Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury

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This book has been on my bookshelf for ten years, along with the CliffsNotes. I've heard bits about it but never read it. I thought it might be fun to read as a group and discuss since it has always seemed a bit controversial to me. Now that I've read it, and having read a few other dystopian books in the last couple years, a genre of which I had never formally heard until about 18 months ago, I don't see the controversy but I do see the interesting discussion.

I started out reading the background in the CliffsNotes since I've always had a hard time reconciling the Twilight Zone with an author who could write an acclaimed book such as F.451. I was surprised to learn that Bradbury also wrote The Martian Chronicles, Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes. Not that I've read any of them but I've heard of them as much as I've heard of F.451.

In addition to the CliffsNotes I read both the paperback and the e-book. In the introduction included with the e-Book Neil Gaiman asks "Why do we need the things in books? ... Authors are human and fallible and foolish. Stories are lies after all, tales of people who never existed and the things that never actually happened to them. Why should we read them? Why should we care?" Thankfully he answers the question by explaining that "written ideas...transmit our stories and our thoughts from one generation to the next. If we lose them, we lose our shared history. We lose much of what makes us human. And fiction gives us empathy: it puts us inside the minds of other people, gives us the gift of seeing the world through their eyes. Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over." Certainly an apropos topic for a book club! Now we are in an age when people argue if e-Books will do away with traditional books. Ironically, Gaiman points out that at the end of Fahrenheit, Bradbury defines a book by saying "that we should not judge our books by their covers, and that some books exist between covers that are perfectly people-shaped."

The e-Book included many pages of reviews at the end as well as several examples of Bradbury's actual work in progress. In a magazine article from "The Nation" on May 2, 1953 Bradbury said his short story, "The Fire Man", from which F.451 grew, was set in 1999. He commented on his surprise when, at the time he was writing the short story, he went for a walk and saw a couple also walking but the wife actually had a type of seashell in her ear. (I imagine it was an early transistor radio.) He commented on how unaware she was of their walking and how her husband had to guide her up and down curbs. The CliffNotes review places the setting of the actual Fahrenheit 451 as the 24th Century.

Note: A friend listened to the audio and said she did not like it. (I'm not certain but it may have been read by Bradbury himself.) She said the voice was so deep it was not enjoyable.

On a scale of 1 - 5:

Sex: 0

Religion: 1

Gruesome: 2

Suspense: 2

Morality: 4

Sex - the husband and wife actually sleep in separate single beds. One time the husband comes home and the wife is already in bed and there are some minor hints that maybe they will have relations but it doesn't even happen.

Religion - there are no obvious references to actual worship but there are some Biblical references and Montag even reads the Bible although it is portrayed more as a significant literary work on par with any other literary staple.

Gruesome - there are some deaths. They are somewhat violent but equally as brief. All the real details are left to the imagination.

Suspense - this is a fast moving book and while there are several suspenseful threads they are resolved quickly. In a radio interview Bradbury commented specifically on the degree of suspense and said it was more "a pursuit and escape thing".

Morality - Should you follow your government even when they are behaving abominably? In the process of not following them, Montag commits several acts that tug at his conscience.

Bradbury is like a chef with words, knowing just the right ingredients to add to maximize the taste. I was so intrigued by his insertion of a hyphen in the word "disease" making it "dis-ease". (p. 32) It makes the word come to life in a whole new way. Obviously someone who has a disease is apart from feeling at ease but I had never before considered the "dis" as a prefix.

Of course any book lover will feel an affinity with this book that defends books. For me it really tugged at my heart strings. As a child I remember being so frustrated when my mother would tell me to shush so she could listen to something on TV. (Of course, this was before pause and rewind.) So when Mildred constantly put television over her husband I wanted to scream at her all the things I never screamed at my mother. In fact, in one of the critiques in the eBook (loc 2799), Orville Prescott in "Book of the Times" summarizes the basic message of the book as "a plea for direct, personal experience rather than perpetual, synthetic entertainment; for individual thought, action and responsibility."

It turns out I really didn't find much insight in the CliffsNotes regarding the actual story. Bradbury was fantastic about weaving his true meaning into the story in obvious ways. For example, on p. 59 Beatty explains the role of the fireman to Montag, including the history. Bradbury has a fabulous way of weaving together words with precision. On. pg. 171 Beatty explains life, "The usual. The same. The love that wasn't quite right, the dream that went sour, the sex that fell apart, the deaths that came swiftly to friends not deserving, the murder of someone or another, the insanity of someone close, the slow death of a mother..."

The CliffNotes were interesting for the supplemental information in the back of the book. The Critical Essay section interestingly explains that Bradbury is often viewed as evangelical. He shows humans the truth of themselves while encouraging them to reach their maximum potential. He believes utopia is attainable once humans are honest with themselves. Humans "must first conquer, or at least learn to cope adequately, with the evil that confronts it at every hour with feelings of loneliness and unfulfillment. This 'evil' is usually the inability of humans to know themselves fully, the fear of growing old, and the fear of death." (p. 67)

Discussion Questions

The entire Introduction (in the eBook) is very well written and thought-provoking. It is worth a read-aloud and any subsequent discussion that ensures.

"An author's opinions of what a story is about are always valid and are always true: the author was there, after all, when the book was written. She came up with each word and knows why she used that word instead of another. But an author is a creature of her time, and even she cannot see everything that her book is about." (eBook Introduction) Do you agree? Can a book be about more than an author is capable of seeing in it?

There are several ideas or concepts or themes that Bradbury wrote about in the 1950s that seem to have actually happened in today's world (today is what was future to Bradbury). Discuss his accuracy in the following ideas:

  • Ear thimbles (p. 16, p. 18, and several other instances)

  • Electronic bees (p. 18)

  • Schools that "just run the answers at you" and don't encourage questions (p. 29)

  • Kids killing each other (p. 30)

  • Lower kindergarten age (p. 60)

  • Trivia games (p. 61)

  • Montag & Faber's two-way seashells

  • TV walls with interactive scripts (p. 90)

  • Parents not wanting children or choosing to have c-section so as not to ruin their bodies (p. 96)

  • Parents only putting up with their kids three days a month (p. 96)

  • Running across the busy street (p. 126)

  • Early wars were national pass-times but current wars seem so remote. (ref. e-Pg. 129)

What do we actually call these things?

Clarisse thinks "drivers don't know what grass is, or flowers, because they never see them slowly ... If you showed a driver a green blur, Oh yes! he'd say, that's grass." Do you ever feel like life is going too fast?

Clarisse talks a lot about what people don't remember (ref. p. 9). Find statistics about what student's entering college this year don't know and share with the group. For example, they don't know that McDonald's sandwiches used to be served in styrofoam containers. (Search for "The Mindset List" - I think Beloit college has a good resource)

"He wore his happiness like a mask and the girl had run off across the lawn with the mask and there was no way of going to knock on her door and ask for it back." (p. 12) Is anyone truly happy or is it always a mask? What can cause the mask to come off?

Do people have time anymore for anyone else? (ref. p. 23)

What were your first impressions of the hound?

On ePage 27 Clarisse describes school as "we never ask questions, ...; they just run the answers at you, ...It's a lot of funnels and a lot of water poured down the spout and out the bottom..." and also describes violent games they play after school and how the teenagers hurt and kill each other. On the next page she talks about how people don't talk to each other. How well does this align with modern society?

Have you ever had an experience like Montag's when he saw his hands stealing the book but felt like they weren't a part of him?

Montag tried to talk to Millie but she was only interested in what was on TV or in discussing what she'd seen on TV. Does this ever happen in your house? How does it make you feel? How do you overcome it?

Why do Montag and Millie sleep in single beds?

"We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?" (ePg. 50)

"Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there's your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more." (ePg. 52) To what does this pattern refer?

Are there innovations that you wish hadn't been invented? What should we eliminate from today's world to make us happy?

On pg. 81 Faber talks about how unrecognizable Christ has become. Is this happening today?

When Montag is surprised that the alarm is for his house, Beatty says, "For everyone nowadays knows, absolutely is certain, that nothing will ever happen to me. Others die, I go on. There are no consequences and no responsibilities. Except that there are. But let's not talk about them, eh?" Does society have this view today?

Who did you think turned Montag in?

What was the significance of Montag destroying his own house?

Montag reasons that Beatty wanted to die and thus taunted him relentlessly. Did he want to die?

How could Montag hide the book in Black's house after he had just experienced how it felt to have his own home burned?

Montag and Faber turn to violence and criminal activity under the guise of preserving free thought. Faber says, "Maybe it's because I'm doing the right thing at last." (e-Pg. 128) Is this the right thing? Or does this argue for the government's side that books lead to thoughts and thoughts lead to problems?

When Montag thought he was facing certain death, he wanted to make a final statement. Answer the question he posed to himself, "What could he say in a single word, a few words, that would sear all their faces and wake them up?" (e-Pg. 132)

What book would you choose to memorize for preservation?

When the city dies at the end, why do the men feel a need to return to it?

Theme Ideas

Roast marshmallows. (p. 3)

Decorate with fire color streamers. Use kerosene lamps.

Serve hot dogs in honor of the fire and the hound.

Serve chestnuts in little sacks like Clarisse left for Montag on his porch (e-Pg. 26)

Decorate with dandelions. (p. 21)

Serve "wine that tastes like rain". (p. 23)

Serve orange juice (p. 93) and try to smile when you drink it.

Serve colored gold fish. (p. 94)

Decorate with "daffodils and roses and wet grass". (e-Pg. 127)

Serve or decorate with apples and pears. (e-Pg. 141)

Decorate with fresh-cut carnations. (e-Pg. 142)

Serve licorice. (e-Pg. 142)

Use a railroad track theme to symbolize Montag's escape via the tracks.

Have a small bonfire like the intellectuals used at the end of the book.