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Ray Bradbury’s internationally acclaimed novel Fahrenheit 451 is a masterwork of twentieth-century literature set in a bleak, dystopian future.
Guy Montag is a fireman. In his world, where television rules and literature is on the brink of extinction, firemen start fires rather than put them out. His job is to destroy the most illegal of commodities, the printed book, along with the houses in which they are hidden.
Montag never questions the destruction and ruin his actions produce, returning each day to his bland life and wife, Mildred, who spends all day with her television “family.” But then he meets an eccentric young neighbor, Clarisse, who introduces him to a past where people didn’t live in fear and to a present where one sees the world through the ideas in books instead of the mindless chatter of television.
When Mildred attempts suicide and Clarisse suddenly disappears, Montag begins to question everything he has ever known. He starts hiding books in his home, and when his pilfering is discovered, the fireman has to run for his life.
First published in 1953, Fahrenheit 451 is a classic novel set in the future when books forbidden by a totalitarian regime are burned. The hero, a book burner, suddenly discovers that books are flesh and blood ideas that cry out silently when put to the torch.
How does one even review classics? I think it hardly matters what a singular person like me thinks and blogs about them. Classics have been scrutinised till their words ran dry, I’m sure. Whether I liked a book or not probably doesn’t matter to anyone when deciding to read classics.
On the upside, since Fahrenheit 451 is a classic, a lot of people have read it, which opens up doors for lively discussions. Consequently, there will be spoilers as I veer off my usual type of book review.
Going into Fahrenheit 451, I thought that censorship would be the hugest theme of the book; what with the book burnings it’s premised on. Beyond that, I hadn’t heard much of the plot aside from firemen burning books instead of putting out fires.
I hadn’t ever heard anyone talk about the characters or the plot. With good reason, I suppose. I didn’t think the characters were exceedingly memorable, except Clarisse who questioned anything and everything.
(Lack of) Censorship
Yet when I read Fahrenheit 451, censorship didn’t seem to be all that important in the grand scheme of things. Yes, censorship was cited as the purpose behind burning books so as to not offend anyone’s sensibilities. But even without the burning, the fewest people in their town would’ve bothered to read.
Mass Media and Technology
‘Family’ featured heavily in Mildred’s life. This family had nothing to do with children. In fact, children were seen as dreadful and nothing but a burden. ‘Family’ simply put was television. Mildred wanted to add a fourth parlour wall to complete this ‘family’, even though Guy argued that they had recently purged their savings for the third wall.
Whenever Mildred missed out on something, she was incredibly grouchy. She was hooked. Spending time with friends pretty much consisted of watching parlour walls.
There was hardly any difference between being alone and being with people because the focus wasn’t on establishing solid relationships anymore. The people were so devoid emotion — Guy included. This detachment was most evident when Guy mused about his reaction if his wife were to die. He knew he didn’t love Mildred. He wouldn’t mourn. She was an empty shell to him, which didn’t leave him much to love.
Thus mass media and its influence on loneliness and detachment were much more at the forefront to me.
Significance of Book Burnings
The significance of book burnings lay more in that they were the core of Guy’s job. As a fireman, it was his duty to burn books. Conflict arose when he saved a book. It went against his vocation. It also went against the law. Stealing a book from the fire put not only him but also his wife in a precarious position. After all, book burnings meant burning down the houses that contained the books.
Guy came to question what the book burnings stood for. He became curious and allowed his mind to be filled with words. That eventually led to his downfall. He had to burn his own house and he became a fugitive.
Despite the strong sanctions, I believe that the book burnings were symbolic. They didn’t achieve much vis-à-vis most of their society because people didn’t read. These books burnings oppressed the intellectual few, so that they would fall in line. More than anything, they established power from above.
Personal Thoughts on Fahrenheit 451
Age is but a Number
Guy was 30 years old. I didn’t believe that one bit. He was so jaded and cynical in a manner befitting someone who has lived decades. His relationship with Mildred came across as one that fizzled out as the couple approached old age. The way he related to Clarisse also made me think of him as someone who was at least 50 rediscovering the world through the eyes of a child. Well, Clarisse was 17, so technically not an adult yet. And she did have a child-like wonderment in her.
Seeking More Depth
Perhaps the fact that Fahrenheit 451 started out as a novella that eventually was bolstered to become a novel should have been an indication to me that character development most likely wasn’t a priority at all. While Guy himself wasn’t exactly shallow, seeing how he reflected on the state of his world and even pondered what it means to love, he still came across as rather two dimensional. The ideas behind the book overshadowed the characters.
On some level, I would’ve been perfectly fine reading an essay about a hypothetical future of book burnings and the detriment it might bring. The story could’ve just as easily served as an analogy. Had that been the case, I wouldn’t have been too bothered about the simplistic characters and the basic plot. As it is, Fahrenheit 451 is a novel, so I wanted more than explorations. I wanted a good story. No wonder I was a little disappointed.