Just a little bit of transparency here, I am reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 for the eighth time. No I am not a sadist; I am a teacher. Every time I read this novel with my students, I am amazed at how many new understandings I have. This is the sign of a really well written novel. It has meat for us to feast on time and again. Bradbury is an allusionist and by that I mean he is able to feed us multiple allusions to set the tone and give us a clear understanding of his interpretations or the understandings he hopes the reader will have.
If you haven’t read Fahrenheit 451, I will summarize for you. It’s about American society in the future. All we know is that people live carelessly and have total disregard for one another and for life. In this society reading is forbidden and fireman burn books. So instantly our perception of the roles in society are turned upside down. People are forbidden to think for themselves. Somehow reading books forces people to think for themselves and form their own thoughts. The book is in three sections: The Hearth and the Salamander; The Sieve and the Sand; and Burning Bright.
Bradbury is the master of including little thought bombs in his literature. He leaves little quotes here and there to make us, the reader, think beyond the literal level. As an old woman’s book cache is pillaged and at risk of being burned by the fireman, she says:
“Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day see light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”
In truth, most of my students have no idea what this quote means. But what this quote does is forces us to think. Why would Bradbury use this? What is its significance? Essentially, a man named Latimer said this to Nicolas Ridley when they were being burned for heresy for spreading protestant beliefs in England. In the novel, the old woman actually burns herself with her books. She burns herself because she cannot live without her books. She holds strong in her beliefs, not unlike Latimer and Ridley.
Bradbury uses the protagonist Montag, a fireman turned crusader, as his voice to call out American society of the late 1950s. At this time, Bradbury and others really feel as though freedom of speech is being compromised because of communism; thus, they fear oppression. Bradbury is a polemicist and we see this in many of his works. Consequently, he uses Montag to question his own dystopian society.
Midway through the novel, in The Sieve and the Sand, Montag no longer wants to burn and actually believes that what is contained within books is important. Montag wants to change society’s perception of books and thinking in general but he gets too excited and lacks clarity and the ability to plan a well-structured coup against the oppressor. An old English professor helps to guide him, but has this to say:
“Remember Caesar, thou art mortal.”
Again we are given an allusion. We know instantaneously that Montag is not invincible. If history serves as a reminder, Caesar was murdered for trying to make social and governmental reform. When Bradbury makes this allusion, we can see that Montag is going to struggle to reform his society and someone who he believes is his ally will stand in his way. We are forced to have an understanding of history or at a minimum do a little bit of research.
Not all authors can infuse a multitude of allusions in a text without their work becoming too arduous for the reader. Bradbury never underestimates the intelligence of his readers and he probably knows we could handle all the allusions. I just love how well written Fahrenheit 451 is and how Bradbury makes the reader think. We cannot be passive readers when we read his work and I think that is exactly the point. Bradbury is a master allusionist (I know this is not a word, but I’m channeling Shakespeare here).
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