“It was a pleasure to burn.”
Fahrenheit 451 presents us with a disturbing dystopian future, much like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four or Huxley’s Brave New World. In author Ray Bradbury’s universe, books are burnt. Fireman do not put out fires, they start them. Guy Montag is a fireman. He enjoys his job of tracking down all traces of books and burning them along with the houses they are found in. That is until he meets a strange girl on his walk home one night. Clarrisse McCrellan is 17, and unlike anyone Montag has ever met. The way she talks, the way she thinks; she makes Montag incredibly uncomfortable and he is not sure why. And he encounters her, every day for the next few days, always adding comments that further confuse, annoy, anger Montag; yet he is fascinated and interested. Clarrisse is eccentric and inquisitive and very forward. She asks a lot of questions, and slowly Montag starts to do the same.
What follows is an awakening of the protagonist. It dawns on him that nobody actually talks; there are no conversations, but meaningless statements spoken toward one another. Everyone is distracted by mass media and loud noises. Montag’s wife, Mildred lives her life through the three television screens in their living room. Any conversation are just idle observations, no real talking takes place. She can’t even recall where they met. Yet she is made to think she is happy. Mass media is forcibly piped into homes of the population with constantly changing imagery to distract and satisfy, without really meaning anything. All the while, the drones and planes fly overheard foreshadowing war against unknown continents.
His fellow firemen, like Montag, follow their orders without question or thought. They represent Montag before his ‘awakening’, and they even share a similar appearance with him.
The captain of Montag’s fire department is Beatty. Captain Beatty is a well read man who has come to despise books and become part of the force which is eradicating them from society. His well-read nature has made him extremely cunning and perceptive, and we realise that he is toying with his colleague when Montag begins his spiral of doubt.
And within the walls of the fire department sleeps the Mechanical Hound.
“The mechanical hound slept but did not sleep, lived but did not live in its gently humming, gently vibrating, softly illuminated kennel back in a dark corner of the firehouse.”
The use of the word ‘hound’ belies its true form; it is not a natural or organic creature but a purely technical and metallic machine. It has been programmed to track down and dispose of any who continue to read books. Literature is now so illegal that there is the risk of death for those who rebel. Montag has several close encounters throughout the novel with the Hound. Man’s best friend has been hideously mechanised into a automated tool for killing which the government has programmed to track down and punish citizens who break the new rules of society. It is a huge contrast to those great St. Bernarnds, who sniff out avalanches survivors and bring with them small barrels of brandy tied to their necks.
Beatty says of the beast “It doesn’t think anything we don’t want it to think.” and Montag responds,
“That’s sad…because all we put into it is hunting and finding and killing. What a shame if that’s all it can ever know.”
Ray Bradbury has spoken of the inspiration for the book. It was at a time when book burnings were not exactly common but happening across the US. At this point Bradbury understandably had concerns. He is quoted as describing himself as “a preventor of futures, not a prediction of them.” However in Fahrenheit 451 he was remarkably accurate in a lot of aspects of 21 century life. The flatscreens that citizens obsess over. These are now in the homes of millions. The in-ear speakers. Piping music or meaningless words into their head. Keeping people from listening to what is around them and actually conversing with each other. Preventing them for thinking. Ironically the book itself has been banned and been involved in several controversies since its release.
“They want to know what I do with all my time. I tell them that sometimes I just sit and think. But I won’t tell them what. I’ve got them running. And sometimes, I tell them, I like to put my head back, like this, and let the rain fall into my mouth. It tastes just like wine. Have you ever tried it?”
So why is Clarisse so special? What is it that is so different and extraordinary that causes Montag to snap out of the stranglehold this society has upon him and everyone else? Clarisse comes from a free thinking family, one that seemingly has managed to be aware of and avoid the cloud of ignorance (is ignorance bliss?) that blights this current society. Before we know it, Clarisse disappears, allegedly killed in a car accident, and this has a profound effect on Montag. I thought she was due to play a much larger part in the story, but while she is never seen again, she is an itch within Montag’s brain that he cannot scratch. In truth, she couldn’t play a much larger part in the book. Bradbury provides her as the inquisitive youthful spark, a match that strikes against Montag’s dormant freewill.
Mildred is Montag’s estranged wife and a character Bradbury uses to emphasise the current status quo in the majority of citizens within this society. Montag is breaking out of this stupor, Clarisse is living fantastically and Faber is aware and afraid of the suppression, we need to understand how the others live, how they react and feel and interact. Mildred is well and truly ‘wired in’. She is obsessed with the screens in the parlour, referring to the people talking on them as friends and family. Montag frustratedly berates Mildred about her relationship with the people in the screens.
“That’s all very well…but what are they mad about? Who are these people? Who’s that man and who’s that woman? Are they husband or wife, are they divorced, engaged, what? Good god, nothing’s connected up.”
I found the interactions between Montag and Mildred some of the most uncomfortable scenes. Two people as close as husband and wife, married for ten years, are so distant and are (were in Guy’s case) so painfully unaware of this. Although unaware may not be the correct word to use. Mildred says she forgets when she has taken her slipping pills, perhaps trying to throw Guy off the idea that it was a suicide attempt. Maybe she did truly did forget. But with Montag’s conversation with the men who operated the ‘electronic eyed snake’ that serves as a body pump to replace Mildred’s overdosed, poisoned blood (“Hell…we get these cases nine or ten a night”) it seems there is an awareness of the endless, lifeless loop they are all in. It seems this is a more accurate reason for all the attempted suicides.
There is a lot of unhappiness in Fahrenheit 451 bubbling under the surface. Nobody will admit it but instead watch TV all day, they talk about nothing in particular, which in turns they do not have to face anything unpleasant, and therefore are not bothered. It must be like feeling a perpetual state of ‘meh’. The insistence to feel happy and the mindless occupation of their minds by repetitive noises and activities masks dissatisfaction amongst the population. A society with a taste for mindless violence as an outlet, with youths constantly fighting on the streets and joy riders striking down pedestrians.
Montag “Right now I’ve got an awful feeling I want to smash things and kill things.”
Mildred “Go take the beetle.”
Montag “No thanks.”
The ending? Bittersweet. Montag’s escape. A nuclear annihilation. But hope for the future.
Fahrenheit 451 won’t take up much of your time. At only a couple of hundred pages, it can easily be read in a week. If it grips you as much as it gripped me, you’ll be finished within days. Bradbury takes a madness that he was witnessing at the time and uses it to propel us into a future where book burning is commonplace and accepted, and is deeply unsettling in its plausibility.