Fahrenheit 451

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Action vs. Inaction Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Mass Media Theme Icon
Censorship Theme Icon
Conformity vs. Individuality Theme Icon
Distraction vs. Happiness Theme Icon
Action vs. Inaction Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Fahrenheit 451, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Action vs. Inaction Theme Icon

In the years up to and before World War II, many societies, including Germany, become dangerous and intolerant. Even so, their citizens were afraid to speak out against these changes. Fahrenheit 451 was published in 1953, just a few years after WWII ended, and is very concerned with the idea of taking action versus standing by while society falters. In particular, the novel shows how Montag learns to take action, in contrast to Faber who is too cowardly to act. At the same time, Faber does help teach Montag the difference between reckless and intelligent action, so that by the end of the novel Montag is ready to act in a constructive rather than destructive way.

Action vs. Inaction ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Action vs. Inaction appears in each chapter of Fahrenheit 451. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Action vs. Inaction Quotes in Fahrenheit 451

Below you will find the important quotes in Fahrenheit 451 related to the theme of Action vs. Inaction.
Part 1 Quotes
It was a pleasure to burn.
Related Characters: Clarisse McClellan (speaker), Guy Montag
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:

The famous first sentence of the novel introduces readers to a world in which firemen start fires instead of putting them out. Guy Montag, the main character of the novel, is a fireman, and seems to take great pleasure in his work. Guy doesn't see anything morally objectionable about using fire to destroy "improper" literature--on the contrary, he seems to believe that he's doing the right thing.

The sentence also alludes to the dark side of Guy's society. Authority figures like Guy act as if they're doing the "right thing" by burning down people's houses. But secretly, it's implied, they act out of a savage, primal desire to destroy--in short, Guy's society is controlled by cruel and brutal people pretending to be voices of morality. Guy's society is also hopelessly violent thanks to the omnipotence of television and sensationalized entertainment.

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"You're not like the others. I've seen a few; I know. When I talk, you look at me. When I said something about the moon, you looked at the moon, last night. The others would never do that."
Related Characters: Clarisse McClellan (speaker), Guy Montag
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Guy and his neighbor, Clarisse, bond over their common characteristics--their thoughtfulness, their curiosity, etc. Clarisse is amazed that Guy is a fireman--a profession that she associates with brutality and cruelty. Clarisse sees a different side of Guy: she finds him sensitive and compassionate. In an increasingly superficial, vapid society, Guy is still capable of (somewhat) deep thought, as evidenced by the way he studies the moon.

Clarisse's comments on Guy's personality suggest that Guy's society is forcing him to become something he's not. Because his society celebrates distraction and superficial entertainment, thoughtful, introspective people are pressured into mindlessness. Over the course of the novel, Guy will learn to escape the deafening influence of television and get in touch with his inquisitive spirit.

The Mechanical Hound slept but did not sleep, lived but did not live in its gently humming, gently vibrating, softly illuminated kennel back in a dark corner of the firehouse.
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, we're introduced to the "villain" of the novel, the Mechanical Hound. The Hound is a machine used by the firemen to track down traitors and criminals--i.e., those who don't agree to conform to society's corrupt laws. The Hound is a frightening figure--it's mindless and never asleep, and therefore always watching for potential offenders, and never questioning the morality of its orders.

In a sense, the Hound is the embodiment of everything wrong with Guy's society. While most people embrace technology in their lives--cars, radios, televisions--the Hound embodies the dark side of this technology, proving that it can be used to hurt, not just entertain (and with the Hound, hurting is entertainment, as later seen in the highly-televised hunt for Montag). In a more subtle sense, the Hound could be said to represent the average citizen of Guy's society--always chained to the television, and therefore never fully awake or asleep.

The woman on the porch reached out with contempt to them all and struck the kitchen match against the railing.
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

Guy and his fellow firefighters try to arrest an old woman who refuses to conform to society. Instead of obeying the censorship guidelines of her country, the old woman continues to read whatever books she chooses. When Guy tries to arrest the woman, she refuses to cooperate. Defiant to the end, she lights herself on fire rather than be brought in to the police.

The woman's behavior suggests that she's a martyr for her beliefs. Like so many martyrs throughout history, the woman dies for what she believes in--free speech and the freedom to read what one chooses. Paradoxically, the fact that the woman herself takes action and chooses to burn to death suggests that she, not the firemen, is in control. Even if Guy and his peers have physical power over the old woman, they can't force her to conform to society.

"Speed up the film, Montag, quick... Uh! Bang! Smack! Wallop, Bing, Bong, Boom! Digest-digests, digest-digest-digests. Politics? One column, two sentences, a headline!... 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!"
Related Characters: Captain Beatty (speaker), Guy Montag
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Captain Beatty--Guy's superior at the fire station--gives Guy a condensed history of the United States. Once, information was thorough and analytical. But with the rise of the mass media and the invention of television, information became increasingly brief and superficial. In an effort to entertain, rather than inform, newspapers condensed their articles. The result is that the overall "pace" of human society seemed to increase: people processed information at a quicker speed, but only because the information was designed to be simpler and less nuanced.

Beatty's informal history (itself a highly "simplified" version of a big, complicated topic) suggests that American society as a whole has embraced the tenets of modern advertising. Just as the point of an ad slogan is to be quick, digestible, and above all entertaining, newspapers and books have begun to aspire to simplicity, with the goal of attracting as many "customers" as possible. It's easy to see the costs of the social changes Beatty describes, even if he never explicitly names them: in trading popularity and simplicity for thoroughness, society has become less thoughtful, less well-informed, and generally less mature.

"Burn all, burn everything. Fire is bright and fire is clean."
Related Characters: Captain Beatty (speaker)
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

Beatty sums up his ideas about censorship and conformity with a simple sentence: "Burn all, burn everything." Beatty has just been describing the history of censorship in the United States. He fully recognizes the scope of his work as a fireman: by burning forbidden literature, he realizes, he's strengthening a system in which all people have the same experiences and thoughts.

Beatty's work as a fireman represents the "dark side" of his society. People in the U.S. enjoy lives of fun and mindless pleasure--but their pleasure is dependent on Beatty burning down houses (and occasionally burning the people in them, too). And yet though Beatty knows the truth, he still seems untroubled by the nature of his work. Because he celebrates conformity and homogeneity, he sees his work as noble and pure. Fire, he implies, is the "great equalizer"--the weapon that allows everyone to be happy.

"The important thing for you to remember, Montag, is we're the Happiness Boys... 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."
Related Characters: Captain Beatty (speaker), Guy Montag
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:

Beatty tells his employee, Guy Montag, that he and Guy are agents of happiness. As firemen, Beatty and Guy have one crucial job: destroy literature that doesn't conform with society's standards. While Guy has some reservations about the morality of burning books, Beatty seems not to doubt the nobility of his profession. Beatty sees intelligence and deep thought as dangerous diseases, which lead to unhappiness and anxiety. The only way to ensure that society remains happy is by preserving its innocence--in other words, by destroying all "conflicting ideas."

Beatty's speech to Guy is, of course, darkly ironic, since, as we've seen, it is Beatty's society (the society of conformity and television) that is actually "melancholy and drear." Theory and deep thought do not, contrary to what Beatty claims, always lead to sadness--rather, they represent the only way that human beings can achieve true happiness and move beyond the glib pleasures of superficial entertainment.

"At least once in his career, every fireman gets an itch. What do the books say, he wonders. Oh, to scratch that itch, eh?"
Related Characters: Captain Beatty (speaker)
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Guy Montag asks his superior at the fire station, Captain Beatty, what happens when a fireman gives in to the temptation to read some of the books he's supposed to burn. Beatty, an experienced fireman, replies that all firemen feel the temptation Guy has described.

Beatty's speech implies that Beatty himself has given into temptation and read some forbidden books. (Beatty's awareness of literature and history, demonstrated throughout the first part of the book, further implies that he's a secret reader.) In a broader sense, too, the passage suggests that all human beings feel a natural sense of curiosity; a desire to learn about the world and about themselves. In Beatty and Guy's society, however, the government strongly discourages people from giving into their natural human curiosity. Thus, the passage suggests that Guy's society is barbaric because it perverts human nature.

Part 2 Quotes
He would be Montag-plus-Faber, fire plus water, and then, one day, after everything had mixed and simmered and worked away in silence, there would be neither fire nor water, but wine.
Related Characters: Guy Montag
Page Number: 99
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Guy Montag resolves to use Faber's teachings to undermine the censorship and repression of his own society. Faber is deeply cynical about the state of society--he condemns his society's ignorance, its sadism, and its lack of empathy--but he's always reluctant to put his ideas to practice. Guy, by contrast, is eager to improve the state of society, trying to bring the engagement and empathy Faber celebrates and put it into action.

The passage is an interesting description of what the 19th century anarchists called "creative destruction." Guy has spent most of his adult life destroying books on behalf of his society. But henceforth, Guy will use his destructive tendencies in order to create something new and valuable: an empathetic, engaged society. In doing so, Guy hopes to engineer a near-miraculous transformation in his country (Note the Biblical allusion in this passage: Guy wants to change his world, like Christ changing water into wine.)

Part 3 Quotes
"What is it about fire that's so lovely? No matter what age we are, what draws us to it?... It's perpetual motion; the thing man wanted to invent but never did. Or almost perpetual motion. If you let it go on, it'd burn our lifetimes out."
Related Characters: Captain Beatty (speaker)
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 109
Explanation and Analysis:

Captain Beatty has discovered that Guy Montag is a "traitor" to society: Guy has been reading the books he was supposed to destroy. As Beatty prepares to arrest Guy for his acts of treason, he mocks Guy by musing on the beauty of fire. Beatty claims that all human beings are attracted to fire, because it has the potential to last forever, because it is capable of destroying everything, and because it is constantly moving and entertaining (like a primitive form of television, almost).

It's interesting that Beatty praises fire for its destructive capabilities as well as its immortality. One could argue that fire symbolizes Beatty's society as a whole: an incredibly destructive country that wages war on its neighbors and broadcasts violent TV programs, all for entertainment and pleasure.

"Now, Montag, you're a burden. And fire will lift you off my shoulders, clean, quick, sure; nothing to rot later. Antibiotic, aesthetic, practical."
Related Characters: Captain Beatty (speaker), Guy Montag
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 109
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Beatty offers Guy a chance to burn down his own house, which--as we've seen--has been targeted for destruction because of Guy's "subversive" behavior. As Guy grips the flamethrower in his hands, Beatty mocks Guy for being a "burden" and suggests that he'll enjoy burning Guy to a crisp.

It's not a great idea to antagonize someone with access to a working flamethrower. But perhaps Beatty's behavior in this passage is indicative of a broader problem with his society. On some level, Beatty seems to want Guy to attack him with the flamethrower (which Guy does immediately after this passage). Beatty's hatred for Guy--his desire to burn Guy to death--suggests his self-hatred, and his desire to end his own pathetic life. In short, Beatty's behavior exposes the hidden depression and self-loathing of modern American society-- feelings encouraged by the vapidity and violence of the modern media.

"We're nothing more than dust jackets for books, of no significance otherwise."
Related Characters: Granger (speaker)
Page Number: 146
Explanation and Analysis:

Guy has now fled away from his city and into the wilderness. There, he makes contact with a man named Granger, the leader of a ragtag group of intellectuals. Each intellectual in the group has memorize the entirety of one book: Guy's will be the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes. Granger gives Guy some advice: he encourages Guy to be modest, and to think himself as the mere "dust jacket" for the book he's memorized.

Granger's comments in this passage are indicative of the oral tradition to which mankind is returning. Because of the dangers of possessing books, Granger and his followers have memorized long texts. Like the poets of the ancient world, such as Homer, Granger and his peers don't think of themselves as great thinkers or writers; rather, they're just the passive receivers of other people's great ideas. Put another way, their duty is to remember and repeat, not to create.

Granger's comments also reinforce the differences between his followers and Guy's former society. In Guy's society, people were encouraged to be vain and self-absorbed; indeed, a vast network of advertisers and TV corporations existed to appeal to people's vanity. In the wilderness, Granger has no patience for vanity; his followers are expected to be humble and respect the majesty of literature and timeless ideas.

"...We're going to build a mirror factory first and put out nothing but mirrors for the next year and take a long look in them."
Related Characters: Granger (speaker)
Page Number: 157
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the novel--when Guy's former society has seemingly been destroyed by nuclear war--Granger plans to rebuild human civilization from the ashes. Half-seriously, half-jokingly, Granger envisions a "mirror factory" that will allow all human beings to see their own faces and learn introspection again.

Why does Granger want to replace civilization with a society of mirrors? As Granger sees it, Guy's society was guilty of constant distraction, and thus of profound ignorance: ignorance of politics, ignorance of history, and above all, ignorance of the self. Guy and his peers watched television and went shopping, but never stopped to ask themselves if they were happy, or if the people around them were happy. Because they never listened to their own instincts and spiritual needs, Guy's neighbors allowed themselves to spiral into depression and misery. Thus, by planning a "mirror factory," Granger indicates that he's learned from society's mistakes. In Granger's new society, human beings will never again be allowed to lose sight of their own unique desires and thoughts. Instead of confirming to society's expectations, people will celebrate uniqueness and individuality.