Bleak, shocking and in places unsettling, there are the embers of a prescient message of optimism to be found in Ray Bradbury’s dystopian classic, Fahrenheit 451.
First published in 1953, Ray Bradbury’s novel stands in western literary culture as one of the pillars of dystopian fiction, alongside Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. Their novels confront the incursion of modernity into the human condition, whether that be through politics (1984), or through science and technology (Brave New World). Bradbury’s novel in a sense subverts this tradition by presenting the reader with a future that is simultaneously advanced and archaic. There are, of course, few acts we would consider quite so anarchically barbaric as the burning of books.
The title of the novel is in fact a reference to this: 451° Fahrenheit is the temperature at which paper ignites. However all is not right in the world of Montag. Disillusionment with his marriage to a wife besotted by pervasive screen dramas, an unease sparked by a chance encounter with a neighbour, and the fear of the Hound, the robotic beast which administers a fatal justice to those that are discovered to be harbouring books, all lead to Montag’s journey of introspection and his discovery of the power of literature.
The writing of the novel is exceptionally well crafted, and this shines through most clearly in Bradbury’s development of characters. This is a relatively short novel – my edition ran to just 211 pages – yet I can think of few novels that packed such a punch into so condensed a form. Montag’s journey is one that you become easily invested in, and this is ably conducted through the emergence of thoroughly reprehensible characters throughout. Montag’s wife, Mildred, is infuriatingly vacuous; you want to reach into the pages to shake her by the shoulders and urge her to see beyond the parlour shows in which she is so engrossed. A pertinent feeling perhaps for some modern readers today, where the pull of the phone screen can also feel just as powerful.
Montag’s wife, Mildred, is infuriatingly vacuous; you want to reach into the pages to shake her by the shoulders
The star of the novel though, for me at least, was Beatty. Montag’s chief at the Fire Department is one of the most well executed villains in any novel. Unlike Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World, where the antagonist of the novel is to a greater or lesser extent the system against which the protagonist rails, in Fahrenheit 451, Beatty is a perfectly crafted personification of menace. Eloquent and unsettlingly well-educated, his is a singular voice of sophistication in Montag’s world, with a knowledge of literature that would be the envy of most people today, let alone in Bradbury’s dystopian setting. There is a sense throughout the novel that he is stalking Montag, both in an intellectual sense and the physical; his allusions to the philosophies presented by the greats of literature – Shakespeare, Pope, Samuel Johnson – are nothing more than elaborate traps laid. Beatty is at once evil and engrossing.
This is not to suggest, however, that the novel is faultless. In some instances, I found the pacing to be a little off, particularly towards the start. It wasn’t a novel that I was instantly engrossed in as I have been with others. Elsewhere, the dialogue can be somewhat cumbersome and clunky, which can be jarring. However, when the narrative hits its stride as Beatty’s net slowly starts to draw shut on an increasingly non-conformist Montag, it excels. Bradbury’s prose becomes wonderfully descriptive and the dialogue increasingly punctured with passages that are almost poetic in tone.
Fahrenheit 451, like the other greats of its genre, confronts contemporary issues. In interviews, Bradbury was keen to paint himself not as a predictor of the future, but, writing against the backdrop of McCarthyism in the US, it is hard not to sense his concerns for what may come to pass. The pervasive ability of mass media to make people oblivious to the wider world is a recurrent theme, personified in Mildred, whilst the manoeuvring of Beatty would be the envy of any politician pushing an agenda today. As such this is a book with dark themes: there is suicide, murder, and suppression.
However it remains a paragon of the genre, and a fantastic example of how literature can prompt us to examine the wider world. There are few books that can really stay with a reader, but the embers of optimism that shine through Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 stayed with me. If you were to take nothing else away from this excellent book, you should at least mull over this quote:
But that’s the wonderful thing about man; he never gets so discouraged or disgusted that he gives up doing it all over again, because he knows very well it is important and worth the doing.
The corner of this page is still folded over on my copy of the book. It doesn’t matter whether you’re rallying against an oppressive regime or fighting a much more personal battle. If it’s right, and it’s important to you, then keep going: it will be worth it.