“So it’s this fantastic book that’s set in a dystopia where books are banned. They’ve found a way to fireproof (verb) houses. So now, instead of putting fires out, the firemen actually set fire to books.”
When I went around giving people a gist of the fantastic book I was reading, they were baffled.
In addition to being extraordinarily entertaining, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 contains several ominous undertones about where we’re headed as a society. The book has a bizarre setting, but the plot is so well-controlled that it never approaches ludicrousness.
In terms of literary appreciation, the story itself is gripping, unpredictable, and masterfully written.
At the beginning of the book, Montag leaving the Fire station and taking the subway (which “slid soundlessly down its lubricated flue in the earth and let him out with a great puff of warm air”) is described with a sense of fluidity and gentle motion (“he let the escalator waft him into the still night air”). It sets a peaceful tone which is perfect for Montag’s first meeting with Clarise. Yet, the nagging sense of unease he feels forebodes that this is but the calm before the storm.
Something that really stuck out was that many scenes of violence were described with an almost perverse sense of beauty and attention to detail. The book opens with a poetic description of burning books (“It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.”)
The bombing at the end of the book is compared to “grain thrown over the heavens by a great sowing hand.” What is almost bewildering about this simile is that an apocalyptic scene of destruction (the bombing) was compared to sowing grains in a farm – something associated with growth and cultivation. Bradbury’s description of death, too, is extremely strong (“…yet the heart is suddenly shattered, the body falls in separate motions and the blood is astonished to be freed on the air; the brain squanders its few precious memories and, puzzled, dies.”)
The story has excellent pace. It never drags for a moment. There is a gradual buildup of tension, with the situation almost exploding at two main parts (Montag’s outburst in from of his wife’s friends, and right after he is caught and kills Beatty). There are also pockets of silence and reflection that allow for the story to “breathe” and the characters to consolidate (such as when he visits Faber for the last time and finds out that the Mechanical Hound is after him). Bradbury’s writing is vivid and almost like cinema at times. Reading the book was like watching the story take place before me.
Bradbury has inserted several thoughtful details that illustrate how drastically society has been desensitised. The extinction of front porches, two hundred foot long billboards, overpoweringly loud subway advertisements (DENHAM’S DENTRIFICE!), automated classrooms, races and Fun Parks, comparison of “putting up” with one’s children to doing laundry, and the “impersonal” “doctors” who “clean out” Mildred with pipes after her suicide attempt indicate how meaningless and mechanical life has become. The people have put “fun over happiness” and almost unanimously live in a complete stupor. An extremely shocking scene is when Montag narrowly escapes being run over by a car full of teenagers, because he fell to the floor and the driver did not want to risk the car capsizing. Had Montag not fallen down, he would have been killed for entertainment, in cold blood.
In their first meeting, Clarise asks Montag whether he is happy. This simple question is so powerful and relevant, even today. While it is ingrained in Montag to believe that he is happy, he lands up acknowledging that he is not. Rather, “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 story shows a horrific role taken on by the television and radio, or rather, the “parlour walls” and the Seashell Radio (initially described as “the little mosquito-delicate dancing hum in the air”). Life does not revolve around these appliances. Rather, life has actually become the television and the radio. Mildred experiences almost instant withdrawal symptoms when Montag persuades her to momentarily ignore the “parlour walls” and listen to him.”
The news is essentially entertainment. The broadcasters are so desperate to provide an entertaining end to the chase of Montag, that they capture (and possibly kill) an innocent man. The characters on television are believed to family members. To add to the outrage, Jesus is believed to be a character on television, and even advertises products for sale!
While it is established that the people live in an incapacitated state of willful self-deception, it is equally plain that their ignorance is not a blissful one. Suicide attempts through pill-popping are routine (as mentioned by one of the “doctors” who attends to Mildred).
It seems that the people are slaves to the noise partly because of addiction by habit, and partly because they are terrified of what they will have to face if the cacophony dies down (the histrionic reaction of Mrs. Phelps when Montag forcefully reads to Mildred’s friends).
Even in Mildred’s last moments, she is seen “Leaning into the wall as if all of the hunger of looking would find the secret of her sleepless unease there. Mildred, leaning anxiously, nervously, as if to plunge, drop, fall into that swarming immensity of colour to drown in its bright happiness.”
One of the most important aspects of its book is its relevant to contemporary society. Bradubury himself spoke extensively on the subject. He once described it as a comment on “what would happen to a country if we let ourselves go too far in this direction.” (Reference: “Ticket to the Moon (tribute to SciFi)” (Ogg Vorbis). Biography in Sound. Narrated by Norman Rose. NBC Radio News. December 4, 1956. 27:10–27:57. Retrieved March 1, 2013.)
In the book, Clarise is ostracised in school for being different from her peers. She is considered crazy for asking questions instead of obeying instructions. Unfortunately, there is nothing unbelievable about her situation, (except for its blatancy, perhaps). Large pockets of the education system continue to enforce this kind of upbringing.
Right from the time of Galileo, who dared to question the Church, those who stray from the herd have been condemned or punished. This is not about being different in some new-agey hippe sense of the word. But, the forces of Government, religion, and society, either in collusion or by themselves, have historically succeeded in discouraging (if not oppressing) non-conformity of any kind.
The people’s dependence on the parlour walls struck a slight resemblance to our smartphone/social media addiction. While smartphones and social media are wonderful and revolutionary, the fact is that we’ve got ourselves addicted to them. There are now hundreds of Mobile Applications one can use to distance them from their phone, and the concept of a “digital detox” is becoming increasingly popular – what have we got ourselves into?
When Montag desperately tries to persuade Mildred to listen to him and ignore the parlour walls, I was reminded of the frustration felt when I’ve been trying to talk to someone, and they refuse to look up from their cellphone. (Doubtlessly, I have also done this to others.) The anxiety Mildred experiences without the Television was remotely familiar to how lost I feel when my cell phone is taken away from me.
While the people in the book believed that real life was in the television, it often seems that an event, relationship, or belief isn’t real nowadays unless it’s posted on social media.
Evidenced by the constant entertainment they crave and the incessant noises and colours that surround them, there’s an idea that the people just cannot slow down. (Quite literally, if one considers the terrifying speeds at which they are forced to drive.) Albeit on a reduced scale, isn’t this the state of urban society?
The idea of religion being corrupted to the extent that Jesus is now someone on television has a scary tone of familiarity. In the book, Christ was a mouthpiece for the ideas of the broadcasters/advertisers. In the history of religion, it has commonly been used as a tool for manipulation and brainwashing.
Throughout the story, I wondered what Captain Beatty represented. He could not plead ignorance for turning to darkness. He had immense knowledge from the books, but this knowledge led him to be even more fanatic about enforcing the book ban. I don’t know if he was genuinely convinced that what the firemen were doing was good, or whether he had other reasons for wanting to keep society in the dark. Perhaps he was fearful of what the people might do if they started waking up. His monologue (or imagined dialogue) at the Fire-Station was so sublime that it almost convinced Montag to give up his beliefs. However, it is interesting to note that his death was quite undignified and it is suggested that he actually wanted to die.
The relationship between Monatg and Mildred is an indicator of both – Montag’s excellent character, and the degradation of society (Mildred being a representative of the latter). They were in a loveless marriage and slept in separate beds. However, what is extremely interesting is that Montag seems to genuinely care for his wife. Even after she rats him out, he remains concerned about her safety. While the reader is able to gauge her hopelessness very quickly, Montag continues to have faith in her. He genuinely believes that she can be redeemed. We know that he isn’t in love with her, right from the dandelion scene at the beginning of the book. Yet, his commitment to their relationship is simply commendable. When the bombing occurs, his thoughts immediately rush to her. (“We met in Chicago.”)
I found Guy Montag to be a splendid protagonist. To begin with, the very act of stepping out of the stupor that he was born and bred in, to push the envelope and challenge the very foundations of his society shows tremendous courage. While Clarise’s and Faber’s roles were indispensable, they mainly served as catalysts to unearth a sensitivity that Monatg inherently possessed.
After he “woke up”, Montag’s job sickened him, and his conviction was so sincere that he simply could not continue as a fireman. He continues to care about his horrid wife despite the fact that she betrayed him. He followed his heart and his sense of what was right. Montag did not have any exceptional inborn abilities and he made mistakes which made him feel real and relatable. It was his genuine intention of awakening Mildred and her friends that got him into trouble. In his interactions with people, he was authentic and seemed incapable of pretense. At every point, he was eager to learn and to help. There is a palpable sense of sincerity to his character, and he almost shines with purity at times.
The only part of the book I didn’t absolutely love was the end. I found it rather abrupt. There wasn’t anything wrong with it, but it wasn’t exceptionally strong either. I accept that the sun coming up at the end of the book represented a new dawn and blah, blah, blah, but it didn’t pack as much of a punch as the rest of the book did. The metaphor of the phoenix did have some relevance, but it just wasn’t as spellbinding as the rest of the book. No matter. It’s only that the entire book was so enthralling that the climax paled in comparison.
There are a lot of reasons to recommend this book – the writing and plot are brilliant, but the way it compels the reader to think makes it a book I would recommend to absolutely everyone. In my opinion, it’s a timeless piece of work.