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Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Del Rey 1987 (1953)
Mass Market Paperback
165 pages
Classics; Science Fiction; Dystopian Fiction

Guy Montag is a fireman. At night – always at night – when the alarm comes in, he and his team rush out on the Salamander, the fire engine, to the condemned house where the police should have already removed the guilty home owner to an asylum so the firemen can go in without obstacle and burn the place down.

Montag has always loved his job. He goes to sleep with a grin on his face, and tries not to look at the ventilator in the home he shares with his wife Mildred, where he’s hidden something forbidden. When a new family moves in next door and he meets their young daughter Clarisse, he finds himself fascinated by the things she says and does. She talks about the little details in life, from a leaf to a dandelion held under the chin. She talks about her classmates killing each other, and tells him about a time when firemen used to put out fires, not start them.

At home his wife is lost in her own world, a world of constant baffling television and sleeping pills. At work he feels like the Captain knows his guilt, his doubt. And when Montag steals another book from a fire and feels his whole world shaken up with new thoughts, he can no longer go back to being the same as everyone else: happy, because they don’t think, don’t need to think, and aren’t confronted with anything remotely troubling. Including what’s in books.

There’s a wallop packed into this short book, and for a book written in the early 50s, its message certainly hasn’t diminished.

The world of Fahrenheit 451 is one stripped of anything that can alarm people, that can make them feel excluded, misrepresented, confronted, confused. It is a world designed to ensure everyone’s happiness, that began with a people’s revolt against a thing that symbolised contradictory, contrary views, that enabled some people to feel superior and thus others inferior: books. The written word. Fiction and non-fiction alike, the people turned their backs on books. To help things along, the firemen began to burn them.

Now the ideas in books are so long gone the people have no thoughts in their heads at all. They do not sit in silence and contemplate things; instead, a tiny radio sits in their ear and babbles constantly, or they sit in their living rooms where the walls are giant television screens, watching shows into which they themselves can become a part, that aren’t about anything at all but which totally engross them. It is a world of fast pleasures – joy rides through the city at ridiculous speeds – and constant war with some unnamed country far away.

As Montag’s friend Professor Faber says in his explanation of where the world went wrong, “We are living in a time when flowers are trying to live on flowers, instead of growing on good rain and black loam.” (p.83) What he means is that there is no substance anymore, that happiness must come from something, not the “nothing” that they have created. We recognise happiness because we have known sadness, stress, tragedy, and so on. Thinking critically, analysing, having our assumptions and opinions confronted – this is healthful, beneficial, not something to be scared of and denounce because it upsets people to have to think.

Another thing lacking from this world is the idea of leaving something behind, of leaving an imprint of yourself on other people – that people would remember you for your gifts, your abilities, your personality, and so on. Montag can’t even remember where or how he met his wife Mildred, and they certainly aren’t happy.

What else is lacking is knowledge, and self-awareness: no one has the ability to understand themselves, to say “I am unhappy” and discover why, or do anything about it. They are hollow people, and the historical path Bradbury traces is one of minority rule and shorter and shorter sound bites: books and television etc. reduced to single lines and 10 seconds of air time. This trait – with television at least – is apparent today. Aside from commercials, which can be dizzying, video clips for songs are equally headache-inducing, spending barely a single second on any one shot. While I don’t think people will, on mass, ever turn their backs on books, our shorter and shorter attention spans is worrying.

As for the prose, it’s at times quite obfuscating. Descriptions become metaphors that might or might not be really happening, it’s hard to say. The cloudiness of the language is poetic in tone but confusing in substance. I wouldn’t say the strength of the book lies in its prose, the style of the writing, but in its ideas – for an “ideas” kind of book, it’s surprisingly plot-driven. I find that this is the best way to bring ideas across, rather than through people just talking or confounding, “clever” descriptions. To see the ideas in action, that is more rewarding.

There was a slip – I only noticed one but there may have been more – when Montag likens his wife’s friends’ smiles to the Cheshire Cat. There’s no way he could have known what a Cheshire Cat smile was like, no way he’d have even heard of it. There is an emphasis on the fact that when Montag tries to read the books he’s stolen, they make no sense to him because he lacks the basics, the foundations of knowledge. He has no culture or understanding with which to interpret what he reads. To him it’s just gibberish.

This is an older edition that I picked up secondhand; it contains a surprising number of very obvious typos – things like “th” instead of “the”, and quotation marks in the wrong places. It has an Afterword by the author, and a “Coda” where Bradbury unashamedly rants a bit more about minorities complaining and why his books are, essentially, sexist. To the first, I was puzzled: I haven’t really seen much of that. But then I recalled where I have heard these kinds of things, where librarians have locked away books (like the first Tin Tin comic) because they are too confronting or insulting to one group or another: Bradbury’s home country, America.

So if anything, he wrote this book in answer to what was happening, and continues to happen, in his own country. It’s bound to have more of an impact there, for that reason, though it’s relevant elsewhere as well. It’s impossible to appease everyone, so when you try to the only thing you can do is simply remove what was upsetting a few, rather than talk openly about it and air the issues. You can’t make everyone happy, but that is what the people in Bradbury’s world set out to do, by making them all the same.

In answer to why he doesn’t put more women in his books, he avoids the question and instead lumps women – half the population – in with minorities. I get his point but it’s a weak argument.

The book reminded me of a more recent movie, Equilibrium, with Christian Bale – a sort of 1984 world where people are burned alive for owning anything from the past, and where children spy on their parents. Those stories always have a whiff of anti-communism fascism – something strikingly absent from a book like this, written as it was during the Cold War. It was quite refreshing really.

On a final note, I did once try to watch the movie, from the 70s I think, several years ago but it was incredibly slow and boring, I had no idea what was going on and after a while I gave up. From what I remember of it, I’m not sure I’d like it any more now that I’ve read the book.

2 comments to Review: Fahrenheit 451

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