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Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

fahrenheit 451 ray bradbury Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

(Note: the spoiler-averse may wish to stop reading after paragraph three!)

Fahrenheit 451 is set in a world that seems to gust and spin by, a fast-forwarded whirlwind where people are able to engage with their lives in only the most superficial manner, increasingly lost amongst the self-perpetuating triumvirate of mass entertainment, of simple, infantile emotion, of black and white binaries. In a world that encourages its inhabitants to abandon themselves to the freedoms found in moving quickly, in acting and speaking uninhibited by the prospect of being challenged, in being removed from the pain and heartbreak of close and complex relationships. Much like Aldous Huxley's'Brave New World (see our review) It is a world in which the'why is deemphasised in preference of the'how, where the pragmatic trumps the conceptual. It is a world where emotions and depth of thought are equated with unhappiness, with a pained, desultory existence, and so anything that may trigger engagement with such things are gradually elided from the public consciousness, whether overtly or in a covert way. For example, although war looms large on the horizon it, like so many other threats, is ignored, skipped over, lost to the static fuzz of televisions turned to vacuous talk-shows so lacking in content that they serve less as entertainment and more as a distraction. The ills associated with intellectual engagement and rigour, however, are also dealt with in a more blatant manner: the frequent burning of books by clusters of firemen, whose sole job is to seek out these heretical representations of an erstwhile miserable and inwardly oriented culture and destroy them in what is a sort of intellectual and emotional cleansing.

Montag is one of these firemen, and it is in this ritual burning that he takes his sole pleasure: it is through this act of destruction that he seems to draw some sort of existential meaning. There is, after all, none of the same to be gained through an act of creation, which has in Bradbury's fragmented, industrialised society been reduced to simplistic step-by-step Ikea-like approaches of construction. But Montag's perspective is suddenly challenged when his young neighbour Clarisse asks him whether he is truly happy. Montag is suddenly thrown into a self-destructive cycle of introspection'something for which he is not prepared, nor has the skills to be able to manage in a constructive manner'and his conception of his world and purpose slowly begins to crumble around him. A dangerous, deleterious thought begins to needle: could there be something more?

As Montag begins to survey the sad, strange geography of his life and the fractured society of which he is'albeit nominally'a part, he becomes increasingly aware of the ersatz veneer of happiness that shields a deeper fear, a deeper alienation affecting those around him. Society shies from the trauma of intellectual engagement, fearful of the clashes and discordance it may create, of the way in which it may reveal its deep flaws and truths. But at the same time, the intellectual and emotional shallowness required by such a perspective has resulted in a complete absence of the social. Children, for example, are born to those acting out only out of a sense of duty or vague amusement, and are subsequently then sent off to be mechanically reared; marriages are little more than formal contracts, their throwaway nature highlighted in a rather chilling scene where a friend of Montag's wife, blithely reflects on her numerous failed marriages. It is inevitable then, that Montag begin to deconstruct his own empty marriage, where almost all communication is mediated by the wall-sized televisions encircling the lounge area. Montag's wife, indeed, is presented as less a person than an empty, passionless shell: she pleads with him for an extra screen on the remaining wall of their living area so that she might be surrounded by her 'family', the presenters and performers in the shows she spends her days watching. Her obsession with being surrounded by these programs highlights her desperation for closeness, to be a part of something, but she lacks the ability to comprehend the depths of her loneliness, or to do anything to mitigate it. Her despair is such that she makes an attempt at suicide, yet is unable, or perhaps unwilling, to remember it after the fact, as doing so would require some degree of self-investigation, of which she is entirely incapable. The irretrievably lost nature of her mind and soul is cast into stark light when after a blood transfusion, a symbolic intervention that should result in some sort of phoenix-like transformation, she remains unchanged, hiding her woes beneath mindless entertainment.

For Montag, however, things come to a head when he is called to burn the house of a woman accused of hoarding a library of books and the owner, rather than giving herself over to the firemen, chooses instead to be immolated with her beloved collection. For without books, and the knowledge, depth, and creativity they inspire, what point is there? Montag, already conflicted, finds himself lured by the verboten books and what they represent: a freedom of sorts, but a different kind of freedom from that to which the rest of the world so aspires. It is a tormented Montag that returns home that night: hidden on his person is a forbidden tome, an item that to be appreciated requires him to cast off the traditions and norms to which he has been inured. The situation becomes worse, however, when Montag's superior, Beatty, circuitously notes that he is aware of Montag's transgression, but that all will be forgiven if Montag returns the book within the day. Beatty's presence within the book is a terrifying one: he is astonishingly well-read, able to quote all manner of canon verbatim, but is perhaps the most vehement of the firemen when it comes to their destruction. Indeed, his description of books as being treacherous weapons is an intriguing oneparticularly when considered in light of the end of the book, where Montags desperate escape sees him come across a small community of learned individuals, each of whom has memorised a book, thus in a way becoming it and all that it represents. With this in mind, then, Beattys role as antagonist becomes more complex: although he comes across as a bibliophile torn by self-loathing and seeking some sort of reconciliation through his destruction of the books, he lives to some degree the type of life that these soi-disant living books lead. After all, they too burn their books after having read them, arguing that the book as artefact is meaningless, but that it is what is contained within its pages that is imbued with such meaning. But still, it is not necessarily the bookishness (pardon the pun) of each individual within this group that is of the greatest importance: rather it is their shared commitment towards a common purpose, a common goal that seems most evident. There is a sense of community that despite the physical and experiential distance between them exists amongst these disparate souls, and it is one that is in painfully stark contrast to the nominal relationships we see sketched between the other characters in the book.

Some have described the ending of Fahrenheit 451 as not fitting the dystopian mould given that it allows for a sense of hope, implying that humanity will arise as a sort of phoenix from the (literal) ashes. But to me its quite a compelling, challenging ending. Save for our few bookish survivors, were told, humanity is destroyed by the war it preferred not to see coming: its perhaps a rather poignant illustration of the old adage art is long; life short. But its difficult to reconcile the massive loss of human life with 'the new beginning were told may come about. Moreover, its difficult to feel entirely on the side of the living books, perhaps because of the passive, defeatist way that they have approached their rebellion: there is a sense of the cruelness of fate here, and one cant help but wonder whether anything new or important really will emerge from what remains. 'Its at once a phyrric victory and an empty one: not only did the bookish people fail to actually bring about any sort of meaningful change of their own accord, but their evasive actions meant that they avoided any sort of intervention that might have resulted in a dramatically different outcome had they attempted to use their knowledge and awareness to warn their fellow citizens of the reality of war. Theres a fatalism here, a lack of agency, that sits rather uncomfortably, and I think serves as one of the many warnings promulgated by this chilling book. Fahrenheit 451 is less about censorship and more about the dangerous of ignorance, alienation, and fear.

Rating: star Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradburystar Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradburystar Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradburystar Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradburyblankstar Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

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This book also appears in our list of books about books.

You might also be interested in our list of young adult dystopian fiction.

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  1. I really need to read this book! Thanks for reminding me about it, and for warning against spoilers beyond the third paragraph :-)

    • Stephanie /

      My pleasure, Erin. Given that Banned Books week is coming up, it seemed like a good time to read it! The ending is quite challenging, so Ill be interested to see what you think about it. :)

  2. Really great review informative, and it helped me think of a good book in a very different light. I always felt like the ending was just sort of tacked-on.

    (spoilers ahead if someone didnt read the review for whatever reason)

    The end, for me, has always kind of cheapened the rest of the book, like Hey! we remember every book weve ever read also the world is blowing up and everyone is dead THE END. Ive always seen it as a good vs. evil thing (I was in high school when I read it) and not as the bookish people losing perhaps their primary motivation as well. I definitely agree that its about ignorance and fear more than censorship.

    That long-winded and poorly-constructed paragraph was merely to say I think the Pyrrhic victory interpretation of the ending is a really excellent one.

  3. Stephanie /

    Hi Jason,

    Thanks so much for visiting and for your thoughtful response. I can certainly see how you could feel the ending to be tacked on, particularly when compared against many others in the dystopian canon (although Wyndhams work has also been subject to similar arguments). I suppose much of it hinges upon how you conceive of books as an object vs books as a way of conveying knowledge, and the dilemmas wrought by pacifism and deliberate inaction. I think I read it from a very cynical mindset: this small community has placed itself as the keeper of knowledge and story, as though the rest of society is unable ever to be able to do so. And worse, there seems to be the implicit idea that if each person is only one book, will any new art ever be created? If you see art and culture as so closely linked, with one required to further the other, then it points to an eerie stagnation

  4. Ok, this has convinced me that I definitely need to reread Fahrenheit 451 with a different mindset. It was years ago, and I think reading it again and taking these things into account (i.e. the keeping vs. conveying of knowledge dichotomy) would make it a much richer experience.

    I would also be able to talk more in-depth about it, since all I have to go on right now is the snapshot of the reaction I had to the ending when I was a teenager

    Anyway, thanks for the great review!

  5. Stephanie /

    My pleasure, Jason! I think re-reading is a great idea for so many of these classics. I know that I wouldve reacted entirely different as a teen. Im re-reading Jules Verne and HG Wells at the moment, and have also got a lot from re-reading Robert Cormier and John Wyndham.

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