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Fahrenheit 451 | Study Guide

Ray Bradbury

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Fahrenheit 451 | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


In Fahrenheit 451 why is the inclusion of Benjamin Franklin in the histories of the Firemen of America ironic?

Franklin's link to firefighting, book culture, political rebellion, and the establishment of American independence are antithetical to the society of Fahrenheit 451. The histories of the Firemen of America mention Benjamin Franklin as the "First Fireman." Benjamin Franklin organized the first fire department in the United States in 1736. Like the fire department in Fahrenheit 451 Franklin's fire department was intended for the benefit of society. However, Franklin created the first fire department to put out fires, not to burn books of any kind. Franklin was also immersed in print culture. He was a printer with his own printing business. Franklin not only printed books, he wrote them, and he was the author of several volumes. In the society of Fahrenheit 451 Franklin's activities would have been considered criminal. Franklin was also one of America's founders, a political rebel who wanted to overthrow the control of the British. He helped draft the Declaration of Independence, which emphasizes people's right to freedom. These beliefs and activities run completely counter to the rigid control and conformity of the culture portrayed in Fahrenheit 451.

What role does laughter play during Montag and Clarisse's first meeting in Fahrenheit 451?

Montag and Clarisse first meet early in the book. Laughter helps to develop both themes and characters in this scene. When Clarisse first asks Montag whether he has ever read any of the books he's burned, Montag laughs in response and tells her, "That's against the law!" His laughter signals surprise at the question. It also shows how different Montag's dystopian society is: censorship is the norm. Montag laughs again shortly afterward when Clarisse introduces the subject of history, asking about whether firemen used to fight fires. Montag's laughter signals how unthinkable it has become to even question history or seek accurate information about the past. Later in the scene, he laughs "abruptly" when she tells him about the changes made to the size of billboards, suggesting he had no idea that they had ever been any different. Third, laughter provides an opportunity for Clarisse to question Montag's reactions, asking, "Why are you laughing?" Montag doesn't know; he is too cut off from his own emotions. Clarisse's questions begin to point him toward self-awareness. Finally, just before they part, Clarisse laughs at Montag's question about what her family talks about. For her, her family's desire to converse is natural, while congenial conversation is a rarity for Montag and for the society.

In Fahrenheit 451 Montag "wears his happiness like a mask." Why does Montag think that Clarisse has "run off with the mask" and that he can't "ask for it back"?

At the end of their first meeting, Clarisse asks Montag if he is happy. Later Montag insists somewhat defensively that "of course" he is happy. But the description of Montag "wearing his happiness like a mask" suggests that he is putting on a show of happiness for others and hiding the truth from himself. A mask conceals the person who wears it, and Montag gradually realizes that under his fake exterior lies a deep sense of unhappiness and dissatisfaction with his life. In their society, which discourages individuality, curiosity, and human connection, Clarisse treats Montag as an individual, asking him direct personal questions and forging a friendship with him. She is also frank and fearless in her observations of Montag, noting that while many people are "afraid of firemen," Montag is "just a man." Clarisse's questions and observations "run off with the mask" and cause Montag to question his own beliefs and assumptions. When he recognizes his emotions, he is a changed man.

How do the hearth and the salamander, which give Part 1 of Fahrenheit 451 its name, represent opposing forces?

Both the hearth and the salamander are images related to fire. The hearth is a domestic image, the place where women "kept the home fires burning" in the days before electric lights. The hearth was the center of the home, where life was nourished and maintained and people gathered to eat and converse. This aspect of the domestic world is neglected in Montag's culture, which discourages warmth and human contact. The salamander, associated with fire in ancient myths, is the firemen's symbol and the nickname for the trucks they drive. In mythology the salamander could live in fire without being burned. The firemen wear the symbol because they live in fire through their work. It represents a force in opposition to the hearth because the firemen's fire brings censorship and destruction to homes.

How do the phrases "ruled paper" and "write the other way" in the epigraph to Fahrenheit 451 relate to the novel?

The phrase "ruled paper" is a pun. It both refers to the sort of ruled paper used by students and describes the novel's restrictive society, one that takes censorship to the extreme. It "rules paper" by asserting power over printed matter, designating books as subversive materials and burning them to protect the state. In addition, the society rules its citizens, expecting them to stay on a prescribed path and move in the same direction by following the rules. To "write the other way" is to go against the accepted social order, to deviate from a path one is expected to follow. The word writing is also a pun. Writing the other way represents the right to think freely and determine your own path, as Montag does. In addition the epigraph focuses on the act of writing, the first step in the creation of books, which Bradbury views as essential to learning to think for yourself.

Why might Bradbury have chosen to write Fahrenheit 451 as a dystopian novel?

Choosing to set the story in a dystopian society allowed Bradbury to point out the real threats of censorship, mass media, and technology in the hands of a repressive regime. He did this by contrasting concepts that readers take for granted with extremes that could logically exist under a government that devalues personal liberties. Book burning and censorship had been prevalent in Nazi Germany; Stalin still ruled Soviet Russia's totalitarian government while Bradbury was writing the book. And as a result of McCarthy's investigations, American media and libraries had also experienced censorship. A dystopian society in which books are routinely burned was a logical extreme. And although Bradbury's readers were free to read, television was becoming increasingly popular in the early 1950s. To Bradbury's eyes television threatened to destroy the public's interest in reading, and in his dystopian society it has done just that.

In Fahrenheit 451 why is it significant that Montag reads "Dover Beach" to Mildred and her friends?

In "Dover Beach" the speaker contrasts the beauty of the natural world—a moonlit bay—with humanity's loss of faith in God. The narrator of "Dover Beach" describes a world with "neither joy, nor love, nor light/... nor help for pain" where "ignorant armies clash by night." The poem is also a call for love and authenticity in dark and terrible times: "Ah, love let us be true/To one another!" Montag's society values artifice and avoids nature; warfare is a frequent occurrence, and love and human connection are repressed. Authentic personal experience has been replaced by a set of ever-present television "friends." The poem is deeply disturbing to Mildred's friends because it laments the things they cannot experience. It causes Mrs. Phelps to cry and Mrs. Bowles to lose her temper. At the same time, the poem is meaningful to Montag because it advocates the kind of rebellion against a negative, violent world through love and being "true" to others that Montag will embrace as the novel continues.

In Fahrenheit 451 what makes Clarisse's first name, which means "bright" and "clear," appropriate for the character?

When Montag first meets her in Part 1, Clarisse is standing in the moonlight. During that first encounter, Montag describes Clarisse's eyes as "shining drops of bright water," and he says that her face has "a soft but constant light" in contrast to the "hysterical light of electricity." Her face is also described as "bright as snow in the moonlight." Clarisse is bright in the sense of being intelligent and perceptive, but she also shines a light on Montag. She recognizes that he is not like the other firemen and makes him see his own unhappiness. In addition Clarisse helps Montag to clearly see the world around him, opening his eyes to new ways of thinking and feeling.

In Part 1 of Fahrenheit 451 what insight about himself does Montag achieve when he describes the physical appearance of the other firemen in the firehouse?

Like the symbolic salamander, the firemen live in fire, and it defines them, as if they have absorbed it into their very beings. They take on the colors of ash and soot, all have black hair and black brows, and they smell like the smoke from their pipes. Their "fiery face[s]" appear "sunburnt by real, and even imaginary fires." The firemen look flushed and fevered, not just when they burn books, but all the time. Montag realizes that the firemen are "all mirror images of himself." In fact he is not sure he has "ever seen a fireman that didn't have" these features. One of the firemen's most important duties is to maintain the status quo by burning books. Officially sanctioned to destroy books as threats to conformity, they have become the picture of conformity. While they believe they are untouched by their work, it has consumed and transformed them.

How are Clarisse and Mildred contrasted in Part 1 of Fahrenheit 451?

Although both women are important to Montag in the novel, the differences between Mildred and Clarisse are clear from the beginning. Clarisse is new to Montag. He is getting to know her. She is much younger than he is. She is playful and loves nature, "rarely" watching the televisions filling the walls of the rooms or participating in any of the other distractions their culture has to offer. Instead Clarisse asks probing, thought-provoking questions about social rules and about Montag's state of mind and freely expresses her own feelings and experiences. Her effect on Montag is immediate and profound, awakening him to his memories and emotions. By contrast when Mildred first appears in the book she has almost fatally overdosed on sleeping pills. The bedroom is "like a mausoleum after the moon has set," and Mildred resembles "a body displayed on the lid of a tomb," her face "like a snow-covered island," isolated and cold. Addicted to technology, she is wearing her Seashell Radio, which plays even as she lies unconscious. While Clarisse signals new life and resistance for Montag, Mildred represents death and the numbing effect of the status quo.

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