An analysis of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 with a special focus on Guy Montag’s communal development and the theme of censorship. This essay will analyze Ray Bradbury’s novel “Fahrenheit 451” with the main focus on the key character and the theme of censorship. Censorship is the cause of all actions in the story-bound society and mainly influences Guy Montag’s personal development. As censorship constantly influences his lifestyle, he realizes what is wrong with the system and changes his attitude towards his surroundings and standard of living. Analyzing the effects of censorship and Montag’s development, we will closely follow the three stages of his progress; ignorance, doubt, rebellion.
To do this, we will follow from the beginning of his story, investigating his every action and state of affairs in the key events of his development. By the end of this essay, we will have been through the whole development, revealing the result of Guy Montag’s progress and how he has handled his conflicts with censorship. In addition, we will analyze the factors and reasons for what made him revolt against society and analyze the actions and roles of the characters that have influenced the results of his achievements. Having done this, we will extract the message Ray Bradbury is sending to the public and the background for writing Fahrenheit 451.
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“Picture it—a nineteenth-century man with his horses, dogs, carts, slow motion. Then, in the twentieth century, speed up your camera. Books cut shorter. Condensations. Digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending. … Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fit two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-dictionary rï¿½sumï¿½. Now at least you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbours.”1
The futuristic society in Fahrenheit 451 had developed, having modernized largely between the two centuries as explained by Captain Beatty, causing that in the late twentieth century, articles were cut shorter, great novels were cut down and summarised into radio shows. Writing books also became a bigger problem for the authors; due to the world having suffered two world wars and two atomic wars, it became harder not to offend minorities and other interest groups. Due to this development, the population generally stopped reading books. The issue of ignorance versus knowledge quickly developed into a growing concern.
The government was to stop this growing development by hiring fire department personnel to burn all the books they came across, promoting sameness; “none were to be more educated than their neighbour”2. Our main character is called Guy Montag, a proud fireman, constantly pulling with him the smell of kerosene3 and ashes. He and his wife, Mildred Montag, are, to begin with, perfect examples of the government’s vision of how modern individuals are to behave, being slaves to modern media, such as parlours4 and sea shells5, and not having the desire of becoming more knowledgeable or wiser. Instead, they are to live their lives in constant pursuit of true happiness, not knowing that they live a life of ignorance.
This has been the common fashion of living for several generations. Montag, unknowing of the past, thinks that the firemen have always had the role of burning down houses and not the opposite. He has no reason to question how the system functions, not until the evening he meets a young girl called Clarisse McClellan. Clarisse McClellan is the total opposite of the modern individual. Montag is quickly fascinated by her outgoing personality and how she questions every little detail of life and what’s happening in their society.
Clarisse asks Montag if he is pleased. This is the first turning point of Montag’s life. Was he happy? He lies to himself by saying that he is delighted with his life, wife, and profession6. But as soon as he enters his home, he is struck with a sudden feeling of guilt; he has something hidden in the house that should not be there, something illegal, truly incorrect and very appalling, not really knowing what it is. However, his focus is removed from his illegal affairs when he finds his wife having swallowed all her sleeping pills, and he quickly alerts the alarm central. Two young men pump out her stomach and replace her blood using an “Electric-eyed snake,” but to Montag’s disgust, they treat his wife’s near-death with enormous inhumanity as if human lives do not count for more than a careless object.
That night he lies in bed thinking, “Are people just disposable tissues? Blow your nose on a person, wad them, flush them away, reach for another, blow, wad, flush.”7 From this night on, he knows he is not happy; his whole life, he has been false to himself, supporting the life of sameness and living after the philosophy of hedonism8. But none of this has worked for him; he has been married to an empty shell of a human being who prefers to live her life in the parlours and isolate herself with her seashells. He also realizes that his job has been to promote this lifestyle, censoring knowledge and individual thought.
Montag’s daily routine starts changing; he starts thinking about what’s happening around him, especially as he greets the fire station’s mechanical-hound, a machine dog programmed to kill what it is programmed to hunt, growls at him, suddenly reminding him of what he has hidden behind the ventilator grill at home. Does anybody from the fire station know that he is hiding books at his home? But at this time, it seems like he does not truly know why he feels guilty, as if he is no longer master over his actions as if he has a schizophrenic half that controls his body. Is it a different Montag that is truly fascinated by expanding his thoughts, learning new ideas, gaining knowledge and stealing books from the houses that the fireman Montag burns to the ground?9 He avoids these thoughts, hiding them not only from his colleagues but also from himself.
Not like any other citizen in the nation, Clarisse shows real interest in people. She is truly fascinated by Montag, him being the only one she can ask deep and personal questions, as in why Guy doesn’t have any children?10 This question strikes him hard as he realizes how empty and meaningless his home, marriage and life are. At that moment of enlightenment, an urge for reading, expanding his horizon, pulls at him even harder11. Even at this phase in his development, realizing how shallow the society is and that he has no meaning in life; he still covers the truth with denial by exploring his guilt and self-consciousness by thinking to himself; “Guilt? What guilt was that?”12
One day the fire department is alarmed about a house concealing illegal books, but as they arrive, the owner of the house, an older woman, is still in there. Normally book criminals are arrested and taken away by the police so that the fire department only has to clean out an “empty house.” While speculating why the older woman stays with her books instead of fleeing from the chaos, a book falls into Montag’s hands. While staring at the book in total terror, his body takes control of his actions; “Montag had done nothing. His hand had done it all; his hand, with a brain of its own, with a conscience and a curiosity in each trembling finger, had turned thief. Now, it plunged the book back under his arm, pressed it tight to sweating armpit, rushed out empty, with a magician’s flourish! Look here! Innocent! Look!”13
At this moment, he realizes what he is doing behind his own back; his curiosity is winning over his loyalty towards ignorance. He cannot believe his own eyes, looking at what his body is doing, risking his job, home and life, now realizing what is behind the ventilator grill. But still, he keeps the book in his pocket and continues raiding the house. As they have filled up the house with kerosene, the firemen storm out the house, but on his way out, Montag is met by the owner of the house, who has stayed by her books. He desperately tries to drag her out with him, but she refuses to follow him. Instead, she ignites the kerosene herself, burning herself with the books.
Having stolen a book, Montag smuggles it under his pillow instead of hiding it behind the vent. He is truly fascinated by the mystery of literature; he wonders what makes him want to have them with him, especially what makes books so great that the older woman decided to kill herself for them. The next morning Guy feels ill from thinking that he actually killed a woman for having books in her home.14 He also feels terrified of showing up to work after having stolen the book, so he calls in sick for work. Inspired by Clarisse, Guy Montag starts thinking about his life, how he cannot recall his life in any detail at all. He does not remember when he met Mildred for the first time, got married, and why they do not have any children together. When he asks her, she is equally blank about their lives together.
Realizing that his life has been a robot presence, we see the second turning point of Montag’s development, changing from the condition of uncertainty to the condition of minor rebellious thoughts and acts15. He also finds out that his young friend Clarisse has disappeared in his sickbed, possibly run over by a car. He has lost the only person he could talk to about anything else than what was on the parlour. Having called in sick for work, Captain Beatty visits Guy on his sickbed. Captain Beatty knows what firefighters go through when they experience death the way Montag did, knowing that he is wondering why books have been censored and why firefighters are burning them. Hence, Beatty carefully explains how it all started in the first place.
He describes how minorities were offended by what was written in literature, how the authors generalized all the small groups. “Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. So they did. … Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said.”16 This meant the people only wanted their comic books and erotic magazines, so it was not the government that excluded books, but the people. “There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no!”17 The firemen were just there to please the people’s wish; there were no orders from the state.
This passage can very easily confuse the reader in which opinion Captain Beatty has towards the development of the book censorship. It seems like he was an intellectual person, as he speaks foul about comic magazines and the critics who ruined the reputation of books. But he also explains that the word “intellectual” became the swear word it deserved to be. Books were considered a loaded gun in the house next door; people were afraid of intellectual men and women, so the firemen were given the role of burning the books; Getting rid of the dangerous gun.18 He might have known that he too was a “dangerous gun” in the people’s eyes, so he joined the revolution.
Not only knowing what Montag feels, Beatty knows about his illegal affairs, so he tells Montag that there is a policy allowing firefighters with stolen books to have 24 hours to deliver them for destruction. Montag accepts this possibility to read the books, much to Mildred’s disgust. Montag decides to come clean when Beatty leaves and shows Mildred his stash of books behind the vent. This is coming clean to the public and showing himself what he actually has been doing all this time.
Overwhelmed by the task of reading, he remembers having met an English professor a while back by the name Faber. Montag asks Faber the true meaning of books and is told that the value of books lies in the detailed awareness of life that they contain. He is also made aware that you need the freedom to act upon the ideas from the books. Montag is truly inspired by Faber and is truly committed to get rid of the censorship of books. Faber and Montag’s plan is to reproduce books so that Montag can plant them in the other firemen’s houses, harming the profession’s reputation. Montag is also given a two-way earpiece so he and the professor can communicate at all times.19
The feeling of rebellion gets to his head as he gets home, only to be greeted by his wife and her two friends talking uncaringly about the war that is to be declared at any time. Montag is aggravated by the little feeling in their conversation and decides to read “Dover Beach” for them by Matthew Arnolds, containing the message; “Challenges to the validity of long-standing theological and moral precepts have shaken the faith of people in God and religion”20. Faber tries desperately to stop Montag’s act of revolt towards the women through the earpiece but fails. Finally, the two women leave in protest to file a complaint against Montag.
Montag meets the “hand-back” deadline set by Beatty but only hands in one of the books. Beatty explains to Montag what process he has been through the days he has had the books by quoting a passage in a book. “A little learning is a dangerous thing. Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring; their shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.”21 Beatty’s words mean nothing to Montag as he does not understand them. Still, Beatty then explains the sentence to Montag, saying that he was a “drunkard,” only satisfied when inspired by rebellious thoughts; he knows that from former experience in his own life. Montag thinks he is saved by the bell as the alarm rings as soon as Beatty finishes his sentence.
When the crew arrives at the reported house, Montag immediately recognizes it as his own home, and he quickly spots Mildred stepping into a taxi. He has been betrayed by his own wife. Beatty reveals to Montag that he knew all along what Montag had been doing, but he was prepared to give him a chance to put it all behind him, a chance he also had been given in the past. Unfortunately, the only way to do this is to burn down the house and go to prison for some time.22 Acting in a sudden feeling of pure hatred towards Beatty and fear of losing literature, he burns the captain instead of the house and runs away.
Montag escapes to Faber, where he is recommended to flee out of town using the river to lose the mechanical dog. He is to meet a group of intellectual book lovers known as “The Book People.” Montag manages to do so, escaping mechanical hounds and air-born news teams trying to keep up with his getaway. Montag is warmly welcomed into the group that specializes in memorizing great literature. Their goal is to help the people re-establish their desire to read books and live their lives to the fullest. Their only opportunity for this is if everything is destroyed in the war coming up. All members have a piece of literature they have to memorize, and Montag has to remember “The Book of Ecclesiastes,” a part of the Hebrew bible.
As he is given his task, jets appear in the sky, dropping bombs into the town Montag had escaped from a few days earlier. This is The Book People’s opportunity to re-enter civilization; now they can do what they have risked their lives for. The events of Fahrenheit 451 have led us through Guy Montag’s life and development. Although he is the main character of the novel, he is by no means an ideal hero. The reader can identify and accept his mission but not entirely approve of his awkward and somewhat foolish decisions on the way. His faith in his profession and lifestyle already declines in the opening chapter due to having been faced with the complexity and mystery of books for many years. The reader is introduced to Montag as a confused and misguided character.
This is confirmed later to the reader when observing his rebellion against society, as he either performs efficiently by being lucid or otherwise inclined to be clumsy, e.g. when putting the book under his pillow. His humanity range is also extensive, from the compassionate conversations with Clarisse to the monstrous and irresponsible murder of Captain Beatty. This clearly shows that he is bewildered and unwise throughout the story, as if he does not fully support his own plan of overthrowing the firemen and state censorship. At times Montag’s mind is disorientated by the actions of his body, e.g. when his hands steal books. He is also incapable of making decisions independently, always dependent on Beatty, Mildred or Faber’s ideas and plans, which makes him easily manipulated.
It definitely shows the reader that he does not have control over his own mind and actions. Captain Beatty takes full advantage of these many weaknesses and confuses and manipulates Montag with difficult quotes from advanced books. Beatty is very loyal to his profession and lifestyle of immediate pleasure. Still, he is suspiciously wise on books, proving that he has an intellectual background. This tends to confuse the reader, thinking that he might not be the actual villain and possibly be on the same side as Montag and Faber.
Faber has the same way of confusing the reader’s trust in him. He supports books, but he tends to order Montag around, not letting him think for himself, possibly using him as a soldier for his own rebel uprising, making the reader suspicious of which hidden plans Faber might have. The two other major characters, Mildred and Clarisse, are total opposites of Beatty and Mildred. Mildred is pictured to the readers as an empty shell, cold and very unreadable. Although she is the main character’s wife, the reader’s relationship with her is fragile and unknowing, as she is very distant from everything around her. Still, she is struggling with an internal fight because of her suicide attempt. She is opposite to the two men because she tries to stay out of Montag’s actions and thoughts, not wanting to be a part of his life.
Clarisse shares the same point of not manipulating Montag but is extremely interested in Montag’s feelings and thoughts. Clarisse is the total opposite of everybody else, not caring about anything, only focusing on enjoying every natural detail happening around her. Clarisse’s death strikes Montag hard, having been greatly inspired by her. These major characters have all been sitting on Montag’s shoulder like small angels and demons, each pulling at him from each their sides, each wanting Montag to do what they want him to do. The author Ray Bradbury intelligently includes himself in the novel by using his characters as his voice. Captain Beatty is often used to describe society’s background. Clarisse shows how he also notices and questions small natural mysteries in his daily life, but most importantly, he reflects himself in the main character.
Guy Montag is Bradbury’s image of how he too would be the imperfect hero, being misguided and clumsy, but would fight frantically to preserve literature.23 The reason he has mirrored himself with the rebel in this story is that his message is sent out in the novel. Readers have always presumed that the book’s main theme was state censorship, but Bradbury burst the bubble on that interpretation in a LA News interview in 2007. He had observed shortly after WWII that the people’s growing interest in radio and television was spreading a long shadow over literature and the interest in books, “The culprit in Fahrenheit 451 is not the state – it is the people.”24. He was predicting that mass media was going to be the end of literature.
He was not just pessimistic and old fashioned when he foresaw that people would only be semi-informed by their “quick-reading” and “quick-radio broadcasts,” giving the LA News readers the example; “Television gives you the dates of Napoleon, but not who he was” he calls TV’s summarizing “factoids,” being misinforming and imprecise. His true message to the readers is to watch out for the temptation of mass media; reading books is the only reliable form of information and knowledge25. Bradbury’s message is especially apparent in the two texts Montag reads, “Dover Beach” and “The Book of Ecclesiastes.” “Dover Beach” has the message, “Challenges to the validity of long-standing theological and moral precepts have shaken the faith of people in God and religion,” proving that human development and modernization tend to lead the populace away from tradition and belief.
These two texts can be compared in this way: Dover Beach = theology><religion and Fahrenheit 451 = Literature>< mass media. “The Book of Ecclesiastes” proclaims that “all acts of man to be inherently meaningless/empty as the lives of both wise and foolish men end in death.” Yet, the main speaker, “the son of David,” claims wisdom as a means for a well-lived earthly life. This enforces Bradbury’s message, proving that temporary happiness is insignificant, only knowledge is important.26 “Why live your life in the shade of unawareness when generations of intellectuals share their precious awareness with you?”27 – Ray Bradbury.
- Cumming Study guides: www.cummingsstudyguides.net
- The Free Encyclopaedia: www.wikipedia.org
- LA News Article: www.laweekly.com
- Bradbury, Ray, Fahrenheit 451, 22nd edition. London, Harper Voyager, 2008.
- The quotation by Captain Beatty, talking to Guy Montag, page 72.
- The sentence quoted by Cpt. Beatty, page 75
- Kerosene: Normally referred to as paraffin, used for jet engines, rockets and heating oil.
- Parlours: Television sets on all four walls of a room, making the viewer feel like a part of the show.
- Sea-shells: Headsets to the ears letting you listen to meditating radio shows.
- Montag thinking about Clarisse’s question when entering his home. Page 17
- Guy Montag’s thought before going to sleep, Page 27
- A philosophy encouraging forgetting about personal boundaries and instead of seeking ultimate pleasure in life.
- Montag’s thoughts after talking to Captain Beatty. Page 48
- Clarisse and Montag walking towards their homes. Page 40
- Development lasted 7 days, living in fear from the mechanical dog and his colleagues finding out of his true doubt in the system. Page 44-45
- Guy Montag thinking while playing cards in the fire department, feeling a sudden guilt feeling.
- Guy Montag with a book in a house raid, page 51.
- Montag sleepless in his bed, thinking about the older woman. Page 64.
- Montag saying to Mildred that books are harmless; really, the firemen are the ones who should be burnt. Page 87
- Part of Cpt. Beatty’s explanation to Montag, page 75-76k
- Part of Cpt. Beatty’s explanation to Montag, page 75-76
- Cpt. Beatty explaining the causes of censorship. Page 78
- The meeting between Faber and Montag pages 104-119
- Information from Cumming Study Guides
- Beatty quoting from a book, the book is not specified. Page 137.
- A fire crew in front of Montag’s home. Page 148
- Information from Ray Bradbury in the afterword of the book.
- Quotation from Bradbury in LA News interview.
- Extract from interview with LA news.
- Article on Ecclesiastes on the free encyclopedia.
- One Bradbury’s mottos quoted in the interview with LA News.