“A book is a loaded gun in the house next door…Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?”
Bradbury’s seminal dystopian novel is one of the key texts of the McCarthyite era in post-war America. Bradbury describes a world in many ways very much like his own, but where firemen burn books, where the population are distracted from an understanding of their lack of freedom and the threat of nuclear war by the bread and circuses of wall-sized flat screen televisions, and in-ear “sea-shell thimbles”, and where suspects are hunted down by helicopter and summarily executed on live television.
“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…. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year..”
Bradbury tells his story through the eyes of a fireman, Montag. (This choice of name is interesting – is it a reference to Montague, Romeo’s surname, or the German word for Monday, probably the least popular day of the week?) Montag accepts his place in life until, like Winston Smith and Bernard Marx before him, a chance meeting with a charismatic free thinking character precipitates a change in his perspective. In Montag’s case the grenade that explodes his comfortable assumptions is his teenage neighbour, Clarisse, whose free-thinking causes him to question his life and his own perceived happiness. She starts the process whereby his life rapidly unravels.
There are some chilling moments in the novel – his wife Mildred overdoses on sleeping pills and has her stomach pumped and blood cleansed by some matter of fact medical attendants, blasé about the sheer numbers of suicides they have to deal with; Montag witnesses the suicide by burning of a woman who refuses to leave her house when it is set on fire by the firemen for the crime of owning some books; the genuinely scary Hound, an eight-legged robotic dog that tracks people by their scent kills unthinkingly. (The Hound has taken against Montag, seemingly able to smell his nascent rebellion). But despite these ideas, and the war that erupts at the end of the novel, the narrative still end on a strangely positive note – all the attempts to destroy literature have been wasted, because it lives on in the minds of the rebels who have memorised it, and who will be part of the rebuilding of society.
Captain Beatty, Montag’s fire chief, is an enigmatic character. Bradbury uses him as the principal expositor, explaining in conversation with Montag how we came to this – how books lost their value as they were replaced by radio, film, and television, and were abridged and censored. Ironically exactly the same fate befell this novel, as for years the published version was bowdlerised (without Bradbury’s knowledge) to remove mild curse words. It was a small step to this, Beatty explains, to the burning of books in the name of public happiness. Beatty defends his role as a book (and people) burner, but when he goads Montag into killing him it seems a form of suicide (death by fireman?). Beatty’s alter-ego in the novel is Faber, a reclusive academic, who helps Montag escape from the pursuing hound after his confrontation with Beatty.
In my review of ‘Cat’s Cradle’ I described Vonnegut’s millennial novel as being the quintessential sixties novel. ‘Fahrenheit 451’ is a strong candidate for the equivalent from the 1950’s. The threat of all-out nuclear war, realised at the end of the novel, hangs over the whole narrative. Technology is threatening rather than liberating. Culture is diminished, intellectuals cast aside and marginalised, and freedom of speech severely restricted. This novel has other similarities with ‘Cat’s Cradle’ – the characters are mostly thinly sketched, with only Clarisse really coming to life, making it all the more unfortunate that Bradbury kills her off casually after an all too brief appearance, the plot is almost incidental to the narrative, and the novelists ideas are the most successful element of the book.
‘Fahrenheit 451’ is often classified as a science fiction novel. While it obviously has futuristic elements it is so much more than that – it is fundamentally a novel of ideas, a challenging discussion of the role of culture in modern society.