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Fahrenheit 451 | Study Guide

Ray Bradbury

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Fahrenheit 451 | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


In Fahrenheit 451 what does the printed matter that citizens are still allowed to read say about the society?

Printed matter that is not subject to burning includes comic books, three-dimensional pornography, "the good old confessions" (possibly referring to gossip magazines or tabloids), the scripts Mildred reads in order to interact with the fictional family on her parlor walls, the firemen's rule books, and trade journals. Comic books rely more on pictures than words and are the closest literary equivalent in Montag's society to television. Three-dimensional pornography and "good old confessions" are sensationalist, designed to shock or tantalize. In this sense they resemble the loud, flashy entertainment designed to produce cheap thrills and desensitize, like the Fun Park or the Car Wrecker place. Mildred's scripts create fake interactions with fake characters in programs that seem interchangeable and lack substance. The firemen's rule books and the trade journals are practical and offer no appeals to emotion. Trade journals focus on dry information about developments in specific professions. Neither of these promote independent thought or intellectual exploration, so they are not a threat to the social order.

In Fahrenheit 451 how does society view the concept of family?

Family is treated in the society as a necessary unit that lacks intimacy or connection. It is more of a duty than a source of joy for most people. Clarisse's family is a notable exception: she speaks about them with love and respect. Granger also speaks lovingly of his grandfather and how much he learned from him. Part of Montag's awakening occurs when he remembers a wonderful evening he and his mother shared when the electricity went out. By contrast Mildred's friends talk about their children with resentment, not affection. They have them only as a duty to society but then can barely stand to spend any time with them, plunking them in front of wall screens. Mrs. Phelps describes her relationship with her children as adversarial, claiming they would "just as soon kick me as kiss me. Thank God, I can kick back!" Other characters never mention parents, siblings, or other relatives and rarely discuss husbands, wives, or other social groups that could constitute "family." Instead Montag's society reinvents the notion of family through technology, which substitutes televised families for actual ones. These pseudo-families are designed to please and flatter the viewer. In fact Mildred prefers the pseudo-family on her parlor walls to any human family members. When Montag torches their home, she responds as if her television family had just experienced a tragic event—"Poor family, poor family, oh everything gone."

In Part 2 of Fahrenheit 451 how does Montag's subway ride develop his characterization and advance the novel's themes?

Montag's subway ride signifies some important transitions in Montag's personal development. He is taking the subway to see Faber because he wants to make the transition from simply reading the books he has stolen to understanding them. The journey reinforces the shift he is experiencing in his thinking about himself, his life, and his society. The subway is a microcosm of that society: people not interacting but being hurtled through space as earsplitting advertisements destroy their concentration. It is described as inhuman and frightening, a "vacuum underground" that hisses like a huge mechanical snake and has a "slicing door." However, the subway is also the first place in which Montag publicly reveals that he is carrying an illegal book, daring to read the Bible in front of the other passengers, at great risk to himself. The noisy, repetitive advertising jingle for Denham's Dentifrice is so loud, they compete with the words Montag is trying to read about "the lilies of the field," a soothing and peaceful image. Montag is so frustrated that he finally yells, "Shut up, shut up, shut up!" Seeing a fireman publicly reading a book, much less yelling for quiet, is shocking. This is a significant breaking point for Montag, who is now in open conflict with his culture.

What is the role of the jets that fly overhead throughout Fahrenheit 451?

The jets reinforce the power of the state over its citizens and its ability to define their lives. The embodiment of military authority, they painfully disrupt daily life. According to Montag it feels as if the jets fly overhead "every hour." The planes don't fly solo but only in packs, and they seem to multiply: "Six of them, nine of them, twelve of them ... another and another and another." As bombers, the planes are designed to be destructive in wartime, but they are destructive in other ways, as the imagery that describes them suggests: "There was a tremendous ripping sound as if two giant hands had torn ten thousand miles of black linen down the seam." Montag feels "cut in half" by their shrieking, which he imagines has "pulverized" the stars. An omnipresent reminder of the constant threat of war, the jets also foreshadow the atomic cataclysm to come at the end of the novel. They both stand for the state's authority and presage its destruction.

In Part 2 of Fahrenheit 451 what are some possible motivations for Montag's decision to read "Dover Beach" to Mildred and her friends?

Montag may have been motivated to read the poem for a variety of reasons. Before he reads the poem, Montag tries to engage Mildred and her guests in conversation, which only reveals how empty and thoughtless they are. He might have hoped to shock the women into thinking and feeling by reading the poem. It is equally possible that he can no longer contain either his anger and frustration or his excitement about books. Montag may also be trying to connect with other human beings by sharing his newfound passion. When he first met Faber in the park, Faber recited poetry to him. Finally there is the possibility that, perhaps unconsciously, Montag wants to get caught. As a fireman, he certainly knows the risks of possessing books. He has already read a book publicly on the subway, but only to himself. Reading to Mildred and her friends means he is trying to draw others into the world of books with him, a new and dangerous extreme.

Faber says in Fahrenheit 451 that books "remind us what asses and fools we are." How does this assessment compare with Beatty's observation that books cause people to feel inferior?

Faber and Beatty both focus on how books shed light on human behavior. However, Faber sees this as a positive. It is good to acknowledge that people have limitations and make mistakes and have done so for centuries. Humans have been, and continue to be, "asses and fools." According to Faber books can't guarantee that humans won't make the same mistakes in the future, but they do contain knowledge that might lead to constructive changes in civilization over time: "And perhaps in a thousand years we might pick smaller cliffs to jump off." Beatty believes that books and the people who read them make other people feel inferior and that this is to be avoided. His job as a fireman is to protect people from this "understandable and rightful dread of being inferior." Unlike Faber, Beatty has an interest in carrying out the government's mandates. Citizens who feel an unshakeable sense of self-satisfaction are easier to control because they are unlikely to want to change themselves or their government.

In Fahrenheit 451 how do Beatty and Montag use nature imagery to describe burning books?

In Part 2 Montag imagines Beatty's voice in his head, coaxing him to remember what a pleasure it is burn books. Montag also imagines Beatty sitting amid the remnants of burned books. Montag imagines Beatty saying that a book's pages burn "delicately, like the petals of a flower" and "each becomes a black butterfly." For Beatty it is truly "a pleasure to burn," and his choice of words conveys the beauty he finds in destruction. Book burning is an almost erotic act for Beatty, who savors the pages burning one by one. When Montag describes Beatty sitting among the burnt pages on the floor, he doesn't see flowers or butterflies, but "swarms of black moths that had died in a single storm." The image is of death by fire; moths die when they confuse flames for natural light and fly into them. Beatty mistakes destruction for beauty and, like the moths, will ultimately die by fire. The nature imagery works to suggest a living quality to the books and the ideas encapsulated within them.

In Fahrenheit 451 how does the Mechanical Hound support the theme of dystopian technology?

The Mechanical Hound is an example of technology perverting biology in the service of the state. The Mechanical Hound is like Mildred's television "family," which replaces humans with technological creations as a form of mind control. Like a biological dog, the Mechanical Hound serves as a protector and is used for hunting. The Mechanical Hound protects the state, not its owner. It is a surveillance device that hunts people who hide illegal books. In the end Montag is able to destroy the Hound and escape its replacement, suggesting that humanity may still triumph over technology.

In Fahrenheit 451 why does Beatty feel that books need to be burned?

Beatty identifies a number of problems with books. Their content is objectionable; for instance, nonfiction books contradict one another. They take conflicting positions and leave readers without a single unified worldview, which upsets and confuses them. In fiction, Beatty says, the problem is the books don't portray reality. The people in them are fantasies who never existed, so they have no bearing on real life. Books also contribute to people's feelings of inferiority because they threaten their sense of equality and contain something to offend everyone. As the population grew, so did the numbers of minority and other splinter groups. The government began destroying books in order to avoid offending these groups. Finally Beatty notes that books are full of platitudes and received ideas. To a culture that loves novelty, or at least the illusion of novelty, they offer nothing new.

How does Bradbury's portrayal of mass media in Fahrenheit 451 foreshadow criticism of such 21st-century technologies as social media and video games?

Published in 1953, Fahrenheit 451 critiques the dangers of radio and television, but Bradbury's concerns are relevant to controversies surrounding 21st-century technology. One is the fear that people who interact too much with technological devices, including cell phones, computers, and video games, will lose the ability to interact with others. For instance social media is accused of undermining social contact by favoring superficial communication over face-to-face interaction. Another common argument against 21st-century technology, one that would certainly have troubled Bradbury, is that people are not reading as many books. When the novel was published in 1953 television was limited to a handful of channels broadcast on small screens. However, the novel's wall-sized screens anticipated the larger screens of contemporary televisions and the availability of a vast array of channels, making it possible to become absorbed in the alternate world of television around the clock. In the novel the miniaturization of the Seashell Radio foreshadowed modern ear buds; both let listeners shut out the world around them. In Fahrenheit 451 people are dominated by a barrage of media, so distracted that they have no inner life and cannot think for themselves. Modern video games offer the opportunity to live temporarily inside an imaginary world as an avatar. Fahrenheit 451 takes these scenarios to a greater extreme. The television programs in Montag's society appear on multiple screens that surround and engulf viewers like Mildred. This allows them to escape reality and form artificial bonds with unreal "people."

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