Go to:  Davar site entry | Site contents | Site index | Extracts | Fiction extracts | Text bottom

Fahrenheit  451
(Extract)

Ray Bradbury

"If they give you ruled paper,
write the other way."

Juan Ramon Jimenez

He had chills and fever in the morning.

"You can't be sick," said Mildred. 

He closed his eyes over the hotness.  "Yes." 

"But you were all right, last night." 

"No, I wasn't all right."    He heard the "relatives" shouting in the parlor.

Mildred stood over his bed, curiously.  He felt her there, he saw her without opening his eyes, her hair burnt by chemicals to a brittle straw, her eyes with a kind of cataract unseen but suspect far behind the pupils, the reddened pouting lips, the body as thin as a praying mantis from dieting, and her flesh like white bacon.  He could remember her no other way.

"Will you bring me aspirin and water?" 

"You've got to get up," she said.  "It's noon.  You've slept five hours later than usual." 

"Will you turn the parlor off?"    he asked.

"That's my family." 

"Will you turn it off for a sick man?"    "I'll turn it down." 

She went out of the room and did nothing to the parlor and came back.  "Is that better?" 

"Thanks." 

"That's my favorite program," she said. 

"What about the aspirin?" 

"You've never been sick before."    She went away again.

"Well, I'm sick now.  I'm not going to work tonight.  Call Beatty for me." 

"You acted funny last night."    She returned, humming.

"Where's the aspirin?"    He glanced at the water glass she handed him.

"Oh," She walked to the bath again.  "Did something happen?" 

"A fire, is all." 

"I had a nice evening," she said, in the bathroom.

"What doing?" 

"The parlor." 

"What was on?" 

"Programs." 

"What programs?" 

"Some of the best ever." 

"Who?" 

"Oh, you know, the bunch." 

"Yes, the bunch, the bunch, the bunch."    He pressed at the pain in his eyes and suddenly the odor of kerosene made him vomit.

Mildred came in, humming.  She was surprised.  "Why'd you do that?" 

He looked with dismay at the floor.  "We burned an old woman with her books." 

"It's a good thing the rug's washable."    She fetched a mop and worked on it.  "I went to Helen's last night." 

"Couldn't you get the shows in your own parlor?" 

"Sure, but it's nice visiting." 

She went out into the parlor.  He heard her singing.

"Mildred?"  he called.  She returned, singing, snapping her fingers softly.

"Aren't you going to ask me about last night?"    he said.

"What about it?" 

"We burned a thousand books.  We burned a woman." 

"Well?" 

The parlor was exploding with sound. 

"We burned copies of Dante and Swift and Marcus Aurelius." 

"Wasn't he a European?" 

"Something like that." 

"Wasn't he a radical?" 

"I never read him." 

"He was a radical."    Mildred fiddled with the telephone.  "You don't expect me to call Captain Beatty, do you?" 

"You must!" 

"Don't shout!" 

"I wasn't shouting."    He was up in bed, suddenly, enraged and flushed, shaking.  The parlor roared in the hot air.  "I can't call him.  I can't tell him I'm sick." 

"Why?" 

Because you're afraid, he thought.  A child feigning illness, afraid to call because after a moment's discussion, the conversation would run so: "Yes, Captain, I feel better already.  I'll be in at ten o'clock tonight." 

"You're not sick," said Mildred. 

Montag fell back in bed.  He reached under his pillow.  The hidden book was still there.

"Mildred, how would it be if, well, maybe I quit my job awhile?" 

"You want to give up everything?  After all these years of working, because, one night, some woman and her books "

"You should have seen her, Millie!" 

"She's nothing to me; she shouldn't have had books.  It was her responsibility, she should've thought of that.  I hate her.  She's got you going and next thing you know we'll be out, no house, no job, nothing." 

"You weren't there, you didn't see," he said.  "There must be something in books, things we can't imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there.  You don't stay for nothing." 

"She was simple-minded." 

"She was as rational as you and I, more so perhaps, and we burned her." 

"That's water under the bridge." 

"No, not water; fire.  You ever seen a burned house?  It smolders for days.  Well, this fire'll last me the rest of my life.  I've been trying to put it out, in my mind, all night I'm crazy with trying." 

"You should've thought of that before becoming a fireman." 

"Thought!"  he said.  "Was I given a choice?  My grandfather and father were firemen.  In my sleep, I ran after them." 

The parlor was playing a dance tune. 

"This is the day you go on the early shift," said Mildred "You should've gone two hours ago.  I just noticed." 

"It's not just the woman that died," said Montag.  "Last night I thought about all the kerosene I've used in the past ten years.  And I thought about books.  And for the first time I realized that a man was behind each one of the books.  A man had to think them up.  A man had to take a long time to put them down on paper.  And I'd never even thought that thought before."    He got out of bed.

"It took some man a lifetime maybe to put some of his thoughts down, looking around at the world and life and then I come along in two minutes and boom!  it's all over.

"Let me alone," said Mildred.  "I didn't do anything." 

"Let you alone!  That's all very well, but how can I leave myself alone?  We need not to be let alone.  We need to be really bothered once in a while.  How long is it since you were really bothered?  About something important, about something real?"    And then he shut up, for he remembered last week and the two white stones staring up at the ceiling and the pump-snake with the probing eye and the two soap-faced men with the cigarettes moving in their mouths when they talked.  But that was another Mildred, that was a Mildred so deep inside this one, and so bothered, really bothered, that the two women had never met.  He turned away.

Mildred said, "Well, now you've done it.  Out front of the house.  Look who's here." 

"I don't care." 

"There's a Phoenix car just drove up and a man in a black shirt with an orange snake stitched on his arm coming up the front walk." 

"Captain Beatty?"    he said. 

"Captain Beatty." 

Montag did not move, but stood looking into the cold whiteness of the wall immediately before him.

"Go let him in, will you?  Tell him I'm sick." 

"Tell him yourself!"    She ran a few steps this way, a few steps that, and stopped, eyes wide, when the front door speaker called her name, softly, softly, Mrs.  Montag, Mrs.  Montag, someone here, someone here, Mrs.  Montag, Mrs.  Montag, someone's here.  Fading.

Montag made sure the book was well hidden behind the pillow, climbed slowly back into bed, arranged the covers over his knees and across his chest, half-sitting, and after a while Mildred moved and went out of the room and Captain Beatty strolled in, his hands in his pockets.

"Shut the 'relatives' up," said Beatty, looking around at everything except Montag and his wife.

This time, Mildred ran.  The yammering voices stopped yelling in the parlor.

Captain Beatty sat down in the most comfortable chair with a peaceful look on his ruddy face.  He took time to prepare and light his brass pipe and puff out a great smoke cloud.  "Just thought I'd come by and see how the sick man is." 

"How'd you guess?" 

Beatty smiled his smile which showed the candy pinkness of his gums and the tiny candy whiteness of his teeth.  "I've seen it all.  You were going to call for a night off." 

Montag sat in bed. 

"Well," said Beatty, "take the night off!"    He examined his eternal matchbox, the lid of which said GUARANTEED: ONE MILLION LIGHTS IN THIS IGNITER, and began to strike the chemical match abstractedly, blow out, strike, blow out, strike, speak a few words, blow out.  He looked at the flame.  He blew, he looked at the smoke.  "When will you be well?" 

"Tomorrow. The next day maybe.  First of the week." 

Beatty puffed his pipe.  "Every fireman, sooner or later, hits this.  They only need understanding, to know how the wheels run.  Need to know the history of our profession.  They don't feed it to rookies like they used to."    Puff.  "Only fire chiefs remember it now."    Puff.  "I'll let you in on it." 

Mildred fidgeted. 

Beatty took a full minute to settle himself in and think back for what he wanted to say.

"When did it all start, you ask, this job of ours, how did it come about, where, when?  Well, I'd say it really got started around about a thing called the Civil War.  Even though our rule book claims it was founded earlier.  The fact is we didn't get along well until photography came into its own.  Then - motion pictures in the early Twentieth Century.  Radio.  Television.  Things began to have mass." 

Montag sat in bed, not moving. 

"And because they had mass, they became simpler," said Beatty.  "Once, books appealed to a few people, here, there, everywhere.  They could afford to be different.  The world was roomy.  But then the world got full of eyes and elbows and mouths.  Double, triple, quadruple population.  Films and radios, magazines, books leveled down to a sort of paste pudding norm, do you follow me?" 

"I think so." 

Beatty peered at the smoke pattern he had put out on the air.  "Picture it.  Nineteenth century man with his horses, dogs, carts, slow motion.  Then, in the Twentieth Century, speed up your camera.  Books cut shorter.  Condensations.  Digests.  Tabloids.  Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending." 

"Snap ending."    Mildred nodded. 

"Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume.  I exaggerate, of course.  The dictionaries were for reference.  But many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet (you know the title certainly, Montag; it is probably only a faint rumor of a title to you, Mrs.  Montag) whose sole knowledge, as I say, of Hamlet was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: now at last you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbors.  Do you see?  Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there's your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more." 

Mildred arose and began to move around the room, picking things up and putting them down.  Beatty ignored her and continued:

"Speed up the film, Montag, quick.  Click, Pic, Look, Eye, Now, Flick, Here, There, Swift, Pace, Up, Down, In, Out, Why, How, Who, What, Where, Eh?  Uh!  Bang!  Smack!  Wallop, Bing, Bong, Boom!  Digest-digests, digest-digest-digests.  Politics?  One column, two sentences, a headline!  Then, in mid-air, all vanishes!  Whirl man's mind around about so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!" 

Mildred smoothed the bedclothes.  Montag felt his heart jump and jump again as she patted his pillow.  Right now she was pulling at his shoulder to try to get him to move so she could take the pillow out and fix it nicely and put it back.  And perhaps cry out and stare or simply reach down her hand and say, "What's this?"    and hold up the hidden book with touching innocence.

"School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored.  Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work.  Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?" 

"Let me fix your pillow," said Mildred. 

"No!"  whispered Montag. 

"The zipper displaces the button and a man lacks just that much time to think while dressing at dawn, a philosophical hour, and thus a melancholy hour." 

Mildred said, "Here." 

"Get away," said Montag. 

"Life becomes one big pratfall, Montag; everything bang, boff, and wow!" 

"Wow," said Mildred, yanking at the pillow. 

"For God's sake, let me be!"    cried Montag passionately.

Beatty opened his eyes wide. 

Mildred's hand had frozen behind the pillow.  Her fingers were tracing the book's outline and as the shape became familiar her face looked surprised and then stunned.  Her mouth opened to ask a question...

"Empty the theaters save for clowns and furnish the rooms with glass walls and pretty colors running up and down the walls like confetti or blood or sherry or sauterne.  You like baseball, don't you, Montag?" 

"Baseball's a fine game." 

Now Beatty was almost invisible, a voice somewhere behind a screen of smoke.

"What's this?"    asked Mildred, almost with delight.  Montag heaved back against her arms.  "What's this here?" 

"Sit down!"    Montag shouted.  She jumped away, her hands empty.  "We're talking!" 

Beatty went on as if nothing had happened.  "You like bowling, don't you, Montag?" 

"Bowling, yes." 

"And golf?" 

"Golf is a fine game." 

"Basketball?" 

"A fine game." 

"Billiards, pool?  Football?" 

"Fine games, all of them." 

"More sports for everyone, group spirit, fun, and you don't have to think, eh?  Organize and organize and super organize super-super sports.  More cartoons in books.  More pictures.  The mind drinks less and less.  Impatience.  Highways full of crowds going somewhere, somewhere, somewhere, nowhere.  The gasoline refugee.  Towns turn into motels, people in nomadic surges from place to place, following the moon tides, living tonight in the room where you slept this noon and I the night before." 

Mildred went out of the room and slammed the door.  The parlor "aunts" began to laugh at the parlor "uncles." 

"Now let's take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we?  Bigger the population, the more minorities.  Don't step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico.  The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere.  The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that!  All the minor minor minorities with their ears to be kept clean.  Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters.  They did.  Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca.  Books, so the snobbish critics said, were dishwater.  No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said.  But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic-books survive.  And the three-dimensional sex-magazines, of course.  There you have it, Montag.  It didn't come from the Government down.  There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no!  Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick.  Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade-journals." 

"Yes, but what about the firemen, then?"    asked Montag.

"Ah."  Beatty leaned forward in the faint mist of smoke from his pipe.  "What more easily explained and natural?  With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word 'intellectual,' of course, became the swear word it deserved to be.  You always dread the unfamiliar.  Surely you remember the boy in your own school class who was exceptionally 'bright,' did most of the reciting and answering while the others sat like so many leaden idols, hating him.  And wasn't it this bright boy you selected for beatings and tortures after hours?  Of course it was.  We must all be alike.  Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal.  Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against.  So!  A book is a loaded gun in the house next door.  Burn it.  Take the shot from the weapon.  Breach man's mind.  Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?  Me?  I won't stomach them for a minute.  And so when houses were finally fireproofed completely, all over the world (you were correct in your assumption the other night) there was no longer need of firemen for the old purposes.  They were given the new job, as custodians of our peace of mind, the focus of our understandable and rightful dread of being inferior; official censors, judges, and executors.  That's you, Montag, and that's me." 

The door to the parlor opened and Mildred stood there looking in at them, looking at Beatty and then at Montag.  Behind her the walls of the room were flooded with green and yellow and orange fireworks sizzling and bursting to some music composed almost completely of trap drums, tom-toms, and cymbals.  Her mouth moved and she was saying something but the sound covered it.

Beatty knocked his pipe into the palm of his pink hand, studied the ashes as if they were a symbol to be diagnosed and searched for meaning.

"You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can't have our minorities upset and stirred.  Ask yourself, what do we want in this country, above all?  People want to be happy, isn't that right?  Haven't you heard it all your life?  I want to be happy, people say.  Well, aren't they?  Don't we keep them moving, don't we give them fun?  That's all we live for, isn't it?  For pleasure, for titillation?  And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these." 

"Yes." 

Montag could lip-read what Mildred was saying in the doorway.  He tried not to look at her mouth, because then Beatty might turn and read what was there, too.

"Colored 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?  Burn the book.  Serenity, Montag.  Peace, Montag.  Take your fight outside.  Better yet, into the incinerator.  Funerals are unhappy and pagan?  Eliminate them, too.  Five minutes after a person is dead he's on his way to the Big Flue, the Incinerators serviced by helicopters all over the country.  Ten minutes after death a man's a speck of black dust.  Let's not quibble over individuals with memoriams.  Forget them.  Burn all, burn everything.  Fire is bright and fire is clean." 

The fireworks died in the parlor behind Mildred.  She had stopped talking at the same time; a miraculous coincidence.  Montag held his breath.

"There was a girl next door," he said, slowly.  "She's gone now, I think, dead.  I can't even remember her face.  But she was different.  How-how did she happen?

Beatty smiled.  "Here or there, that's bound to occur.  Clarisse McClellan?  We've a record on her family.  We've watched them carefully.  Heredity and environment are funny things.  You can't rid yourselves of all the odd ducks in just a few years.  The home environment can undo a lot you try to do at school.  That's why we've lowered the kindergarten age year after year until now we're almost snatching them from the cradle.  We had some false alarms on the McClellans, when they lived in Chicago.  Never found a book.  Uncle had a mixed record; antisocial.  The girl?  She was a time bomb.  The family had been feeding her subconscious, I'm sure, from what I saw of her school record.  She didn't want to know how a thing was done, but why.  That can be embarrassing.  You ask Why to a lot of things and you wind up very unhappy indeed, if you keep at it.  The poor girl's better off dead." 

"Yes, dead." 

"Luckily, queer ones like her don't happen often.  We know how to nip most of them in the bud, early.  You can't build a house without nails and wood.  If you don't want a house built, hide the nails and wood.  If you don't want a man unhappy politically, don't give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one.  Better yet, give him none.  Let him forget there is such a thing as war.  If the government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it.  Peace, Montag.  Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year.  Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so full of 'facts' they feel stuffed, but absolutely 'brilliant' with information.  Then they'll feel they're thinking, they'll get a sense of motion without moving.  And they'll be happy, because facts of that sort don't change.  Don't give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with.  That way lies melancholy.  Any man who can take a TV wall apart and put it back together again, and most men can, nowadays, is happier than any man who tries to slide-rule, measure, and equate the universe, which just won't be measured or equated without making man feel bestial and lonely.  I know, I've tried it.  So bring on your clubs and parties, your acrobats and magicians, your daredevils, jet cars, motorcycle helicopters, your sex and heroin, more of everything to do with automatic reflex.  If the drama is bad, if the film says nothing; if the play is hollow, sting me with the theremin, loudly.  I'll think I'm responding to the play, when it's only a tactile reaction to vibration.  But I don't care.  I just like solid entertainment." 

Beatty got up.  "I must be going.  Lecture's over.  I hope I've clarified things.  The important thing for you to remember, Montag, is we're the Happiness Boys, the Dixie Duo, you and I and the others.  We stand against the small tide of those who want to make everyone unhappy with conflicting theory and thought.  We have our fingers in the dike.  Hold steady.  Don't let the torrent of melancholy and drear philosophy drown our world.  We depend on you.  I don't think you realize how important you are, we are, to our happy world as it stands now." 

Beatty shook Montag's limp hand.  Montag still sat, as if the house were collapsing about him and he could not move, in the bed.  Mildred had vanished from the door.

"One last thing," said Beatty.  "At least once in his career, every fireman gets an itch.  What do the books say, he wonders.  Oh, to scratch that itch, eh?  Well, Montag, take my word for it, I've had to read a few in my time, to know what I was about, and the books say nothing!  Nothing you can teach or believe.  They're about nonexistent people, figments of imagination, if they're fiction.  And if they're nonfiction, it's worse, one professor calling another an idiot, one philosopher screaming down another's gullet.  All of them running about, putting out the stars and extinguishing the sun.  You come away lost." 

"Well, then, what if a fireman accidentally, really not intending anything, takes a book home with him?" 

Montag twitched.  The open door looked at him with its great vacant eye.

"A natural error.  Curiosity alone," said Beatty.  "We don't get overanxious or mad.  We let the fireman keep the book twenty-four hours.  If he hasn't burned it by then, we simply come burn it for him." 

"Of course."    Montag's mouth was dry. 

"Well, Montag.  Will you take another, later shift, today?  Will we see you tonight perhaps?" 

"I don't know," said Montag. 

"What?"  Beatty looked faintly surprised. 

Montag shut his eyes.  "I'll be in later.  Maybe." 

"We'd certainly miss you if you didn't show," said Beatty, putting his pipe in his pocket thoughtfully.

I'll never come in again, thought Montag. 

"Get well and keep well," said Beatty. 

He turned and went out through the open door. 

Ray Bradbury
"Fahrenheit 451", 1953


Go to:  Davar site entry | Site contents | Site index | Extracts | Fiction extracts | Text top