The dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 written by the famous fiction writer Ray Bradbury in 1953 tells the story of a 30-year-old fireman, Guy Montag. In the beginning, he is a loyal servant of a consumerist society that was encumbered by heavy censorship and a pending war. After a sequence of events, he seeks ways to break free of it. Bradbury shows how horrible a society can become when it denies the necessities of imagination and true communication and sticks, instead, to material goods alone (Longman 365).
Montag being a fireman in Bradbury’s novel, however, does not mean extinguishing burning materials, but rather setting things on fire. Mostly, this relates to books, which are prohibited in Montag’s America. As described by Bradbury, firemen serve as a futuristic analogue of the medieval inquisition, which burns books and sometimes their owners as well. Montag never questions the norms adopted by the society in which he lives—he simply does his job.
One evening, as he returns home from work, he suddenly sees a strange girl following him. When they start talking, the fireman notices that this girl, Clarisse, is different from her peers. She asks him questions that make him anxious, and does not behave the way people in his world usually do. Unlike them, she is a romantic, and lonely. As they are saying goodbye, Clarisse asks Montag if he is happy, but he cannot give an unequivocal answer. Montag goes home, opens the door, and in the darkness of his apartment, attempts to deal with a surge of emotions. Suddenly, he comes to the conclusion that his entire life up to this moment was a kind of a mechanical existence.
When Montag goes into his bedroom, he sees his wife Mildred lying unconscious in bed with her eyes wide open. She had swallowed too many sleeping pills, though the story is not clear whether it was on purpose or an accident. During recent years, Montag and Mildred have not been too close, each of them were simply living their own lives. Mildred is completely immersed in sitcoms, which are broadcasted through special “parlor walls” that are three TV-screens that substitute for normal walls. Montag simply goes to work, returns home, and then falls asleep. Despite their marriage having become fiction a long time ago, Montag is still worried about his wife and calls for an ambulance. Bradbury emphasizes that in this world, incidents like this overdose have become so regular that a special machine for rapid blood transfusions has been invented. Handymen, not doctors, equipped with these machines come quickly do their job, and leave. Mildred is saved, but the next morning, when Montag asks her why she took so many pills, she denies that she could perform an act deemed as suicidal. She suggests that perhaps she had had too much to drink at a party last night.
Further communication with Clarisse gradually changes Montag’s outlook. He starts noticing aspects of life he never noticed before, and begins to do simple but spontaneous actions like tasting the rain and laughing. Clarisse tells him about herself and about her visits to a psychiatrist. Bradbury manages to show in a couple of brief words how acts that are perceived as normal by the reader are misperceived as abnormal in Montag’s world of absolute consumerism and shallow entertainment. “The psychiatrist wants to know why I go out and hike around in the forests and watch the birds and collect butterflies,” Clarisse says to Montag (Bradbury 34). When she disappears, her whereabouts are unknown to him for a period of time.
Events start to change even faster when Montag’s fire brigade goes on a call to burn a house where lots of books are being stored. During the search, Montag unexpectedly finds a book and hides it. He hears a noise and goes to see what it is about. An old lady, living in this house, refuses to abandon it. When the firemen threaten to burn down the place, Montag is the only one who asks her to leave. He even tries to take her from the residence, but she only thanks him, stands in a middle of a kitchen doused with kerosene, and strikes a match.
At home, Montag is shocked to find out from Mildred that Clarisse is dead: she has been run down by a speeding car a couple of days ago. After the accident, Clarisse’s family moved. The next day, Montag feels sick. He cannot even make himself get up and go to work, so his fire chief, captain Beatty, comes to visit him. Beatty tells him the story of how firemen started burning materials instead of extinguishing them. He emphasizes the harm books may inflict. According to Beatty, books make people think, and people who think always differ from those who do not. He believes minorities should be merged into one and personal differences must be smoothed. “We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man is the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man’s mind. Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?” Beatty asks (Bradbury 212).
Through Beatty’s words, the reader comes to understand the significant role firemen in this society assume. “They were given the new job, as custodians of our peace of mind, the focus of our understandable and rightful dread of being inferior; official censors, judges, and executors. That’s you, Montag, and that’s me” (Bradbury 213). During this speech, while fixing Montag’s pillow, Mildred finds a book hidden underneath it. She shows it to Beatty, but he says that it is a common happening among firemen to become interested in the materials they usually burn. He gives Montag 24 hours to burn the book or it will be done by the fire department.
Montag understands what Beatty tried to tell him, but it is too late for him to quit. He thinks books might have the answers that could save this ignorant, apathetic society he lives in—so he starts to look for people who share his new outlook. He suddenly remembers and contacts Faber: an old, former English professor. The fireman gives the professor the book, the New Testament, perhaps the last correct version of it on the entire continent. It contains the actual and undisturbed word of God, not the one where Jesus advertises goods and products. Faber explains to Montag the importance of literature, its role in shaping one’s outlook, and its meaning for humanity. They establish a constant link with the help of a small transmitter, which Montag plugs into his ear. Now he can hear the professor and uses his guidance, and Faber can receive information about what is going on outside his house.
A bit confused by all this new knowledge, Montag returns home where Mildred is hosting guests. Despite Faber’s warnings, Montag makes an attempt to awaken the consciousness of his wife and her friends by reading them some poetry. They understand nothing. The next day, when Montag comes to the firehouse, captain Beatty informs him about an urgent call. Though Montag does not know it, Mildred has informed the firemen that her husband is keeping books at home. The fire brigade drives through the whole city, then finally stops near Montag’s house. Beatty orders Montag to burn the place down with his own hands.
After Montag disobeys, Beatty taunts him. He then discovers the transmitter that Faber gave to Montag. He plans to deal with the professor as well, but Montag suddenly points his flamethrower towards Beatty and pushes the trigger, burning him alive. Montag then fights the firehouse’s mechanical dog: a robot designed to hunt down and kill runaways. Montag burns it with his flamethrower, but before it malfunctions, the hound manages to bite him. In despair, Montag runs to Faber’s place, where they see on TV that Montag has become the target of a manhunt. Another mechanical hound is after him. Bradbury describes how this dramatic, tragic hounding of a man is transformed into another entertainment for this hedonistic, blasé society. Helicopters, with TV-operators on board, fly over the city, providing the middlebrows sitting in front of their monitors a nerve-tickling spectacle.
Faber instructs Montag to run away from the city and seek out a group of enthusiasts, who had quit living in the consumerist society and memorized books, or parts of books, in order to keep them from vanishing. Montag manages to knock the hound of his scent by crossing a river and escapes. Once more Bradbury manages to convey a lot of emotions with only a few words. In order to satisfy the TV-audience, a random victim is chosen instead of Montag. As hundreds of thousands of people all over the country watch, a robot immerses a poisonous needle into the body of an innocent victim.
When Montag finally gets out of the city, jet bombers fly over it and drop atomic bombs, totally destroying the place where Montag has spent his whole life. He is lucky enough to find the people Faber was talking about—a group of exiles led by a man named Granger. Montag finds out every person in the group, in addition to a real name, has the name of a book they have memorized. After they talk and eat, Granger’s group, together with Montag, sets forth toward the ruins of the city to help rebuild a new society.
Longman, Barbara. Dystopian at Its Best. New York: Penguin, 2008. Print.
Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Saddle Brush Press, 2011. Print.
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