Review of “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451, written by Ray Bradbury in 1953, cannot be fully understood outside of its historical context.

First, 1953 was the middle of the “McCarthy Era” in the Cold War, during which thousands of Americans were investigated for harboring Communist sympathies. Neighbors and coworkers were encouraged to report on each other, and mere suspicion was often enough to instigate an investigation. Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin held hearings in Congress to interrogate would-be spies. Actors, producers and directors in Hollywood were called to testify against one another, and the accused subsequently became “black-listed.” Many people experienced loss of employment, destruction of their careers, and some committed suicide.

Helping to heat up the war against its own citizens at home, America was engaged in a feverish effort to build bombs targeted at the Soviet Union. Atomic bombs were being tested and perfected rapidly. In October, 1952, the U.S. exploded its first thermonuclear or hydrogen bomb at Eniwetok Atoll. The Soviet Union exploded its own hydrogen bomb in August, 1953.

Senator Joseph McCarthy

Senator Joseph McCarthy

This atmosphere of paranoia, suspicion, and the fearful sense of a world rushing toward a nuclear holocaust is reflected in Bradbury’s story.

“Fahrenheit 451,” he tells us at the start of this book, is the temperature at which book paper catches fire and burns. In this future dystopia, Guy Montag is a “fireman” who starts fires rather than stopping them. The firemen respond to calls of those who accuse someone of harboring books: they burn the books along with the house, and the owners are arrested (unless they choose to commit suicide). Books are forbidden because they can allow people to think, to be unhappy, to question the government, and to question war.

Montag, married to a drugged-up, tuned-out wife he can’t even remember how he met, believes he is happy, until he encounters his new neighbor Clarisse. A seventeen-year-old girl, she has been identified as “crazy” and “dangerous” because she is not enslaved to the media and its hypnotic messages; she takes walks, examines her surroundings and the people in it, talks with her family and others about matters of substance, and most importantly, is not afraid to ask questions.

The honesty and openness of Clarisse unhinges Montag, and he soon becomes one of those who hides from the fires, rather than one of those who sets them.

Overall the book stands up remarkably well to the passage of over sixty years. Its underlying message is as timely as ever: we are complicit in allowing our brains to atrophy. We become addicted to vapidity and short spurts of sensation, and forego deep thinking and quiet contemplation. We retreat into our own entertainment cocoons, and ignore what politicians are making of the world. The results could be disastrous for civilization.

Famously, the character Montag picks some books from his own hidden stash to destroy, in order to help deflect the attention of the authorities from himself. But the point of the work is not so much what book you would sacrifice to save yourself from suspicion, but how important it is not to let the seeds for such conditions take root. Our only hope for the future, Bradbury warns us, is to be mindful, to read and to question, to study the past, and to learn from it.

H-Bomb Test at Eniwetok Atoll, Oct. 31, 1952

H-Bomb Test at Eniwetok Atoll, Oct. 31, 1952

About rhapsodyinbooks

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6 Responses to Review of “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury

  1. thekoolaidmom says:

    Wow. I’m impressed with your review! It makes me want to read the book YOU read 🙂 Isn’t it funny how we can see and pick out and be impessed by different things in the same book? Thanks for letting me know you’d posted this review, I really enjoyed reading it.

  2. Margot says:

    As a teenager I remember seeing pictures of people burning books (not sure where or the circumstances ). Shortly after that I read this book. I recall being horrified that anyone would burn precious books.

    Then I became aware of books that had been banned which is the same thing, in my opinion. All this has led to a lifelong sensitivity to, not just anti-banned-books, but the subtle forms such as blacklisting books. It’s still a topic of concern with me. I’m glad to see you raising this issue via Farenheit 451.

  3. susan says:

    I got a copy not long and this is one book, I wish we had been required to read. I’m going to look for my copy. I really enjoyed your review. It reinforces why I looked for a copy in the first place. Thanks.

  4. jayle says:

    this webpage has provided me a good brief explanation of this literature material, i find it very helpful for refrence purposes when i do my assignments.

  5. Pingback: Book Review: Fahrenheit 451 « ReviewsbyLola's Blog

  6. Alexandra says:

    Great review…I’ve heard of Fahrenheit 451 before (as I think most people would have), but I never had more than a vague knowledge of what it was about prior to reading this. I think I’ll definitely be adding it to my to-read list though, it sounds like quite an interesting concept! Also, I really liked the miniature history lesson – a lot of what you wrote I knew already, but as a history buff it’s always nice to be reminded!

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