For today’s Book Chat, we’re examining Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451. Interestingly, it’s the only one of his novels that Bradbury considered to be “science fiction,” telling the story of Guy Montag, a fireman who starts fires rather than putting them out. In Montag’s world, books and intellectual curiosity are forbidden, with interesting and terrifying consequences.
Bill: Another day, another Bradbury classic. I’ve been a fan of Fahrenheit 451 since I read it the first time way back in late middle or early high school and have remained so through all those re-reads back when I used to teach it in high school as well (most student reactions were positive). This re-read was no different, though coming so soon after reading Something Wicked This Way Comes, I think I prefer the latter, though it’s a close competition and I think both are well-told tales. I think I prefer Wicked for its more emotional themes: coming-of-age, parent-child relationships, youth vs. old-age, the temptation of the dark side. Meanwhile, Fahrenheit 451’s dystopic themes are a bit, ironically, “cooler” — conformity, anti-intellectualism, censorship from the bottom up (as opposed to government led), etc. I’d be curious as to how those of you who did our book chat on Wicked feel about the comparison.
Despite my preference for Wicked, as mentioned, there’s a lot to like here. A few quick plusses for me (I’ll get to negatives later):
- A great opening scene, with Montag striding through the flames and reveling in what he’s doing. Great for its lyrical description and also for how it sets the beginning point for what will be his great change.
- Montag himself. I like how he has been collecting books for a while, that he has never been fully settled in his role.
- Sure, nowadays she’s become a bit of a trope — the vibrant quirky girl who acts as catalyst for change, but let’s remember this was more than a few decades ago.
- Beatty: a pretty eloquent spokesman for the opposing side. And one who himself had his own questions — a more realistic portrayal I think.
- All the allusions to and quotations from other works: Matthew Arnold, T.S. Eliot, Jonathan Swift, the Book of Job, etc. So appropriate in this book.
- The Hound. What a great creation. And I love the tension between it and Montag from the very start.
- The Walls and the Family (though “like” is not quite the word).
Jana: Fahrenheit 451 was my first exposure to dystopia in sci-fi literature, and the first sci-fi text I can remember reading in school. (We read it before The Giver, Animal Farm, 1984, Brave New World, or any of the other standards, for reasons that I don’t understand in the slightest.) 451 is what started my fascination with dystopian novels, it helped me understand the power of literature on a level broader than my own personally transformative experiences, and it brought into sharp focus how disastrous a book-to-film adaptation can be. (François Truffaut, I am not happy with you.) So, despite the fact that Something Wicked This Way Comes was one of my first exposures to Bradbury’s work, 451 is what comes first to my mind when I think about him as an author and his effect on me as a reader. I would suspect, Bill, that it’s those “cooler” aspects of 451 which currently appeal so much to me as a younger reader rather than the more emotionally-laden Wicked. So much of the latter text concerns nostalgia for youth and the complexity of parent-child relationships, and I don’t have the same context or perspective for those themes as other readers, like yourself, will.
Bradbury is so weirdly prescient in 451, especially with regards to technology. The Walls and the Family; the ways in which people are expected to interact with those screens and artificial scenarios; the tiny shell-like radio which is placed in the ear; even The Hound, which terrified me long before I saw YouTube videos of modern caninoid robots. The idea that Mildred can’t sleep without the little radio in her ear is eerie enough without considering modern dependence on technology — I can’t go anywhere in public without seeing dozens of people who are more connected to their earbuds than their surroundings.
The allusions to other works are what make this book feel fully-realized to me: these people don’t live in a bubble, and though they claim not to have any connection to the printed word, they can’t escape the legacy of history and literature. Bradbury himself was a great lover of books, and in fact, he wrote 451 in a library on rented typewriters, so one can imagine the weight of all those texts, going back millennia, pressing down around him and insisting that they not be forgotten. (Or maybe I’ve gone a little book-mad, myself.) The idea that someone would burn books and deny anyone else the chance to experience the treasures they hold is as horrifying to me today as it was when I was twelve.
Ryan: Growing up, I always thought of Fahrenheit 451 as part of the high school dystopian trilogy — alongside George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Of the three, 1984 was my favorite. Looking back now, I don’t know why, but these books seem to get the best cover art of any books.
Stuart: I also grouped Fahrenheit 451 with 1984 and Brave New World as the dystopian trifecta, though I later discovered Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We as a more appropriate third member (with 1984 and We being my favorites). Inexplicably, I somehow never got around to reading 451 until last year, despite being a life-long SF fan and it being such a slim little book in my stacks the whole time (with a very cheesy cover from the François Truffaut film — an exception to the Ryan Principle of cool covers).
In any case, although I loved the imagery and writing, I thought the book was too slim to really be considered a full-fledged dystopian novel worthy of 1984 or Brave New World. Its focus is far less political, and more dedicated as a love-poem to the power of books and ideas, and on how our society needs to always fight against moves to crush free thought and replace it with mind-numbing entertainment meant to pacify the populace.
This year I discovered audiobooks and picked up all four Bradbury books I had first read last year (The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes) and decided to give them another chance. The narrator for 451 is Tim Robbins, champion of all liberal causes in Hollywood, along with his wife Susan Sarandon. It’s no surprise he’d want to be involved with a book dedicated to freedom of thought and expression and opposed to intellectual repression. I was not disappointed. He does the most impassioned, fire-breathing reading of any audiobook I have yet to encounter. It’s almost unfair to other narrators how good he is! The book’s imagery and writing come alive in a way they didn’t when I read it in print. His impressions of Montag and Captain Beatty are brilliant, especially the cool cynicism of the latter as he reveals he is very expert in literature but still considers it contradictory and irrelevant.
I’d like to ask all of you what you think of Fahrenheit 451’s message of the importance of books in preserving ideas, whether dangerous, revolutionary, inspiring, or cautionary, in the context of our modern information-drenched world. Thanks to the proliferation of the Internet, we don’t have any threat from firemen burning down libraries anymore, and yet libraries and books seem less and less important in the lives of people who are fully engaged with the Internet, cable TV, iPhones, Playstations, and magazines. What need is there to censor and burn books now that there are so many alternatives that are more easily consumed by people wanting instant gratification?
Bill: Jana, I haven’t seen the Truffaut movie in ages, but I’m thinking of watching it again while the book is fresh in my head (maybe I can squeeze it in before we post this). I have a recollection of very mixed feelings. I do know Bradbury actually liked one aspect of the film better — bringing back Clarisse.
You’re right about how Something Wicked resonates with me more partially due to being 1) an old guy and thus one familiar with nostalgia and 2) a father, and thus more attuned to those parent-child moments. I do know I liked it better as a kid too though. Partially for its lyricism (I think it stood out so much from the other sci-fi I’d been reading — Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke), and partly for its somewhat YA nature, and partly for just the idea of that carnival. But maybe it’s all in how we first come to a book.
He is prescient with much of the technology here — the way it would get both big (walls = our super-size TVs) and small (the shells = our nano iPods). And given our current use of drones, and the military’s continued research/development with robots, and the militarization of the police here in the US, and the way DNA is becoming part of our legal/cultural infrastructure, I’d say some form of the Hound is probably not all that far off. Though I hope not.
Ryan and Stuart — I read that dystopic triptych in high school (and also taught it some years later, along with others). I’ve always thought 451 was actually the best written of those three, just in terms of writerly craft. The others have some great ideas, obviously, and have an emotional impact (especially 1984 in my mind), but I think their ideas rather than their writing is their strength. That said, 1984 remains my favorite (I also recall liking We quite a bit once I found it in college, but that is almost literally my only memory of it).
As far as your question, Stuart, part of my answer goes to that word you used: “preserving.” Yes, we’ve certainly found lots of different vehicles for ideas in terms of technology, but pretty much all of them have the flaw of ephemeralness. Anyone sitting around with the family showing those 16 mm movies in the living room? Or those VHS tapes (let alone Betas)? Or those mini-cassettes? CDs, DVDs, and Blu-Rays don’t seem long for this world. I’m a huge fan of my Kindle — huge fan — but I also admit to buying physical copies of those books I really really want to own, because I know that in 10, 20, 30 years I’ll still be able to read them (assuming I’m not in my dotage years), and I don’t share that same confidence with my Kindle books. And it goes beyond my concerns about just being able to reread and go back to that idea of “preserving.” I want my son to have some of the books that were important to me because I think they say something about me, and it’s just good to have something physical, tangible from someone important in your life. I have a dozen or so of my father’s books — ones he bought that I read as well as a child, and the fact that I can look up and see them on my shelf, and take them down and hold them in my hands, and sometimes reread them and recall the two of us doing so, is of deep primal importance to me. I can’t see letting my son inherit my Kindle and its password (if that’s even legal — I have no idea) in quite the same light. That’s a highly personal response to your question (one I like to think Ray would nod his head at and smile). Since I’m going long here, I’ll give you my larger social answer next time.
Save for this, while the govt. firemen obviously are the ones who burn books, one of the aspects of 451 I find most interesting (and most depressing) is that the burning didn’t really begin as censorship. It wasn’t the top-down form of censorship we usually think of, especially in dystopian lit where the big bad mean old cabal at the top withholds information. It was a bottom-up. Society changed and govt. did what society wanted, as Montag says. And that’s a long expository speech I’d like to hear what you all think of at some point.
Stuart: Bill, that’s an excellent argument in favor of books, namely their permanence. As you said, all our new electronic media is amazingly convenient and portable (I was listening to an audiobook while cycling along the river today), but its lifespan is equally ephemeral. When we try to retrieve an internet-based article more than a year old, it is often gone already. I’m very supportive of the idea of the Internet (for example the Google book project) to bring all the content of books onto the Web, but it seems that much of what is consumed on a daily basis is truly trivial and lacking in depth of thought.
On a side note, I wish that I could have inherited some books from my father, but since he was a linguistics professor, all his books were hand-bound dissertations on Austronesian semantics, etc. Not particularly easy to connect with. But he did read some of my SF books on occasion. My grandmother read a lot of my SF books and we became closer because of that.
As you and Jana have pointed out, our society has taken to electronic media with a passion, and I myself am just as guilty of thinking that it is so much handier to have 100 books (or 6,000 songs) in my iPhone than being chained to my book cave at home. I have mixed feelings on the subject, since I do see the positive aspect of e-books and audiobooks, as a lot of classic novels have gotten new exposure after decades of neglect. In the end, we should not focus so much on the media format as how we as a society utilize and preserve that media, and the depth of the content itself. It would be terrible if aliens unearthed our carefully-preserved data files only to discover that most of it was “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”
Bill: Yes, that would be a horror.
I mentioned I’d say something about the flaws in the book, but thinking about it and looking over my notes, I actually found I didn’t have a lot of bad things to say. Dropping Clarisse I thought was a bit of a mistake, especially in such ambiguous fashion. Her character, while maybe a bit over the top, doesn’t bother me much, especially as this was written before we’ve seen this character so many billions of times.
The book is a bit “monologue-y” for me. It comes to a bit of a screeching halt now and then for a character to pronounce various things for a page or several, as happens with Beatty or Faber or the guy at the tracks. I noticed this as well in Something Wicked This Way Comes, so this appears to be perhaps a Bradbury-ism (at least where his novels are concerned). The depiction of women is not as bad as it is in The Martian Chronicles, where it is utterly cringe-worthy at times, but I can’t say they’re covered in glory here as well. As I’ve said before, I always find it mysterious how these old-style authors can imagine up a wholly different world — one where firemen burn books rather than put out fires — but can’t see a world where women play different roles. Sigh.
How about you all — what didn’t you like about the book, if anything?
Ryan: This is going to sound petty, but “Guy Montag” is not my favorite name. It always sounded like an everyman’s washing machine to me.
Jana: It’s not a name that hits the ear well, Ryan, but I do like Bradbury’s reasoning: Montag is the name of a paper company, and Faber is the name of a company which manufactures pencils. I do think he could have done better than “Guy,” though. It’s on the same level as “John Smith” or “Norm Hull,” because, you know, he’s such a normal guy.
Stuart, I think you’re absolutely right that the preservation of media should be as important as how it’s saved for posterity. On the other hand, one can’t determine how it will be perceived by those future generations, which makes for a sticky wicket. I’m proud to own a fantastic translation of The Odyssey, and periodically I open it at random places so that I can enjoy the poetry and imagery reaching out from thousands of years. It’s really quite phenomenal, when you think about the lasting power of an 8th-century B.C. epic poem.
But The Odyssey can be viewed as a tale of drunken carousing, witches and monsters, sweaty dudes who are constantly interacting with sexy ladies, and a patriarchal society which encourages a husband to do whatever he likes while his wife stays home and guards her husband’s property, i.e., her wifely virtue. An argument can be made that the poem was recited to entertain and thrill 8th-century audiences much in the same way that so-called reality TV does for modern viewers, leading me to wonder how aliens or future anthropologists might interpret Keeping up with the Kardashians or The Real Housewives of [insert metropolis here]. Or, for that matter, how they might interpret Fahrenheit 451. We can view it as a significant novel which rails against censorship and ignorance, but they might see a hysterical author barking in the dark, shouting about issues which simply don’t exist or register as important to them. I don’t have any answers either way; it’s just something which is interesting to think about.
Bill, the monologuing does seem to be an inescapable feature of Bradbury’s novels, which does vaguely irritate me. I wish he’d been able to more seamlessly integrate his Big Important Thoughts into dialogue or plot, rather than bringing the progression of the book to a stop so that someone can pontificate on Bradbury’s behalf. That said, I don’t find fault with much else in 451. Clarisse is a proto-Manic Pixie Dream Girl whose purpose seems to be to die in order to show Montag the fallacy of his ways, but he was already on the path of rebellion before her appearance. The housewives are brainless twits, but I feel sorry for them rather than angry; what else can you expect of people who are discouraged from intellectual curiosity? They’re products of the society built by the original book-burners, just like the teenagers who drag-race through city streets and thoughtlessly run down pedestrians. Still, it’s like we’ve been discussing since The Martian Chronicles: it’s strange that a man who had such innovative visions of the future, who had four daughters of his own, never wrote about a world in which those daughters might be more than housewives.
Montag’s wife Mildred has always seemed like a tragic figure, and I don’t use the term lightly. Our introduction to her as readers is her suicide attempt via an overdose of the sleeping pills she’s addicted to; the technicians who arrive and save her life casually remark that “We get these cases nine or ten a night.” Pumping lethal chemicals out of a person’s stomach and performing a full blood transfusion is so humdrum that special machines have been built to handle the task; doctors don’t even bother getting involved. Mildred’s life has no function or purpose, and she knows it, but what can she do? She, along with millions of people like her, fills her days with reading aloud from scripts during the programmed breaks in television programs, and that’s the closest she gets to feeling fulfilled. She’s not dumb enough to believe that her responses are any different from the identical responses being read at the same time as her own, but she’s terrified of life outside the expected norms of society — so she wants the socially acceptable way out, suicide, rather than the shame and humiliation of being married to a book owner. That’s where anti-intellectualism lands you, that’s what a bottom-up ban on creativity gets you: a desperate, fearful, horrible hell.
Stuart: Jana, you’ve thrown out lots of ideas to respond to. And Bill, I totally agree that Bradbury’s characters tend to “monologue” a bit too much without forwarding the plot, especially father Holloway’s long speech on the origins of evil in the library in Something Wicked.
Regarding media preservation, it’s impossible to imagine how future alien anthropologists would respond to The Odyssey, the Kardashians, Shakespeare, the Bible, Justin Bieber, Google, Chairman Mao’s little red book, or any other product of thousands of years of human history. And I always wonder exactly how they would decode our languages at all, what would serve as a Rosetta stone, especially if aliens didn’t use language the way we do. Would they even encode information if they were telepaths, for example?
As for Bradbury’s treatment of women in his fiction, I don’t want to gang up on the poor old guy, but as Jana pointed out, if he had four daughters of his own, you would think he could imagine more meaningful roles for women in the future than the airheaded, housebound TV junkies in Fahrenheit 451 or the mainly secondary characters in The Martian Chronicles, as I’ve been discussing with Jesse recently. Clarisse represented a major lost opportunity for him to add a more intriguing female into the mix. Considering how short the book is, I can imagine many ways she could have played a bigger role in the story. Of note, in the audiobook version of 451 by Tim Robbins, he depicts all the housewives with the most pathetic and whiny voices imaginable, which is faithful to Bradbury’s intent but really makes them even more pitiful than the written book. I understand they are the victims of the incessant assault of mind-numbing TV programming, but it would have been nice if at least one housewife could have said “wait a minute, I’m tired of this crap, isn’t there something more to life?” Or perhaps the point was that they were victims too far gone to fight back, other than bursting into tears and fleeing from Montag’s bullying speech.
Bill: Jana, I always thought that near opening scene with Montag’s wife is one of the most utterly depressing dystopia visions on fiction. Not so much the suicide attempt, but all that surrounds it, as you say. The utter, literal mechanical nature of the response, the off-the-cuff reference to so many such calls a night, the way it’s treated like a drain clog and roto-rooter coming out to fix it. And then the way she either doesn’t recall it or pretends not to, or a combination of the two. It’s an incredibly efficient and effective conveyance of utter bleakness. And not quite in the same vein, but similar, I like how Montag realizes (though it could be justification via delusion) that Beatty also wants to die: this guy who seems so smooth, so knowledgeable, so on the ball and a step ahead. I suppose one could argue the whole ending, with nuclear war, is another “suicide,” society-wide this time.
Since you mentioned pedestrians, I’ll note that I enjoyed the little aside how Clarisse’s uncle is the character in Bradbury’s classic short story called “The Pedestrian.”
Here’s are Kat’s thoughts about the audiobook version she listened to:
There must be something in books…
Books are dangerous. They’re full of ideas that make people think about the world, feel passion, and perhaps act out. That’s not good for society; it causes conflict, uprising, and interference with the status quo. People who read and think scare people who don’t, so most citizens have happily given up the right to decide what to think about and now let the government fill their brains with constant loud mindless entertainment. This managed input has equalized society; nobody feels inferior to anyone else and there’s no conflict anymore. Dull minds, constant entertainment, and conformity make society run smoothly.
Guy Montag works as a fireman. He burns books at night while his wife sits in her parlor and listens to inane media shows at high volume. But Clarice, the teenager next door, is different. Her family sits around and talks. They discuss things and they laugh with each other. Guy wonders what they talk about as he watches his wife talk to the strangers on TV and pop sleeping pills…
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 presents a possible frightening future in which intellectual pursuits and nonconformity are deemed dangerous and subversive. It’s been more than half a century since Fahrenheit 451 was published and we’ve seen censorship laws actually become looser over the years and the advent of the internet has brought on the current “information age.” But that doesn’t make Fahrenheit 451 irrelevant because it’s about much more than literary censorship. It’s about freedom of speech and individual rights. It’s about thinking for ourselves and what might happen if we let the government tell us what we can see, hear, or own.
Fahrenheit 451 resonates with me on so many levels. I love Bradbury’s intense style which translates especially well on Blackstone Audio’s version read by Christopher Hurt (sample). Here he describes the show that Mrs Montag watches all day:
A great thunderstorm of sound gushed from the walls. Music bombarded him at such an immense volume that his bones were almost shaken from their tendons; he felt his jaw vibrate, his eyes wobble in his head. He was a victim of concussion. When it was all over he felt like a man who had been thrown from a cliff, whirled in a centrifuge and spat out over a waterfall that fell and fell into emptiness and emptiness and never — quite — touched — bottom — never — never — quite — no not quite — touched — bottom … and you fell so fast you didn’t touch the sides either… never… quite… touched… anything.
The thunder faded. The music died.
“There,” said Mildred. And it was indeed remarkable. Something had happened. Even though the people in the walls of the room had barely moved, and nothing had really been settled, you had the impression that someone had turned on a washing-machine or sucked you up in a gigantic vacuum. You drowned in music and pure cacophony. He came out of the room sweating and on the point of collapse. Behind him, Mildred sat in her chair and the voices went on again…
Second, I share Bradbury’s ardent passion for knowledge and learning. The thought of lost information, burned books, mindless entertainment, meaningless small-talk, conformity, and intellectual malaise makes my stomach twist. I don’t believe that we’re in danger of the anti-intellectualism that Bradbury posits, but still his ideas get me riled up.
Third, I’ll admit that I’m a rebel at heart. While I recognize that obeying laws and paying taxes are a necessary part of living in a well-functioning society, I feel mostly distrustful and suspicious when the government increases taxes, takes over more functions in society, tells us what to believe, and tries to revoke constitutional freedoms. In this context, Bradbury’s possible future doesn’t seem so impossible anymore.
I’m pleased that my school district assigns Fahrenheit 451 in its middle-school curriculum, though I find it a bit ironic that some publishers have edited the language to make it more “suitable” for teenagers.