“Some say the world will end in fire/some say in ice. From what I’ve tasted of desire, I hold with those who favor fire.” So wrote Robert Frost in 1920, roughly three decades before the publication of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a novel which begins with one of the most ominous and chilling pronouncements in modern literature: “It was a pleasure to burn.” The motif of fire as an instrument of both destruction and rebirth is central to Fahrenheit 451, which begins with a man exulting in the act of setting history to the torch (the title refers to the temperature at which paper burns), and ends with nuclear Armageddon that brings both devastation and the possibility of starting anew.
More than half a century has passed since the publication of Fahrenheit 451 in 1953, but its vision of a society drugged and numbed into submission by mass media, vacuous entertainment, and wall-to-wall television screens blaring interactive soap operas has not lost any of its power to disturb and unsettle (if you disagree, take a look around you in any public place and see how many people are transfixed by the screens of their phones). Bradbury famously abhorred technology, going so far as to not even own a computer, and this profound skepticism is palpable in Fahrenheit 451, where people are bombarded with terrible music and advertisements through “seashells” that are eerily reminiscent of modern-day earbuds. Divorced from anything meaningful, teenagers amuse themselves by racing their cars at dangerous speeds and other destructive past times. The world of Fahrenheit 451 is, in short, one which has become completely disconnected from all of the things which give life meaning: love, compassion, friendship, independent thought and intellectual curiosity. The only true passion left is the toxic adrenaline rush experienced by the book’s protagonist, Guy Montag, a professional “fireman” tasked not with extinguishing fires, but by burning books, which have become outlawed and illegal.
“With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head,” Bradbury writes in the book’s mesmerizing opening paragraph, “and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.”
Bradbury was a poet at heart, and this passage exemplifies the grim, striking beauty of his incredibly evocative prose. In the span of a few pages, he is able to transport us from a scene of demonic, almost operatic destruction to the peaceful serenity of an Autumn night, as Montag strolls blissfully down the street, “thinking very little about nothing in particular”, towards a chance encounter with a girl who stands waiting for him, almost as if by fate:
“The autumn leaves blew over the moonlit pavement in such a way as to make the girl who was moving there seem fixed to a sliding walk, letting the motion of the wind and the leaves carry her forward. Her head was half bent to watch her shoes stir the circling leaves. Her face was slender and milk-white, and in it was a kind of gentle hunger that touched over everything with tireless curiosity.”
The girl, Clarice McLellan, appears in the novel only for a short time, yet she comes to embody the hopeful, optimistic dimension of Bradbury’s narrative, setting in motion Montag’s life-altering re-evaluation of his own existence and the society he lives in. She is representative not only of what is missing from the world, but also of what distinguishes Fahrenheit 451 from so many other novels with nightmarish visions of the future, and that is its sense of cautious optimism. To be sure, Bradbury offers an incredibly prescient diagnosing of social ills, specifically censorship and the “dumbing down” of society that has led to a world where simply owning a book is a capital crime, and the official Fire Department slogan is, un-ironically, “Monday burn Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner, burn‘em to ashes, then burn the ashes.” In our own world, where social media has run rampant and wreaked havoc on our collective attention spans, Bradbury’s description of anti-intellectualism hits uncomfortably close to home. In one of the novel’s most important segments, the Fire Chief Beatty lays bare for Montag the disturbing truth in a lengthy and eloquent sermon:
“Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume. I exaggerate, of course. The dictionaries were for reference. But many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet…was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: now at least you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbors. Do you see? Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there’s your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more.”
In essence, condensing and super-condensing information for the sake of convenience has led to the demise of critical thought. As Beatty explains, “Whirl man’s mind around about so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters, that the
centrifuge flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!”
Beatty is an intriguing villain, reminiscent of O’Brian in Orwell’s 1984 in being aware of the disgusting nature of the system while simultaneously embracing it. His backstory remains an enigma, and he functions less as a person and more as a vehicle to express the central message of the story. As he explains, the downfall of society doesn’t stem from the edicts of a brutal police state: rather, it is we who have put the shackles on ourselves by sacrificing any semblance of critical thought in exchange for a life of mindless pleasure and convenience. Censorship has become a hot-button topic in recent times, and Bradbury (through Beatty) does not shy away from decrying political correctness and the fear of offending the sensibilities of others as a factor leading to a society that has outlawed the written word.
“Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did.”
If all of this seems a bit too grim and heavy-handed, it’s worth noting that the novel ends by implying that a society of book-lovers will rebuild the world once again. As Montag puts it, “Maybe the books can get us half out of the cave. They just might stop us from making the same damn insane mistakes!”
Some might see Bradbury’s faith in the saving power of the written word as poignantly naive when our own world is ridden with so many problems, but I think that guarded optimism is the distinguishing feature of Fahrenheit 451. Clocking in at 256 pages, the book (adapted by Bradbury from his earlier short story “The Fireman”) is relatively spare, telling a story that, like all of the greatest and most timeless, is powerful in its almost mythic simplicity. Images from the novel, such as Montag floating in a river after escaping the mechanical hound, or sitting in a barn at night and watching a girl resembling Clarisse (real or imagined) braiding her hair, have the power to stay with you forever. We live in a time when “dystopian” novels have become practically a genre unto themselves, so ubiquitous that the term has practically lost all meaning. We look at fictional apocalyptic wastelands, authoritarian police-states, and industrial hellscapes with weariness, with the feeling that we’ve seen all this before. But Fahrenheit 451 stands apart not by bombarding us with horrors, although there are horrors, to be sure (who could forget the dreaded Mechanical Hound, or the stomach of Montag’s TV-addicted wife, Mildred, being pumped by a “suction snake”) but by reminding us, through the darkness, of the things, large and small, without which life loses all meaning: the soft blowing of leaves on an Autumn night, and the face of a girl “like the dial of a small clock seen faintly in a dark room in the middle of a night when you waken to see the time and see the clock telling you the hour and the minute and the second, with a white silence and a glowing, all certainty and knowing what it has to tell of the night passing swiftly on toward further darknesses but moving also toward a new sun.” In the novel, that “sun” occurs in the form of a nuclear explosion, wiping away the failed civilization. Yet even in the midst of destruction, the potential for rebirth and renewal is reflected by the twin symbols on Montag’s uniform, a salamander that survives the furnace, and a phoenix, which rises from the ashes. If we can, against all odds, preserve our intellectual curiosity, our decency, our compassion and care for one another, maybe, just maybe, Bradbury suggests, there will be some hope for us in the end. Maybe we will be able to endure.