Fahrenheit 451 Vocabulary Words

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

Explore the opposition between senses and knowledge in Ray Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451. Learn about the words he uses to evoke senses of sight, smell and hearing. Discover the ways books function as receptacles of knowledge and vehicles for intellectual engagement.

Ray Bradbury's dystopian novel 'Fahrenheit 451' depicts a terrible future in which firefighters are employed to set fires, not put them out. They target homes that harbor books. As the narrator explains, 'Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget.' Books are dangerous receptacles -- containers used to store things -- because they can be used to store ideas and spread free thought.

The novel thrives on spectacles that overwhelm the senses. Overly loud television programs and high-speed motorways are designed to distract from intelligent thought and contemplation. In this lesson, we will explore two word groups from the novel: the first group expresses sensations and the second relates to thought and wisdom.

book burning
book burning

Senses and Perceptions

Bradbury uses words like 'cacophonous' and 'titillation' to raise the reader's awareness of the senses. This first group of words expresses sensory perceptions related to sight, smell and hearing. The impression comes across most clearly in the design of the home, in particular the living room. The protagonist, Montag, describes it cynically as a parlor; nothing can truly 'live' in such a room. As the narrator describes, the inhabitant of the living room 'drowned in music and pure cacophony,' which means overwhelming noise, the opposite of harmony. The sounds emitted by the wall-sized television screens, which cover three of the four walls of his living room, are so loud that he cannot hear his own thoughts.

Just as sound excites the ears, smells titillate the nose, or stimulate it in an especially provocative way. Bradbury uses many words to evoke both good fragrances and bad odors. The firemen use kerosene to set homes ablaze, filling the air with putrid smoke. Montag mentions that old leaves remind him of cinnamon. One character describes the smell of books as being 'like nutmeg or some spice from a foreign land.' All of these smells enter the body through the olfactory system, the nose and nasal cavities in the face that tell the body about smells.

using the olfactory system to experience the scent of a flower
smelling a flower

A third type of sensation evoked in the novel comes in the form of light and sight. Bradbury describes the appearance of the flickering flames of a fire and the glow of gently burning embers. In one scene, Montag describes 'a faint drift of greenish luminescent smoke,' a self-illuminated object other than a light source, which seems to glow by its own force. From 'lumin,' which means light, also comes the word 'bio-luminescence,' referring to organisms, like fireflies and certain kinds of jellyfish, which emit their own light.

bio-luminescence of the comb jelly
bio-luminescence

Language and Thought

Bradbury juxtaposes the overwhelmed senses and spectacle of his dystopian society with the thoughtfulness and intellect associated with books and learning. 'The word intellectual,' the narrator remembers, 'became a swear word.' The word intellectual, which refers to educated thought or study, can be used both as adjective and as a noun:

  • As an adjective: A coach who analyzes the physics of soccer may have an intellectual approach to helping team members improve. Students who are engaged in learning may be receiving intellectual stimulation, and a college professor might be said to have devoted her life tointellectual pursuits.
  • As a noun: That same professor might also be referred to as an intellectual -- someone who devotes a lot of time, or a whole career, to thinking and studying.

Bradbury also offers several words other than 'intellectual' to identify kinds of people who value knowledge. For example, while the word pedant once referred to a teacher, it now carries with it negative connotations, like being overly concerned with small details and flamboyant about showing off know-how. An oracle, in contrast, is a familiar character from myth and legend. They were esteemed for their ability to provide access to sacred wisdom. Oracles were thought to be in touch with the divine.

John Waterhouse, Consulting the Oracle, painting, 1884
waterhouse oracle

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