Fahrenheit 451 | Critical Essay by George Edgar Slusser

This literature criticism consists of approximately 5 pages of analysis & critique of Fahrenheit 451.
This section contains 1,225 words
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Critical Essay by George Edgar Slusser

SOURCE: "Fahrenheit 451," in The Bradbury Chronicles, The Borgo Press, 1977, pp. 52-4.

In the following excerpt, Slusser explores the development of Fahrenheit 451, focusing on how it differs from its source, Bradbury's novella "The Fireman."

Fahrenheit 451 is an expansion of the 56-page novella "The Fireman." The latter is not a good story: it is the kind of Bradbury most readers never see. How did the author rework this material into a classic? Fahrenheit is two and a half times longer. Yet it has essentially the same number of episodes. "The Fireman" consists almost entirely of events and discussion; these are strung out in tedious fashion. Bradbury rearranges the original elements. As he does so, he tightens the story in order to expand it in new directions. Fahrenheit deepens the social and natural contexts. In this matrix, new intricacies of character, and more profound personal relationships, are shaped.

Both versions begin in media res, but in quite different ways. The novella opens in the firehouse. Montag is already asking questions: how would it feel to have firemen burning our houses and our books? The alarm follows—the old woman immolates herself. Here is Montag's visible moment of fall: "his hand closed like a trap" on a book. He goes home to his wife, begins to examine his life. We learn he has been taking books home all along. Bradbury must explain Montag's strange actions: the firehouse, the books. To offset a clumsy beginning, he resorts to clumsier flashbacks. Here Clarisse comes in. Perhaps the people moving in next door had been the start of his new awareness: "One night (it was so long ago) he had gone out for a walk."

The first scene of Fahrenheit is his meeting with Clarisse. A man comes home from a routine day, and confronts the unusual. Confused, he passes on to his house, and finds his wife dying of an overdose of sedatives. In "Fireman," this was a remembered detail. It becomes a striking scene: two macabre medics come with their "electric-eyed snake" and pump her out. Montag is stunned: "Strangers … take your blood. Who were those men?" Questions are yanked from him by these extraordinary happenings. Now the flow of time loosens. There is the first scene at the firehouse, and interludes with Clarisse. Suddenly she is there no more. Time contracts. We have the alarm—the old woman burns. Once again, Montag is driven; he seizes the book, going home to collapse. If he rebels, it is passively, stalling the world as he gropes for answers. This rhythm of constriction and release continues all across the narrative. The changes in the order of sequences are highly significant. Montag is no longer a man instantly aware, immediately in revolt. Clear issues are transformed into atmosphere and vague oppressions. During the first scene of "Fireman," the radio blares: war may be declared any minute. Now there is no mention, although planes are constantly in the sky. To create mood, the role of the Mechanical Hound is expanded. In the novella, it appears only during the chase. Now it is present from the start. It is in a niche at the firehouse; as Montag passes it stirs—later it will haunt and harry him. The Hound becomes his guilt and nemesis. Montag's fall plunges deep into some unconscious past. Those otherbooks behind the grate were taken before: to what end? Only now does he begin to explore their meaning. He will not grasp it at all until the very last. Captain Beatty has long suspected something, and tuned the Hound to him. Like the war that frames it, the drama that now surfaces is something long stirring in the depths of things. In "Fireman," Montag is made too immediately aware (Clarisse shows him the rain: "Why, it's wine!"), too critical for a man in his situation—a fireman emerging from cultural night.

And the issues are also too clear in this tale. In Fahrenheit, they purposely become opaque: either the figures are not aware of them, or their complexities of character make words and actions ambiguous. The earlier Millie had a stand—books are for "professors and radicals." In the novel, she has become a zombie, befuddled and forlorn, less a mouthpiece for reactionary ideas than a slave to her "parlor" of illusion. In "Fireman," the Captain is simply the enemy, a servant of law and order. Beatty, however, is a complex, twisted being—a scourge of books who speaks exclusively in quotes. His cat and mouse game, Montag realizes, is suicidal—"Beatty had wanted to die!" Faber's role too is altered. His meeting with Montag, in "Fireman," was merely the excuse for discussion. The hero wants to start a "revolution," to plant books in firemen's houses all across the nation. Faber tells him this is folly—the whole civilization has to fall before anything can be done. This is a key idea in Fahrenheit. But it is not said outright; rather it is implied in the futile gropings of the characters, men who hardly understand their own motivations, let alone have any clear social purpose. When Montag, later, does plant one book, it is a hopeless gesture. Faber is both afraid and ineffectual. Out of their meeting comes no revolutionary plan, only human contact. Bradbury adds another device here—the "seashell" radio. Montag has not asked Faber to help him, as much as "to teach him." Now a guiding voice goes with him. This too is ineffectual; over Faber's admonitions, Montag explodes, and recites poetry to his wife's friends, betraying himself. But two beings are linked: in this fragmented world, it is a start.

Changes in the final scene help reshape Fahrenheit. The crucial moment is the rebirth, in Montag's mind, of Ecclesiastes. He had tried to memorize it before, and had despaired. Now, as the city falls, as he holds to the earth "as children do," it floods back. Earlier, he had plunged into the dark river, emerging into real nature: the fire of the sun, rather than man's perverted fire. The Mechanical Hound is replaced by a deer. But nature's darkness is also overwhelming. His dream of the hayloft—"a glass of milk, an apple, a pear"—is drowned in immensity: "Too much land!" He is saved by the campfire—flame that warms not burns. Once more, as with Faber, the paltry spark of human companionship is the merest beginning. In "Fireman" there is no evocation of nature, and little of this complex fire imagery. Montag's final triumph is sapped when characters discuss the faculty of "eidetic" memory. He tries to recall the Bible and can't; he is told to relax—"it will come when you need it." Bradbury shapes this rough skeleton into an extended statement of lyrical force. Indeed, if the early story seeks toexpose, Fahrenheit mourns—the didactic tale has become elegy. Again there is the confused seeker after knowledge, again we see a world where excessive tolerance ironically leads to suppression of inquiry. The individual is powerless before the holocaust. Like the boy in "The Smile," he can only snatch away a fragment to preserve. Thought destroys, but memory abides. These last men do not interpret their books. Out of some strange fear of the old sin of pride, they are reduced to being the books, memorizing them one by one, and reciting them when needed. The tradition of oral history has come full circle.

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This section contains 1,225 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by George Edgar Slusser