Bradbury’s literary classic takes place in a dystopian world (yes, youngsters, we olds were into dystopias long before The Hunger Games was even a twinkle in Suzanne Collins’ eye) in which books have been outlawed. Our protagonist is Guy Montag, a “fireman” whose job is to burn any contraband books. But after meeting an unusual young woman named Clarisse, he begins to question his mission and the rules of society itself. Though published in 1953, at the height of the McCarthy era, Fahrenheit 451 ‘s themes of dissent, censorship, and the power of knowledge have never stopped being relevant. Ironically, Fahrenheit 451 is itself frequently banned or challenged in American schools thanks in part to its coarse language.
To the shock of many, Ray Bradbury has argued till the cows come home that Fahrenheit 451 is NOT about government censorship (no word on whether the cows have made it back yet). In his mind, the novel is about the scary potential for TV to replace books, causing us to forget how to think for ourselves. Back in 1951 (two years before Fahrenheit was published), Bradbury wrote in a letter to fellow science fiction writer Richard Matheson:
“Radio has contributed to our ‘growing lack of attention.’ […] This sort of hopscotching existence makes it almost impossible for people, myself included, to sit down and get into a novel again. We have become a short story reading people, or, worse than that, a QUICK reading people.” ( source )
Notice that he made this comment over sixty years ago. Consider what has changed since 1951: Pretty much everything. More than anything, Bradbury seems to fear the speed that technology like the radio and TV offers. We wonder what Bradbury thinks of our world today, what with the Internet, smartphones, and Facebook reigning supreme. One could say his fears have come true: we read at lightning-fast speed.
The New York Times ran a story in July of 2008 about the perils of reading on the Internet:
Clearly, reading in print and on the Internet are different. On paper, text has a predetermined beginning, middle and end, where readers focus for a sustained period on one author’s vision. On the Internet, readers skate through cyberspace at will and, in effect, compose their own beginnings, middles and ends. ( source )
New York Times writer Motoko Rich asks us here to consider the Internet’s benefit to our brain, saying that it is used to create our “own beginnings, middles and ends.” Are we, maybe, becoming more creative readers in addition to being “a QUICK reading people”? Is the book dead? Should we care if it is?
Get in on this debate—it’s all about you! And we bet you a million bucks it’s only just getting started. Who knows what new technology lies in wait for us?
Salamander: The Salamander insignia represents the firemen of Bradbury's brave new world. Bradbury uses the Salamander to exemplify the decrepit nature of the government. This society, like a salamander, has sunk into the depths of depravity, and now, though seemingly modern, is really more primitive than ever.
Seashells: The seashells, or ear-radios, are used to promote the propaganda of the government and advance its agenda, or lack thereof. Using these shells, the people drift off to sea, so to speak, and lose sight of reality.
Parlor family/television: This artificial family embodies the quality that the government seeks most to promote in its people: superficiality. The parlor family knows nothing of reality, but instead is focused on temporal pleasures. Like the seashells, the televised family serves as a distraction and a mindless way to occupy man's mind.
Montag: It's interesting to note that the name Montag is actually the name of a paper manufacturing company. In many ways, Montag is a blank slate who picks up bits of knowledge from Clarisse, Faber, and finally Granger. Bradbury chuckles about this "coincidence" in his afterword to Fahrenheit 451.
Faber: Faber is the name of a pencil manufacturing company. Bradbury also chuckles about this in his afterword. In many ways, Faber, the instructing professor, is like a pencil, writing on Montag's notepad. On a metaphorical level, Faber symbolizes the tool (as his name implies) of learning.
Fire: Fire is an artificial substitute for the reality of truth, which can only be found in books. Beatty dedicates his life to burning when he can't find satisfaction in the books he reads.
Mechanical Hound: The Hound is a computerized animal used by the government to punish its enemies, such as Montag. Though Montag torches the first Hound, a second one is brought in to track him. The Hound represents the strong hand of dictatorship. It is the enforcer of government policy.
Beatty: If there is one, Beatty represents the mastermind behind government censorship. He is not a robot like Montag, but a man who consciously chooses to do evil.
Sieve and Sand: The Sieve and the Sand image is used by Bradbury to explain Montag's goal to learn the knowledge he reads in books. Like sand falling through a sieve, Montag thinks that if he reads fast enough, at least some of the books' wisdom will be retained before it falls through the sieve of his mind.
Nature: Throughout his novel, Bradbury uses allusions to nature to symbolize reality or truth. When Montag reaches land, after floating down the river to escape, he experiences the sensation of smell for the first time. The lifestyle of the wandering resistance also exemplifies this idea. They live with nature, out in the country away from the city, where they experience reality.