What happens if you are no longer allowed to read books? Can you imagine a life without them? Books are the source of knowledge, and without knowledge, man's life will come to a standstill. Well, 'Fahrenheit 451' by Ray Bradbury, describes a future society where books are banned.
Origin of the Name
According to Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which book paper burns. In this book, the author describes a society where books are outlawed and in case found with anyone, are burned. This is probably where the name of this book came from. There is no scientific base to the statement that book paper burns at 451 degrees F.
Set in a futuristic society, this book by Ray is certainly offbeat and goes beyond typical science-fiction novels. Books are said to be man’s best friends, but what happens if they disappear from your lives? The habit of reading books is diminishing by the day, and perhaps, that’s exactly what the author of Fahrenheit 451 imagined way back in the 1950s.
Imagine, there are no books to read. The reading of books has been banned and if found with anyone, they are being destroyed. The absence of books has made man a couch potato who is addicted to television and technology. Due to the ban on books, there are no means to carry wisdom across generations. This is precisely the central theme of Fahrenheit 451.
Burning books is burning wisdom.
Fahrenheit 451 is a story of Guy Montag, a fireman, whose job is to burn down the belongings of any person who owns books.
Owning or reading books is considered to be a crime, and the books possessed by anyone are burned. The only thing one can do is watching television; reading books is not allowed. The burning of books has been used to represent the destruction of one’s thinking and expressing abilities.
Outlawing books indicates lack of creative freedom.
The outlawing of books has been used to depict the lack of freedom of expression.
It might have been used to hint at censor boards that steal a writer’s creative freedom. A ban on books has been used as a way to indicate the snatching away of a writer’s ability to influence the readers’ thoughts.
It also indicates a ban on communication between a writer/artist and his readers. It is also a way to show how a governing authority can use its powers in a wrong way by banning something that benefits the society.
Reaction of Montag’s wife to Clarisse’s death depicts denial.
When Montag tries to talk to his wife about Clarisse’s death, she merely dismisses the subject. This portrays the emotional void and nullity that has been brought in the lives of human beings. It depicts the lack of empathy and an inability to accept one’s emotions and express them.
Reading books helps in the intellectual and emotional development of individuals. Reading boosts one’s ability to express and understand oneself and each other. The total absence of reading hampers emotional development, and leads to lack of empathy.
It may lead to the inability to accept one’s sentiments and also express them. This thought has been expressed effectively through the reaction of Montag’s wife to Clarisse’s death. Montag’s wife is shown to be in a depressive state and has suicidal tendencies.
“There was a silly damn bird called a phoenix back before Christ, every few hundred years he built a pyre and burnt himself up. He must have been the first cousin to Man. But every time he burnt himself up he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again.”
“And it looks like we’re doing the same thing, over and over, but we’re got on damn thing the phoenix never had. We know the damn silly thing we just did.”
“We know all the damn silly things we’ve done for a thousand years and as long as we know that and always have it around where we can see it, someday we’ll stop making the goddamn funeral pyres and jumping in the middle of them. We pick up a few more people that remember every generation.”
The author compares the rising of a phoenix with how man mistakes and corrects himself again and again. Like a phoenix rises from the ashes time and again, even man rises from his mistakes. The author says that man repeats his mistakes and on realizing them, corrects himself.
“It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed.”
“What is it about fire that’s so lovely? No matter what age we are, what draws us to it?…The thing man wanted to invent, but never did…If you let it go on, it’d burn our lifetimes out.”
“What is fire? It is a mystery. Scientists give us gobbledygook about friction and molecules. But they don’t really know. Its real beauty is that it destroys responsibility and consequences.”
“Forget them. Burn all, burn everything. Fire is bright and fire is clean.”
“And what lights the sun? Its own fire. And the sun goes on, day after day, burning and burning. The sun and time. The sun and time and burning. Burning. The river bobbled him along gently. Burning. The sun and every clock on the earth.”
“It all came together and became a single thing in his mind. After a long time of floating on the land and a short time of floating in the river he knew why he must never burn again in his life.”
Fire is one of the most essential elements of the book. Fire represents both life and death. Firemen destroy books. This makes fire a symbol of destruction and death.
The penalty for owning books is the books being burned. Here, fire is symbolic of the fear in common people’s minds about the authority that has banned reading.
Fire can also be taken as the symbol of the desire to acquire knowledge. In saying that fire is bright and clean, and that the sun burns with its own fire, the author associates fire with light and life.
The Hearth and The Salamander
The Hearth represents the place of burning, and the salamander is anciently known to sustain fire. The firemen have a salamander on their vehicle and their uniform represents it. This is also the title given to one part of this book.
“Empty the theaters save for clowns and furnish the rooms with glass walls and pretty colors running up and down the walls like confetti or blood or sherry or sauterne.”
“There are billions of us and that’s too many. Nobody knows anyone. Strangers come and violate you. Strangers come and cut your heart out. Strangers come and take your blood.”
“How long he stood he did not know, but there was a foolish and yet delicious sense of knowing himself as an animal come from the forest, drawn by the fire.”
“He was a thing of brush and liquid eye, of fur and muzzle and hoof, he was a thing of horn and blood that would smell like autumn if you bled it out on the ground. He stood a long time, listening to the warm crackle of the flames.”
“Yet the heart is suddenly shattered, the body falls in separate motions and the blood is astonished to be freed on the air; the brain squanders its few precious memories and, puzzled, dies.”
The aftermath of destruction is bloodshed. Raging blood has been used to symbolize Montag’s anger and passion. Blood also describes death and violence.
The Sieve and The Sand
The Sieve and the Sand (also the name given to one of the three parts of the book) say that it is a futile attempt to retain sand in a sieve.
As it is not possible, Montag uses it as a symbol to express his futile attempt of reading the Bible as fast as he can so that he may retain at least some parts of it, in memory. This means that the mind is like a sieve; it cannot retain everything that it has learned.
“How like a mirror, her face. Impossible; for how many people did you know who refracted your own light to you? People were more often – he searched for a simile, found one in his work – torches, blazing away until they whiffed out.”
“How rarely did other people’s faces take of you and throw back to you your own expression, your own innermost trembling thought?”
The mirror symbolizes the discovery of one’s true self and innermost thoughts in the reflection. The book describes Clarisse as a mirror as she makes Montag retrospect on his profession, and what he really wants in life. When he looks at her, he can see his reflection, and with her, he can always be his true self.
The themes and symbols used in Fahrenheit 451 paint a very realistic picture of a world that lacks wisdom. The government’s ban on books depicts how man can lead to his own destruction, is he fails to think and act wisely. The book serves as an eye-opener for society.