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Literature / Fahrenheit 451

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"It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed."

In the near future, society has become a complacent lot. Gone are the days when people would enjoy nature, think independently, let alone read books — in fact, thanks to The Government's policy of Bread and Circuses, books have been outlawed as dangerous sources of dissent and unhappiness. Now, it's all just state-sanctioned mindless entertainment: three-dimensional interactive television, reckless driving, "fun parks" (where people commit petty crimes with wild abandon), and the scarce reading matter deemed vapid and shallow enough to be harmless (e.g. trade brochures, pornographic magazines, and caption-less comic books).note 

With too many books to deal with, the government decided there could be only one way to dispose of them efficiently: book burning, a job delegated to firemen. Originally a dying breed in a time where all houses are insulated against common fires, firemen found a new purpose in life — making midnight community rounds in search of books. Any house containing books would be doused in kerosene and burnt as a lesson to the community (and the offending party brought to law).

Guy Montag is one such fireman — and he's pretty much been married to his job for ten years, since his wife would rather spend most of her time with her interactive TV family, the constant noise from her seashell earbuds, and her pills (which she inadvertently overdoses on). His life is forever changed when he meets a young woman named Clarisse McClellan, whose energetic free spirit forces him to start questioning what's happening with the world and himself. After a house burning gone bad, Montag secretly takes a book home and soon becomes fascinated with it, despite the objections of his wife and fears of his superior Beatty finding out. Deciding he must do something to save himself and at least some books, the question now becomes: how?

Fahrenheit 451 is a classic novel by Ray Bradbury which deals with the issue of cheap, mindless entertainment and its harms on society. Ray Bradbury himself loathed television, viewing it as a form of entertainment without substance. The book also deals with individualism versus conformity as well as consumerism. It is often misinterpreted as being about censorship, though as several scenes in the novel indicate to the reader (as well as interviews with the author himself indicate; he reportedly walked out of a class at UCLA when the students insisted Fahrenheit 451 was about government censorship), the censorship shown in the novel is not what leads to society desiring cheap entertainment and seeing individuality as abhorrent, but rather it was society's growing desire for mindless entertainment that led them to abandon books and view them as a harmful medium, thus leading to book-burning. Originally written in 1953, it pulls off the rare feat of becoming even more socially relevant as time goes on, and is a favorite for book clubs and literary groups in general.

It was made into a film starring Oskar Werner and Julie Christie by François Truffaut in 1966 (which had a lot of Troubled Production issues and is both the first and last time Francois Truffaut ever did an English language movie), and was also adapted into a video game for Apple ][, Atari ST, Commodore 64, IBM Personal Computer, Apple Macintosh, MSX, and Tandy 1000 in 1984; it was also adapted into a stage play also written by Bradbury in the 1990s. A new adaptation by Ramin Bahrani and HBO Films was released, starring Michael B. Jordan as Montag, Michael Shannon as Captain Beatty and Sofia Boutella as Clarisse. Tropes for the 2018 adaption should go here.

The public is warned not to confuse this with the video game Fahrenheit or the Michael Moore documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, which briefly got Moore in mild legal trouble when Bradbury caught wind of the title he was planning to use and sued.

Compare Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (which is also about a hedonistic future where past morals and beliefs are considered Values Dissonance and a society that does whatever it can to make its people happy at the cost of personal freedom and individuality, only Brave New World has a Downer Ending and is more of a Fish out of Water story) and Mike Judge's Idiocracy (which is more satirical and has a more-or-less happy ending to it). Contrast with Nineteen Eighty-Four.

This book provides examples of the following:

  • Adapted Out: Faber (the recluse English professor who helps Montag get back at the illiterate society) wasn't in the 1966 movie version and Mildred (Montag's lazy, neurotic, drug-addled wife) wasn't included in the 2018 HBO version.
  • Advert-Overloaded Future: In the novel, Montag tries to read on the subway, but he's constantly distracted by a jingle for Denham's Dentifrice. He eventually screams at the radio to shut up, shocking the rest of the passengers who were singing along.
  • Arc Words: "Consider the lilies of the field..." In the most straightforward sense the quote represents a fragment of remembered depth, but story loads it with layers of conflicting meaning. The line in original context is a contemplation of both Living Is More than Surviving and Measuring the Marigolds: Lilies simply exist to be lilies, with no concerns or ambitions beyond that, contrasting the fixation with stimulation, action, and alleged progress surrounding Montag. At the same, the story also explores the dark side of over-elevating this sort of Simple-Minded Wisdom: the work's society is falling into passive consumerism, like the pretty but ultimately useless lilies.
  • Artistic License – Physics: 451 Fahrenheit is not even close to the temperature at which paper begins burning. Not to mention it is impossible to narrow down the point of ignition within one Fahrenheit, as minor variations in the environment like air pressure and humidity alone can be enough to change it that much.
    • Celsius 451 is though
  • Badass Bookworm: Clarisse, Faber and eventually Montag.
  • Big Bad: Captain Beatty is Montag's employer who enforces the book burning regime and is the main antagonistic force in the entire story against Montag and Faber.
  • Big Good: Faber, who helps Montag develop his love of reading.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Montag manages to leave his old life for good and join the Book People, but not before they witness their home city destroyed in a nuclear explosion, most likely killing everybody, including his wife, Mildred, whom he still loves, despite that their marriage is dead and she ratted him out to his boss over having books. Still, with their preserved knowledge, Montag and friends walk toward the countryside in a bid to find survivors and rebuild society.
  • Blithe Spirit: Clarisse, a plucky teenage girl who helps Montag question himself and his life.
  • Book Burning: One of the most iconic examples in fiction.
  • Books vs. Screens: Played straight in where screens have become so ubiquitous that they dominate whole walls, while literacy has all but disappeared due to a quickening lifestyle and Political Overcorrectness.
  • Bread and Circuses: Most of the people like the vacuous entertainment, don't care about anything or anyone but themselves and being happy, and don't bother to question or talk about how corrupt the government has become, even as World War III is apparently on the horizon.
  • Call a Smeerp a "Rabbit": The description of the Mechanical Hound make it sound more spider than dog.
  • Career-Revealing Trait: Clarisse McClellan figures out that Guy Montag is a "fireman" from the smell of kerosene on him.
  • Central Theme: The pursuit of knowledge, versus that of ignorance.
    • Censorship also qualifies, though Ray Bradbury has stated that his intention was to convey the former.
  • Character Arc: Montag's arc is about him learning that books aren't as evil as society makes them to be, and to free himself from his humdrum life.
  • A Child Shall Lead Them: Downplayed. It's a teenage girl named Clarisse who influences Montag to take action in the first place.
  • Classical Anti-Hero: Montag himself; starts off as a public servant who follows orders without question and later, rises above the hedonistic ideals of the society he once stood for, thus making him a hero of sorts.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Clarisse qualifies, though only though the eyes of the society she lives in (in the book version, she mentions to Montag that she goes to see a therapist about why she's such a free spirit in a society that frowns upon it. The 1966 movie version has Clarisse this way too, only, since she's a schoolteacher who actually likes to teach and engage her students in what she teaches, she's being targeted by the headmaster who fires her for not following the curriculum and by the firemen for being a menace to society).
  • Composite Character: In the 1966 film, Clarisse serves as one. This version of the character combines Clarisse and Faber.
  • Crapsack World: The premise for the book. Society is essentially governed by technology and, of course, any form of thought-provoking media is banned.
  • Crazy-Prepared: In order for civilization to survive the coming nuclear apocalypse, the Book People dedicate themselves to memorizing every significant literary work and hand it down to their pupils.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death:
    • A nondescript woman who doesn't want to give up her books gets burnt alive by the firemen
    • Mildred dies at the end of the book when the city is bombed.
    • Beatty is burnt alive by Montag with a flamethrower.
  • Culture Police: The Firemen burns books to prevent the books' influence on society.
  • "Day of the Week" Name: Montag is German for Monday.
  • Death of a Child: Clarisse is only seventeen when she dies.
  • Death Seeker: Beatty outright asks Montag to burn him with a flamethrower. Montag complies.
  • Delinquents: Culture has been allowed to decline to the point where teenagers bully people, vandalize public property, and run down pedestrians for kicks and jollies. One closer-to-home example happens when Montag is nearly struck by a car full of teenagers and Clarisse gets trampled over by a bunch of teenage hoodlums.
  • The Dog Bites Back: After putting up with his bullshit, Montag torches Beatty with a flamethrower.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: Mildred, with countless forms of vapid entertainment and her prescription pill addiction (as seen when Montag scares off her friends by reading poetry and rushes to the bathroom to take her pills). What makes it unsettling is that Mildred is too dense to know why she's doing this to herself.
  • Dystopia: It's a very grim world; the country (implied to be America in the novel, though the movie and a BBC radio drama had Britain in mind) is prepping for World War III (and no one knows or cares about it), the rest of the world hates it because of its hedonistic ways, empathy is extinct, schools are only concerned in pumping facts into children's heads without any form of discussion or actual learning, teenagers commit petty crimes with abandon, parlor walls air shallow programming that everyone enjoys, children and marriage are brushed off as a necessity to keep its miserable existence going rather than a joy, prescription pill overdoses are so common that medics-cum-doctors are hired to pump out the victims at all hours of the day and night, and nearly everyone is a Stepford Smiler who is deeply depressed. This is a common scenario in Bradbury's other works that also focus on dystopias.
  • Exact Words: The law forbids people from reading any books or literature. Beatty himself owns books in his house's library — he simply never reads them.
  • Fallen Hero: Implied in Beatty's past. Adaptations and Word of God reveal that he was once a voracious reader and staunch opponent of the government, and he still maintains an extensive library — that he never uses. He can quote many classical authors from memory.
  • Firefighter Arsonist: In the futuristic world, buildings became fireproof. This combined with a public fear of the ideas presented in old literature, led to Fire Departments being relegated and reformed to being responsible to starting fires, to burn books, and anyone's house that holds said books. They make deadly use of flamethrowers.
  • Foil: Beatty to Montag; Clarisse to Mildred/Linda (the latter is emphasized in the 1966 movie, where both were played by Julie Christie [with a wig as the only difference between them]).
  • Happiness Is Mandatory: Society is actively encouraged to pursue mindless, hedonistic behaviors that'll keep them occupied and smiling, from watching vapid programming on TV walls to committing petty crimes, like speeding, vandalism, and assault. People are encouraged not to think too deeply about trivial things, since that would distract them and make them unhappy, hence why books and the ideas they contain are burned with impunity.
  • Headphones Equal Isolation: One of the earliest examples. This is shown via "seashell" radios, and Mildred uses them to the point she ignores her husband.
  • Heel Realization: An encounter with Clarisse slowly forces Montag to question his blissfully ignorant existence.
  • Hobos: The Book People, who live off the grid so they can read books and not be persecuted.
  • Holier Than Thou: Said word for word by Captain Beatty.
    Beatty: Alone, hell! [Clarisse] chewed around you, didn't she? One of those damn do-gooders with their shocked, holier-than-thou silences, their one talent making others feel guilty. God damn, they rise like the midnight sun to sweat you in your bed!
  • Implacable Man: The mechanical hound will stop at nothing to kill something once it is programmed to go after it.
  • Informed Attribute: The Mechanical Hound isn't much like a hound at all. Its name simply refers to its use as an artificial bloodhound. Averted in the comic book adaptation where it actually does look like a robotic dog.
  • Ironic Death: Beatty is burnt alive with a flamethrower at Montag's hand. Subverted in that he genuinely seemed to desire death, and this death specifically.
  • Irony: A novel with strong anti-censorship themes is notable for its history of censorship by numerous groups.
    • Because of its use as a reading assignment in high schools, there have been numerous attempts by Moral Guardians to ban this book about banning books.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Beatty is by no means a good guy, but he's right when he says quotes can be manipulated to justify almost any point.
  • Karmic Death: After repeatedly humiliating and mocking Montag, it's very satisfying, though still gruesome, to see Beatty getting roasted alive, and Hoist by His Own Petard.
  • Killed Offscreen: Montag doesn't know Clarisse is dead until his wife tells him.
  • Killer Robot: The Mechanical Hound, an eight-legged artificial Super-Persistent Predator which is programmed to hunt down and kill offenders via lethal injection. Giving it a sparing description makes it far creepier.
  • Kill It with Fire: Metaphorically and literally:
    • The Firemen are killing literacy with fire.
    • Also the fate of Beatty and the Hound.
    • And the entire society... for the third time.
  • Last-Name Basis: Guy Montag is hardly referred to as anything but his surname.
  • Living Ark: The "Book People" act as this trope in a literature sense. They are a group of nomadic intellectuals hiding in the wilderness outside the protagonist' book-burning city. They commit entire works of literature of all kinds to memory and hope to one day reintroduce books and knowledge to society, when it is ready. The Book People and their way of life have a profound impact on protagonist Montag, helping to change the way he sees the world and stirring his love of books.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Clarisse for Montag. Her intuitive, unorthodox character prompts Montag to question his own lifestyle. However, there relationship doesn't go into outright romance and Clarisse is tragically hit by a car.
  • Marriage of Convenience: Overlaps with Marry for Love, strangely enough. While Montag and Mildred's relationship is rocky at best (Mildred is implied to only be with Montag because he has a paying job), they're actually not sure whether they were in love from the beginning. Neither of them can recall where they first met. Montag finally remembers that he did love Mildred when the bombs destroy the city and kill Mildred.
  • Meaningful Name: It was stated somewhere that Montag's name is a play on "Man Friday," a violent savage turned to the side of good and used as a servant. In Montag's case he is the tamed savage and Faber is the master. Furthermore, Faber's name comes from famous German pen-making company Faber-Castell, and Montag is the name of a paper company.
    • Bradbury notes that the Faber/Montag naming was unintentional but very subconscious.
    • "Faber" is Latin for "maker", fitting someone who leads the Book People.
    • Montag in German literally means "Monday", the first day of a new week, which symbolizes his role in helping the Book People rebuild society After the End.
  • Monster Clown: One of Millie's "family members," her favorite TV characters, in the novel are a group of homicidal white clowns.
  • Motor Mouth: Clarisse has the tendency to go on and on about one concept or another. Montag actually doesn't mind, because she's the only person he knows who's passionate about something.
  • Mundanger: Faber drives home a more intellectual fear: the danger of enshrining symbols of reason and wisdom over the employment of said virtues, with his rebuke to Montag's failure to understand the reason for saving books, and that Books vs. Screens is a fallacy.
    "Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all."
  • A Nazi by Any Other Name: The Firemen, especially in the movie, where it is lampshaded with a "Not So Different" Remark directed at the audience. Captain Beatty, in pointing out doctrine, comments: "If you are going to burn some books... you have to burn all the books!" He does so while holding up a copy of Mein Kampf.
  • New Media Are Evil: Specifically, when new media such as flashy television offers mindless entertainment that replaces more intellectual mediums that exercise the mind and imagination such as books. Ray Bradbury repeatedly clarified in interviews that this was the real point of the novel, and that people who claimed that the novel is about censorship missed the point of Faber's monologues, etc. The shallow, mind-numbing entertainment such as television programs that everyone has become hooked on are slowly destroying society, and cheap entertainment that encourages violence is viewed as normal over something like taking a hike in the woods. Television at the time of the novel's writing was indeed pretty shallow, serving as little more than corporate and government propaganda, with mindless sanitized entertainment designed to make you want to buy products.
    • Bradbury would go on to host a television show, Ray Bradbury Theater. While this may seem ironic, it's important to note that in the book Faber makes it a point to tell Montag that it isn't new media such as television that is the problem., but rather it's the way people have used television as a cheap form of mindless entertainment to completely replace activities that involve thinking, or socialization:
      "You're a hopeless romantic," said Faber. "It would be funny if it were not serious. It's not books you need, it's some of the things that once were in books. The same things could be in the 'parlor families' today. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors but are not. No, no, it's not books at all you're looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us."
  • No Accounting for Taste: Montag's marriage to Mildred. She has little passion or genuine love for Montag, perfering to spend time with her TV family and her vapid friends. Montag tries to get her to be interested in books, but she has zero desire to do anything. Eventually, Mildred straight up turns on him and sells him to the authorities after he drives her vapid friends away by reading a book.
  • Noodle Incident: Clarisse tells stories about her uncle, including the time he was arrested for being a pedestrian.
    • That is actually a reference to Bradbury's 1951 short story "The Pedestrian", which he has described as being "the beginning" of Fahrenheit 451.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: Captain Beatty gives Montag one of these in both the novel and the film; in the play it is significantly expanded to become his defining moment.
  • Nuke 'em: In this universe, America has fought and won two nuclear wars.
  • Obnoxious Entitled Housewife: Mildred takes this to the extreme: all she cares about is her cheap entertainment, and she treats Guy as a means of buying more of it. Her friends are even worse: none of them actually care about their families, and they call Guy nasty and storm out of his house when he tries to force them to actually think about their shallow existence.
  • Painting the Medium: The film begins with an announcer reading the credits out loud over shots of TV aerials; at the end, as Montag is walking with the other Book People, the words The End appear onto the screen.
  • Peace & Love Incorporated: Beatty sees the Firemen as protectors of everyone's peace of mind.
  • Persecuted Intellectuals: This is a society where books are banned and people who own them go to jail, so this is a given.
    • Clarisse and her family are outcasts because they also don't care for vapid culture that surrounds them. It is heavily implied her murder was no accident and that she was killed for being a free-thinker.
    • Montag joins a group of people who live as outcasts from society because they choose to read.
  • Photographic Memory:
    • The movie version ends with the main character joining a society where everyone is able to memorize an entire book.
    • In the book version they say that they developed techniques that allow a person to recall perfectly anything they ever read.
  • Precocious Crush: Implied with Clarisse in the dandelion scene. She's a teenage girl who has feelings for Montag.
  • Promoted to Love Interest: The film ages 17-year-old Clarisse up to 20 to make her a love interest for 30-year-old Montag.
    • In the 2018 movie, the actor of Clarisse is older than that of Montag, which made some fans of the novel a little uncomfortable.
  • Quote-to-Quote Combat: Beatty claims that he had a dream about one between him and Montag, where they used quotes from Samuel Johnson, William Shakespeare and others.
  • Race Lift: In the 2018 HBO film adaptation, Guy Montag is played by black actor Michael B. Jordan. Clarisse is also portrayed by the Algerian actress Sofia Boutella.
  • Rage Within the Machine: The plot is Guy realizing just how shallow and void his existence is and how his occupation is damaging to society.
  • "Reading Is Cool" Aesop: Zigzagged throughout the book. At the start, Montag believes that books must be really valuable if they're being burnt. When he reads them, he can't make sense of what they mean. He is able to get help from a scientist to find meaning in them, but scares off his wife's friends when he reads them poetry that makes them uncomfortable. In the end, Montag does learn the value of books: it's not what you do with them, it's what you do with the knowledge they contain.
  • Redemption Equals Death: It's a theory, but some believe that the reason Beatty wanted to be burnt alive was because he believed it was the only way he could redeem himself after what he'd done.
  • Rousseau Was Right: When Montag recites classic poetry to his wife's equally vapid acquaintances, one of them cries, commenting on how she forgot that feelings like that existed (the rest of them condemn Montag for being nasty and dismiss the poem as trash for evoking awful emotions).
  • Sexless Marriage: Montag and Mildred in the novel. They sleep in separate beds, their bedroom is described as a cold tomb, Mildred can't remember when she met Montag, and Mildred only cares about her TV family and Montag going out and making money to keep the house and earn enough to get a fourth TV wall. The 1966 version did show Montag and Mildred having sex, but only after Mildred had to have her stomach pumped from her latest pill overdose, since the doctors told Montag that she'll wake up "with an appetite for all sorts of things".
  • Shoot the Television: Montag destroys the TV parlors with a flamethrower.
  • Shout-Out: According to Word of God, the Mechanical Hound is Bradbury's homage to the titular beast of The Hound of the Baskervilles.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: Clarisse is written out of the story almost immediately (Mildred tells Montag that her family moved away because she got run over by a speeding car), but her brief role instigates Montag's change—i.e., pretty much all the novel's events.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Clarisse in the filmnote  and play. In the novel, Clarisse is said to have been run over by a speeding car. In the 1966 movie, she's alive, but she loses her job as a schoolteacher and gets hunted down by the firemen (then joins up with the Book People).
  • Stepford Smiler: Though a lot of people are kept too occupied to see it (Mildred and her friends, especially), nobody's truly happy, as Clarisse aptly points out.
  • Stupid Future People: Dystopia variety - reading is deliberately suppressed in favor of TV watching and hedonistic behavior.
  • Suicide by Cop: In the novel, at least. It's heavily implied that Beatty was belittling Montag because he wanted Montag to burn him alive.
  • Suicide by Pills: Mildred does this. The fact that she doesn't bother to get professional help after recovering is part of the reason Montag rebels against his society.
  • Teen Hater: Clarisse is seventeen herself, but is scared of kids her age who, in this 20 Minutes into the Future Dystopian America, tend to be violent and reckless enough to regularly get each other killed. "I'm afraid of them and they don't like me because I'm afraid."
  • Teens Are Monsters: In the novel, Clarisse tells Montag about how kids her age like to bully people, smash cars, and just be generally wild and destructive — and some of Clarisse's friends and peers have died from car accidents, gun violence, and suicide.
  • There Are No Therapists: There are psychiatrists in this world, but their job is to weed out people like Clarisse who still have a shred of humanity left in them, rather than help the Stepford Smilers and living zombies like Mildred and her friends who brush off their deep-seated emotional problems (like pill addiction, divorce, losing a husband to suicide, having a husband go off to war, and raising disrespectful children) and subconscious desire to commit suicide. Not even the paramedics who pump Mildred's stomach tell Montag that Mildred may need to be committed (or put on suicide watch) for her overdose (mostly because they're happening so often that no one notices or cares and would rather put a Band-Aid on the problem by having the patient's stomach pumped and blood replaced).
  • Unlikely Hero: Montag is a world-weary fireman with no intention to evade society at the start of the novel. His character arc surprises everybody, including himself.
  • Voice with an Internet Connection: Faber is quite probably the Ur-Example for the "hidden earpiece" variety.
  • Wham Line:
    • "It was a pleasure to burn." Though it's at the start of the book, it's shocking enough to qualify. It's even worse with the context of Beatty and Mildred's deaths.
    • The second act ends with Montag heading to a seemingly routine book-burning assignment... which is at his own house.
  • Zeerust: Though the novel merely takes place in an unspecified future time after 1990, the movie's technology is zeerust-y. However, technology like the "parlor walls" mirrors today's big, flatscreen TVs (some of which can be mounted onto walls, making them "parlor walls" to some extent), while the "seashell radios" are similar to either Bluetooth phones or iPod earbud headphones.
    • Beyond that, the entire idea that, in the 21st century, paper books would still be an institution, let alone one important enough to dedicate entire government squads to purging, has a Zeerust quality to it.
    • Special mention goes to the snake-like medical device used on Mildred that bears a heavy resemblance to an endoscope, a technology that came out four years after the book was first published.
    • The pocket transistor radio was first introduced a year or so after the novel was published. Ray Bradbury recalled seeing a woman walking down the street oblivious both to her male companion and to her surroundings as she listened to one via an earpiece, and described his shock at seeing his predictions so soon coming true.