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When Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in 1953, television was gaining popularity for the first time, and Bradbury was concerned about its increasing influence in everyday people's lives. In Fahrenheit 451, the contrast between passive entertainment (television) and critical thought (books) is a central concern.
Many of the quotes in Fahrenheit 451 emphasize Bradbury's argument that passive entertainment is mind-numbing and even destructive, as well as his belief that worthwhile knowledge requires effort and patience. The following quotes represent some of the most significant ideas and arguments within the novel.
“It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.” (Part 1)
These are the opening lines of the novel. The passage describes Guy Montag's work as a Fireman, which in this dystopian world means that he burns books, rather than putting out fires. The quote contains details about Montag using his flamethrower to destroy a stock of illegal books, but the language the quote employs contains much more depth. These lines serve as a declaration of the central motif of the novel: the belief that humans prefer the easy, gratifying path over anything that requires effort.
Bradbury uses lush, sensual language to describe the act of destruction. Through the use of words like pleasure and amazing, burning books is depicted as fun and enjoyable. The act of burning is also described in terms of power, suggesting that Montag is reducing all of history to "tatters and charcoal" with his bare hands. Bradbury uses animal imagery ("the great python") to show that Montag is operating on a primitive and instinctive level: pleasure or pain, hunger or satiation.
“Coloured people don't like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don't feel good about Uncle Tom's Cabin. Burn it. Someone's written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Bum the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. Take your fight outside. Better yet, into the incinerator.” (Part 1)
Captain Beatty makes this statement to Montag as a justification for book-burning. In the passage, Beatty argues that books cause trouble, and that by eliminating access to information, society will achieve serenity and peace.
The statement underscores what Bradbury sees as the slippery slope leading to dystopia: intolerance of ideas that cause discomfort or unease.
“I don't talk things. I talk the meaning of things. I sit here and know I'm alive.” (Part 2)
This statement, made by the character Faber, emphasizes the importance of critical thought. For Faber, considering the meaning of information-not just passively absorbing it-is what enables him to "know he's alive." Faber contrasts "talking the meaning of things" with simply "talking things," which in this passage refers to meaningless, superficial information-sharing or absorption devoid of any context or analysis. The loud, flashy, and virtually meaningless TV shows in the world of Fahrenheit 451, are a prime example of media that does nothing more than "talking things."
In this context, books themselves are merely objects, but they become powerful when readers use critical thought to explore the meaning of the information the books contain. Bradbury explicitly links the act of thinking and processing information with being alive. Consider this idea of aliveness in relation to Montag's wife Millie, who is constantly passively absorbing television and repeatedly attempts to end her own life.
“Books aren't people. You read and I look around, but there isn't anybody!” (Part 2)
Montag's wife, Millie, rejects Montag's efforts to force her to think. When Montag tries to read aloud to her, Millie reacts with increasing alarm and violence, at which point she makes the above statement.
Millie's statement encapsulates what Bradbury sees as part of the problem of passive entertainment like television: it creates the illusion of community and activity. Millie feels that she is engaging with other people when she is watching television, but in fact she is simply sitting alone in her living room.
The quote is also an example of irony. Millie's complaint that books "aren't people" is supposed to contrast with the human contact she feels when watching television. In fact, however, books are the product of human minds expressing themselves, and when you read you are making a connection with that mind over time and space.
“Stuff your eyes with wonder. Live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask for no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal.” (Part 3)
This statement is made by Granger, the leader of a group that memorizes books in order to pass the knowledge on to a future generation. Granger is speaking to Montag as they watch their city go up in flames. The first part of the statement implores the listener to see, experience, and learn about as much of the world as possible. He likens the mass-produced world of television to a factory of false fantasies, and argues that exploring the real world brings greater fulfillment and discovery than factory-made entertainment.
At the end of the passage, Granger concedes that "there never was such an animal" as security-knowledge may very well bring discomfort and danger, but there is no other way to live.