Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
First Edition Provenance
It was first published in 1953 by Ballantine Books in America and England
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, unknown.
eBook format (all pages relative)
Introduction to the Selection from Fahrenheit 451 – by Justin Wadge
Heralded as one of the most successful science fiction novels, Fahrenheit 451 beautifully ties together several of Bradbury’s commentaries on rising issues of politics and technology. Bradbury’s futuristic dystopia paints a horrific future society in which critical thought is menacing and everyone is occupied by sports and soap operas. I will explain Bradbury’s early influences and development of the theme, briefly outline the plot, and discuss its reception. Then, I will move on to analyze the important architectural themes in the novel as they arise in the chosen excerpts.
Bradbury was heavily influenced by the Stalin Trials in Darkness at Noon. He describes how “Only a few perceived the intellectual holocaust and the revolution by burial that Stalin achieved… Only Koestler got the full range of desecration, execution, and forgetfulness on a mass and nameless graveyard scale. Koestler’s Darkness at Noon was therefore…true father, mother, and lunatic brother to my F.451.” Similarly, he was particularly interested in the burning of the ancient library at Alexandria, and later the burning of books under Hitler. He became obsessed with the destruction of culture by political regimes and powers, especially with respect to the growing censorship to the communist attitudes in post-WWII. In interviews, Bradbury mentions his distrust of leaders such as Senator McCarthy and President Truman. In addition to these larger issues of censorship, his work makes clear references to the contemporary presence of bombs, a looming fear thick in the atmosphere at the time of his writing. Between his writing of “the Fire Man” and its subsequent additions to become Fahrenheit 451, America, closely followed by the Soviet Union, would develop nuclear capabilities.
Themes of technology are prevalent in his work, as he is writing just after the peak of the radio and beginning of the age of television. The idea of mass produced and distributed media is ripe within popular culture. Bradbury dreams up inclusive television soap operas, carried out in rooms with television for walls. He takes the new fantasy of television one step further with the ability to occupy an entire television room and be fully immersed within it. Also, he invents ear buds that function as a form of communication. Bradbury later remarks in The Day After Tomorrow: Why Science Fiction? how these so called imaginative inventions could already be found at the time, how he thought he had “raced ahead of science, predicting the radio-induced semi-catonic. In the long haul, science pulled abreast, tipped its hat, and fed [him] the dust.”
Development of the Themes
In Bradbury’s short stories/novellas, the earliest traces of themes in Fahrenheit 451 can be traced to an entirely different story line, Where Ignorant Armies Clash by Night. The institutionalized destruction of culture is portrayed with a more pessimistic finale than will be seen later in his work. He describes the destruction of books in a tone that will become very familiar:
“The book turned and fought, like some small white animal caught within the fire. It seemed to want very much to live, it withered and sparkled and a small gust of gaseous vapor below up from it. Leaf by leaf it burned up upon itself, as if hands of fire were turning each page, scanning and burning with the same fire. The pages cringed black curls departed on puffs of illumination.”
Further, the phrase Where Ignorant Armies Clash by Night is taken from a poem that goes on to a very powerful role in Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury includes the last two stanzas of the poem titled Dover Beach, reproduced below.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams;
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
This poem is selected as the one referenced example in Fahrenheit 451 to represent the provocative potential of poems, and serves further as a metaphor for the expanse of knowledge through books that is now lost in Bradbury’s futuristic dystopia. It is the only actual outside writing included in the novel, and thus takes on a special role as Bradbury’s most potent reference to his theme.
Bradbury first wrote “the Fire Man” as a novella on a rented type writer in the UCLA basement. He would take breaks alternating between the dime-a-dance machines and wandering though the literature collections. He passed his first product on to Don Congdon, who would help in trying to establish “the Fire Man” in several mainstream magazines. They tried Esquire, Maclean’s, the Saturday Evening Post, and Cosmopolitan. All the magazines proceeded to deny Bradbury’s novella, and they only found moderate success in Town & Country. At this point, Horace Gold from Galaxy Science Fiction discovered the story and was very interested, and “The Fire Man” made its first public appearance in the February 1951 issue. Following this, Ballantine Books was interested in publishing an extended version of the novella. Bradbury spent another nine days in the UCLA library basement and doubled the length, taking the new name Fahrenheit 451 (what a local fire department cited as the burning temperature for fire).
The premise of the book is that in the future, firemen start fires rather than putting them out. It is against the law to own books. If you are suspected, the firemen will come to your house and ‘investigate.’ Any evidence of books on the premises warrants utter destruction of the house. The firemen wear suits and use hoses, though their houses spew kerosene not water. Once the house is sufficiently doused, it is lit on fire and goes up in flames. The fireman have another weapon at their disposal, the Mechanical Hound. With a venomous needle and eight legs, the Hound can remember up to 10,000 scents and supposedly never fails to catch its prey, designated by the fire fighters. The destruction of the houses and the chases with the Hound both become public spectacles that serve as propaganda for the inhabitants in this unnamed western American city.
Montag, the main character of the story, is one such fireman. Though, unlike his peers, he undergoes a process of awakening and begins to regret the burning of books. After ten years of acting as a unconscious destroyer, Montag meets Clarisse McClellan, a 17 year old girl. She begins to awaken him with her insatiable curiosity and willingness to ask why, both rare in this society. In tandem with this, Montag begins to see the insanity of his wife, Mildred. She has become obsessed with her all encompassing parlor, a room surrounded on three sides by television screens where she can play her interactive role in a soap opera. Her removal from critical life and addiction to such meaningless frivolities further drives Montag’s discontent for the popular mindset. Perhaps the final turning point for Montag is when an operation with the fire team goes wrong. The woman in suspect, an avid collector of books, refuses to leave her house during its demolition, opting instead to ignite herself with the house. This outright expression of loyalty to the books opens Montag’s eyes to their potential.
In response to his growing interest, Montag secretly begins collecting books. He approaches a long lost connection named Faber, a shy yet passionate proponent of books, as a friend to discuss his ambitions. A growing tensions between Montag and the fire chief, Captain Beatty, reaches its climax when Montag unknowingly joins the fire crew on route to burn down his own house, his wife Mildred having reported his collection of books. After submissively, though somewhat enjoyably, burning down the relic of his own house, Montag finally turns to the captain and burns him. He knocks out the other members of the crew and flees. After torching the hound, Montag has a head start, though the local authorities request a similar hound from a nearby community. He runs through the neighborhoods, planting a book and reporting a fellow fireman on his way. Montag is successful in fleeing the scent of the replacement Hound, having run well beyond the boundaries of the city. Here, he meets up the surviving academics who live like hobos along the railroads. They each remember certain books and intend to reproduce them in physical form once the political climate allows. And then the city is finally bombed. The looming streaks of jets across the sky finally amounted to destruction. The novel ends with hope. Hope for a new world where the critical and intellectual memory of books might once again take up root.
Fahrenheit 451 generally had favorable reviews, most notably winning over the famed New York Times book reviewer Orville Prescott. Previously not familiar with Bradbury’s work, Orville claimed he was the king of science fiction writers. From here, popularity only grew, and Bradbury went on to receive a literary prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Excerpts and Architectural Significance
Now I will discuss several excerpts in more detail. Key themes to keep in mind include:
The exaggeration of a character through his/her context (1,2)
How the architecture sets the stage for the relationship between a character and their surroundings/reality, aka, crystal balls vs mirrors (3, 5, 7, 8, 9)
The description of buildings as objects versus extensions of inhabitants (and then actual personalities) (4,6,8)
Excerpt 1, Part 1, Page 12 of 172
In the first account of the fire house, this sequence documents Montag’s transition from his life as a fire man to his suburban home. The scene description, especially with respect to Montag’s movement, portrays a sense of confidence through an established routine and effortless movement. Starting from here, Montag’s sense of security with his routine will begin to unravel towards chaos.
He hung up his black beetle-colored helmet and shined it; he hung his flameproof jacket neatly; he showered luxuriously, and then, whistling, hands in pockets, walked across the upper floor of the fire station and fell down the hole. At the last moment, when disaster seemed positive, he pulled his hands from his pockets and broke his fall by grasping the golden pole. He slid to a squeaking halt, the heels one inch from the concrete floor downstairs.
He walked out of the fire station and along the midnight street toward the subway where the silent air-propelled train slid soundlessly down its lubricated flue in the earth and let him out with a great puff of warm air onto the cream-tiled escalator rising to the suburb.
Whistling, he let the escalator waft him into the still night air. He walked toward the corner, thinking little at all about nothing in particular. Before he reached the corner, however, he slowed as if a wind had sprung up from nowhere, as if someone had called his name.
Excerpt 2, Part 1, Page 16 of 172
In this introduction to Montag’s private life, the reader is introduced to his wife Mildred who is lost in an unconscious state. Pay attention to the description of her drug induced sense of displacement as she listens to the sounds of a faraway world via her ear buds. The constant references to a mausoleum not only reflect her state but also make clear the author’s opinion on escaping the real world: you might as well be dead. With this feeling in the air, it is clear why Montag begins to doubt the culture he has always accepted.
He opened the bedroom door.
It was like coming into the cold marbled room of a mausoleum after the moon has set. Complete darkness, not a hint of the silver world outside, the windows tightly shit, the chamber a tomb-world where no sound from the great city could penetrate.
The room was not empty.
The little mosquito-delicate dancing hum in the air, the electrical murmur of a hidden wasp snug in its special pink warm next. The music was almost loud enough so he could follow the tune.
He felt his smile slide away, melt, fold over and down on itself like a tallow skin, like the stuff of a fantastic candle burning too long and now collapsing and now blown out. Darkness. He was not happy. He said the words to himself. He recognized this as the true state of affairs. He wore his happiness like a mask and the girl had run off across the lawn with the mask and there was no way of going to knock on her door and ask for it back.
Without turning on the light he imagined how this room would look. His wife stretched on the bed, uncovered and cold, like a body displayed on the lid of a tomb, her eyes fixed to the ceiling by invisible threads of steel, immovable. And in her ears of music and talk and music and talk coming in, coming in on the shore of her unsleeping mind. The room was indeed empty. Every night the waves came in and bore her off on their great tides of sound, floating her, wide-eyed, toward morning. There had been no night in the last two years that Mildred had not swum that sea, had not gladly gone down in it for the third time.
The room was cold nonetheless he felt he could not breathe. He did not wish to open the drapes and open the French windows, for he did not want the moon to come into the room. So, with the feeling of a man who will die in the next hour for lack of air, he felt his way toward his open, separate, and therefore cold bed.
Excerpt 3, Part 1, Page 21 of 172
This is the introduction to Bradbury’s most fantastic spatial conception, the television as a room. Here, the cultural deficiencies and lack of critical exchange that run rampant in the future culture manifest most evidently. Begging for one more tv-wall, Mildred makes absolutely clear her interest in being totally detached from reality. Acting as a mere precast character, she reads from a script when directed. Mildred’s insatiable joy from such a thoughtless exercise is Bradbury’s premonition of how thoughtless people without books will become. The architecture becomes a manifestation of the ambitions of a larger culture to live inside a television acting by predisposed rhythms rather than live outside where thought and reflection could happen.
She didn’t look up from the script again. “Well, this is a play comes on the wall-to-wall circuit in ten minutes. They mailed me my part this morning. I sent in some box tops. They write the script with one part missing. It’s a new idea. The homemaker, that’s me, is the missing part. When it comes time for the missing lines, they all look at me out of the three walls and I say the lines. Here, for instance, the man says, “What do you think of this whole idea, Helen?’ And he looks at me sitting here center stage, see? And I say, I say –“ She paused and ran her finger under a line on the script. “’I think that’s fine!” And then they go on with the play until he says, ‘Do you agree to that, Helen?’ And I say, ‘I sure do!’ Isn’t that fun, Guy?”
He stood in the hall looking at her.
“It’s sure fun,” she said.
“What’s the play about?”
“I just told you. There are these people named Rob and Ruth and Helen.”
“It’s really fun. It’ll be even more fun when we can afford the fourth wall installed. How long you figure before we can save up and get the fourth wall torn out and a fourth wall-TV put in? Its only two thousand dollars.”
“That’s one-third of my yearly pay.”
“Its only two thousand dollars,” she replied. “And I should think you’d consider me sometimes. If we had a fourth wall, why it’d be just like this room wasn’t ours at all, but all kinds of exotic people’s rooms…”
Excerpt 4, Part 1, Page 30 of 172
A pivotal scene in the novel, the burning of this house reveals careful attitudes towards the architecture. In the description, the old mansion and containing books become artefacts of culture. Montag recalls the assumed approach of the time: they have no value, both are just things that cannot be hurt and can therefore be destroyed without harm. However, the presence of the woman in this process sparks a sense of humanity, an understanding of these cultural artefacts as an extension of both the owner and the many contributing authors.
It was a flaking three-story house in the ancient part of the city, a century old if it was a day, but like all houses it had been given a thin fireproof plastic sheath many years ago, and this preservative shell seemed to be the only thing holding it in the sky.
“Here we are!”
The engine slammed to a stop. Beatty, Stoneman and Black ran up the sidewalk, suddenly odious and far in their plump fireproof slickers. Montag followed,
They crashed the front door and grabbed at a women, though she was not running; she was not trying to escape. She was only standing, weaving from side to side, her eyes fixed upon a nothingness in the wall, as if they had struck her a terrible blow upon the head. Her tongue was moving in her mouth, and her eyes seemed to be trying to remember something and then they remembered and her tongue moved again:
“‘Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.’”
“Enough of that!” said Beatty. “Where are they?”
He slapped her face with amazing objectivity and repeated the question. The old women’s eyes came to a focus upon Beatty. “You know where they are or you wouldn’t be here,” she said.
Stoneman held out the telephone alarm card with the complaint signed in telephone duplicate on the back:
“Have reason to suspect attic; 11 No. Elm, City. E.B.”
“That would be Mrs. Blake, my neighbor,” said the woman, reading the initials.
“All right, men, lets get’em!”
Next thing they were up in the musty blackness swinging silver hatchets at doors that were, after all, unlocked, tumbling through like boys all rollick and shout. “Hey!” A fountain of books sprang down upon Montag as he climbed shuddering up the sheer stairwell. How inconvenient! Always before it had been like snuffing a candle. The police went first and adhesive-taped the victims mouth and bandaged him off into their glittering beetle cars, so when you arrived you found an empty house. You weren’t hurting anyone, you were hurting only things! And since things really couldn’t be hurt, since things felt nothing, and things don’t scream or whimper, as this woman might begin to scream and cry out, there was nothing to tease your conscience later. You were simply cleaning up. Janitorial work, essentially. Everything to its proper place. Quick with the kerosene! Who’s got a match!
But now, tonight, someone had slipped. This woman was spoiling the ritual. The men were making too much noise, laughing, joking, to cover her terrible accusing silence below. She made the empty rooms roar with accusation and shade down a fine dust of guilt that was sucked in their nostrils as they plunged out. It was neither cricket nor correct. Montag felt an immense irritation. She shouldn’t be here, on top of everything!
Excerpt 5, Part 2, Page 73 of 172
Equally important as the introduction of the tv room is its destruction. This fantastical description of space images the physical effects of what the room implies. In the absence of the symbolic otherworld, a vacuum is created that begins sucking reality from the space. Bradbury lays down his cards, no longer with Mildred and her friends in the room to appreciate the mindless soap operas. He bluntly unveils the tv room for what it is, an endless vacuum of nothing that sucks life from reality.
A great nuzzling gout of fire leapt out to lap at the books and knock them against the wall. He stepped into the bedroom and fired twice and the twin beds went up in a great simmering whisper, with more heat and passion and light than he would have supposed to contain. He burnt the bedrooms walls and the cosmetics chest because he wanted to change everything, the chairs, the tables, and in the dining room the silverware and plastic dishes, everything that showed that we lived here in this empty house with a strange women who would forget him tomorrow, who had gone on her as she rode across town, alone. And as before, it was good to burn, he felt himself gush out in the fire, snatch, rend, rip in half with flame, and put away the senseless problem. If there was no solution, well, then there was no problem, either. Fire was best for everything.
“The books, Montag!”
The books leapt and danced like roasted birds, their wings ablaze with red and yellow feathers.
And then he came to the parlor where the great idiot monsters lay asleep with their white thoughts and their snowy dreams. And he shot a bolt at each of the three blank walls and the vacuum hissed out at him. The emptiness made an even emptier whistle, a senseless scream. He tried to think about the vacuum upon which the nothingness had performed, but he could not. He held his breath so the vacuum could not get into his lungs. He cut off its terrible emptiness, drew back, and gave the entire room a gift of one huge bright yellow of burning. The fireproof plastic sheath on everything was cut wide and the house began to shudder with flame.
Excerpt 6, Part 2, Page 80 of 172
Here, the house has fully transcended its objectification and been personified. The house is doubly treated as a judging countenance looking at Montag and a outward reflection of the quiet and helpless Mrs. Black. While escaping the Hound, Montag finally has the courage to frame a fireman (a plan faber sarcastically suggested before). However, after his impression from the woman who burned in her house, Montag cannot escape a psychological monologue against the house. He, for a moment, feels the need for moral justification to destroy the artefact of culture. Montag now understands that the owner is the house, and the house the owner.
The house was silent.
Montag approached from the rear, creeping through a thick night-moistened scent of daffodils and roses and wet grass. He touched the screen door in back, found it open, slipped in, moved across the porch, listening.
Mrs. Black, are you asleep in there? He thought. This isn’t good, but your husband did it to others and never asked and never wondered and never worried. And now since you’re a fireman’s wife, its you house and your turn, for all those houses your husband burned and the people he hurt without thinking.
The house did not reply.
He hid the books in the kitchen and moved from the house again to the alley and looked back and the house was still dark and quiet, sleeping.
On his way across town, with the helicopters fluttering like torn bits of paper in the sky, he phoned the alarm at a lonely phone booth outside a store that was closed for the night. The he stood in the cold night air, waiting, and at a distance he heard the fire sirens start up and run, and the Salamanders coming, coming to burn Mr. Black’s house while he was at work, to make his wife stand shivering in the morning air while the roof let go and dropped in upon the fir, But now, she was still asleep.
Good night, Mrs. Black, he thought.
Excerpt 7, Part 3, Page 87 of 172
Montag has escaped the Hound and contemplates in quiet amidst the open fields. His memory of the farm house offers a juxtaposition to the experience of the tv room. Whereas the parlor requires a full immersion within the drama, Montag’s vision of the girl from the windmill offers the perspective of an onlookers. Once Montag has escaped the clutches and structure of modern civilization, he can once again engage in thoughtful on looking, in imagining. The architectural format of observing a structure from a separate one speaks to Montag’s true ascendance beyond the conditioned perspectives to his own, where he can sit in peace, hidden and safe.
Millie was not here and the Hound was not here, but the dry smell of hay blowing from some distant field put Montag on the land. He remembered a farm he had visited when he was very young, one of the few rare times he discovered somewhere behind the seven veils of unreality, beyond the walls of the parlors and beyond the tin moat of the city, cows chewed grass and pigs sat in warm ponds at noon and dogs barked after white sheep on a hill.
Now the dry smell of hay, the motion of the waters, made him think of sleeping in fresh hay in a lonely barn away from the loud highways, behind a quiet farmhouse, and under an ancient windmill that whirled like the sound of the passing years overhead. He lay in the high barn loft all night, listening to the distant animals and insects and trees, the little motions and stirrings.
During the night, he thought, below the loft, he would hear a sound like feet moving, perhaps. He would tense and sit up. The sound would move away. He would lie back and look out the loft window, very late in the night and see the lights go out in the farmhouse itself, until a very young and beautiful woman would sit in an unlit window, braiding her hair. It would be hard to see her, but her face would be like the face of a girl so long ago in the past now, so very long ago, the girl who had known the weather and never been burned by the fireflies, the girl who had known what dandelions meant rubbed off on your chin. Then, she would be gone from the warm window and appear again upstairs in her moon-whitened room. And then, to the sound of death, the sound of jets cutting across the sky in two black pieces beyond the horizon, he would lie in the loft, hidden and safe, watching those strange new stars over the rim of the earth, fleeing from the soft color of dawn.
Excerpt 8, Part 3, Page 97 of 172
I have already discussed the destruction of the tv room, although the desire for life beyond reality lives on in Mildred as she continues to seek it elsewhere. It is in the moment of her demise, the bombing of the city, that Mildred looks deeply into the mirror and realized the weak form of existence she had become while lost in her fantasies. It is in this moment that reality literally comes crashing down on her. The architecture, it seems, has a sense of irony in relaying the sense of the real to its formerly disengaged inhabitant. In tandem with this theme, the personification of the architecture takes on its most formative role in this scene, having its own will as the building carries with her a million pounds and rids itself of her.
He saw her in her hotel room somewhere now in the half second remaining with the bombs a yard, a foot, an inch from her building. He saw her leaning toward the great shimmering walls of color and motion where the family talked and talked and talked to her, where the family prattled and chatted and said her name and smiled at her and said nothing of the bomb that was an inch, now half an inch, now a quarter inch from the top of the hotel. Leaning into the wall as if all the hunger of looking would find the secret of her sleepless unease there. Mildred, leaning anxiously nervously, as if to plunge, drop, fall into that swarming immensity of color to drown its bright happiness.
Montag, falling flat, going down, saw or felt, or imagined he saw or felt the walls go dark in Millie’s face, heard her screaming, because in the millionth part of time left, she saw on her own face reflected there, in a mirror instead of a crystal ball, and it was such a wildly empty face, all by itself in the room, touching nothing, starving and eating of itself, that at last she recognized it as her own and looked quickly up at the ceiling as it and the entire structure of the hotel blasted down upon her, carrying with her a million pounds of brick, metal, plaster, and wood, to meet other people in the hives below, all on their quick way down to the cellar where the explosion rid itself of them in its own unreasonable way.
Excerpt 9, Part 3, Page 99 of 172
The final architectural allusion takes place just before the conclusion of the novel. The resolution to the destroyed world wrought with illusion is the mirror. As mentioned in the last excerpt, Bradbury establishes the mirror as the symbolic antithesis to the constructed realities of the tv rooms and larger fantastical constructs of society, such as the spectacles of burning and pursuits with the hound. The mirror does not construct a reality, but reflects the one that all have forgotten. The solution, as Granger states, is then a factory of mirrors to fill the world once again with self awareness and willingness to observe what is real in life.
“Now, lets get on upstream,” said Granger. “And hold onto one thought: You’re not important. You’re not anything. Some day the load we’re carrying with us may help someone. But even when we had books on hand, a long time ago, we didn’t use what we got out of them. We went right on insulting the dead. We went right on spitting in the graves of all the poor ones who died before us. We’re going to meet a lot of lonely people in the next week and the next month and the next year. And when they ask what we’re doing, you can say, We’re remembering. That’s where we’ll win out in the long run. And some day we’ll remember so much that we’ll build the biggest goddam steamshovel in history and fig the biggest grave of all time and shove war in and cover it up. Come on now, we’re going to build a mirror factory first and put out nothing but mirrors for the next year and take a long look in them.”
“History, Context, and Criticism” Edited by Jonathan R. Eller (accompanies text aforementioned in excerpt provenance, pp101-166)