Toronto Public Library Homepage

This page has been archived and is no longer updated.

Keep Toronto Reading 2013

Reading Fahrenheit 451: Bradbury and Mars (not that Mars)

April 24, 2013 | Winona | Comments (2)


I remember reading Fahrenheit 451, this year's One Book selection, for the first time, when I was in university. Before then, I had known something of its basic premise - that it had been written during the height of McCarthyism in America, that it was concerned with censorship and had itself been censored. But other than that my only experience with Fahrenheit 451 had been in the form of performance art.

Tanya Mars
Tanya Mars

In 2004, the multi-disciplinary performance artist Tanya Mars produced an elaborate public performance piece called Tyranny of Bliss. It took place at 14 different sites, simultaneously, around the city, and was constructed thematically around the seven deadly sins and the seven heavenly virtues. Fahrenheit 451 was used in the performance of the seventh deadly sin, Pride, which was staged at a bookstore in Toronto.

Table of the Mortal Sins by Hieronymus Bosch (Superbia)
Table of the Mortal Sins by Hieronymus Bosch (detail: Superbia [Pride]). Notice the demon holding a mirror in front of the woman.

Briefly, this piece called Pride went something like this: two performers covered the sidewalk in front of the bookstore with hundreds of books which they piled up and un-piled methodically for about five hours. The performers also took turns standing on the piles and reading from Fahrenheit 451, then ripping pages from the book and burning those pages in a small silver bowl. Meanwhile, in the storefront window, another performer gazed at her reflection in a mirror and tore thin strips of Fahrenheit 451 from its covers, which she pasted onto the window until it was completely covered and she was rendered invisible.

Tyranny of Bliss - reading FH451 - photograph by Miklos Legrady
Performance of Tyranny of Bliss by Tanya Mars. Photo credit: Miklos Legrady
Tyranny of Bliss - lighting FH451 - photograph by Miklos Legrady
Performance of Tyranny of Bliss by Tanya Mars. Photo credit: Miklos Legrady
Tyranny of Bliss - burning FH451 - photograph by Miklos Legrady
Performance of Tyranny of Bliss by Tanya Mars. Photo credit: Miklos Legrady

I loved the performance but, truthfully, I couldn't figure out for the life of me why it was called Pride.

Later, while reading Fahrenheit 451 in university (for an inspiring course taught by poet and Professor Priscila Uppal on one of my favourite subjects: reading) I attempted to trace a few connections between Mars and Bradbury:

Triptych of Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation by Hans Memling
Triptych of Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation by Hans Memling
Pride is also known as vainglory, which is etymologically linked to the Latin word vanus, meaning empty, idle, foolish. These are apt descriptors for Bradbury's dystopia. Just look at Mildred. She longs for a fourth "parlor wall," a vacuum inside of which she can seal herself away from thinking and feeling and instead immerse herself in programs about nothing. Poor Mildred, whose favourite subject is herself:

He opened another book."'That favorite subject, Myself.'" He squinted at the wall. "'That favorite subject myself.'" "I understand that one," said Mildred." (p. 68)  Inferno by Dante (transl. Nichols)

In Dante's Inferno, the deadly sin of pride is defined as "love of self perverted to hatred and contempt for one's neighbour." This is just what Bradbury describes in those people who alert the firemen to the presence of books in their neighbours' homes. The notable exception is Clarisse McClellan, Montag's neighbour who loves community, and pays for that with her life:
"I'm antisocial, they say. I don't mix. It's so strange. I'm very social indeed. It all depends on what you mean by social, doesn't it? Social to me means talking to you about things like this." She rattled some chestnuts that had fallen off the tree in the front yard. "Or talking about how strange the world is. Being with people is nice. But I don't think it's social to get a bunch of people together and then not let them talk, do you?" (p. 27)
Paradise Lost (Lucifer) illustration by William Blake
Illustration of Lucifer by William Blake

In the Christian tradition Pride is often considered the gravest of the seven deadly sins. You can see this in the story of Lucifer (sometimes "the light bearer"), whose belief that he is greater than God - his inflated pride of self - causes his fall from Heaven and his subsequent transformation into Satan, ruler of the blazing inferno of Hell. Enter Captain Beatty, whose smoky bedside lecture on the nature of happiness to Montag (during which Montag conceals the Bible he salvaged from the library belonging to the woman who burns with her books) is reminiscent of a sort of "deal with the Devil" conversation:
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...He examined his eternal matchbox, the lid of which said GUARANTEED: ONE MILLION LIGHTS IN THIS IGNITER, and began to strike the chemical match abstractly, 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?" (p. 50-51)
So what? you ask. So: Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is, among other things, an allegorical critique of a society that prides itself on its superficiality and hedonism (the American dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness conceived as nightmare) at the great expense of readers and reading, and all that's lost when books - and some of the things that are in them - are gone.


To read more blog posts on Fahrenheit 451 click here.


The Albert Campbell District Blog is an online resource and place where you can access information related to the Albert Campbell, Eglinton Square, McGregor Park, and Kennedy Eglinton branches. It will feature reading recommendations, information on new titles and resources in the branches, special events and programs, as well as other information of interest to you. We encourage you to make this blog an interactive space by replying and commenting on posts and by subscribing to the RSS feature which allows you to receive blog updates without having to search for them.