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Literature

Fahrenheit 451

by Ray Bradbury

Characters

  • Guy Montague: A guy who sets fire to stuff for a living.
  • Clarisse McCapulet: A woman who sets his heart on fire.
  • Faber Laurence: On average, an actuary.

Discussion

Fahrenheit 451 is set in the 24th century; a future where individuals are taken care of by the government and those who wish to look after their own affairs are considered criminals. In this world, television has supplanted the family and there is very little meaningful social interaction any more. But in other ways the future is very different from today.

Firemen in Fahrenheit 451 are unlike today's firefighters. For one thing, they still use "men" in their job description. For another, they set things on fire. Fahrenheit 451's fire department is a subsidiary of the government General Accounting Office, and all firemen have training in accounting -- specifically, they are trained to hunt down anyone who tries to control their finances by "keeping books," and when such books are found, they are destroyed.

Guy Montague is such a Fireman, and he meets a woman named Clarisse McCapulet on his way home from a meeting of friends in the shadow of the city's central Statue of Limitations. Guy becomes enchanted by Clarisse, and is fascinated when she begins talking to him about how wonderful it is to know your own worth down to the penny. He finds himself subtly aroused by her talk of mergers and withholding.

When Guy gets home, he finds that his wife is unconscious. It has been determined that she is overconsuming relevant to her value to society and has been "amortized" for the balance of the day to compensate. The next day, Guy wants to talk with her about overconsumption, but she's too busy to talk to him (the new episode of "Desperate Great-Grandmothers" is on). It seems clear to Guy that, compared to Clarisse, his wife has no redemption value.

When Guy returns to the fire station, the station's Certified Public Automaton, Fifo (sort of a large robotic dog with glasses and a tie) growls at him. Does it know that Guy is keeping two sets of thoughts?

Guy continues to secretly meet Clarisse, even though his imputed interest in her could lead to government foreclosure. Guy learns that Clarisse is afraid of being audited by the firemen.

On another day, the firemen are called to liquidate the assets of an old woman who has been keeping accounts. The old woman dies with her ledger locked in an embrace, and during the operation Guy slips her checkbook into his pocket. That night, he learns that Clarisse had an accident in her Audi model T and died. The news leaves Guy depreciated.

Guy shows his wife the checkbook and tries to get her interested in keeping track of their spending, but she can't see the present value of such a thing.

In search of someone who can share his compounding interest, Guy turns to Faber Laurence, a retired actuary he met some time before. Faber is worried that Guy is there to imbalance his books, but Guy's initial public offering of the checkbook helps Faber enter into a limited partnership with Guy for the sharing of intangible assets.

Feeling better about himself, Guy returns home to see that his wife has company. He tries to engage them in conversation about accounting, but the ladies are nauseated by his discussion of gross income and flee. Guy's wife is very mad with him, even though he gives her reasonable assurance that everything will be fine and just asks for her simple trust.

The next day at the first station, a call comes in that another house must be depreciated. When they arrive, Guy is surprised to find that it is his own. He is ordered to burn his own home -- it's the standard deduction for a fireman who drifts out of society's safe harbor. While burning his things, Guy finds that he enjoys dealing out collateral damage, and although his boss urges him to yield to maturity and throw off the junk bonds of bookkeeping, Guy realizes that he is just too obsessed with accountability. Sticking to his principals, he sets his boss on fire instead.

Guy runs to Faber for help, hoping to increase his net value with a joint venture. Faber tells Guy how to take a raft down Revenue Stream to where a group of financial outcasts hides. Guy finds them an joins their group. He is pleased that he can now finally make an accounting of himself and, with his new friends, enjoy banned books like ESOP Fables, Tax Return of the Native, and Huckleberry Finances, and wonderful accounting movies such as The Proxy Horror Picture Show, Lessee Come Home, Resident Alien vs. Pensioner, and many ROI Rogers and James Bond movies.

Topics for further research

  • How is Guy's wife like an actuarial table?
  • In Farenheit 451, police officers work for the Security and Exchange Commission and doctors are part of the Internal Revenue Service. Who do firefighters work for?
  • How much do you think it cost to print this book? Do you agree with the firemen in the novel that you should be put to death for figuring this out?
  • Guy and Clarisse's last names are inspired by Shakespeare. What other elements of The Merchant of Venice can be found in this novel?

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