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An Essay On Criticism Part 3 Summary Fahrenheit

Fahrenheit 451 Ray Bradbury

American short story writer, novelist, scriptwriter, poet, dramatist, nonfiction writer, editor, and children's writer.

The following entry presents criticism on Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953). See also Ray Bradbury Short Story Criticism, Ray Bradbury Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 10, 15.

Among Bradbury's most influential and widely read works, Fahrenheit 451 (1953) describes the impact of censorship and forced conformity on a group of people living in a future society where books are forbidden and burned. (The title refers to the temperature at which book paper catches fire.) The novel was written during the era of McCarthyism, a time when many Americans were maliciously—and often falsely—accused of attempting to subvert the United States government. This was also the period of the Cold War and the moment when television emerged as the dominant medium of mass communication. Within this context, Fahrenheit 451 addresses the leveling effect of consumerism and reductionism, focusing on how creativity and human individuality are crushed by the advertising industry and by political ideals. Traditionally classified as a work of science fiction, Fahrenheit 451 showcases Bradbury's distinctive poetic style and preoccupation with human subjects over visionary technology and alien worlds, thereby challenging the boundaries of the science fiction genre itself. The social commentary of Fahrenheit 451, alternately anti-utopian, satirical, and optimistic, transcends simple universal statements about government or world destiny to underscore the value of human imagination and cultural heritage.

Plot and Major Characters

Fahrenheit 451, a revision and expansion of Bradbury's 56-page novella "The Fireman," consists of a series of events and dialogue divided into three parts. Together the story traces the emotional and spiritual development of Guy Montag, a twenty-fourth century "fireman" who, unlike his distant predecessors, is employed to start fires rather than extinguish them. Under government mandate to seek out and eradicate all books—in Montag's world, book ownership is a crime punishable by death—Montag and his colleagues answer emergency calls to burn the homes of people found to be in possession of books. The first and longest part of the novel, "The Hearth and the Salamander," opens with Montag happily fueling a blaze of burning books. This event is followed by a period of gradual disillusionment for Montag and then by Montag's abrupt renunciation of his profession. Montag's surprising reversal is induced by several events, including his chance meeting and interludes with Clarisse McClellan, a teenage girl whose childlike wonderment initiates his own self-awareness; the bizarre attempted suicide of his wife Mildred and Montag's reflections upon their sterile relationship; and Montag's participation in the shocking immolation of a woman who refuses to part with her books. During this last episode, Montag instinctively rescues a book from the flames and takes it home, adding it to his secret accumulation of other pilfered volumes. The strain of his awakening conscience, exacerbated by Mildred's ambivalence and by news of Clarisse's violent death, drives Montag into a state of despair. When he fails to report to work, Captain Beatty, the fire chief, becomes suspicious and unexpectedly visits Montag at home to offer circumspect empathy and an impassioned defense of the book burners' mission. Beatty's monologue establishes that the firemen were founded in 1790 by Benjamin Franklin to destroy Anglophilic texts. Beatty also claims that book censorship reflects public demand and the naturally occurring obsolescence of the printed word, which has been supplanted by the superior entertainment of multimedia technology. The scene closes with Beatty's exit and Montag among his books, professing his intent to become a reader. The second and shortest part of the novel, "The Sieve and the Sand," continues Montag's progressive rebelliousness and ends in his inevitable discovery. After an afternoon of reading with Mildred, who quickly becomes agitated and returns to the diversion of her television "family," Montag contacts Faber, a retired English professor he once encountered in a public park. At Faber's apartment Montag produces a stolen Bible. Faber then equips Montag with an electronic ear transmitter to maintain secret communication between them. Invigorated by Faber's complicity, Montag returns home and rashly attempts to reform Mildred and her two friends, Mrs. Phelps and Mrs. Bowles, as they sit mesmerized by images in the television parlor. His patronizing effort at conversation, along with his recitation of Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach," drive the women out of the house and leave Montag in open defiance of the state. Montag retreats to the firehouse, where he is greeted coolly and goaded by Beatty with literary quotations alluding to Montag's futile interest in books and learning. The scene ends with a minor climax when Beatty, Montag, and the firemen respond to an alarm that leads directly to Montag's own house. The third and final part of the work, "Burning Bright," completes Montag's break from society and begins his existence as a fugitive, enlightened book lover. When the fire squad arrives at his home, Montag obediently incinerates the house and then turns his flamethrower on Beatty to protect Faber, whose identity is jeopardized when Beatty knocks the transmitter from Montag's ear and confiscates it. As he prepares to flee, Montag also destroys the Mechanical Hound, a robotic book detector and assassin whose persistence and infallibility represent the terrifying fusion of bloodhound and computer. Following a dramatic chase witnessed by a live television audience, Montag evades a second Mechanical Hound and floats down a nearby river, safely away from the city. He emerges from the water in an arcadian forest, where he encounters a small band of renegade literati who, having watched Montag's escape on a portable television, welcome him among their ranks. Through conversation with Granger, the apparent spokesperson for the book people, Montag learns of their heroic endeavor to memorize select works of literature for an uncertain posterity. Safe in their wilderness refuge, Montag and the book people then observe the outbreak of war and the subsequent obliteration of the city. The novel concludes with Granger's sanguine meditation on the mythological Phoenix and a quotation from Book of Ecclesiastes.

Major Themes

Fahrenheit 451 reflects Bradbury's lifelong love of books and his defense of the imagination against the menace of technology and government manipulation. Fire is the omnipresent image through which Bradbury frames the dominant themes of degradation, metamorphosis, and rebirth. As a destructive agent, fire is employed by the state to annihilate the written word. Fire is also used as a tool of murder when turned on the book woman and on Beatty, and fire imagery is inherent in the flash of exploding bombs that level civilization in the final holocaust. The healing and regenerative qualities of fire are expressed in the warming fire of the book people, a startling realization for Montag when he approaches their camp, and in Granger's reference to the Phoenix, whose resurrection signifies the cyclical nature of human life and civilization. Through Beatty, Bradbury also posits the unique cleansing property of the flames—"fire is bright and fire is clean"—a paradoxical statement that suggests the simultaneous beauty and horror of fire as an instrument of purification. Montag's irresistible urge to read and his reaction to the desecration of the physical text establish the book as the central symbol of human achievement and perseverance. Thus literature, rather than Montag, can be said to represent the true hero of the novel. However, Bradbury contrasts the sanctity of the printed word with the equal vitality of oral tradition, particularly as cultivated by the book people but also as anticipated by Faber's earlier intent to read to Montag via the ear transmitter. Throughout Fahrenheit 451 Bradbury expresses a pronounced distrust for technology. The various machines in the novel are depicted as chilling, impersonal gadgets of mechanized anti-culture or state control—namely the ubiquitous thimble radios and television walls, the invasive stomach pumper that revives Mildred, roaring warplanes, and the Mechanical Hound. Considered in its historical context, the novel is both a reflection of mainstream American fears in the 1950s—mainly of the Cold War and the threat of communist world domination—and Bradbury's satire of this same society. Taking aim at the negative power of McCarthy-era anti-intellectualism, a superficial consumer culture, and the perceived erosion of democratic ideals, Bradbury assumes cloaked objectivity in the novel to project the fragile future of the American Dream. Written less than a decade after the end of the Second World War, the specter of book burning and thought control also recall the recent reality of Adolf Hitler's fascist regime. At its most dystopian, Fahrenheit 451 evokes an intense atmosphere of entrapment, evidenced in Montag's alienation, Mildred's dependency on drugs and television, Faber's reclusion and impotency, and Clarisse's inability to survive. Bradbury's prophetic vision, however, ultimately evinces confidence in the redemptive capacity of mankind, displayed by the survival of the book people and the miraculous inner transformation of Montag.

Critical Reception

While Fahrenheit 451 is considered one of Bradbury's most effective prose works, the novel has been faulted for its sentimental evocation of culture and "highbrow" literary aspirations. Bradbury's justification of intellectual pursuit as a virtuous and humane ideal, with reading portrayed as a heroic act in itself, has been labelled romantic and elitist. Since Bradbury does not refute Captain Beatty's version of the firemen's history or his convoluted rationale for censorship, critics have claimed that the novel has the effect of positioning intellectuals against the masses, rather than the individual against the state. The totalitarian state is thereby implicitly exonerated by blaming the masses for the book's decline, while intellectuals in the form of the book people are entrusted with saving and repopulating the world. Thus it has been suggested that Bradbury's defense of humanity expresses little faith in the masses. In addition, many of the novel's high-culture allusions are considered too esoteric for the general reader, as with a reference to "Master Ridley," an obscure sixteenth-century martyr, or overly simplistic, as exemplified by Granger's involved exposition of the Phoenix myth. The shifting dystopian-utopian structure of Fahrenheit 451, drawing frequent comparison to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), remains the subject of critical attention as the source of both inconsistency and subtlety in the novel. Praised for its engaging narrative, concise presentation, and pounding intensity, Fahrenheit 451 embodies Bradbury's effective blending of popular science fiction and serious literature.

Learn then what morals critics ought to show,

For 'tis but half a judge's task, to know.

'Tis not enough, taste, judgment, learning, join;

In all you speak, let truth and candour shine:

That not alone what to your sense is due,

All may allow; but seek your friendship too.

Be silent always when you doubt your sense;

And speak, though sure, with seeming diffidence:

Some positive, persisting fops we know,

Who, if once wrong, will needs be always so;

But you, with pleasure own your errors past,

And make each day a critic on the last.

'Tis not enough, your counsel still be true;

Blunt truths more mischief than nice falsehoods do;

Men must be taught as if you taught them not;

And things unknown proposed as things forgot.

Without good breeding, truth is disapprov'd;

That only makes superior sense belov'd.

Be niggards of advice on no pretence;

For the worst avarice is that of sense.

With mean complacence ne'er betray your trust,

Nor be so civil as to prove unjust.

Fear not the anger of the wise to raise;

Those best can bear reproof, who merit praise.

'Twere well might critics still this freedom take,

But Appius reddens at each word you speak,

And stares, Tremendous ! with a threatening eye,

Like some fierce tyrant in old tapestry!

Fear most to tax an honourable fool,

Whose right it is, uncensur'd, to be dull;

Such, without wit, are poets when they please,

As without learning they can take degrees.

Leave dangerous truths to unsuccessful satires,

And flattery to fulsome dedicators,

Whom, when they praise, the world believes no more,

Than when they promise to give scribbling o'er.

'Tis best sometimes your censure to restrain,

And charitably let the dull be vain:

Your silence there is better than your spite,

For who can rail so long as they can write?

Still humming on, their drowsy course they keep,

And lash'd so long, like tops, are lash'd asleep.

False steps but help them to renew the race,

As after stumbling, jades will mend their pace.

What crowds of these, impenitently bold,

In sounds and jingling syllables grown old,

Still run on poets, in a raging vein,

Even to the dregs and squeezings of the brain,

Strain out the last, dull droppings of their sense,

And rhyme with all the rage of impotence!

Such shameless bards we have; and yet 'tis true,

There are as mad, abandon'd critics too.

The bookful blockhead, ignorantly read,

With loads of learned lumber in his head,

With his own tongue still edifies his ears,

And always list'ning to himself appears.

All books he reads, and all he reads assails,

From Dryden's Fables down to Durfey's Tales.

With him, most authors steal their works, or buy;

Garth did not write his own Dispensary .

Name a new play, and he's the poet's friend,

Nay show'd his faults—but when would poets mend?

No place so sacred from such fops is barr'd,

Nor is Paul's church more safe than Paul's churchyard:

Nay, fly to altars; there they'll talk you dead:

For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

Distrustful sense with modest caution speaks;

It still looks home, and short excursions makes;

But rattling nonsense in full volleys breaks;

And never shock'd, and never turn'd aside,

Bursts out, resistless, with a thund'ring tide.

But where's the man, who counsel can bestow,

Still pleas'd to teach, and yet not proud to know?

Unbias'd, or by favour or by spite;

Not dully prepossess'd, nor blindly right;

Though learn'd, well-bred; and though well-bred, sincere;

Modestly bold, and humanly severe?

Who to a friend his faults can freely show,

And gladly praise the merit of a foe?

Blest with a taste exact, yet unconfin'd;

A knowledge both of books and human kind;

Gen'rous converse; a soul exempt from pride;

And love to praise, with reason on his side?

Such once were critics; such the happy few,

Athens and Rome in better ages knew.

The mighty Stagirite first left the shore,

Spread all his sails, and durst the deeps explore:

He steer'd securely, and discover'd far,

Led by the light of the Mæonian Star.

Poets, a race long unconfin'd and free,

Still fond and proud of savage liberty,

Receiv'd his laws; and stood convinc'd 'twas fit,

Who conquer'd nature, should preside o'er wit.

Horace still charms with graceful negligence,

And without methods talks us into sense,

Will, like a friend, familiarly convey

The truest notions in the easiest way.

He, who supreme in judgment, as in wit,

Might boldly censure, as he boldly writ,

Yet judg'd with coolness, though he sung with fire;

His precepts teach but what his works inspire.

Our critics take a contrary extreme,

They judge with fury, but they write with fle'me:

Nor suffers Horace more in wrong translations

By wits, than critics in as wrong quotations.

See Dionysius Homer's thoughts refine,

And call new beauties forth from ev'ry line!

Fancy and art in gay Petronius please,

The scholar's learning, with the courtier's ease.

In grave Quintilian's copious work we find

The justest rules, and clearest method join'd;

Thus useful arms in magazines we place,

All rang'd in order, and dispos'd with grace,

But less to please the eye, than arm the hand,

Still fit for use, and ready at command.

Thee, bold Longinus! all the Nine inspire,

And bless their critic with a poet's fire.

An ardent judge, who zealous in his trust,

With warmth gives sentence, yet is always just;

Whose own example strengthens all his laws;

And is himself that great sublime he draws.

Thus long succeeding critics justly reign'd,

Licence repress'd, and useful laws ordain'd;

Learning and Rome alike in empire grew,

And arts still follow'd where her eagles flew;

From the same foes, at last, both felt their doom,

And the same age saw learning fall, and Rome.

With tyranny, then superstition join'd,

As that the body, this enslav'd the mind;

Much was believ'd, but little understood,

And to be dull was constru'd to be good;

A second deluge learning thus o'er-run,

And the monks finish'd what the Goths begun.

At length Erasmus, that great, injur'd name,

(The glory of the priesthood, and the shame!)

Stemm'd the wild torrent of a barb'rous age,

And drove those holy Vandals off the stage.

But see! each Muse, in Leo's golden days,

Starts from her trance, and trims her wither'd bays!

Rome's ancient genius, o'er its ruins spread,

Shakes off the dust, and rears his rev'rend head!

Then sculpture and her sister-arts revive;

Stones leap'd to form, and rocks began to live;

With sweeter notes each rising temple rung;

A Raphael painted, and a Vida sung.

Immortal Vida! on whose honour'd brow

The poet's bays and critic's ivy grow:

Cremona now shall ever boast thy name,

As next in place to Mantua, next in fame!

But soon by impious arms from Latium chas'd,

Their ancient bounds the banished Muses pass'd;

Thence arts o'er all the northern world advance;

But critic-learning flourish'd most in France.

The rules a nation born to serve, obeys,

And Boileau still in right of Horace sways.

But we, brave Britons, foreign laws despis'd,

And kept unconquer'd, and uncivilis'd,

Fierce for the liberties of wit, and bold,

We still defied the Romans, as of old.

Yet some there were, among the sounder few

Of those who less presum'd, and better knew,

Who durst assert the juster ancient cause,

And here restor'd wit's fundamental laws.

Such was the Muse, whose rules and practice tell

"Nature's chief master-piece is writing well."

Such was Roscommon—not more learn'd than good,

With manners gen'rous as his noble blood;

To him the wit of Greece and Rome was known,

And ev'ry author's merit, but his own.

Such late was Walsh—the Muse's judge and friend,

Who justly knew to blame or to commend;

To failings mild, but zealous for desert;

The clearest head, and the sincerest heart.

This humble praise, lamented shade! receive,

This praise at least a grateful Muse may give:

The Muse, whose early voice you taught to sing,

Prescrib'd her heights, and prun'd her tender wing,

(Her guide now lost) no more attempts to rise,

But in low numbers short excursions tries:

Content, if hence th' unlearn'd their wants may view,

The learn'd reflect on what before they knew:

Careless of censure, nor too fond of fame,

Still pleas'd to praise, yet not afraid to blame,

Averse alike to flatter, or offend,

Not free from faults, nor yet too vain to mend.

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