by Ray Bradbury, Simon & Schuster, New York, N.Y., 1967
Type of work Science fiction
Setting A city in the future
Guy Montag, a book-burning “fireman”
Mildred, his wife
Captain Beatty, Montag’s supervisor
Faber, an old man – an advocate of books
Returning home from work early one morning, Guy Montag saw a young woman walking toward him. Drawing nearer, he realized that it was his new teenage neighbor, Clarisse, so he stopped and introduced himself. Catching the scent of kerosene on him, she said, “And you must be – the fireman.” Something in her voice troubled Montag. But fireman was a perfectly good profession; both his father and grandfather had been firemen. After all, burning forbidden books and the homes of those who harbored them was a civic service.
Welcome to the age of techno-censorship.
“Is it true,” Clarisse asked, “that long ago firemen put fires out instead of going to start them?” No, Guy answered. Then she stared at the “451” stitched on his char-colored sleeve. 451: the temperature at which books burn.
Clarisse was a strange girl, Guy decided. She admitted to rarely watching the 3-D television “parlor walls.” And she asked unexpected questions. “Are you happy?” she shot at Guy as he turned to take his leave.
When he entered his darkened bedroom, Guy sensed something wrong. Then he stumbled over a pill bottle – and realized that Mildred, his wife, had overdosed on sleeping pills. He called for help, then watched as the arriving technicians inserted big snake-like tubes into her body to pump her stomach. The technicians assured him that this was a routine situation, one they handled many times each night.
In the morning Mildred remember nothing that had happened. As usual, her only desire was to sit in the middle of the living room with its three “parlor walls,” seashell earphones plastered to her ears, and live out the painless fantasies of plotless soap operas. It seemed that her only ambition was to be able to afford a fourth parlor wall – then her life would be complete.
As the days passed, Guy often caught glimpses of Clarisse – usually doing something very strange, such as tasting the rain.
“There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”
At work, meanwhile, the book-burner stayed increasingly clear of the Mechanical Hound. This robot hunter could be calibrated to discern the scent of any person, then chase them down and rip them to shreds. For some reason the hound kept sniffing at the nervous Montag and extending its silver sensor needle. When he complained to Captain Beatty about the harassment, Beatty only laughed.
Then one day while they were playing cards at the firehouse, the firemen heard a squadron of planes flying overhead. They were greatly surprised by the subsequent news report that another war was imminent.
One night a tip came in that books were hidden in the attic of a nearby house. And, sure enough, when the firemen sped to the address and chopped their way into the attic, they found it stacked with books and magazines. While Guy stood by the staircase with the woman whose home they had invaded, his colleagues started to throw books down from the attic. Suddenly Guy had a strange urge. Without thinking, he reached down and picked up one of the books. “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 pressed the book back under his arm, pressed it tight to a sweating armpit … with a magician’s flourish!”
Guy was shocked by what he had done. He joined the other firemen as they doused the pile of books with kerosene and prepared to ignite the house. The woman, however, planted herself on the front porch in an astonishing act of defiance, then calmly struck a match and set herself aflame. Along with her belongings, she was soon reduced to ashes.
At home that night, Guy hid the filched book under his pillow. Visions of the woman on the porch of the burning house flooded his head. He tried to talk to Mildred about his uneasiness, but she had long since been conditioned to stay in the safe world of her parlor wall melodramas; she simply was not programmed to face or share real-life sensitivities and feelings. But at one point during the evening she did casually remark that the girl next door – Clarisse – had been run over and killed several days earlier.
Guy awoke the next morning with chills and a fever. He asked Mildred to call his work and report that he was sick, but she resisted. Again he tried to explain how he felt about watching a woman burn up with her books, but Mildred was not interested. Then, in the middle of their argument, Captain Beatty drove up to the Montag house.
After some small-talk, Beatty asked Guy how he felt. Suddenly Guy was puzzled – how did the Captain already know he was sick? “Every fireman, sooner or later, hits this,” Beatty explained, launching into an obviously canned lecture on the history of books and firemen. Guy’s thoughts rushed to the stolen book he had hidden under his pillow.
Beatty’s account revealed that Clarisse had been right: once upon a time firemen had made their living by putting fires out. In those days, most people read books; and for years book-burning – by anyone – had actually been a criminal offense. But with the advent of television, people came more and more to look for vivid images and simple plots in their reading rather than anything that required thought, feeling, or sustained focus. Soon, books became more and more subordinate to television. Over time an unwritten rule evolved that no book should provoke or offend anyone – and more and more writings were censured on the grounds that they might “disturb” readers. Authors, “full of evil thoughts,” locked up their typewriters. “It didn’t come from the government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation and minority pressure carried the trick …”
After Beatty left, something snapped inside of Guy. Taking Mildred by the hand – and at the same time taking a figurative leap of faith – he removed the ventilator cover to reveal a whole cache of books. Then, all day long he forced her to sit and listen to him read. He read on, until she broke away – again to watch her walls.
Now Guy thought back to a man named Faber whom he had once talked with in the park. He was sure that the old man had a book of poems in his pocket, but for some reason he never did report him. He had kept Faber’s name and address in his file, though. So now, confused and distressed, the fireman went to see this “man of books.” After re-introducing himself, he asked Faber how many copies of the Bible he estimated were left in the world – how many copies of Shakespeare, of Plato. “None!” Faber shot back. “You know as well as I do!” Then Guy pulled out a copy of the Bible that he had pilfered from a book-burning. Faber was puzzled. Why, truly, had this man come to him? “Nobody listens any more,” Guy answered. “… I want you to teach me to understand what I read.”
Guy now had truly been humbled. Just why were books important? he asked. Books, Faber explained, “show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people only want wax-moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless. 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.”
“It had to do with books being burned without matches or fire. Because you don’t have to burn books, do you, if the world starts to fill up non-readers, non-learners, non-knowers?
After discussing various possible strategies to turn their society around, Faber, as Guy was about to leave, gave him a communications “seashell” so they could talk privately together and tune in on each other’s conversations.
When he got home, Guy found his wife and her friends, as usual, watching the walls. Disgusted, he switched off the walls and tried to strike up a conversation with the group. Exasperated by their shallow responses, he impulsively produced a book and started to read to his wife’s frightened guests – even as he heard Faber scream one word into his ear: “Don’t!”
Finally compelled to declare his newfound love of books, Guy one day marched into the fire station and handed Beatty a book. Predictably, Beatty began to lecture Guy on the dangers of reading, but their discussion was abruptly interrupted by the alarm bell, and both firemen jumped into the fire engine. To Guy’s astonishment, the engine came to a halt at his own house! As Mildred raced down the steps with a suitcase toward a taxi, the firemen chopped open the door, tore apart his books, and set the building ablaze. Had Mildred been the one to turn him in? Guy asked Beatty. Indeed, she had tried to report him – but her friends had beat her to it.
Suddenly Faber’s voice was roaring in Guy’s ear: “Get out of there!” But before the fireman could react, Beatty’s fist had knocked the shell out of his ear. Then, putting the shell to his own ear, the fire chief promised that he would trace the communication and apprehend Guy’s accomplice. “No!” Guy screamed, pulling the safety catch off his flame thrower and aiming the weapon at the Captain. But Beatty only mocked him, daring him. Now with nothing to lose, Guy discharged the full force of the fire on Beatty, screaming, “We never burned right!” Then he turned the flamethrower on the attacking Mechanical Hound that had just rounded the corner.
With great effort Guy made his way to Faber’s house to warn him. Realizing that a new Mechanical Hound must already have been brought in to trail him, he then fled to a fellow fireman’s house. Hoping to lead the hound on a false scent, he bathed and doused himself in alcohol, then hurried on until he finally collapsed, exhausted, on a river bank – just as the pursuing hound crossed to his side of the river.
Not far off, Guy now saw a fire – not a book-burning fire, but a warming fire with men gathered around it. When he had dragged himself into their circle, the men assured him that he was safe; they had been following the news and knew who he was. Applying to his body a chemical the men gave him designed to alter his scent, the approaching Mechanical Hound started off in the wrong direction, probably to kill some poor innocent on the street.
The men introduced themselves as rebels who had fled from society’s life-stifling constrictions. Now, as fugitives, they had developed techniques to help themselves recall any book they had ever read, keeping the knowledge safe within their memories until the world came to its senses. The runaways anticipated that this great awakening could come only through some disastrous upheaval – and even as they were talking, bombs began to drop on the buildings across the river. The war had begun.
Watching as his native city was destroyed before his eyes, Guy worried only briefly about Mildred. He could not mourn deeply, he acknowledged; he and his wife had never touched each other’s lives. He hoped, however, that Faber had made it to safety before the bombs fell.
Suddenly Guy remembered some verses from Ecclesiastes: To everything there is a season … Then a verse from Revelation materialized in his head: And on either side of the river there was a tree of life. … And the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.
Fahrenheit 451, like most good science fiction, is a cautionary tale. Ironically, Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) noted in 1972 that he had been asked to revise some of his books in order to give them a more feminist and minority-oriented tone. In effect, he was being asked to censor his own book about censorship! Since then, the trends toward “no-thought” reading and “politically correct” writing have certainly not abated; even now, almost half a century after its first publication, Fahrenheit 451 is an important and timely warning. Orwell intended 1984 as a warning where the Ministry of Truth ensures that facts fit whatever rendition of reality the state propagandists adopt. George Orwell predicted articulating the truth would become a revolutionary act.
Read the summary of 1984 by George Orwell
This summary of FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury is from Passing Time in the Loo – Volume 3, available on Kindle and paperback from Amazon highly recommended collection of summaries