Posted December 2, 2004
Fahrenheit 451 is one of Ray Bradbury’s most famous books, and it reads like a fever dream — intensely cinematic, directed by its own weird dream logic, and full of the quality of images that haunt you for days. The book is a cautionary tale about what happens when books are forgotten or actively suppressed, and Bradbury’s work here forms one of its own best arguments in favour of “the book” as a keystone to intellectual freedom. Fahrenheit 451 is a deceptive book too; it’s a quick read, and it seems to be about people burning books.
Guy Montag is a fireman, but in his future, the houses are all fireproof and the main job of the fireman is to find books and burn them. We learn quickly of Montag’s unease with the repressive social order that his profession helps to prop up. He meets the neighbour girl, Clarisse McClellan, who is out walking one night when he is returning from work. Clarisse asks him if he is happy, and he can’t really answer.
That night, he finds that his wife Mildred has overdosed on sleeping pills and needs to have her stomach pumped. Mildred is an obedient consumer of every distraction in her society, especially the “family” in her living room, three walls of which have been converted to giant televisions. But none of these are enough. The next morning Mildred denies that the overdose ever took place.
Montag also becomes disillusioned while at work. The Mechanical Hound, a strange and terrible robotic beast that is kept in a kennel at the firehouse, doesn’t seem too certain of his scent anymore. The Fire Chief, a disquieting and intelligent man, begins to doubt Montag’s devotion to his job. What would it hurt to save one book from the next fire? Does Montag even see his own role in society as clearly as the Fire Chief does his?
The rest of the book is a snapshot of Montag’s journey from fireman to human being… to my mind, the reason why the book has endured as long as it has. Bradbury is not necessarily talking about the physical burning of books (although that is part of the spectrum of things he refers to), but rather what it’s like to be stuck in a soul-deadening situation, and how hard it is to get out. Book burning is a singularly effective metaphor, a hot button at the literal level.
Two other famous dystopias, Brave New World and 1984, both ended with the total victory of the totalitarian state and the breakdown or suicide of the individual. Fahrenheit 451 is a little different. Bradbury’s book argues that such a repressive society, in support of which the firemen burn so many books, would self-implode, simply because it has no flexibility and has no fertile ground of old ideas to generate new ideas. The victory of the individual at the end of Fahrenheit 451 is achieved at the cost of the self-destruction of the rest of society. Not much of a source of hope for anyone currently living in the grip of a repressive system!
Indeed, the bookish rebels that Montag meets at the end of the story are simply waiting; they are in no way actively encouraging change. It’s amazing in a way that Bradbury can pull off such a dispassionate and non-heroic ending. Is Bradbury’s optimism naive? Do totalitarian systems have this kind of inevitable end? His narrative choices skew towards his desired answer. For example, the methods of control in Montag’s society are certainly clumsy and inefficient compared to the biological ones used in Brave New World. All the same, it’s reassuring to have at least one cautionary tale that has a (gesture in the direction of a) hopeful ending.
The strength of Bradbury’s vision leaves this future etched in our minds long after the book is finished. He’s especially good at showing the how this society is quite sick, almost as if it’s ready to die: crazy teenagers, hellbent on driving over helpless pedestrians; a war that no one cares about, but eventually ends most of civilization; relationships completely empty of emotion; and the systemic stifling of minds. There is deep loneliness in this book, with people lonely of heart and lonely of mind. It becomes unbearably sad, and what replacement for intimacy, for humanity, can the literary gathering at the end ever be?
Everyone should read this book. Not to find out about the Mechanical Hound, or the future and its gadgets, or anything like that. This book doesn’t predict the future and it doesn’t want to. We find in Bradbury’s creation a small part of our own angst, and in turn it creates an outlet for our own unbearable rage. The book is an astonishing masterpiece.
This review was originally published in a much longer format at Challenging Destiny.