- Fahrenheit 451
- By Ray Bradbury
- Del Rey
- Paperback, February 1995
- $6.99/$8.99 Canada
- ISBN 0-345-34296-8
- Originally Published 1953
Guy Montag is a fireman. In a society where books are forgotten and houses are fireproof, a fireman starts fires, burning the book collections of those few social deviants who cling to old ways. Montag used to enjoy his job. As his Fire Chief says, fire is clean, quick and sure; and what's the value in musty old books about people that never lived?
But recently Montag turned a corner on his way home and a teenage girl named Clarisse McClellan was there. Bright and inquisitive, too wistful for a 17-year-old, Clarisse is out of sync with the bullet-car-riding, TV-watching world around her. And she senses a kinship with Montag. "Are you happy?" she asks.
Montag, insisting to himself he's happy, comes home to find his wife unconscious from taking too many sleeping pills. As he watches the technicians perform their seventh stomach pump that night, he realizes that Mildred -- always immersed in the antics of her "family" on the TV screens that cover the parlor walls -- is a stranger to him. He can't even remember where they met. His mind is numb.
His next firehouse call is for a woman whose attic is brimming with books. Montag watches his hand snatch one as if of its own volition. The woman refuses to leave and serenely burns with her library.
Unmoored, Montag needs someone to talk to, but Clarisse has vanished. In desperation he seeks out a secretive old man named Faber, who'd once spoken with him about thoughts and ideas. Montag gains Faber's trust, and they plan to undermine the whole system of firemen.
But with his foundations torn away, Montag is reckless. He insanely reads poetry to his wife's friends. Before long, Montag's fire truck pulls up at a familiar house -- his own.
An Indictment and a Warning
On its face, Fahrenheit 451 is a bold indictment of censorship. There's no symbol of repression more powerful than book-burning. It's visceral, raw and violent. Yet the fact that it occurs even in America during the country's most enlightened periods serves as a reminder that book-burning is not a goblin story to frighten children. Indeed, what's most disturbing about book-burning is that it most often comes from the grass roots -- from bands of citizens who create a climate of hatred. Fahrenheit 451 is chilling because the fireman is the tool not of some tyrant but of the tyrannical masses.
What's even more unsettling is how little would have to change for our society to resemble Montag's. The people in Fahrenheit 451 are not evil or debased -- they're just short-sighted. They like their TV, and TV has obliged them by becoming more exciting, easier to watch and more content-free. TV characters are like family members, real and vivid. Politicians are judged by style. Cars are fast, life is easy, everyone's happy -- at least they all think they're happy, sublimating their misery until it leaks out in "accidental" suicide attempts. Books and, more importantly, the diversity of ideas they symbolize come to be viewed as antithetical to progress and comfort. The firemen are just custodians, taking care of fringe elements who threaten the status quo.
It's Not Just the Books
Ray Bradbury has been credited with creating a paean to free expression. But Fahrenheit 451 is also a powerfully written warning that any society can forget the importance of ideas and debate, succumbing to comfort without even realizing what it's lost. After that easy slide down, it's a long, hard road back.
I was particularly impressed by Bradbury's afterword and coda, written in 1982 and 1979 respectively, in which he writes passionately about the ironic -- and deeply cautionary -- censorship of Fahrenheit 451 and his other works, chipped away by the very kind of peer-pressure political correctness that led to the society against which Montag rebelled.