A Study of the Allusions in Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451
Author(s): Peter Sisario[->0]
[(essay date February 1970) In the following essay, Sisario examines the source and significance of literary allusions in Fahrenheit 451 and considers their didactic potential for the beginning student of literature.] Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is more than just a readable and teachable short novel that generates much classroom discussion about the dangers of a mass culture, as Charles Hamblen points out in his article "Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 in the Classroom." It is an excellent source for showing students the value of studying an author's use of specific allusions in a work of fiction. While writing excellent social criticism, Bradbury uses several direct quotations from works of literature, including the Bible; a careful analysis of the patterning of these allusions shows their function of adding subtle depth to the ideas of the novel. Fahrenheit 451 is set five centuries from now in an anti-intellectual world where firemen serve the reverse role of setting fires, in this case to books that people have been illegally hoarding and reading. Literature is banned because it might potentially incite people to think or to question the status quo of happiness and freedom from worry through the elimination of controversy. "Intellectual" entertainment is provided by tapioca-bland television that broadcasts sentimental mush on all four walls. The novel, first written in a shorter version for a science-fiction magazine in 1950 and published as a novel three years later, concerns itself with one fireman, Guy Montag, who commits the heresy of questioning his role and seeks to learn why books are considered dangerous. If we take this imaginary world of the twenty-fourth century as a commentary of our contemporary society, we can interpret the novel on one level as the often-heard argument that mass media, as evidenced by television and popular magazines, are reducing our society to very mediocre tastes. The mass media must keep watering down the intellectual level of its material as it attempts to reach an increasingly larger and intellectually diversified audience. Bradbury takes this problem to an extreme to show the potential effects of such a course on our culture. Television spans four walls, soap operas and sentimentality abound, and books, the carriers of ideas, are burned. But if we look more closely at the novel, noting specifically the literary and Biblical allusions, we see a deeper message in the novel than simply the warning that our society is headed for intellectual stagnation. The literary allusions are used to underscore the emptiness of the twenty-fourth century, and the Biblical allusions point subtly toward a solution to help us out of our intellectual "Dark Age." Bradbury seems to be saying that the nature of life is cyclical and we are currently at the bottom of an intellectual cycle. We must have faith and blindly hope for an upward swing of the cycle. This concept of the natural cycle is most explicitly stated by Bradbury through the character of Granger: And when the war's over, some day, some year, the books can be written again, the people will be called in, one by one, to recite what they know, and we'll set it up in type until another Dark Age, when we might have to do the whole thing over again. The major metaphor in the novel, which supports the idea of the natural cycle, is the allusion to the Phoenix, the mythical bird of ancient Egypt that periodically burned itself to death and resurrected from its own ashes to a restored youth. Through the persona of Granger, Bradbury expresses the hope that mankind might use his intellect and his knowledge of his own intellectual and physical destruction to keep from going through endless cycles of disintegration and rebirth. This image of the Phoenix is used in the novel in association with the minor character Captain Beatty, Montag's superior. As an officer, Beatty has...
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