'Fahrenheit 451' Overview

Books burning in fire
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Fahrenheit 451 is a novel by Ray Bradbury. Published in 1953, the book takes place in a dystopian future world where the job of a firefighter is to burn books, rather than put out fires. The main character, Guy Montag, is one such fireman, who slowly begins to perceive the world around him as perverse and superficial even as it slides inexorably towards a nuclear war. A commentary on the power of literacy and critical thought, Fahrenheit 451 remains a potent reminder of how quickly a society can fall apart.

Fast Facts: Fahrenheit 451

  • Author: Ray Bradbury
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • Year Published: 1953
  • Genre: Science Fiction
  • Type of Work: Novel
  • Original Language: English
  • Themes: Censorship, technology, conformity
  • Characters: Guy Montag, Mildred Montag, Clarisse McClellan, Captain Beatty, Professor Faber, Granger
  • Notable Adaptations: 1966 film by François Truffaut; 2018 HBO adaptation by Ramin Bahrani
  • Fun Fact: Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 on rented typewriters at his local library, spending $9.80 to write the book.

Plot Summary

The protagonist, Guy Montag, is a fireman whose job is to burn hidden caches of books, which are forbidden in this unspecified future society. At first, he goes about his job fairly mindlessly, but a conversation with a non-conforming teenager spurs him to question society. He develops a restless dissatisfaction that cannot be quashed.

Montag steals a Bible and smuggles it into his home. When he reveals the book (and the others he's stolen) to his wife Mildred, she panics at the thought of losing their income and thus the huge wall-sized televisions she watches constantly. Montag’s boss, Captain Beatty, gives him 24 hours to burn the book or face the consequences.

Montag eventually buries his book collection with help from Faber, a former professor. Soon, however, a call comes in for the Firemen to burn a new book cache—and the address is Montag’s house. Beatty insists that Montag do the burning; in response, Montag kills him and flees into the countryside. There, he meets a group of drifters who tell him of their mission to memorize books in order to eventually rebuild society. At the end of the book, there is a nuclear attack on the city, and Montag and the drifters head out to begin rebuilding.

Major Characters

Guy Montag. The protagonist of the story, Guy is a fireman who has been illegally hoarding and reading books. His blind faith in society erodes and opens his eyes to the decline of civilization. His efforts to resist conformity make him a criminal.

Mildred Montag. Guy’s wife. Mildred has retreated entirely into a fantasy world stoked television. Mildred is unable to comprehend Guy’s dissatisfaction and behaves in a childish, superficial manner throughout the story. Her behavior represents society at large.

Clarisse McClellan. A teenage girl who lives in Guy Montag’s neighborhood. She is curious and non-comformist, representing the nature of youth before the corrupting effects of society and materialism. She is the catalyst for Montag’s mental awakening.

Captain Beatty. Montag’s boss. Beatty is a former intellectual whose disappointment in books’ inability to truly solve problems has turned him into an anti-intellectual. Beatty tells Montag that books must be burned because they make people unhappy without offering real solutions.

Professor Faber. Once a professor of English, Faber is a meek, timid man who deplores what society has become but lacks the bravery to do anything about it. Faber embodies Bradbury’s belief that knowledge without the willingness to use it is useless.

Granger. The leader of a group of drifters who have escaped society. Granger and the drifters preserve knowledge and wisdom by memorizing books. He explains to Montag that history is cyclical, and that a new age of wisdom will follow the current age of ignorance.

Major Themes

Freedom of Thought vs. Censorship. The novel is set in a society where the state forbids certain kinds of thought. Books contain the collected wisdom of humanity; denied access to them, people lack the mental skills to resist their government.

The Dark Side of Technology. Passive pastimes like watching TV are portrayed as harmful purveyors of passive consumption. Technology in the book is consistently used to punish, oppress, and otherwise harm the characters.

Obedience vs. Rebellion. Humanity assists in its own oppression. As Captain Beatty explains, banning books didn’t require effort—people chose to ban books, because the knowledge in them made them think, which made them unhappy.

Literary Style

Bradbury uses rich language filled with metaphors, similes, and figurative speech throughout the book. Even Montag, who has no formal education, thinks in terms of animal images and poetic, deeply beautiful symbols. Captain Beatty and Professor Faber frequently quote poets and great writers. Bradbury also uses animal imagery throughout to associate technology with dangerous predators.

About the Author

Born in 1920, Ray Bradbury was one of the most important writers of the 20th century, particularly in the science fiction genre. Bradbury framed technology and supernatural forces as dangerous and foreboding, which reflected the anxious, uneasy atmosphere of the newly atomic post-World War II world. Another piece by Bradbury, the short story "There Will Come Soft Rains," is also reflective of this world.

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Your Citation
Somers, Jeffrey. "'Fahrenheit 451' Overview." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/fahrenheit-451-overview-4177296. Somers, Jeffrey. (2020, August 28). 'Fahrenheit 451' Overview. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/fahrenheit-451-overview-4177296 Somers, Jeffrey. "'Fahrenheit 451' Overview." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/fahrenheit-451-overview-4177296 (accessed May 30, 2023).