|Synopsis||Guy Montag is a fireman. 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 when he meets an eccentric young neighbor, Clarisse, Montag begins to question everything he has ever known.|
|Release Date||October 19, 1953|
Ray Bradberry’s Fahrenheit 451 has an element that I chalk up to immature melodrama. I find its premise to be almost a farce. The story relies on a very unlikely scenario that feels a hair disconnected from any level of reality. An adolescent rage underpins the novel and its extensive fear of totalitarian dystopia. It’s a scathingly angry bit of fiction that uses an esoteric and specific topic for its central conceit – Book Burning.
Book Burning is something our society can’t viscerally understand anymore. Thanks to the Internet, every book in existence is available online in PDF form. Burning books is redundant. We will never run out of books. Book Burnings, like the infamous bonfire of the vanities in 1497 or the Nazi burnings in 1930s Germany, served a very specific purpose. Purification. Books existed in specific quantities. If you burn enough heretical material, the ideas “theoretically” could go away forever. Many classic works of European literature have been nearly lost to history because of prolific book-burning efforts.
The modern emotional distance to the concept, that book burning could effectively destroy an idea, makes reading a book like Fahrenheit 451 a bit challenging. This novel is one of the most famous science fiction novels of the 20th century, but it’s also one of the most misunderstood novels of its century. People read it as a metaphor for all sorts of contemporary events and tend to sort the story on partisan lines, a means of proclaiming OUR enemies as “book burning fascists and puritans.”
In reality, Fahrenheit 451 has a more personal, angry target for its polemic deconstruction – us.
The premise is beyond famous at this point. Set against the far-off dystopian nightmare world of 1999 (roughly 40 years in the future from the time of publication), we meet our lead character of Guy Montag. Guy works as a Fireman in a world where that term has taken on a very different meaning. Houses of the future are mostly fireproof. The Fireman’s job is to destroy homes filled with books and arrest their owners for crimes against the state.
When Guy starts having an unforeseen crisis of conscience, he finds himself stealing a handful of books from work. He is curious why people destroy their lives and stockpile these strange antique texts. As he pours over the volumes, he questions his identity and society; he even starts to conspire how he might undermine it.
Dystopian science fiction books are, by their nature, fairly adolescent and melodramatic. They find one aspect about life and human existence that functions as a hiccup or hypocrisy. Then the story balloons that issue or ideology to the point where it becomes totalitarian in its expression.
This doesn’t mean the books don’t have value. Everybody and their mother quotes 1984 as a shorthand for “living under a brutal fascist state.” These novels hold plenty of valuable insight. The genre’s adolescent nature comes in their heavy-handedness, existential anxiety, and vindication of the reader’s malaise and frustration with society. Similar books like Atlas Shrugged, Brave New World, or The Giver have obvious moral compasses. The moral of those stories is that the hero must abandon this society and leave it to fall apart on its own terms (if that’s even possible).
Every edgelord teenager with a Joker poster on their wall shares the same instinct for destruction and anger.
Wow it’s The Joker! If I didn’t know any better I’d say we live in a society! pic.twitter.com/kBCeBLKwhf— Captain Griffin (@CaptainPeterG) January 26, 2021
That said, the values the book expresses are deeper and more comprehensive than its simplistic dystopian setup generally allows. Dystopian narrative do offer a great deal of nuance to their premises that can allow insightful readers to self-reflect. Fahrenheit 451‘s world is distinct from similar stories due to its decidedly more anti-populist edge. Unlike its contemporaries, Bradbury’s book is far angrier at the people of society rather than the ill-advised ambitions of radical totalitarian governments.
While many literary scholars have hailed the book as yet another scathing indigent of right-wing totalitarianism, moral Puritanism, and McCarthyism, the book makes it pretty clear that this dystopia was not caused by the government. On the contrary, the only reason the government burns books at all is because people stopped reading of their own volition. Mass entertainment swept up the citizens and drew them away from works of artistic depth and meaning. People stopped reading books by choice. The government merely delivered on the desires of the people and made it a mission to purge.
This makes the story’s backdrop not dissimilar to Brave New World‘s dystopia. The all-powerful state rebuilds society from the ground up so the masses exist in a lifetime of empty pleasure, orgies, and drug-infused ecstasy. Meanwhile, the aspects that make life worth living are purposefully denied to the citizenry for their own good. The differences of origin are important, though. Brave New World is a top-down dystopia. Fahrenheit 451 is a bottom-up dystopia.
The common rhetoric of the masses in the story is that they put the happiest and immediate pleasures above everything else. What’s the point in asking uncomfortable questions like “Why is a thing like this?” when you can simply teach people to focus on “what” a thing is and drown out his sorrows in cheap thrills.
The book itself lays this out in a soliloquy from Guy Montag’s boss Beaty:
I want to be happy, people say. Well, aren’t they? Don’t we keep them moving, don’t we give them fun? That’s all we live for isn’t it? For pleasure, for titillation? And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these… Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo? Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity… Let’s not quibble over individuals with memoriams. Forget them. Burn all, burn everything. Fire is bright and fire is clean.
Any lover of literature and humanity would find these words infuriating. A passionate reader looks at these words and struggles to grasp just how different their life would be if it weren’t for the books that they’ve read. The adolescent nature of the book comes from its howling scream of indignation against the cloud of anti-intellectualism and malaise that exists around the character. This is the anger of someone looking at society’s consumerism and dumbed-down entertainment, mourning that the average person will never willingly struggle to understand the great works of civilization.
Guy Montag is described in the book as a “romantic” who yearns to scratch behind the surface of life and find depth, meaning, and fulfillment. He’s the stand-in for the independent thinking in all of us who wants to escape the arbitrary chains of the world.
The book ultimately rewards his restlessness. His decision to flee the society that abandoned art and humanism is what saves his life. That same society is laid waste in a wartime bombing. The image calls to mind God’s decimation of Sodom and Gomorrah for its unrepentant evils. One could read this as a last bit of comeuppance on the part of the author against evil. I’m almost uncomfortable with that interpretation, if only because the book would seemingly take pleasure in the deaths of millions.
There’s an old saying that the golden age of science fiction is sixteen years old. Classic works of science fiction carried a sense of loneliness and discomfort through their stories that the post-Star Wars age hasn’t carried over. Social alienation, mortal discomfort, and fear drive classic works of the genre like Dune, Ringworld, Stranger in a Strange Land, Martian Chronicles, Forbidden Planet, and the collective works of Lovecraft and Phillip K. Dick. Works like these are always popular because they capture the essence of human fear and achievement in the midst of cosmic and melodramatic stories.
Fahrenheit 451 captures the fear that destruction begets destruction. In order for a society to survive, it must build great works and ideas. When it burns its ideas, it burns its foundations. It’s easy to destroy. It’s hard to build. It takes centuries to fill a library with great words of wisdom and humanism. It takes seconds to burn it. That the book is a bit angry, violent, and childish is okay. So long as the readers don’t just use a book like this for the same purposes, we have much to learn from it.
Goodness knows there is no shortage of book burners in this day and age, on all sides of the aisle. Just look at our Banned Books Week article.
+ Themes of The Importance of Art and Beauty
+ Nuanced Themes about the Origins of Dystopia
- Adolescent Angst
- Melodramatic Premise
The Bottom Line
Fahrenheit 451 is one of the most famous science fiction novels of all time! Ray Bradberry has made plenty of great works in his career, but this is easily his most enduring work of speculative fiction.