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Set in a world without literary wisdom, Fahrenheit 451 by legendary science-fiction author Ray Bradbury is the story of those who would dare to break free from the chains of censorship and intellectual repression. Against a climate of intense information control, Bradbury focuses in on the psychological conflicts of one man, the fireman Guy Montag, and the internal struggles that result from his interactions with the sterile world around him. In a sense, each character can be interpreted as representing a different facet of society, from the utterly obedient book burner, Beatty, to the free spirited teenager, Clarisse. Despite the fact that the world Bradbury confronts his readers with is unfathomably futuristic, the characters are clearly human, serving as a successful link between contemporary readers and the author’s vision of the 24th century.
Bradbury’s brilliantly written protagonist in this novel is Guy Montag, a thirty-year-old, third generation fireman, who is appropriately named after a prominent paper-manufacturing company. At first glance the term “fireman” may bring to mind images of courage or heroism, but the firemen of the 24th century have a much more sinister role in society – rather than putting fires out, their job is to burn books and the houses of those caught owning illegal literature. Montag is, in many ways, the archetype of the “antihero” so popular in fantasy and science-fiction literature; like Darth Vader of the Star Wars films, but in a much more subtle way, he is a dark servant of an oppressive government who must come to terms with his career and the lives he and his government have destroyed. During the early scenes of the novel, Montag relishes his book-burning career, delivering iron-fisted justice with a dogmatic sense of patriotism. Beneath his kerosene-drenched exterior, however, Montag is completely apathetic towards his job, his wife, and the world in which he lives; he feels strongly for nothing, simply performing his required tasks in a mechanical fashion.
As a fireman, Montag acts as the servile dog of Fire Chief Beatty, “big brother”like character who always seems to know when someone is on the brink of acquiring free thought. This makes sense, of course, since Beatty’s career centers on seeking out and destroying the seeds of free thought – books. Ironically enough, Captain Beatty often quotes from literary knowledge in his tirades against the inclusion of books in society, showing that he knows the subject of his hatred well enough to understand it, and thus lending a certain level of credibility to his beliefs. Beatty is aided by two firemen named Black and Stoneman, as well as a technological monster called The Mechanical Hound – a robotic dog deployed to hunt down and kill criminals.
Montag is married to a completely lifeless woman by the name of Mildred, who epitomizes the shallow complacency of society. Mildred shuns intellectual pursuits in favor of technological gadgets like her three-wall interactive television and seashell earphones, which bring her a constant escape from reality. This desire to escape causes her to constantly take sleeping wills, an overdose of which almost results in her death. Later, when she discovers that her husband has secretly been studying books, she abandons him and her home in order to escape from the “unpleasantness” of literature, again demonstrating her need for escape.
This all changes, however, when he meets the free spirited Clarisse McClellan on his way home from work one fateful night. A lively teenager with a passion for life, Clarisse is considered “insane” by most people who encounter her, because she enjoys nature, conversation, and observing other people. As the polar opposite of Montag’s wife, Mildred, Clarisse serves as the catalyst for the fireman’s powerful transformations that follow. Although there are no romantic undertones in the relationship, Montag falls in love with the concepts that Clarisse embodies, particularly the keen awareness and curiosity of a world that Montag had so hastily passed by in the course of his duty as a fireman. Clarisse, in questioning Montag’s happiness, sets him off on his path to self-awareness.
A second character who plays a major role in Montag’s self-actualization is Professor Faber, an elderly English teacher who seemingly wrestles with Firechief Beatty for control of Montag’s mind. Although his control is not authoritarian like that of Beatty, Faber does manage to manipulate Montag a bit through the use of a two-way radio, commanding him to carry out deeds which he himself is too cowardly to accomplish. In this sense, Faber becomes the symbolic brain guiding Guy Montag’s body, the “Jiminy Cricket” conscience. In continuing the psychological “work” of Clarisse, Faber provides guidance and inspiration for the fireman as he continues on his long road to self-realization. In return, Faber is inspired by his young friend to become more daring and take a stand against oppression.
In one of the most heartbreaking moments of the book, Clarisse is tragically killed by a speeding motor vehicle, a striking symbol of the dehumanized world’s intolerance of those who refuse to conform. Shortly after Clarisse’s death, Montag swipes a book during one of his missions, only to witness the owner burn herself and her home in defiance of the firemen, triggering a spiral of depression which causes Montag to question his line of work. Montag’s internal anguish and strife against his ignorant society come to a pinnacle when an alarm leads the fireman brigade to his own home. In a rage, Montag murders Chief Beatty and, destroys one of the Mechanical Hounds, and then plunges into a river in an attempt to escape pursuit. The river represents Montag’s final and complete transformation, while Granger and the other literary hobos he meets along the train tracks are representative of the rebirth of an intellectual society.
Fahrenheit 451 plunges the reader into a dark world of totalitarianism, yet still manages to remain distinctively human. With his trademark wit, Bradbury incorporates much of the contemporary world into his vision of the future, something he did remarkably well in The Martian Chronicles and other books. More than a simple tirade against censorship, Fahrenheit 451 is a story of self-actualization, of daring to be an individual in a world of servile obedience, and of the knowledge which can only be found on the printed page.
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