#ANewChapter: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Guy Montag is a fireman. His job is to destroy the most illegal of commodities, the printed book, along with the houses in which they are hidden. Montag never questions the destruction and ruin his actions produce, returning each day to his bland life and wife, Mildred, who spends all day with her television “family.” But when he meets an eccentric young neighbor, Clarisse, who introduces him to a past where people didn’t live in fear and to a present where one sees the world through the ideas in books instead of the mindless chatter of television, Montag begins to question everything he has ever known.

Seventy years after its original publication, Ray Bradbury’s internationally acclaimed novel Fahrenheit 451 stands as a classic of world literature set in a bleak, dystopian future.

In reading the 1940s-1960s sci-fi selections for #ANewChapter, I was repeatedly struck by the ways in which each book captured and reflected back its time period, particularly the specific anxieties created by the Cold War. Fahrenheit 451 is no exception, with its dramatic exaggeration of McCarthyism and its portrayal of an ongoing war taking place “elsewhere” that finally ends in nuclear annihilation.

Present-day book peddlers tout Fahrenheit 451 as a book “more relevant than ever before” or “timelier than ever,” phrases which also get slapped on 1984. (Non-speculative fiction “classics” must make do with the second-tier phrase “timeless”—or rather, “timeless, despite their obviously historical setting that situates them in a precise moment in time.”) To me, however, it seems a disservice to suggest that books like Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 can be entirely removed from the moment in which they were written and transplanted whole to the present day, simply because they take place in an obviously fictional future as opposed to a less obviously fictionalized past.

These two books certainly have some eternal themes—censorship, the dangers of mass media and/or technology, conformity vs. individuality—but they are also historical artifacts and that is part of what makes them interesting to read, not just the continued relevance of their main characters’ struggles. Books from the past show us the past—even the ones about the future—and hopefully you find that just as interesting as I do.

Fahrenheit 451, a staple of high school curricula throughout the United States, is easy, enjoyable reading that thoroughly captures its 1950s white American moment while also embodying plenty of deep-seated human questions that plague us to this day. For those of you who enjoy graphic novels, I also highly recommend Fahrenheit 451: The Authorized Adaptation by Tim Hamilton.

Discussion questions below the cut!

For Educators

Discussion Questions: PDF | Word Document

Reading Quiz: PDF of Quiz | PDF of Quiz Answers | Word Document

Discussion Questions

If you use these questions to shape an online discussion post of your own, please link back and give credit.

Question 1

Although Ray Bradbury is often called a science fiction author, he himself stated, “I’ve only done one science fiction book and that’s Fahrenheit 451, based on reality. Science fiction is a depiction of the real. Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal.”

  • Do you agree with Bradbury’s definitions of science fiction and fantasy? Why or why not? If you don’t agree, how would you define science fiction and fantasy?
  • Do you think there can be books that are both science fiction and fantasy? Why or why not? Feel free to give examples to support your answer.

Question 2

Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 partially in response to McCarthyism at the beginning of the Cold War. During the 1940s and 1950s, government employees, entertainment industry people, academics, and labor union activists were surveilled, interrogated, and often blacklisted on suspicions of communist, socialist, or anarchist beliefs.

  • Can you think of other examples of people in the United States being investigated, silenced, or imprisoned because of their beliefs or their associations with certain “dangerous” groups?
  • Can you see any similarities as far as when certain groups are targeted in this way?

Question 3

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, “Censorship, the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are ‘offensive,’ happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others.” In the United States, although private censorship is entirely legal (such as a bookstore choosing not to sell a particular book or a movie theater choosing not to show a particular movie), censorship by the government is illegal under the First Amendment. The First Amendment applies to all government institutions, including public libraries and public schools.

  • In Fahrenheit 451, Beatty states that censorship and book burning arose because “we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred”; therefore, whenever a specific group of people objected to a book’s content, that book was destroyed to keep everyone happy. Look at the American Library Association’s Top 10 Most Challenged Books lists from the past few years, paying attention to the reasons why each book was challenged. Do you think that Beatty’s explanation of why censorship happens in this fictional world could also apply to our real world? Why or why not?
  • Later in Fahrenheit 451, Faber tells Montag, “… remember that the Captain belongs to the most dangerous enemy to truth and freedom, the solid unmoving cattle of the majority. Oh God, the terrible tyranny of the majority.” However, in Bradbury’s 1979 coda to the novel, he states, “For it is a mad world and it will get madder if we allow the minorities … to interfere with aesthetics.” How do you make sense out of these two statements—one crying out against the majority, the other against minorities? Is there a way to make sense of them, based on what you see in Fahrenheit 451?
  • During an interview, Bradbury stated, “[The novel] works even better [in 1994] because we have political correctness now. Political correctness is the real enemy these days. The black groups want to control our thinking and you can’t say certain things. The homosexual groups don’t want you to criticize them. It’s thought control and freedom of speech control.” Think back to the definition of censorship up above. Do you agree with Bradbury that “political correctness” is another form of censorship? Why or why not? What do you think is the line between personal objection and censorship?

Question 4

Bradbury grew up during the Golden Age of Radio and Fahrenheit 451 was published in 1953, a few years after the beginning of the Golden Age of Television.

  • When the novel was first published, New York Times’ reviewer J. Francis McComas stated, “Mr. Bradbury seems to have developed a virulent hatred for many aspects of present-day culture, namely, such monstrosities as radio, TV, most movies, amateur and professional sports, automobiles and other similar aberrations which he feels debase the bright simplicity of the thinking man’s existence.” Do you agree with McComas’ characterization of the book and Bradbury’s beliefs? Why or why not?
  • When Montag asks Faber to help him, Faber says, “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 televisions, but are not.” Do you think the “infinite detail and awareness” that Faber describes exists anywhere in our own mass media today? Feel free to draw examples from movies, television shows, podcasts, and other present-day media to support your answer.
  • Sociology argues that societies typically develop both low culture and high culture. In very simple terms, low culture might be called “comfort food” art, such as romance novels or superhero comics; high culture might be called “upper class” or “intellectual” art, such as opera or Renaissance paintings. Of course, every kind of art can require great skill to create and these categories are more about how certain art is perceived than its actual quality or value.

    Do you think Fahrenheit 451 is low culture or high culture? Explain your answer. How do you think placing the book in one category and not the other changes how we perceive the book’s audience and worth?

Question 5

Epigraphs are short quotations included at the beginning of a work in order to suggest the work’s theme. The epigraph for Fahrenheit 451 comes from the Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez: “If they give you ruled paper, write the other way.”

  • What connection do you see between this quote and the contents of Fahrenheit 451?
  • If you read this quote at the beginning of Fahrenheit 451 without knowing anything else about the book, what might these words suggest about the story you’re going to read? Why do you think Bradbury chose this quote for the novel’s epigraph?

Question 6

When Montag first tries to read to Mildred, she tells him, “Books aren’t people. You read and I look all around, but there isn’t anybody!”

  • Considering how books often provide a way for people to record their thoughts and feelings for a future audience, do you agree with Mildred’s statement? Why or why not?
  • Considering how characters from fiction often become commonly recognized names in our culture, do you agree with Mildred’s statement? Why or why not?
  • Mildred later tells Montag, “My ‘family’ is people. They tell me things: I laugh, they laugh!” Why do you think Mildred considers the “family” to be “people”? What present-day technology of ours do you think comes the closest to Mildred’s relationship with the “family”?

Question 7

The woman who burns herself alive with her books first quotes Church of England Bishop Hugh Latimer, saying, “‘Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.’” Latimer had once been a well-regarded member of the Church of England, but was called a heretic when the Catholic Queen Mary I came to power. Bishop Nicholas Ridley, to whom Latimer spoke these words, unsuccessfully tried to prevent Queen Mary from inheriting the throne in the hopes of keeping England Protestant instead of Catholic.

  • Because these men were burned at the stake for supporting the Protestant Church of England, Latimer and Ridley became Protestant martyrs. A martyr is someone who is killed because of their beliefs, usually religious ones. In Fahrenheit 451, what does the woman’s use of this quote tell us about how she sees herself?
  • Beatty clearly recognizes the quote, as well as its historical context. How does Beatty see this woman?
  • Montag does not recognize the quote at all and has to ask Beatty what it means. How does Montag see this woman?
  • How do you, as a reader, see this woman? Is she bold and unbending in defense of her beliefs? Or is she foolish and pointlessly self-destructive?

Question 8

When Montag arrives at the book-filled house with the other firemen, he’s irritated that the woman is still there instead of having been bundled away by the police first. Typically, Montag thinks, “You weren’t hurting anyone, you were hurting only things! And since things really couldn’t be hurt, since things felt nothing, and things don’t scream or whimper, as this woman might begin to scream and cry out, there was nothing to tease your conscience later.”

  • In this quote, Montag expresses how we feel far less shame in harming things than we do people. Do you think it’s possible to turn people into things in our minds so that we feel less shame in harming them? Explain your answer.
  • In the book Carpe Jugulum by fantasy author Terry Pratchett, a character suggests that sin “is when you treat people as things. Including yourself.” Do you agree or disagree with this statement?

Question 9

Consider the female characters in this novel: Clarisse and Mildred in particular, but also Mildred’s friends and the female book owner.

  • How are they characterized? Are they individuals with their own interests and goals or are they defined entirely by their relationships to male characters? Do they have power of any kind or are they powerless?
  • Do these characters play active roles in the novel with their decisions and actions pushing the plot forward?
  • With your previous answers in mind, do you think Bradbury succeeds in creating complex and believable female characters in Fahrenheit 451?

Question 10

Beatty tells Montag, “What traitors books can be! You think they’re backing you up, and they turn on you. Others can use them, too, and there you are, lost in the middle of the moor, in a great welter of nouns and verbs and adjectives.”

  • The authors of books can (and do!) disagree with each other. How, then, can we make sense out of all the different points of view that we encounter when reading? What strategies do you use?
  • We all already hold certain ideas and beliefs, so we will always encounter some books that support those beliefs and some books that criticize them. What are the positives and negatives of reading a book that supports our beliefs? What are the positives and negatives of reading a book that criticizes our beliefs?

Question 11

The scene in which Montag reads poetry to Mildred and her friends is a scene of high emotion: Montag’s anger and Mildred’s fear finally end in Mrs. Phelps’ uncontrolled sobs. Mrs. Phelps’ emotions are, to her, inexplicable and therefore frightening; however, as readers, we know her tears are a response to the poem Montag reads.

  • Montag reads Matthew Arnold’s 1867 poem “Dover Beach,” although we only see the second half of the poem quoted. Were you personally familiar with this poem? Why do you think Mrs. Phelps reacts to it the way she does? Do you think it’s necessary for the reader to be familiar with this poem in order to understand Mrs. Phelps’ reaction?
  • Consider the different texts that Bradbury quotes or shows Montag trying to save in Fahrenheit 451. What does Bradbury including those particular texts but not others suggest?
  • When asked why he chose certain texts to reference in Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury stated, “I don’t know. … I didn’t really choose them. My subconscious picked for me.” Do you find this statement believable? Why or why not?
  • When do you think it’s possible for an author to think too little about the text they are writing? When do you think it’s possible for an author to think too much?

Question 12

In response to Montag’s desire to take immediate action, Faber says, “Patience, Montag. Let the war turn off the ‘families.’ Our civilization is flinging itself to pieces. Stand back from the centrifuge.”

  • Do you agree with Faber’s philosophy of doing nothing in this situation? Why or why not?
  • Do you think Fahrenheit 451 argues for individuals to actively fight for change? Or does the novel argue for people to simply protect what is worth saving and wait for things to change on their own? Explain your answer with examples from the text.

Question 13

When Montag is on the run, he stashes his remaining books in another fireman’s house and thinks, “Mrs. Black, are you asleep in there? … This isn’t good, but your husband did it to others and never asked and never wondered and never worried. And now since you’re a fireman’s wife, it’s your house and your turn, for all the houses your husband burnt and the people he hurt without thinking.”

  • Do you agree with Montag that Mrs. Black deserves to suffer for the harm that her husband has caused? Why or why not?
  • Montag is thinking here in terms of retributive justice, which is the idea that the punishment for causing harm should be equal to the harm that person caused. (Retributive justice can also be called “eye for an eye” justice.) What do you see as the positives of retributive justice? What do you see as the negatives of retributive justice?
  • The United States’ justice system often leans toward retributive justice, as opposed to deterrence (prevention of future crimes) or rehabilitation (re-education of the person who committed the crime). Why do you think this might be? Do you agree with this approach, personally?

Question 14

On May 9th, 1930, the Angola Herald newspaper jokingly printed, “When does a book become a classic? When people who haven’t read it say they have.”

  • When do you think a book becomes a classic?
  • During the 1920s and 1930s, Bradbury was often disappointed when visiting his local libraries because they didn’t have popular science fiction novels of the time. Usually the libraries didn’t buy these books because they weren’t considered “literary” enough.

    In the United States, who do you think decides which books become classics and which books don’t? Consider publishers, booksellers, librarians, schools, award committees, book reviewers, and readers as just some possibilities.
  • Think about various books that you know are considered “classics.” Do you think all of these books are still “great books” and that’s why so many people continue to read them? Or do people continue to read them just because they’re considered “classics”? Explain your answer.

Question 15

What is the one book you would most want to memorize and protect from the firemen in Fahrenheit 451’s world? Why is this book important to you personally? Why do you think this book would be important for other people to still be able to read and remember in the future?

About #ANewChapter

For February 2023, the Imagine Society, the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation, and the Green Hill Juvenile Detention Center have partnered together to create a science fiction reading club for teens—and I wrote the discussion questions for all nine books! If you are a teen—or know a teen—who would be interested in exploring some classic and/or contemporary sci-fi, please check out the Imagine Society’s event page. Participation can come in many forms!

If you are able to do so, consider supporting Green Hill Juvenile Detention Center’s young men by donating to their ongoing library book drive. Librarian Julie Forbes works incredibly hard to encourage a love of reading among her students and these donations are extremely important when it comes to achieving that goal.

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