About Fahrenheit 451



Critics find Bradbury's most interesting years the post-World War II years, 1947-57, a period that roughly corresponds to a time when science fiction authors began to approach their subject matter seriously and were creating characters who had psychological complexity and ambiguity. During this decade, Bradbury produced some of his most vital works: Dark Carnival (Arkham House, 1947); the amazing Martian Chronicles(Doubleday, 1950), his first and perhaps finest science fiction work; the short story collections The Illustrated Man (Doubleday, 1951) and The Golden Apples of the Sun (Doubleday, 1953); and Dandelion Wine(Doubleday, 1957), a short novel that has attained the status of being a minor American classic.

During this period, Bradbury also produced "The Fireman," a short story that appeared in the second issue of Galaxy Science Fiction (February 1951) and was expanded into Fahrenheit 451 (October 1953), his best and best-known novel. Initially published by Ballantine with two other stories, "The Playground" and "And the Rock Cried Out," Fahrenheit 451 was not published separately until the Ballantine paperback release in April 1960.

Major Theme of Fahrenheit 451

Interestingly, the impetus for the characters and the situation of Fahrenheit 451 date earlier than "The Fireman." They first appeared during the years immediately following World War II, as Bradbury reveals in his introduction to Pillar of Fire and Other Plays (Bantam, 1975):

This story ["Pillar of Fire," Planet Stories, Summer 1948], this character . . . I see now were rehearsals for my later novel and film Fahrenheit 451. If Montag is a burner of books who wakens to reading and becomes obsessed with saving mind-as-printed-upon-matter, then Lantry [protagonist of "Pillar of Fire"] is the books themselves, he is the thing to be saved. In an ideal world, he and Montag would have met, set up shop, and lived happily ever after: library and saver of libraries, book and reader, idea and flesh to preserve the idea.

By Bradbury's own admission, the thematic obsession that explicitly emerges in Fahrenheit 451 is the burning of books, the destruction of mind-as-printed-upon-matter. And although Bradbury never uses the word "censorship" in the novel, one should be aware that he is deeply concerned with censorship. Book burning is a hyperbolic phrase that describes the suppression of writing, but the real issue of the novel is censorship.

If "Pillar of Fire" is read sensitively, one finds that not all books are in danger in the future dystopia (an imaginary world where people lead dehumanized, fearful lives), but particular kinds, or genres, of books are at risk. This theme, of course, is not precisely true of Fahrenheit 451 in which all books that are burned by the "firemen" are in danger. This novel may be understood as a kind of hyperbolic extension of the tensions of the earlier story.

Bradbury's observation about "Pillar of Fire" (1948) begs the questions: What are the social and/or economic forces that caused such a thematic obsession to emerge in Bradbury's work from the period 1948-53? Why are only books of imagination, fantasy, and the macabre and occult threatened in "Pillar of Fire"?

Works by fantasists are also threatened in Bradbury's story "Usher II" (1950), which appears in The Martian Chronicles (1950). "Pillar of Fire" thus becomes a rehearsal for the themes of "Usher II," and the latter story appears to inhabit the same imaginative realm as does "The Firemen" published in 1951. ("The Firemen" was written during the same period as "Usher II" and is copyrighted 1950.) Indeed, the character of William Lantry in "Pillar of Fire" and the character of William Stendahl in "Usher II" are quite similar, as are the authors whose books are threatened — Poe, Bierce, and other American fantasists. Moreover, a Burning Crew is referred to in "Usher II," one that eventually burns Stendahl's beloved library of imaginative literature, and the Burning Crew is obviously a synonym for the firemen in Fahrenheit 451.

The question may be asked in another way: Why is Bradbury sensitive to the popular condemnation of fantasy literature? By extension, this question becomes an issue of the literary merit of works of popular literature. Why is Bradbury particularly sensitive to the critical reception of fantasy literature during the post-World War II period? The question becomes even more problematic when one considers that Bradbury himself was publishing science fiction and fantasy in legitimate magazines, or slicks, such as Colliers and the Saturday Evening Post, not in the pulps, or disreputable magazines. As Peter Nicholls observes, "[Bradbury's] career remains the biggest breakthrough into lush markets made by any genre of writer" (1985).

Genre Science Fiction

Far from traditional literary discussion, the questions posed may offer another way of reading the novel — as genre science fiction. After all, Bradbury's obsessions with the suppression of fantasy literature may express, at the psychological level, the wrestling with the validity of his own career as a fantasist. Fahrenheit 451 represents Bradbury's first published novel, written at a time when — according to Brian W. Aldiss (Schocken, 1974) — "science fiction was still a minority cult, little known to any but its devotees." In his brief authorial statement appended to the beginning of The October Country (Ballantine, 1955), an abridgement of his earlier collection Dark Carnival (1947), Bradbury feels compelled to tell his readers that "[This book] will present a side of my writing that is probably unfamiliar to them, and a type of story that I rarely have done since 1948." By 1955 (during a time when his earliest work was out-of-print), Bradbury was aware of his (perhaps undeserved) reputation as a science fiction writer and was attempting to present to his readership an aspect of his work with which they were unfamiliar. Unsurprisingly, his next published book after The October Country, Dandelion Wine (Doubleday, 1957), is not science fiction, but a tour de force of juvenalia — specifically, a celebration of adolescence and the life-affirming value of the imagination. With the exception of A Medicine for Melancholy (Doubleday, 1959), a collection of short stories dominated by science fiction selections, Bradbury has rarely returned to science fiction. (Collections such as R is for Rocket [1962] and S is for Space [1966] only recycle earlier stories.)

But another aspect of Fahrenheit 451 is equally interesting: The suppression and condemnation of imaginative literature (viewed earlier as synecdoche for popular literature) represent the development of an increasingly oppressive political organization that wishes to deny originality and idiosyncrasy. Fahrenheit 451 uses the science fiction motif of dystopia — a totalitarian, highly centralized, and, therefore, oppressive social organization that sacrifices individual expression for the sake of efficiency and social harmony, all of which are achieved through technocratic means. The reader may examine the episodes of Dandelion Wine — the book most contiguous with Fahrenheit 451 (disregarding The October Country) — originally published as "The Happiness Machine" and "The Trolley" (Good Housekeeping, Vol. 141 No. 1, July 1955.). The former story views technology as unable to provide for — and as even opposed to — human happiness; the latter story views technological innovation as solely efficient, as oppressive, and, perhaps, as even protofascist. In fact, one may find that Dandelion Wine, published after Bradbury became labeled as a formidable science fiction writer, views technology and technological innovation as inconsequential in solving basic human problems. This view is apparent in Fahrenheit 451. For example, note the marital problems between Montag and his wife — even though their home is full of technological contrivances specifically designed for domestic bliss — or explore the motivation for the development of the Mechanical Hound as a vehicle of social control via terrorist means.

Historical Influences for Fahrenheit 451

Despite all the rich possibilities of exploration in Fahrenheit 451, the issue of book burning, or censorship, remains most central to the novel and is the most difficult issue with which to grapple. In essence, book burning is synonymous with irrationality in the twentieth century. The genesis of Fahrenheit 451 was presumably contagious with the period of Nazi anti-intellectualism during the late 1930s, and book burning certainly became a synonym for anti-intellectualism in science fiction of the 1950s — as it was in Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz (Lippincott, 1959). Fahrenheit 451 emerged during a period of extreme interest in what Brian W. Aldiss calls "an authoritarian society" that roughly corresponds to the years 1945-1953, as revealed in George Orwell's Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1948); B.F. Skinner's Walden Two (1948); Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano (1952); Evelyn Waugh's Love Among the Ruins (1953); and Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth's The Space Merchants (1953). Moreover, the postwar period also produced several novels and films concerned with the possibilities of nuclear holocaust, which hovers over Montag's world throughout the novel.

The novel also appears during the era known as the McCarthy period, the postwar political climate characterized by xenophobia, blacklisting, and censorship. In June 1949, for example, Representative John S. Wood asked some seventy colleges to submit their textbooks for examination and approval by the Un-American Activities Committee. Bradbury himself (Nation, May 2, 1953), in an article on science fiction as social criticism, suggested that "when the wind is right, a faint odor of kerosene is exhaled from Senator McCarthy." Many of the issues explored in the novel cannot be separated from the historical period in which they appeared. This assertion is not to say, however, that they are no longer relevant or timely issues. Indeed, the novel evidently held a particular fascination for readers in the 1980s when censorship in schools and libraries resurged. Although the novel initially went through six printings in its first twelve years (1953-1965), it went through twenty printings in the next five years (1966-1971) and has been in print since its initial publication.

As stated earlier, Fahrenheit 451 is Bradbury's best-known novel, which, incidentally, happens to be science fiction. The novel need not, nor should it be, read only by science fiction or fantasy enthusiasts. Fahrenheit 451 is, among other things, a genuine cultural document of the early 1950s as well as a book of great imagination — regardless of its genre.