Book 20 on My List is the classic Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. I’ve read this one before but read it again for the sake of this here sci-fi project. I don’t know why, but I enjoyed it a lot more this time around.
Plot & Narration
Fahrenheit 451 is about Guy Montag, a firefighter in a future America who, rather than putting out fires, starts them in order to burn books, all of which are banned. One day on his way home he meets Clarisse McLellan, a strange girl. Conversation with her sparks all sorts of ideas in Guy’s mind, and he suddenly starts to wonder why on Earth he’s burning books at all.
451 is a classic in the science fiction canon, a must-read for any complete understanding of the genre. Not only is the writing itself superb, but the story also brings up many important themes.
The storyworld of Fahrenheit 451 is one in which everyone is numbed by entertainment and noise all the time, much like in Brave New World. Guy’s wife, Mildred, always has “seashells” in her ears, tiny wireless earphones through which she listens to the radio. She is never really present in the moment, but rather always plugged in to the TV or the seashells. At night the seashells remain in her ears and she takes sleeping pills as well, a habit considered totally normal. Nothing in her or Guy’s life requires extra thought.
The parallels to today are obvious, and were obvious to Bradbury even when he wrote this story in 1953.
The Mechanical Hound
I’m including this one for the fun of it, as it seems our collective fear of mechanical dogs goes back as far as the ‘50s. In 451 the mechanical hound is part of the firefighting crew, used to hunt down books and their owners. Such hounds also feature in Black Mirror, and several actually exist today.
So that’s fine. I’m sure that’s totally fine.
Face to Face Interaction
Another interesting aspect of the mindless world Guy inhabits is the lack of face to face contact and communication. People watch TV or listen to the seashells rather than sitting down and having a conversation. Guy sometimes talks with his colleagues at the fire station, but mostly they play cards. And his job burning books is easy because usually there’s nobody there. He just burns the books and the house and moves on.
Part of Guy’s change and development takes place when a woman remains in her house while they are burning her books and he sees the anguish on her face.
“You weren’t hurting anyone, you were hurting only things…There was nothing to tease your conscience later…But now, tonight, someone had slipped. This woman was spoiling the ritual…She made the empty rooms roar with accusation and shake down a fine dust of guilt that was sucked in their nostrils as they plunged about.”
Happiness vs. Knowledge
Like in Brave New World, the political system/government of 451 is premised on the idea that people can be knowledgeable and miserable or happy and ignorant.
“You ask Why to a lot of things and you wind up very unhappy indeed, if you keep at it…If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war.”
In my review of Brave New World, I wrote that I would make the trade of happiness over knowledge if it meant that all needless suffering would immediately end. All the rape, the child marriage, all the horrors of the world that we want to close our eyes to that are too horrible to think about.
But I also wrote that I think we can do better than this *false* dichotomy. I don’t think we need to choose one or the other. I think we can do better and find a path to both, because I’m not so sure that a happy, mindless existence is actually any better than an unhappy knowledgeable one.
To know is always better than to not know, I believe that for certain.
And as I wrote above, this kind of 451/Brave New World existence is its own kind of horror story.
The Magic of Books
Books are the center of 451. The people of the storyworld have been led to believe that books contain useless, nonsensical lies. But there are still people who remember a time before book-burning (even though no one else does, a la 1984).
“Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what the books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.”
But perhaps the most tragic part of the evolution of society into a book-burning one is that it happened almost naturally.
“Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord.”
Strengths & Weaknesses
Strength: Character Development
Fahrenheit 451 is an excellent example of a character-driven story that shows us how the protagonist changes. Guy starts out as a flat person, just like everyone else, not really questioning his job as a firefighter. (Or rather, as we find out, not allowing himself to question it.)
“He walked toward the corner, thinking little at all about nothing in particular.”
But very quickly after meeting Clarisse, Guy realizes he’s really not okay with the current state of affairs.
“He was not happy…He recognized this as the true state of affairs. He wore his happiness like a mask and the girl had run off across the lawn with the mask and there was no way of going to knock on her door and ask for it back.”
The true change in Guy comes when he allows himself to be fully present in the moment in a way he never has been before.
“And then, very slowly, as he walked, he tilted his head back in the rain, for just a few moments, and opened his mouth.”
This is a tough one. I’m not sure what the weaknesses of 451 are. The story is well-written, creative, and meaningful. It’s character-driven, which makes it even more compelling.
Hmm, I really can’t think of anything that I would dub a serious weakness or flaw. As you may know if you’ve read even just a few posts of mine on this blog, I’m not overly critical when it comes to reviews, except in a few rare cases. And Fahrenheit 451 is a classic for all the right reasons.
I highly recommend Fahrenheit 451 as a must-read for anyone interested in the classics of science fiction. A sci-fi education is not complete without it.
Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. Kindle Edition.
Author: Ray Bradbury