Raymond Douglas Bradbury was born on August 22, 1920, in Waukegan, Illinois, to Leonard Spaulding and Esther Moberg Bradbury. He began his writing career while still a teen-ager, publishing Futuria Fantasia, a fan magazine. His first professional sale, the short story “Pendulum,” appeared in the November 1941 edition of Super Science Stories.
The title Fahrenheit 451 represents the temperature at which paper burns. Based on a 1951 short story, “The Fireman,” the novel depicts a future America where television dominates culture and all books are banned. Montag, the main character, is a fireman, a member of an elite, Gestapo-like organization whose purpose is to seek out and burn the few books that remain.
In Fahrenheit 451 Bradbury offers a dark vision of twenty-first-century America. The novel portrays a society where rigid conformity is expected of all individuals, and where independent thought is highly suspect. Most members of this society seem to willingly embrace the opportunity to escape the burdens of individuality and intellectualism, but their unconscious frustration manifests itself in the violence that permeates their bleak world.
The novel’s protagonist is thirty-year-old Guy Montag, who has followed in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps to become a fireman and has performed his job for ten years without thinking twice about the implications of his actions. He has simply gone about his duties with “the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by flame;” he has smiled the same smile for as long as he can remember and even sleeps with “the fiery smile still gripped by his face muscles.”
Bradbury was for years science fiction’s premier literary stylist, and although his heavy use of adjectives and metaphors can seem cloying today, he remains one of the most sophisticated users of language in the genre. He is particularly fond of similes, such as the description of a book that tumbles into Montag’s hand during a raid on an old woman’s secret library: “A book lit, almost obediently, like a white pigeon, in his hands, wings fluttering. In the dim, wavering light, a page hung open and it was like a snowy feather, the words delicately painted thereon.”
Fahrenheit 451 is very clearly a defense of literacy and the free use of the imagination as central human virtues. Bradbury emphasizes this theme when Montag’s superior officer states: You always dread the unfamiliar. Surely you remember the boy in your own school class who was exceptionally “bright” …. And wasn’t it this bright boy you selected for beatings and torture after hours? Of course it was. We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal.
1. Pretend that you are a member of the band of book memorizers that appears at the end of the novel. Which book would you choose to become? Why?
1. Research Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade of the early 1950s, and write a paper discussing how it may have influenced Bradbury’s writing of Fahrenheit 451.
Director Francois Truffaut’s version of Fahrenheit 451 (1966) is the finest film adaptation of a Bradbury story to date. Starring Julie Christie and Oskar Werner, the film portrays Bradbury’s theme effectively but makes significant changes in the plot. Bradbury has expressed his admiration of the film, commenting that it captures “the soul and essence” of the book.