Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
What it’s about: Set in a post-atomic American society in which books are banned, Guy Montag lives as a “fireman”, employed to burn books and the possessions of those who read or harbour them. Montag’s life is upended by a swift series of swift encounters with three women: his free-thinking teenage neighbour Clarisse, who goes missing in suspicious circumstances; his intellectually uncurious wife Mildred, who is addicted to television and sleeping pills; and an unnamed old woman who Montag witnesses setting herself on fire rather than give up her book collection. Intrigued by the old woman’s act of protest, Montag begins stealing and hiding books, and tries to persuade Mildred to read and discuss them. Mildred is disgusted when Montag recites the poem Dover Beach in front of her friends, arguing that books only cause unhappiness, and encourages him to destroy his collection. Despite Mildred’s concerns and the warnings of his fire chief Beatty, Montag seeks out a retired English professor named Faber, and they agree to communicate by means of an earpiece. Mildred reports Montag and leaves in a taxi. Beatty orders Montag to burn his own house down; Montag complies, but then kills Beatty and the other firemen with a flamethrower and goes on the run. With Faber’s assistance, Montag finds a group of exiled book-lovers who live in hiding, memorising books in an attempt to preserve history and literature. Montag watches on television as firemen stage the capture and killing of another man and proclaim that Montag the traitor has been destroyed. The city and its inhabitants are destroyed overnight in a nuclear attack. Montag and the book-lovers, having survived the attack, return to the city with the intention of rebuilding civilisation.
Why it’s a classic: Published in 1953 at the peak of the McCarthy anti-Communist witch hunts, and less than a decade after the defeat of the book-burning Nazis, Fahrenheit 451 spoke bluntly but eloquently to the fears of Eisenhower-era America: the rising tide of censorship and FBI surveillance of American citizens; the very real possibility of atomic war; the anaesthetising of unhappiness with newly-available barbiturates; and the dumbing down of culture and literacy via the evils of television, which doubles as a useful tool for publicising State propaganda. These themes weren’t exactly new in post-WWII literature, and Fahrenheit 451 owes a heavy debt to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, published four years before in 1949, and Aldous Huxley’s 1931 dystopia Brave New World. While Bradbury can’t hold a candle to Orwell or Huxley in terms of literary merit, he injects a trashy pulp-fiction energy into his writing that keeps the story rattling along like a speed train, spelling out his themes with glow-in-the-dark clarity so we’re left in no doubt of the horrific dangers of a world without books.
66 years later, the novel still has an alarming prescience. Many of Bradbury’s imagined technologies – sterile living rooms filled with giant television screens, novels being condensed into digests and fifteen-minute television shows, earpieces that pipe music ceaselessly into somnambulant brains – could all be lifted from contemporary laments about the ubiquity of iPhones and the erosion of literacy in the age of Twitter. Like Orwell, Bradbury’s politics are difficult to pinpoint, but he seems to lean towards libertarianism, describing (via his jaded fire chief Beatty) how puritan censorship by minority groups and a totalitarian State conspires to do away with books to silence social dissent. In his better moments, Bradbury also appears to offer a critique of American capitalism and global dominance that feels spookily contemporary: “Is it because we’re having so much fun at home we’ve forgotten the world?” Beatty asks. “Is it because we’re so rich and the rest of the world’s so poor and we just don’t care if they are? I’ve heard rumours; the world is starving, but we’re well-fed. Is it true, the world works hard and we play? Is that why we’re hated so much?”
Bradbury doesn’t seem terribly interested in books as aesthetic objects – other than their fragility and the ease with which they can be destroyed – but he’s passionately committed to books as a source of ideas, and advocates reading as a way of interrogating our views of the world. Fahrenheit 451 is a novel that falls over itself in its eagerness to diagnose the world’s problems, establishing clear moral positions of good and evil, and offering a final message of hope that stories will rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of any destroyed civilisation. Unsurprisingly, Fahrenheit 451 has become a set text for English classes, where its themes and strategies can be identified by high school students without too much difficulty. It’s also a showcase for Bradbury’s love of classic literature – well, at least that written by white men – and the book is peppered with quotes and allusions to Shakespeare, the Bible, Philip Sidney, Alexander Pope, James Boswell and Matthew Arnold that feel remarkably accessible, stripped of their high culture credentials and offered to the reader as genuinely subversive material.
Bouquet or Brickbat: Sigh. While there’s a lot to admire about Fahrenheit 451, and its cultural significance is undeniable, I can’t say it was a pleasure to read. I’ll happily confess to being a snob who avoids sci-fi and speculative fiction unless it’s written by someone with established literary credentials (Orwell, Huxley, Atwood, etc), and reading Fahrenheit 451 reminds me of why I’m mostly allergic to this type of book. I ticked off all the clichés of the genre, one by one: a huge amount of plot with varying degrees of plausibility; thinly-sketched characters who exist largely to rattle off backstory or voice the author’s particular obsessions; an all-male universe in which women are either objects of sexual desire or hindrances to the male hero’s journey; and interminably long debates between characters about the nature of existence that read like a Soviet-era morality play.
Fahrenheit 451 is at its best when it works as a suspense novel, putting the dull, workmanlike Montag into action and having him flee his pursuers. His writing is its most deadly when he has the characters slow down and debate each other in long, implausibly wordy monologues that are painfully reminiscent of Ayn Rand. Bradbury tries hard to give his characters a soul and milk every ounce of emotion from his fictional scenarios, but he just doesn’t have the literary skill to pull it off. Sadly, it’s the trying hard – his earnest attempt to write a great work of fiction in over-ripe “literary” language – that makes the book so painful to read and so unwittingly funny. His prose style isn’t so much purple as hot violet, never using one adjective or metaphor when four or five will do. Case in point: the Mechanical Hound, a thrilling invention that is nearly killed with over-description: “It was like a great bee come home from some field where the honey is full of poison wildness, of insanity and nightmare, its body crammed with that over-rich nectar and now it was sleeping the evil out of itself.” That image haunted me for several days, though not in the way Bradbury intended.
Despite its prescient themes and high-octane dramatic stakes, I couldn’t get excited about Fahrenheit 451, and finished it with a palpable sense of relief that I’d never have to read it again. For me, Bradbury’s great ideas weren’t couched in a sufficiently plausible psychological reality to make them spark with the impact they should have. It made me even more appreciative of Orwell’s extraordinary accomplishment in writing Orwell Nineteen Eighty-Four, a richly-imagined future that feels terrifyingly real, couched within a morally ambiguous universe that’s genuinely confronting for its readers. Whereas Bradbury lectures us about the ills of the world, Orwell embodies them, creating a psychological nightmare from which his readers can’t escape, and to which we long to return again and again.
Quotable Quote: “So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life.”