows he has at least one book), but he realizes that if Beatty knows which book he took, the chief will guess that he has a whole library if he gives him a different book. He decides to have a duplicate made before that night.
Mildred tells him that some of her friends are coming over to watch TV with her. Montag, still trying to connect with her, asks her rhetorically if the “family” on TV loves her. She dismisses his question. He takes the subway to Faber’s, and on the way tries to memorize verses from the Bible. A jingle for Denham’s Dentifrice toothpaste distracts him, and finally he gets up in front of all the passengers and screams at the radio to shut up, waving his book around. The astonished passengers start to call a guard, but Montag gets off at the next stop.
Montag goes to Faber and shows him the book, which alleviates Faber’s fear of him, and he asks the old man to teach him to understand what he reads. Faber says that Montag does not know the real reason for his unhappiness and is only guessing that it has something to do with books, since they are the only things he knows for sure are gone. Faber insists that it’s not the books themselves that Montag is looking for, but the meaning they contain. The same meaning could be included in existing media like television and radio, but people no longer demand it.
Faber compares their superficial society to flowers trying to live on flowers instead of on good, substantive dirt; people are unwilling to accept the basic realities and unpleasant aspects of life. Faber says that people need quality information, the leisure to digest it, and the freedom to act on what they learn. He defines quality information as a textured and detailed knowledge of life, knowledge of the “pores” on the face of humanity. Faber agrees with Mildred that television seems more “real” than books, but he dislikes it because it is too invasive and controlling.
Books at least allow the reader to put them down, giving one time to think and reason about the information they contain. Montag suggests planting books in the homes of firemen to discredit the profession and see the firehouses burn. Faber doesn’t think that this action would get to the heart of the problem, however, lamenting that the firemen aren’t really necessary to suppress books because the public stopped reading them of its own accord even before they were burned. Faber says they just need to be patient, since the coming war will eventually mean the death of the TV families.
Montag concludes that they could use that as a chance to bring books back. Montag bullies Faber out of his cowardice by tearing pages out of the precious Bible one by one, and Faber finally agrees to help, revealing that he knows someone with a printing press who used to print his college newspaper. Montag asks for help with Beatty that night, and Faber gives him a two-way radio he has created that will fit in Montag’s ear; that way the professor can hear what Beatty has to say and also prompt Montag. Montag decides to risk giving Beatty a substitute book, and Faber agrees to see his printer friend.
Montag gazes at Clarisse’s empty house, and Beatty, guessing that he has fallen under her influence, berates him for it. Mildred rushes out of the house with a suitcase and is driven away in a taxi, and Montag realizes she must have called in the alarm. Beatty orders Montag to burn the house by himself with his flamethrower and warns that the Hound is on the watch for him if he tries to escape. Montag burns everything, and when he is finished, Beatty places him under arrest. Beatty sees that Montag is listening to something and strikes him on the head.
The radio falls out of Montag’s ear, and Beatty picks it up, saying that he will have it traced to find the person on the other end. After Beatty eggs him on with more literary quotations, his last a quote from Julius Caesar, Montag turns his flamethrower on Beatty and burns him to a crisp. The other firemen do not move, and he knocks them out. The Mechanical Hound appears and injects Montag’s leg with anesthetic before he manages to destroy it with his flamethrower. Montag stumbles away on his numb leg. He goes to where he hid the books in his backyard and finds four that Mildred missed.
He hears sirens approaching and tries to continue down the alley, but he falls and begins to sob. He forces himself to rise and runs until the numbness leaves his leg. Montag puts a regular Seashell radio in his ear and hears a police alert warning people to be on the lookout for him, that he is alone and on foot. He finds a gas station and washes the soot off his face so he will look less suspicious. He hears on the radio that war has been declared. He starts to cross a wide street and is nearly hit by a car speeding toward him.
At first, Montag thinks it is the police coming to get him, but he later realizes the car’s passengers are children who would have killed him for no reason at all, and he wonders angrily whether they were the motorists who killed Clarisse. He creeps into one of his coworkers’ houses and hides the books, then calls in an alarm from a phone booth. He goes to Faber’s house, tells him what has happened, and gives the professor some money. Faber instructs him to follow the old railroad tracks out of town to look for camps of homeless intellectuals and tells Montag to meet him in St.
Louis sometime in the future, where he is going to meet a retired printer. Faber turns on the TV news, and they hear that a new Mechanical Hound, followed by a helicopter camera crew, has been sent out after Montag. Montag takes a suitcase full of Faber’s old clothes, tells the professor how to purge his house of Montag’s scent so the Hound will not be led there, and runs off into the night. Faber plans to take a bus out of the city to visit his printer friend as soon as possible. Captain Beatty comes by to check on Montag, saying that he guessed Montag would be calling in sick that day.
He tells Montag that every fireman runs into the “problem” he has been experiencing sooner or later, and he relates to him the history of their profession. Beatty’s monologue borders on the hysterical, and his tendency to jump from one thing to another without explaining the connection makes his history very hard to follow. Part of the story is that photography, film, and television made it possible to present information in a quickly digestible, visual form, which made the slower, more reflective practice of reading books less popular.
Another strand of his argument is that the spread of literacy, and the gigantic increase in the amount of published materials, created pressure for books to be more like one another and easier to read. Montag withdraws money from his account to give to Faber and listens to reports over the radio that the country is mobilizing for war. Faber reads to him from the Book of Job over the two-way radio in his ear. He goes home, and two of Mildred’s friends, Mrs. Phelps and Mrs. Bowles, arrive and promptly disappear into the TV parlor. Montag turns off the TV walls and tries to engage the three women in conversation.
They reluctantly oblige him, but he becomes angry when they describe how they voted in the last presidential election, based solely on the physical appearance and other superficial qualities of the candidates. After witnessing the anonymous scapegoat’s death on the television, Granger turns to Montag and ironically remarks, “Welcome back to life. ” He introduces Montag to the other men, who are all former professors and intellectuals. He tells Montag that they have perfected a method of recalling word-for-word anything that they have read once. Each one of them has a different classic books stored in his memory.
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